Viewpoint (April 01, 2011)

The next time you find yourself arguing with a traffic engineer about the need to design–excessively wide streets to make it convenient for cumbersome garbage trucks to move through the city, consider this: in Stockholm, garbage is sucked through underground conduits at 70 km/h while pedestrian-friendly streets restrict traffic to half that speed. Envac, the Swedish company that developed this underground vacuum technology, continues to sell their waste collection systems to cities around the world. This is just one of many significant innovations occurring in the Nordic countries that is making their urban centres more liveable and sustainable. In a globally competitive world, the governments of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland are investing heavily in the promotion of innovative green technologies while companies located in these countries are creating better housing, infrastructure and transportation systems not only for local populations, but for global export. The region of 25 million people is hoping that their “Green Valley” will be the sustainable design equivalent of Southern California’s Silicon Valley. Thus far, the results are contributing to socially progressive activities while bringing economic vitality to the region’s economy. CanNord 2011, a recent conference held in Toronto that involved the participation of business, government and research organizations from all five Nordic countries reinforced this fact.

Cities like Copenhagen, Reykjavík, Helsinki and Stockholm have been reducing their dependency on fossil fuels since they faced the first major global oil crisis in 1973, but the commitment to greener cities goes back even further. For example, Helsinki began to build an energy-efficient district heating network in the early 1950s. To piggyback on this investment in infrastructure, Pekka Sauri, the Deputy Mayor of Helsinki who is in charge of Public Works and Environmental Affairs and who attended the Toronto conference, discussed his city’s investment in large “computer halls” that enable businesses to lease portions of city-run servers as an affordable alternative to investing in their own IT networks. While this helps keep businesses located near the city centre, the significant amount of heat generated by these computer halls is recovered and transferred into Helsinki’s district heating network to produce net economic and environmental benefits. Elsewhere, byproduct energy from Helsinki’s district heating network is used to melt snow on the sidewalks of certain shopping districts, thereby eliminating the need for road salt while saving the shoes of stylish Finns. During the record-breaking snowfall in Helsinki last winter, Sauri and others began to look at burying vast amounts of snow into underground facilities to help boost the capacity of the city’s district cooling facilities when the warmer weather arrives–an old-fashioned idea of using ice to cool buildings with a 21st-century twist.

Most Nordic cities are experimenting with planning sustainable communities, such as Helsinki’s Jätkäsaari and Viikki, and Sweden’s Hammarsby Sjöstad. These communities incorporate everything from sustainable materials, building technologies and practices to low- or no-carbon emissions. Some communities are going a step further to combine sustainable planning with strategic growth. With a population of 43,000 living off the coast of Denmark, the tiny “Bright Green Test Island” of Bornholm is promoting itself as a global centre for sustainable living. Lene Grønning, Director of Bornholm’s green strategy, demonstrated during her Toronto visit how the island’s approach to sustainable economic development is a driver for tourism, eco-conferences and test site facilities for electric vehicles and other green technologies. This has helped keep jobs from disappearing while resulting in a hopeful future for the island.

Admittedly, there are systemic differences between Canadian and Nordic countries with respect to the powers of municipalities and the ways in which our governments spend money. However, the initiatives undertaken by Nordic countries in energy, transportation and construction are addressing the environmental challenges of global warming, pollution and dependence on fossil fuels while successfully incorporating these issues into globally competitive public-private partnerships, venture capital and entrepreneurial activities. Canadian politicians and building industry leaders should take note.

Ian Chodikoff