Vancouver has undergone a blue-green infrastructure revolution. Its Rain City Strategy integrated nature making the city more resilient to fluctuations in rainfall. Behind it all is Melina Scholefield, a CityChanger with an impressive portfolio and knack for getting things done! She tells us all about Van City’s multidisciplinary approach to managing urban water.
Powered by a positive attitude, Civil Engineer Melina Scholefield, P. Eng. has enjoyed a varied career. She is currently Executive Director of the Metro Vancouver Zero Emissions Innovation Centre (MVZEIC). This is one of Canada’s seven Low Carbon Cities Canada (LC3) federal-seeded ventures of its kind. Working closely with the regional government, City of Vancouver and other local governments, the organisation has set out to determine how to catalyse, accelerate, and scale climate action in collaboration with community and industry groups.
Our CityChanger is establishing a fresh business-as-usual picture for green buildings, energy, and transportation. This includes:
- the electrification of property through the Building to Electrification Coalition,
- A Zero Emissions Building Exchange (ZEBx) to enhance data and knowledge acquisition, helping to enable progressive regulation and informing low and zero carbon emissions building design, construction, and operations,
- a concierge service for retrofitting large properties (with a focus on reducing reliance on fossil fuels in heating and hot water systems), making building envelopes more energy efficient and enhancing climate resilience,
- forming a centre of excellence around embodied carbon through the Carbon Leadership Forum Vancouver to “help people understand how they can make choices upfront” to reduce carbon emissions with thoughtful design and construction.
From her time working on Vancouver’s Rain City Strategy, Melina understands that we need to get large, complex, bureaucratic government agencies to focus on “multi-solving”. That is, creating a collaborative culture that allows innovation to thrive because we need solutions fast! That means thought leadership as well as technological or fabric-fronted solutions.
“We don’t have time or money to deal with one problem at a time anymore.”
The Way to Water
Melina worked in waste management in Helsingborg before doing a stint in Vancouver’s transportation department. Disappointed with the lack of green options when building her own home, our expert got a licence and did it herself, setting up a sustainable design and construction company on the back of it. Oh yes, and she obtained a graduate certificate in values-based leadership while still on parental leave!
Then, for a while, Melina managed the City of Vancouver Sustainability Group, fulfilling a personal objective to “make a difference in people’s everyday lives”. Our CityChanger’s remit entailed green building policy, renewable energy, and corporate sustainability at a time when the city council “adopted this really bold and ambitious vision for Vancouver to be the greenest city by 2020”.
These multifaceted credentials were just what the City of Vancouver was looking for and wisely asked Melina on board to lead the Rain City Strategy.
Rain, Drains, and Pain
Modern western cities have a poor relationship with water. For a long time, Melina tells us that, other than what comes out of our taps, it has been treated as an inconvenient waste product. Rainwater lands and is channelled away as quickly as possible through pipes and catch basins.
It’s unnecessary, swelling the water put into urban systems. It leaves us susceptible to drainage issues and flooding when rainfall increases. Urban development disrupted nature’s equilibrium:
“Had we been our coastal temperate rainforests, which is what our ecological system is, we would have had trees and soils and a network of creeks absorbing, filtering, conveying, recharging groundwater; trees absorbing this water and sending it back into the atmosphere.”
Water is a resource. We need to reconnect with it to make cities more pleasant and resilient places.
The authorities of the Greater Vancouver Regional District recognised this and mandated Metro Vancouver’s municipalities to implement an integrated rainwater management plan. A lacklustre response at first merely met regulatory obligation.
However, early in the process, Melina realised “that this had the potential to be really transformative”. Cue the Rain City Strategy. Published in 2019, it addressed three main challenges:
Urban Ecological Health
A century of city-building disrupted Vancouver’s natural flow of streams, which were redirected underground through pipes. They mixed with rainfall and sewage in the city’s old combined sewer system. In 2020, as much as 38 billion litres of overflow from combined sewers discharged into outfalls in the Vancouver Sewerage Area.
Communities craved to reconnect with nature somehow.
Vancouver discharges much of its excess water into the sparkling, sunlit Strait of Georgia. Melina warns that this beauty hides an ominous fact: “It’s very hard to tell what water quality impacts you’re having.”
City professionals, our expert shares, knew little about how their departments link with water quality. Transportation planners, for example, didn’t understand how stormwater washes a toxic mix of tyre debris, particles from brake wear, and fluids such as oil and petrol from roads to rivers, impacting on aquatic life.
Climate Change Adaptation
Turn-of-the-century regulation didn’t account for climate change. “Our infrastructure was just not designed for it.”
Vancouver increasingly experiences higher volume of precipitation in winter and “prolonged periods of drought and high heat” in summer. “As a very temperate climate, we had never really had to deal with those extremes very much,” Melina notes.
North American cities have relied on grey infrastructure for more than 100 years, our expert says. While traditional engineering can “reduce flooding, reduce combined sewer overflows, and provide a cost-effective form of urban services” it lacks the extra benefits nature-based solutions provide.
“Green infrastructure is basically a form of water management infrastructure that combines engineered systems and nature-based systems.”
Blue-green infrastructure acts like a sponge, preventing water unnecessarily entering a drainage system. It helps reduce urban heat, adds ecological and visual value, improves safety on cycling and pedestrian networks, and increases equity and wellbeing. It makes for enjoyable meeting places.
Bear in mind that this is still engineered infrastructure. Like its grey counterpart, it is carefully designed to best capture and manage urban water.
Establishing this as the new norm would take work from every actor of influence.
Building an Interdisciplinary Business
Melina reminds us that all too often, water companies lay new pipes without public consultation. “You just get a little notice that there’s a pipe project on your street. Be prepared for disruptions to traffic patterns.”
This pinpointed the need for the biggest shift: a new “interdisciplinary, interdepartmental way of acting,” Melina tells us. A systemic approach based on collective objectives shared between the public sector, private sector, and the development community.
That involved not just the usual suspects: engineers and the sewer and drainage departments. Water management, our expert discovered, should engage a plethora of minds: senior decision-makers, the “architects who are designing buildings and public spaces, landscape architects, community planners,” transportation designers, urban ecologist, and the diverse Vancouverite communities.
There was little precedence. However, everyone involved was keen to put their skills forward. Excitement was enough to get the project off the ground and develop “a new way of doing business,” Melina reflects. Cooperation and joint goals allowed for the integrative grey and green approach to flourish.
“I’ve worked in all different aspects of community, or urban systems and urban design and infrastructure. By far, green infrastructure touched the most people.”
With the expertise on board, the next steps could unfold. Melina’s team mapped the city to find areas where growing demand strained sewer and overflow systems. They identified neighbourhoods “disproportionately affected by urban heat issues” due to a green deficit. The parks department was motivated to engage on how to connect Vancouver’s public green spaces and ecology. Transportation planners worked with peers to identify opportunities to meet multiple, interdepartmental objectives along new soft mobility routes.
Within the first five years, the city added 80 new green infrastructure assets, bringing the total citywide to over 300. Here’s a couple of examples:
A Bioretention System
Even in the Rain City Strategy’s earliest days, the municipality got to work transforming the odd-shaped boulevard in front of a small multifamily development at the junction of 63rd and Yukon streets. They built an unconventional plaza as “a full bioretention system”. An urban ecologist designed it as a beautiful butterfly habitat so it’s alive and pleasant to be around in all seasons. Using vegetation, soil, and root systems to withhold water, it addresses sewer overflow and pollution concerns, removing 2.2 million litres of rainwater per year from the city’s pipes.
Equity is ingrained in the Strategy. Crucially, young people from “the three host nations on whose unceded territory Vancouver is situated” got to influence and put their stamp on this project. Teenagers from the Musqueam (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm), the Squamish (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh), and the Tsleil-Waututh (səlilwətaɬ) First Nations and urban Indigenous youth, Melina explains, were invited to participate in a mentorship programme. Called Reconciled Futures, it runs through the Museum of Vancouver. Together with indigenous artists, they created artwork that was “built right into the asset”. This, our CityChanger points out, can “really help pull people together in a community”.
Hearing a gush of water underground, a member of the public identified a creek diverted through pipes in his neighbourhood but too deep to be retrieved. Residents rallied around the idea of recreating the original water system using rain runoff. This became the St. George Rainway Project.
Community-driven activism saw residents, the municipal team, and two schools opt to repurpose the public right of way with greenery, (partial) street closures, by removing parking spaces, and accommodating more cycling and walking. It was green democracy at play.
Advice for Other Cities
Melina is happy with the outcome: “I would say that the green infrastructure that we’ve been installing is actually exceeding our expectations.”
So, what advice can she offer other cities wishing to replicate the success of the Rain City Strategy?
Shift Culture Not Water
At every step in every project, have an infrastructure plan and ensure it harks back to your initial goals. This has helped transition systemic attitudes as much as altering physical structures.
Leap on Every Opportunity
Gone were the days of working in silos, of the housing department building a new development in isolation and telling the sewer reps to ensure rainwater was removed as an afterthought.
In Vancouver, blue-green solutions are now proactively considered in all infrastructure projects. When streets are dug up to work on the sewers, another team might ask to add a little something to enhance water management and capture. Melina recalls green curb bulges being laid down in one location, creating a pleasant, water resilient, safer street.
Spread the Risk
Establishing a team with the right interdisciplinary skill set can be expensive. Budget holders might be wary.
At first, our expert approached the City’s general managers and asked for “a little team of just three people: one engineer, one landscape architect, and a technician who could help us with design, drafting, and field work”.
It was a modest request. The Engineering Department coughed up right away. Intending to grow the team, Melina approached colleagues in the sewer and transportation departments to match-fund. This spread the expense and risk and laid the foundation for further consultation when their skills were needed.
Learn By Doing. Evaluate. Repeat
The Strategy was pioneering. Holes in local know-how didn’t hold Vancouver back.
In the early days, professionals implemented the green infrastructure while they were planning. It gave them chance to test and tweak or abandon ideas, quickly gain new experience, and gather intelligence of what it would take to scale up.
Innovate. Monitor. Adapt. Test.
Vancouver’s Rain City Strategy in a Nutshell
Don’t shy away from the challenge. Integrating green infrastructure into a grey city will take time and requires a robust plan. Pull together all the actors, encourage their enthusiasm, and rest assured the skills do already exist, even though you may need to learn different ways to use them. Melina Scholefield has shown what interpersonal skills, a go-getter outlook, having the guts to ask for more, and envisioning the Big Picture will achieve. Not only does blue-green infrastructure give us autonomy over how communities can manage water, but it provides a pathway to a fairer and more climate resilient, healthy, and pleasant city for us all.