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B.C. program wants you to help tackle the climate crisis — on your street

·6 min read
Rory Filer began collecting chestnuts to grow trees for his Vancouver neighbourhood. He says B.C.'s recent heat dome made him realize the importance of shady trees to help mitigate the impact of hotter weather.  (Georgie Smyth/CBC - image credit)
Rory Filer began collecting chestnuts to grow trees for his Vancouver neighbourhood. He says B.C.'s recent heat dome made him realize the importance of shady trees to help mitigate the impact of hotter weather. (Georgie Smyth/CBC - image credit)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled "Our Changing Planet" to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

Rory Filer's climate action started out as a handful of chestnuts in a yellow yogurt container.

After British Columbia's sweltering heat dome in June highlighted for him how big trees can cool the air around nearby houses, making neighbourhoods more resistant to global warming and heat waves, he wanted to take action in his Vancouver neighbourhood of Kitsilano.

A few months later, a tree started growing — and along with it, his desire to do more.

"I thought, 'What can I start to do about climate change to try and change the situation?'" he said.

It's a question being asked by Filer and other participants taking part in a unique neighbourhood-based climate change workshop run by researchers at the University of British Columbia.

The Cool 'Hoods Champs program was created to bridge the knowledge gap between climate science and everyday people — by bringing solutions to where they live, said lead researcher Cheryl Ng.

Program organizers said while the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow helps set the tone and strategy for reducing carbon emissions worldwide, it also plainly leaves ordinary folk out of the conversation.

Georgie Smyth/CBC
Georgie Smyth/CBC

"There are a lot of Canadians who care a lot about climate change, but they don't know what to do about it," said Ng.

"What better way to start than to just, you know, go to people right where they live and talk to them about how they can pick solutions with their family and their friends and their neighbours within the neighbourhood?"

The Cool 'Hood Champs philosophy is to start small, but organizers have big hopes to scale up the program to other cities in Canada and even present it to the COP26 conference as part of the university's delegation to Glasgow.

The program consists of three hands-on workshops taking place over the course of a month. After a well-received pilot last year, this fall marks the first time the program is running with participants from three Vancouver neighbourhoods.

Leaping squirrels and counting trees

It's a rainy Sunday afternoon and a trail of people wearing raincoats and holding clipboards follow Stephen Sheppard, an emeritus professor from UBC's Faculty of Forestry, on a tour of their own neighbourhood in suburban Vancouver.

"Can you see any roofs that would be suitable for solar panels?" he asked.

"Think about how much of this alley is paved," he said, pointing to the run-off from the rain pooling on the road.

The tour is one of the program's workshops, designed to identify hyper-local problems and solutions, Sheppard said.

As Canada experiences the effects of climate change, like warmer temperatures, extreme weather, flooding, erosion and more, it will affect cities, towns — and importantly neighbourhoods.

Georgie Smyth/CBC
Georgie Smyth/CBC

One of the exercises Sheppard uses is to ask residents to think about a squirrel leaping from tree to tree. If a squirrel has to climb down to the ground from any one tree in order to continue along the street, then that area needs more canopy coverage, he said.

The activity aims to highlight how extra tree cover on suburban streets means more robust habitat for squirrels and humans alike.

More green, less grey

Actions like strategically planting trees in the yards of south-facing buildings and houses, as well as generally increasing tree coverage, can help to naturally cool neighbourhoods, said Sheppard.

Similarly, encouraging more green space and less asphalt makes an area less vulnerable to flash flooding, he said, allowing the water to soak into the ground rather than to collect on roads and be flushed into drains.

"This is where [individuals] can make a difference; they can't impact Florida or Bangladesh or, you know, the glaciers, but you can impact your garden, alleyway, your driveway, you know, your water system, your energy system — all of those things, you have some control," said Sheppard.

Georgie Smyth/CBC
Georgie Smyth/CBC

Back at a nearby community centre, organizers of another workshop ask a room full of people — all different ages and backgrounds — about their collective climate concerns. Answers range from "wanting to feel more empowered" to "wanting to learn some hands-on tools for sustainability" or "learning how to do small but impactful things."

Steph Troughton signed up eight members of her family for the UBC program, saying the urge to do more about climate change had been gnawing at her for months.

"Learning about my carbon footprint is actually very scary and trying to do something about it is a little inconvenient — but we want to do it."

Her 11-year-old son, Jamie, said while he feels climate change is a very complex threat, he felt a strong desire to learn about what he could do to be ready for its impacts.

Imagining the future

Climate anxiety is a feeling that comes up for many participants of the Cool 'Hood Champs workshop.

The Canadian Psychological Association defines climate anxiety as a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness about the current and future state of the natural environment. The emotion can also be linked to a perceived lack of climate change action on the part of different levels of government.

Sheppard said it can be cathartic to take those emotions and turn them into change the community can benefit from.

"People's well-being involves taking some responsibility and getting involved in something," he said. "If it's fun and positive and makes a difference and makes something visible on the ground."

Georgie Smyth/CBC
Georgie Smyth/CBC

After participants complete their tour of the neighbourhood, they have a chance to sketch out their ideas over photographs of their own streets.

Additions like bike paths to reduce traffic are popular, as are solar panels to promote renewable energy use. Participants also often key into the idea of asphalt being an underused space, quickly replacing it with community rain gardens and communal shaded space, with lots of trees.

There are other minor changes suggested, too: Swapping dark roofs for lighter coloured ones, which reflect light and heat from the sun, and adding benches for people to escape from hot houses during a heat wave.

Submitted by Cool 'Hoods Champs
Submitted by Cool 'Hoods Champs

Planting a seed

Sheppard said it only makes sense to get neighbourhoods more involved in the climate conversation because Canada will need buy-in from households and blocks to reduce their carbon emissions.

Climate scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have warned time is running out to limit the warming of the planet to 1.5°C, and the world is likely to reach that level of warming between 2030 and 2052.

"We have a few years to get this thing going — and I think every community should do it," said Ng.

As for Rory Filer's chestnut tree, it is now two feet tall. While his collection of nuts was largely pilfered by squirrels some months back, the tree — which he named Walter — is getting a little bigger every day.

Soon, he said, he'll plant it somewhere in his neighbourhood. And maybe one day, it'll be like the other 100-foot trees that frame the neighbourhood, offering shady reprieve to future British Columbians in their warming climate.

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