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Emerging Narratives of a Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood: The Case of Vancouver’s Olympic Village

Lisa M Westerhoff


Vancouver’s Olympic Village neighbourhood has been credited with playing an important role in shifting the city towards a more comprehensive approach to sustainability. Like many other urban sustainability efforts at the neighbourhood scale, however, little is known as to the actual performance of the neighbourhood from the perspective of its occupants. To help fill this gap, I present a framework for the evaluation of the performance of sustainable neighbourhoods that that combines insights from narrative and social practice theories to explore how certain narratives of sustainable living are created, translated into practice, and play out in the lives of the principal constituents they affect. In doing so, I begin to reveal the qualitatively felt, experiential dimensions of being in this new form of development, with important lessons for the design, construction and management of future sustainable neighbourhood projects. The study shows that a narrative of liveability and the consideration of short-term quality of life benefits is central to the achievement of ecological and emissions goals. However, an in-depth consideration of the needs of lower income populations is necessary to ensure that the benefits of sustainable living are distributed evenly across socio-economic tiers.

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1Whether retrofitted to improve their environmental performance or built completely from scratch, neighbourhoods are increasingly recognized as an ideal scale for developing and testing new forms of sustainable urban planning and design. Several cities are already home to such neighbourhood-scale sustainability projects, many of which have emerged as a product of community-based networked initiatives (e.g. Transition Towns) or grassroots eco-village efforts. Others have been developed and championed by advocacy groups and even municipalities themselves, acting in concert with private developers and community stakeholders. While they differ in location, extent, form, and membership, such projects share in common the broad goal of achieving a measure of sustainability in the face of increasing ecological and climate-based impacts and pressures.

2However, despite this growth in the number of neighbourhood scale projects (and the many frameworks for sustainable neighbourhood accreditation and assessment that have emerged in parallel), little is yet known of the extent to which they are meeting their stated goals. The way sustainable neighbourhoods are actually performing from the perspective of their occupants is particularly poorly understood, including the ways in which the selection of specific landscape features, building forms or individual technologies affect resident experiences and by extension, the actual performance of the project. To address this gap, I present a framework for the evaluation of the performance of sustainable neighbourhoods that uses the concept of narrative as its foundation. Originally derived from literary studies, narrative theory and method have enjoyed an increasing application in sustainability studies, to the benefit of pushing our understanding of the way sustainability problems and solutions are defined and addressed. By coupling narrative with social practice theory, I extend its potential even further by exploring the way underlying understandings of sustainability embedded in a neighbourhood’s policies and plans translate into specific material interventions and ultimately, how these intersect with the daily lives, or ‘lived narratives’, of its inhabitants. I apply this combined approach to the Olympic Village, a new “sustainable urban neighbourhood” built in the city of Vancouver, Canada, to explore the result of its attempt to integrate high liveability with high achievements in climate and other ecological goals.

3The results of the case study show that a narrative that emphasizes short-term quality of life benefits is not only important to the success of neighbourhood sustainability projects, but can indeed be conducive to the achievement of ecological and emissions goals. Dimensions of Village life that residents have found to be most engaging and rewarding are those that have simultaneously helped them to navigate the learning curves associated with more troubling new technologies used to reduce environmental impact. However, the Village case also shows that a fuller consideration of the needs of lower income populations is necessary to ensure that the benefits of sustainable living are distributed more evenly across socio-economic tiers. Such findings challenge the notion of sustainable neighbourhoods as cohesive units in which the characteristics of sustainable living are uniform within their boundaries. Before turning to the details of this case study specifically, I explore some of the gaps in current forms of neighbourhood sustainability assessment (NSA) in further depth and the contributions that an integrated narrative-social practice approach offers to their resolution.

Assessing Neighbourhood Sustainability Assessment

4As efforts to make urban neighbourhoods more sustainable increase in number, so too have the opportunities to reflect on the necessary goals, resources, processes and criteria necessary for their success (e.g. Berg and Nycander 1997, Barton 1998, Churchill and Baetz 1999, Rudlin and Falk 1999, Engel-yan et al. 2005, Choguill 2008). Various frameworks for NSA have been created to guide and evaluate neighbourhood scale projects, with CASBEE for Urban Development, LEED for Neighbourhood Development, BREEAM Communities, and the Living Community Challenge as just a few of the frameworks now in application across the world. Many of these are based in earlier building-scale versions, and as such follow a similar process in identifying performance categories, outlining specific goals and targets for each category, and affixing labels to indicate the level of performance a project has achieved.

5While these kinds of frameworks have been undeniably important in fostering the proliferation of sustainable neighbourhoods across the world, their limitations are also being increasingly recognized (Haapio 2012, Luederitz et al. 2013, Cole et al. 2016). Perhaps the most prominent among these is the critique that while certification schemes assess the sustainability of neighbourhood design, the actual outcome often differs from the intent. Reasons that have been offered for this discrepancy (or ‘performance gap’) range from the accuracy of models used to predict occupancy and use, to substitutions or errors during construction, the absence of proper commissioning or support for management and operations staff, and the “misuse” of building systems by their users (Bordass et al. 2004, Turner and Frankel 2008, Scofield 2013, Fedoruk 2014, Fedoruk et al. 2015). Such findings have emerged predominantly at the building scale but apply to the neighbourhood scale as well, and point to the important yet often neglected relationship between building and overall neighbourhood performance. Buildings are potent locales for reducing resource use, raising overall well-being, and improving overall neighbourhood performance, and yet receive little attention in neighbourhood scale assessments (Luederitz et al. 2013, Cole et al. 2016). The relationships between buildings, landscapes, infrastructures and neighbourhoods more broadly are often similarly neglected (Haapio 2012).

6Another emerging critique is that neighbourhood assessment frameworks often overlook or underemphasize important procedural aspects, including full stakeholder involvement in the selection and weighting of different evaluative criteria (Komeily and Srinivasan 2015, Cole et al. 2016). NSA have begun to integrate a broadly encompassing array of ecological, social and economic criteria into the design of low-impact communities, but many frameworks fail to fully reap the benefits of ongoing participation of communities of stakeholders in the various stages of a project, from the neighbourhood’s initial design through to the evaluation of its success (Berardi 2013, Orova and Reith 2013, Sharifi and Murayama 2013, 2014, Komeily and Srinivasan 2015). Given the increasing complexity of sustainable buildings and infrastructures, these opportunities for residents to actively engage in their building environments and provide and receive feedback from building systems will become increasingly important as well (Cole et al. 2008).

7Finally, most assessment frameworks have predominantly focused on using quantitative measures to evaluate performance, particularly in the achievement of environmental (i.e. ecological or emissions) goals or indoor air quality (e.g. Cloutier et al. 2014, Karatas and El-Rayes 2015). While these are of course important to understand the overall success of sustainable buildings and neighbourhoods, they neglect the more qualitatively felt, experiential dimensions of being in these environments, including the physical and social ways such projects intervene into the daily lives of their intended recipients. This includes both the ways in particular patterns of resident activity are affected or changed by such projects, and how these activities in turn shape the actual outcomes of these efforts and what they come to represent and achieve (e.g. Churchman and Ginosar 1999, Turcu 2012, Freytag et al. 2014). With an understanding of the different experiences of different demographic or socio-economic groups, variations in the quantitative outcomes of different project dimensions can furthermore be better understood.

A New Approach to Neighbourhood Sustainability Assessment

The contributions of narrative

8An integrated approach that borrows a combination of concepts from the narrative and social practice literatures offers a means of filling some of these gaps in achieving and evaluating actual sustainable neighbourhood performance. Both scholars and practitioners have already begun to explore the potential of narrative as a means of unpacking our notions of what sustainability and sustainable living actually mean. One approach has been to explore broad shifts in ‘metanarrative’ or broad societal discourses as they play out at broad community, institutional or political scales. For example, some scholars have traced the evolution of certain narratives of environmental or climate change issues as they have been represented in news media (e.g. Boykoff and Boykoff 2007, Doulton and Brown 2009, Ryghaug 2009, Wright and Reid 2010, Fløttum et al. 2014) or in international decision making forums, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (e.g. Liverman 2009). The investigation of these narratives, particularly as they come to be expressed in policy, has offered a deeper understanding of the underlying assumptions these narratives contain about the “right” way to achieve sustainability, including the roles and responsibilities of different actors in its achievement.

9The significance of these ideas are not confined to the realm of theory, but have considerable implications for the way sustainability programs, policies and projects are both imagined and received. For example, many have called for a stronger and more persuasive narrative of sustainability that conveys the finite nature of resources on the planet, and the necessity of using them more wisely to avoid catastrophe (e.g. McKibben 2005, Rockström et al. 2009, Rees 2010). The argument behind such a narrative is that it could replace trends of irresponsible consumption and unrestrained economic growth with an understanding of the need constrain or limit inherently harmful human activities. Such a narrative furthermore places the burden of change into the hands of individuals, who are asked to curb their wasteful habits through an increased awareness of the consequences of their actions. However, many have shown that narratives based on the notion of self-denial or sacrifice are inherently uninspiring and as such risk inducing feelings of helplessness or apathy and limiting the likelihood of action (Lowe et al. 2006, Moser 2007). Robinson and Cole (2014) take this further in arguing that to focus on doing less harm to the planet is to stop short of necessary remediation and rehabilitation of the earth’s ecosystems. In contrast, they call for a regenerative sustainability narrative that frames human activities as able to contribute to the well-being of human and other forms of life, replacing a narrative of doing “less bad” with “more good” (Cole 2012, du Plessis 2012, Mang and Reid 2012, Waldron et al. 2013). This emphasis on well-being also serves to reorient conventional narratives of sustainability away from its narrow focus on resolving ecological challenges and the frequent neglect of important social dimensions (see also Dale and Newman 2009, Quastel et al. 2012).

Materialising sustainability narratives

10But how does a particular narrative actually come to effect a greater degree or different kind of change towards sustainability over others? The answer to this question lies in what Wynne et al. (2007) have called the performative dimension of narrative, which they consider in addition to its normative (or immaterial) quality. As discursive entities alone, metanarratives may not have a linear or causal influence on the physical world, but where they are implemented in policy or planning, they result in specific outcomes. As such, teasing out the way sustainability and sustainable urban living are characterized and depicted in neighbourhood sustainability projects and plans offers only a first step in exploring their potential. To explore the way sustainability narratives are actually translated into the structures, forms and actions in the “real world” requires as assessment of the material shifts in land uses, infrastructures and technologies that a particular policy or project creates. What is proposed is not always what is ultimately achieved, especially considering the strong effect of broader socio-economic and other trends that can influence local or municipal efforts (Næss and Vogel 2012). As such, the assessment of both the narrative itself and how this has been translated into the built environment are important to the assessment of a neighbourhood’s performance.

11To then explore how these outcomes in the built environment actually perform then requires an investigation of the way the material expression of a neighbourhood’s narrative is understood, interpreted and experienced by those whose lives are primarily affected by its construction. Several scholars have begun to use narrative methods as a way of eliciting individual experiences of environmental risks and other phenomena as a way of better understanding how such phenomena are understood and experienced “on the ground” (e.g. Cruikshank 2001, 2005, Satterfield 2001, Wallace 2005, Harris 2009, Lejano et al. 2012). To add the material dimension in more explicitly, however, it is useful to combine the narrative approach with insights from social practice theory (Schatzki 1996, Reckwitz 2002, Shove 2003, Shove and Pantzar 2005, Shove et al 2012, Strengers et al 2015), a body of work that has been influential in deconstructing notions of sustainable behaviour and its role in improving the sustainability of the built environment (e.g. Hargreaves 2011, Gram-Hanssen 2011, Karvonen 2013). The work of contemporary social practice theorists explores our routinised patterns of behaviour as a function of three interrelating components: the materials, or technologies we use when we perform a practice; the meanings, or values and images we attach to the practices we perform; and the competences, or skills and knowledge required to perform them (Shove and Pantzar 2005). For example, the practice of driving involves a combination of the car itself, the technologies and infrastructures that make up roads and other necessary infrastructure, the rules and laws that govern driving, the knowledge and skills required to safely guide a vehicle, and the norms and values associated with driving (e.g. personal freedom, convenience, social status, etc.).

12In this way, our patterns of behaviour can be thought of as the habitual and repeated performance of bundles of practices that, over time, become socially and physically entrenched as the appropriate or ‘right’ way to do something. When patterns of practice performance are disturbed by a change in one of the components of practice – by the materials involved, for example – an established way of doing something may be disturbed, occasionally to the point of creating a new form of practice altogether. As such, social practice concepts offer a way to explore the role of narrative as it is reflected in the built environment of a neighbourhood, and the way certain technologies, infrastructures and land uses have intervened into the practices of its constituents. By exploring a neighbourhood sustainability project as a deliberate intervention into the daily practices of current or future residents, it becomes possible to evaluate its success from the perspective of residents themselves. In doing so, we can glean lessons as to the way certain conceptualisations of sustainability actually play out in practice – not simply as a measure of energy or other resource savings, but as a more in-depth look at the way certain kinds of interventions are actually used. In this way, the “lived narratives” of a neighbourhood’s residents offer a way of understanding how a project’s narrative is enacted into being, and how this narrative might be lived in such a way as to have very different effects than those that were intended. In the remainder of the paper, I demonstrate this form of assessment by applying it to Vancouver’s recent attempt at a sustainable urban neighbourhood in the small but well-known area of the Olympic Village in the Southeast False Creek district. I begin with a summary of the metanarrative of sustainability and sustainable urban living expounded by the Village’s planners and designers, followed by a description of the way this has translated into the built environment, and finally, the way this has in turn intersected with the lived narratives of its residents.

Vancouver’s Olympic Village

13Before exploring the metanarrative of sustainability embedded in the policies and plans of the Olympic Village neighbourhood, it is worth noting the broader physical and historical contexts in which the innovative project is situated. The Village’s home city of Vancouver is known across Canada and indeed the world for its action on sustainability, which many date back to the 1960s and the successful citizen-led effort to stop the construction of an eight-lane freeway into the downtown core (Punter 2003). The 60s also saw the inception of Greenpeace and its later expansion to become one of the world’s most visible and influential environmental advocacy groups. For these and other reasons, Vancouver has enjoyed a global reputation for its environmental leadership that has been both noted and promoted by municipal governments to the present day, including the present administration’s goal of transforming Vancouver in to the world’s “Greenest City” by 2020. The city is also known for its high ranking in global liveability assessments (e.g. EIU 2015), despite high levels of homelessness and what many see as a growing affordable housing crisis.

14The Southeast False Creek (SEFC) and Olympic Village neighbourhood itself sits along the south eastern shore of a small inlet in the heart of the city’s urban landscape (see Figure 1). The area’s former distinction as a vibrant industrial area faded throughout the 1970s and 80s, leaving behind a large and largely unused parcel of City-owned brownfield. The process of its conversion to a sustainable urban neighbourhood began following the City’s creation of a special Task Force on Atmospheric Change, charged with the job of exploring Vancouver’s potential role in curbing “global atmospheric change”, including issues of local air quality, ozone layer depletion, and climate change. The Task Force’s final report was delivered to Council in 1990, making the Clouds of Change report one of the first municipal plans to address the concerns of climate change in North America. Among the recommendations for improved transportation planning, housing and employment opportunities in the downtown core was a proposal to “develop a planning and design process aimed at achieving an energy-efficient development on the southeast shore of False Creek” (CoV 1990). Shortly after Council accepted this recommendation, SEFC was also included into the city’s Central Area, a region designated to reduce the need to invest in transportation in the downtown core by increasing both the quantity and diversity of housing. The SEFC Policy Statement, the first official document to formally outline the vision and goals of the future development, was released in 1999.

Figure 1. Map of Southeast False Creek (SEFC) and the Olympic Village

Figure 1. Map of Southeast False Creek (SEFC) and the Olympic Village

Source: author.

Liveability + Sustainability

15The SEFC Policy Statement is also the first document that expresses the neighbourhood’s particular narrative of sustainability and sustainable urban living. At the onset, SEFC’s dual obligation to fulfil both Central Area and Clouds of Change directives compelled the development to integrate housing and transportation needs with emissions and energy efficiency goals. In contrast to past approaches to city planning, the consideration of longer-term environmental benefits is highlighted as the neighbourhood’s novel contribution, added to the City’s existing legacy of providing public and social amenities through large-scale development. The need for such an approach is rationalized primarily in terms of the need to avoid unfavourable conditions associated with current development and consumption practices, including climate change, food and other shortages, and socio-economic instability. The Statement frames the need to achieve emissions reductions principally as an outward moral responsibility on the part Vancouverites, with the need for change driven largely by the need to avoid adverse conditions for populations both temporally and geographically distant.

16However, when describing the vision for the community itself, the Policy Statement shifts towards a framing of benefits to be accrued, both locally and immediately. The neighbourhood is presented as an opportunity to improve the overall efficiency, health and liveability of the urban environment, including the restoration of prior ecosystems and soil health. It is a neighbourhood that must “integrate into its urban context while protecting and enhancing the social and economic health of its community, as well as the health of local and global ecosystems” (CoV 1999: 4). Elements to be considered for inclusion in the final design of the neighbourhood therefore range widely, from strategies to reduce energy consumption and waste, to the preservation of heritage buildings, opportunities for local food procurement, and the improvement of social cohesion.

17This merging together of liveability and sustainability is continued throughout the neighbourhood’s planning and rezoning documents. The Official Development Plan (2004) and later Public Realm (2006) and Master Art (2007) plans all describe the neighbourhood as a place where residents will enjoy life in a community where goods and services can be found within a convenient walking distance, and neighbouring areas can be easily accessed via an expanded transit network. The texts outline the benefits the neighbourhood will provide to future residents, using positive and sometimes even regenerative language to describe the beneficial changes to the social, ecological and economic environments that are anticipated to flow from the neighbourhood’s creation. This includes a contribution to resolving the city’s growing affordability problem by providing a source of low-cost, appropriate housing, and creating a community that will help residents meet their basic needs (CoV 2007). The neighbourhood is touted as a place where social interactions will be both increased and improved, making daily life for its residents pleasant and convenient as well as low-impact. The achievement of low- or even no-impact living is not framed as a contradiction or opposition to living well, but as complementary – the needs of future populations can be met while meeting those of the present (cf. Holden and Scerri 2013). Residents are in turn called on to help make the neighbourhood a success, and are assumed to represent a more sustainability-conscious population who will “take more responsibility for their neighbours, their environment, and future generations” (CoV 2007).

Building a village

18With the success of Vancouver’s bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, the neighbourhood’s planning process underwent some fairly significant changes. The City entered a bid based on the integration of sport and sustainability, and included the designation of a small portion of the SEFC neighbourhood to be used as one of two athletes’ villages. With the global spotlight fixed squarely on the city, the neighbourhood’s planners sought to push the neighbourhood’s existing sustainability goals even further, including the development of a “Net Zero” building that would double as a seniors’ residence. However, the plan to use the neighbourhood during the 2010 Olympics also set a tighter timeline on the project that forced the neighbourhood’s planners and designers to act more quickly, and which indirectly resulted in a number of significant hurdles. The most significant of these was the 2008 global economic crash, which ultimately saw the neighbourhood’s developers default amid much mudslinging in city politics over the rising costs of the project. The appropriate percentage of affordable housing to include became a fiercely debated issue between political parties, resulting in a reduction of a higher target of 30% low-cost housing to 20%, or 252 of the roughly 1,100 total units. These are distributed across three City-owned buildings, including two rental buildings run by a local non-profit housing management company, and one co-operative housing project.

19Despite these considerable obstacles, however, the translation of the original vision of both a highly liveable and highly sustainable neighbourhood into the materials of the built environment remained faithful in many ways, from the design of public spaces to the fixtures in the units. Intended to encourage local living, the Village is comprised of an assortment of medium-rise, mixed-use buildings situated around a central plaza that forms the public and commercial heart of the area (see Figure 2a). Grocery store Urban Fare, an all-purpose pharmacy and several other stores and services occupy the storefronts. The area is connected to the rest of the city via the seawall, a raised pedestrian and cyclist pathway that that follows the water’s edge across large sections of Vancouver’s downtown core. The waterfront is dotted with interactive furniture such as spinning chairs and undulated benches, while a small manmade landform known as Habitat Island, the Hinge Park located to the west of the Village and community gardens provide outdoor spaces for residents and visitors to enjoy. Priority given to cyclists and pedestrians extends out into the streetscape, where streets are narrower and parking scarcer than in surrounding neighbourhoods.

Figure 2a. The Olympic Village’s central plaza

Figure 2a. The Olympic Village’s central plaza

Source: author.

20The buildings themselves were designed to reduce both emissions and ecological impacts while improving the health and social interaction of its residents. Passive design strategies were used to increase building efficiency and reduce the need for mechanical heating, cooling and ventilation, including increased thickness of building envelopes, cooling ponds added to inner courtyards, and shades and exterior blinds installed to reduce incoming summer sun (see Figure 2b).

Figure 2b. The Olympic Village’s central plaza

Figure 2b. The Olympic Village’s central plaza

Source: author.

21Features such as exterior corridors and stairwells and rooftop gardens were added to reduce energy use while increasing residents’ physical activity, safety and social interaction within each building. Inside each building, hot water used in both space heating and for domestic consumption is provided by the Neighbourhood Energy Utility, a district energy system that extracts waste heat from untreated wastewater flowing to a nearby treatment facility. This waste heat accounts for roughly 70% of the neighbourhood’s annual demand for heat and hot water, with the remaining 30% sourced from natural gas boilers that come on to satisfy demand during peak loads. The hot water generated by the NEU is transferred via heat pump through a series of closed loops to building units, which are each metered individually.

22Finally, space heating and cooling is provided to each unit radiantly via a system of capillary mats installed in the ceiling of each unit. The ‘cap mats’ provide a source of heating and cooling by regulating the flow of hot and cold water through a mesh of polypropylene tubes. Instead of a conventional thermostat that regulates unit temperatures, residents instead control the flow of hot or cold water through the tubes using dials installed in each room of the unit. This thermal comfort-based system was selected based on a number of assumed benefits that would contribute to achieving both resident comfort (through increased resident control and reduced noise, dust and high costs associated with more conventional forced air or baseboard systems) and reduced carbon emissions. To reduce the overall cost and consumption of water, each building has been fitted with a dual-piping system that allows municipal water to be used alongside a system of rainwater harvesting that directs water into cisterns located in the basements of each parcel. Rainwater captured from the green roofs and other permeable surfaces is used for irrigation and in unit toilets. Units are further equipped with low-flow fixtures in both the kitchen and bathroom, and high-efficiency appliances (including dishwashers and washing machines) in strata and rental units.

Life in the Village

23To explore how these material expressions of the neighbourhood’s sustainability narrative actually intersect with the lived narratives of the Village’s residents, I conducted in-depth interviews with 20 individuals. Interviewees reflected the neighbourhood’s diverse mix of private condo owners, rental tenants, Co-op members and low-income renters. During these interviews, I asked residents to describe their impressions and expectations of the neighbourhood, what they thought the goals of the neighbourhood were and whether they thought the neighbourhood was living up to those goals, and the parts of the neighbourhood they liked and disliked the most. Residents were also asked to talk about whether and how coming to live in the neighbourhood had changed the way they performed their daily habits and routines, if at all, including any particular challenges they faced.

Loving life in place

24What these interviews with residents of the Olympic Village firstly indicated was that several significant changes to their daily practices had occurred since moving to the neighbourhood. Many of these can be attributed to the neighbourhood’s successful intervention into the material attributes of the built environment – its location, design, and overall connectedness to the rest of the city in particular (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Residents’ favourite neighbourhood features

Figure 3. Residents’ favourite neighbourhood features

Source: author.

25Many residents found that the Village’s network of bike and walking paths, transit connectivity and even the local availability of car share options had facilitated a shift in their mobility practices towards options that many felt were healthier, more “environmentally-friendly” and also more enjoyable. Two residents’ experiences help to illustrate this change:

26The car’s parked on Friday, I don’t drive, I use transit but my husband drives for work, for the purpose or employment, and that gets parked on Friday and we avoid it taking it out again until he goes back to work on Monday. So we walk everywhere (M11, personal communication, March 24, 2014).

27We’re in a location that we can walk to many of the shops and things that we need to keep ourselves comfortably supplied, and we do that. Since we moved here we have reduced our gasoline consumption, our automotive transport, we’ve increased our use of transit and we’ve hugely increased our foot traffic. We walk pretty well everywhere, hours a week (M4, personal communication, March 7, 2014).

28The relative ease of residents’ ability to engage in these alternative forms of mobility is in part the result of the neighbourhood’s location, including its low-lying and flatter topography and general proximity to both the seawall and other parts of the city’s central area. However, residents’ capacity to reduce their car transit has also occurred as a function of the neighbourhood’s mixed use design, which has allowed residents to live more “in place”. Indeed, the central plaza and ease of accessing everyday amenities were consistently highlighted as some of the best parts of living in the Village, which some residents additionally felt had improved their overall engagement with the community, both physically and socially. A young mother and resident of the Co-op explained why she felt this had occurred:

29I don’t feel like I have to leave it to do the things I want to do. We can go out our door and have a picnic close by… Everything is so close and also I just know a lot more people in the neighbourhood than I’ve ever known in any other neighbourhood. Maybe it was because I was on maternity leave last year, but we formed a little group of moms in the neighbourhood so now when we go out the door, we run into people all the time, which I never had before. It almost feels like a little, like a village, which I guess that’s what they call that” (R5, personal communication, March 20, 2014).

30The plaza, Habitat Island, Hinge Park and the community gardens were also identified as places to see and meet other people. This sense of community was a feature many residents appreciated within their individual buildings as well, who noted that whereas they might have had relatively little contact with their neighbours prior to coming to the Village, they now found more opportunities to socialize. This was particularly the case among members of the Co-op, who undergo a screening process prior to their approval by the Board to ensure they are willing to participate in a more engaged and communal form of living.

Thrown for a (closed) loop

31Taken on their own, these accounts of life in the Olympic Village indicate considerable success in terms of the neighbourhood’s combined narrative sustainability and liveability. Residents’ daily habits have evidently shifted towards more local and lower impact forms since coming to the Village, which have had the simultaneous effect of improving resident health, socialisation, and overall enjoyment. The new material configurations introduced by the Village’s planners and designers have given rise to new competences and the development of new practices, particularly in the areas of mobility of socialisation. These shifts have also been accompanied by the development of new meanings associated with urban living, including a deeper form of engagement with and appreciation of local living.

32However, other dimensions of the neighbourhood’s narrative have not come to as successful a fruition, for either sustainability or liveability goals. While many residents were pleased with their location in the city, the easy access to the seawall and nearby amenities, and the overall feel of the neighbourhood, the overall satisfaction among residents with the performance of the technologies and appliances that had been selected for their units was significantly lower. Residents have faced significant challenges in the face of several of the more novel systems and technologies used inside each building. The Village’s intervention into three resident practices in particular have been the source of many frustrations and challenges to residents’ ability to comfortably go about their daily lives.

33First, new materials associated with washing and bathing have been introduced, in which a combination of low-flow fixtures and building infrastructure for domestic water provision has presented a challenge to the way many residents were able to perform their daily routines. Nearly half of the residents interviewed indicated that long wait times to get hot water created both an inconvenience and an unforeseen added cost, in addition to a sense of discomfort over the water that was being “wasted”:

34This is not an exaggeration, the first shower in the morning you have to have the shower running, and this is not just our unit, this is every unit, we’re trying to fix this right now, is about 2.5-4 minutes of just water running, just to get hot water. So not only are we paying for that water, but it’s just a waste of water, literally it’s just going down the drain (R19, personal communication, April 28, 2014).

35Many of these residents were disappointed that the neighbourhood’s goal of achieving water savings was not only going unfulfilled, but that the apparent failure of the system to provide water quickly and efficiently was using more water than was needed. To decrease their overall wait times, some residents intervened directly into the material configuration of the building and had the low-flow fixtures removed altogether.

36Secondly, some residents found their ability to entertain guests and keep their washrooms in a state of acceptable utility and cleanliness negatively impacted by the poor quality and sometimes even the quantity of rainwater available in their toilets. Upon moving to the Village, residents found their toilet water to be dark and odorous, and in some buildings became so turbulent that the toilet fixtures themselves became inoperable and had to be replaced or repaired. In one strata, water shortages eventually prevented residents’ ability to flush their toilets at all, whereas in others, the smell and colour was felt to be more of a nuisance or inconvenience. Residents described a range of strategies used to adapt to the poorly functioning system, from installing signage for guests to cleaning their fixtures more regularly. At the time I spoke with Village residents, however, all buildings had switched their systems over to the city’s municipal water while solutions to the problem were being explored.

37Thirdly and perhaps the most problematic intervention of all, the system of heat provision was found to present a significant challenge to many residents’ ability to achieve a reasonable degree of comfort while in their units. Challenges to achieving thermal comfort have occurred via significant shifts in the materials associated with heating and cooling, and have required residents to both develop new competences and adjust their understanding of basic principles of heating and cooling. For example, the way in which the system functions has been difficult for many residents to grasp, given the unfamiliarity of most North Americans with the notion of an in-ceiling source of radiant heat based on thermal comfort (as opposed to the more common approach to heating and cooling of changing the ambient air temperature). The idea of heat coming from the ceiling was widely perceived as in contradiction to the commonly accepted notion that ‘hot air rises’. The replacement of a thermostat with a dial to adjust flow rate as opposed to temperature has been additionally confounding, as many residents’ existing competences revolved around these more established materials, and indicated a preference for knowing and being able to pre-program unit temperatures.

38The results of the selection of this novel material configuration have been mixed. Residents who developed new competences and were able to figure out the systems relatively easily have been generally pleased with the system and had few complaints. However, many brought with them pre-formed approaches to achieving thermal comfort that have been both ineffective and inconvenient. For example, some residents continued to treat the system as though it were a conventional forced air system, adjusting temperature up and down throughout the day despite long system response times. To these residents, the inability to pre-set a thermostat to automatically decrease temperatures at night and increase them in the morning was a further annoyance. Many residents were furthermore unable to achieve or maintain an adequate unit temperature even once the system was functioning, either in summer or winter. As in the case of washing and bathing practices, this has prompted many residents to bring in more familiar materials that could provide additional sources of heat (e.g. space heaters) or cooling (e.g. air conditioners) to reduce their discomfort:

39It gets that cold in here I’ve actually had 3 electric heaters going and the heat turned full blast…You got people in wheelchairs and old folks, we’re not jumping up and down and screaming at the ceiling. I mean, you know, there are guys in wheelchairs that never stand up. And you got to break a thermal plane to get your heating circulating. No, they weren’t really thinking about it while they did this (R6, personal communication, Mar 31, 2014)

40As with their inability to get hot water quickly, such residents have been frustrated with the inconvenience, cost, and discomfort of these novel “green” technologies.

From liveable to sustainable

41The above shifts in practice indicate several interesting findings with regard to the way a novel material configuration based in the achievement of sustainability has intervened into preformed practices and preconceived notions of the ideal way to perform daily routines and tasks. New or different materials associated with heating, cooling and plumbing have forced residents to adopt new competences, which they have done with varying degrees of success. These shifts have also had interesting results for the meanings associated with daily practices. For those able to achieve comfort and convenience with relative ease, there is a sense of peace and even appreciation for the neighbourhood’s goals. For many who have had less success in adapting to the new materials of the Village, there has been a sense of disappointment in the failure of the neighbourhood to live up to its promise of low-cost, sustainable and comfortable living. While some of these shifts in practice indicate the novelty or unfamiliarity of the technologies used in Village buildings, it should be noted that some of the issues described above indicate an intervention that goes beyond the simple introduction of a new system. Building managers have had difficulty in accessing the information and support they require to maintain the system properly, which has led to a number of operational problems on top of an already unfamiliar system. However, it is still possible take note of the interesting way that residents’ contrasting narrative accounts of life in the Village – highly liveable and yet highly frustrating – have interacted with one another.

42First, the way the neighbourhood’s liveability has helped move the neighbourhood closer to achieving some of its sustainability goals is of particular interest. Throughout the interviews, it became clear that despite their many frustrations with unit technologies, residents remained appreciative of the neighbourhood as a whole and exhibited a strong loyalty and engagement with regard to its success. Indeed, many of these more enjoyable dimensions of life in the Village have been important anchors during some of the neighbourhood’s more tumultuous times. The high quality of neighbourhood design was noted by many residents as the factor that had attracted them in the first place, and that has kept them interested and engaged in their neighbourhood despite the steep learning curve and the many irritations they have faced while the buildings’ more novel technologies are being sorted out:

43Everybody seems happy in here. I mean, people do like it, you know. You say, do you like it? Oh they love living here, that seems to be it. And I think these teething problems will eventually wane” (R10F, personal communication, Apr 14, 2014).

44I tend to be one of those guys that will look at the things that need to be done better or different or improved upon. But everything I’ve said is still in the context of: it really is a great place to live. It’s a great building, like it really is a phenomenal building, and an incredible village and community. And if somebody sat here and recorded this and listened to it, they’d sit there at the end of it and go, oh okay…on the environmental sustainability thing he gives it a 3, and on the overall likeability of their decision he’d give it a 5…Strip all that away and strip away everything else I said, was it the right decision? A year later, what would I give it? On balance, overall, across the board, everything on the table? I’d give it a 9.5 out of 10 (R19, personal communication, Apr 28, 2014)

45Such findings point to the importance of situating new materials designed to achieve sustainability within a larger context that encourages or facilitates the development of place-based attachments. The meanings that residents have developed in relation to the Village at large have evidently acted as important variables in successfully shifting practices at the unit scale.

46What is also interesting to observe is that residents’ issues with the Village’s novel material arrangements have paradoxically helped to strengthen some of these social ties. To assist residents in the development of necessary competences, building management have held information sessions, distributed instructions or even requested demonstrations by the system engineers to help explain how to optimise temperature regulation and other features of building design. A second forum for the development of new competences is the neighbourhood Facebook page, which has been a particularly supportive forum for residents to seek information, support and commiseration around challenges they have encountered. As residents navigate their new building systems together, they have been simultaneously building stronger community connections and developing a burgeoning sense of place. Such findings reinforce the notion of social practices as formed of mutually constitutive elements – in this case, as the unexpected strengthening of the meanings associated with certain practices as residents work together to develop necessary competences in the face of a novel materiality.

Sustainability for some

47However, not all residents of the Olympic Village have had the same experience of the neighbourhood, nor have they had an equal ability to fully enjoy its amenities. Of these, low-income residents have remained particularly displeased over the high cost of living in the Village and the impact of newer technologies on their overall well-being. High administration and monitoring fees that residents pay as a part of their energy and water bills were a particular concern among lower income residents. As one resident noted with alarm, “They’re charging us $10.00 processing fee every month. Now, these are people on pension, they’re core need people, $10.00 that translates to a few gallons of milk and bread or something” (R17, personal communication, Apr 24, 2014). As residents of the “Net-Zero” building, these costs and inconveniences came as a particular surprise as many came with the expectation that utility costs too would be “net-zero”. The same resident described various strategies she used to save on costs, which ranged from keeping the heat as low as possible and using water sparingly, to the purchase of an in-suite washing machine.

48Beyond utilities, certain features of the neighbourhood’s landscape have also made it more challenging for low-income residents living in the Village, as they have found many of the local stores and restaurants to be prohibitively expensive. Many residents of both the low-income and market housing have opted to frequent the lower-priced box stores located roughly 1.5km, but these remain less accessible to residents who are either elderly or living with a physical disability:

49I am forced to go all the way up to Broadway and to go No Frills where the prices are quite reasonable. I cannot afford to go to here, to the Urban Fare, [very few] people do. I don’t know how they can afford to stay open. But we have two sets of people [here]: the working people and the non-working people, the retirees, and we [retirees] cannot afford it” (R17, personal communication, Apr 24, 2015)

50As such, while the Village’s amenities have been well-received by many, their high price point has excluded lower-income residents from accessing them, and by extension has limited the extent of their social contact with the rest of the neighbourhood. It is also worth noting that the overall percentage of low income units has also been something of a disappointment, especially to affordable housing advocates. The reduction from 33% to 20% affordable housing led to the creation of a total of 252 units of affordable housing; however, the elimination of many provincial and federal housing subsidies are requiring municipal low-income housing providers to adopt a system of “internal subsidy”, in which a percentage of units are rented out at market rates to provide for the costs of renting the remaining units at below-market rates. In the Olympic Village, this has translated into roughly 120 affordable units, or only 11% of the total number of units (see Figure 4). These results demonstrate that even where sustainability interventions are intended to apply equally to different demographic or socio-economic groups, their effects will be experienced differently by groups of varying levels of physical or financial security.

Figure 4. Housing mix

Figure 4. Housing mix

Source: author. Underlying map used with permission of Vancouver’s Open Government Licence 2.0.

Implications for Sustainable Neighbourhood Design and Assessment

51These lived narratives of life in the Village offer a number of insights into the reasons for the ‘performance gap’ between efforts and results in sustainability efforts in the built environment. They present an interesting, if contradictory, picture of the way a particular policy narrative has translated into the neighbourhood’s overall success in fulfilling its dual objectives of liveability and sustainability. While residents’ experiences of the neighbourhood as a whole were quite positive overall, the way that some of the more novel technologies used to achieve reductions in water and energy use have intervened into daily practices have been considerably more problematic. Many of these issues have been attributed to rushed construction prior to the Olympics which resulted in examples of faulty installation and difficulties in maintaining some of the buildings’ more novel systems. These findings offer further support to calls for a “soft landing” approach to sustainable building that lengthen the period of handover and commissioning to ensure proper support operator and manager support (e.g. Clark 2012; see also Westerhoff 2015). They also illustrate the need to support residents in adopting new practices associated with newer technologies, especially those that challenge conventional knowledge and require the development of new competences. In order for new and more sustainable practices to persist, the ways in which existing practices will be challenged, including associated meanings and competences, must be first understood. A number of scholars are already exploring the ways in which sustainability policies, or interventions, can or do intersect with existing configurations of practice (e.g. Shove 2015; Spurling and Meeking 2015).

52However, the experiences of residents also offer support for the Village’s narrative of sustainability that integrates present day liveability with longer-term sustainability. The high quality of the neighbourhood’s spaces and the convenience, connectedness and community they have fostered are the principal reasons for residents’ commitment to staying in the neighbourhood despite the difficulties they have had in performing their daily practices. The benefits that accrue to residents in terms of the liveability of their neighbourhood are therefore important to a neighbourhood’s overall success in shifting practices towards sustainable configurations, and as such should be emphasized in neighbourhood design and execution. The importance of social dimensions in the achievement of ecological goals also indicates that increased support for residents should be provided, ideally through forums for community interaction and learning that can help avoid some of the larger frustrations and steeper learning curves associated with the development of new competences, while simultaneously strengthening community bonds. Such forums can be additionally facilitated through the design of material interventions in the built environment that encourage both social interaction as well as achieve resource savings, such as green roofs and community gardens.

53Residents’ experiences secondly point to the very real tensions that can exist between affordability and sustainability goals. While many issues are coming to be resolved through the increased understanding and improved maintenance of the Village buildings’ novel technologies, there is a clear need to more fully consider the interaction between low-income needs and low-impact technologies. The results of this case study show that low-income populations may can have a more difficult time adapting to sustainable technologies given the narrower financial margin that low-income households are working with. This also supports the notion that sustainability interventions on the part of decision makers can and should consider the effects of such interventions in terms of the abilities of various populations to participate in new forms of sustainable practice (see e.g. Walker 2015). Though the City of Vancouver offered to cover the costs of utilities for the first year while operational issues were being addressed, many low income residents remain unable to participate to the same extent as others in the neighbourhood. In future projects, the integration of the experiences of low-income housing management into the design and planning stages of sustainable neighbourhoods would go a long way to ensuring such concerns are adequately addressed and sufficient support is provided. They also perhaps indicate the need to consider affordability more explicitly into liveability requirements.


54Overall, these findings help to fill some of the gaps identified in conventional NSA. By looking at the intersection of the neighbourhood’s policy narrative and the lived narratives of residents, it is possible to gain an understanding of the way certain sustainability interventions play out in practice. More than a quantitative measure of the performance of the neighbourhood and its buildings, the combined narrative-social practice approach reveals how specific sustainability interventions are interpreted and used. Exploring the way residents perform certain practices, as well as their situation in the broader context of the Village, illuminates the way interventions at neighbourhood and building scales can interact with one another, with important consequences for the neighbourhood’s overall performance. Furthermore, the findings of the study point to the need to consider the important relationships that exist within these projects, both between residents and their material environments, but also to each other. While the boundaries of a given neighbourhood may hide the variations in experience within, neighbourhood scale projects cannot be assumed to be uniform in their outcome. The integration of residents’ lived narratives into the assessment of neighbourhood performance therefore offers an important understanding of how best to understand this variation in experience across demographics, and support future efforts to design and support sustainable neighbourhood projects.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Map of Southeast False Creek (SEFC) and the Olympic Village
Credits Source: author.
File image/jpeg, 260k
Title Figure 2a. The Olympic Village’s central plaza
Credits Source: author.
File image/jpeg, 40k
Title Figure 2b. The Olympic Village’s central plaza
Credits Source: author.
File image/jpeg, 508k
Title Figure 3. Residents’ favourite neighbourhood features
Credits Source: author.
File image/png, 56k
Title Figure 4. Housing mix
Credits Source: author. Underlying map used with permission of Vancouver’s Open Government Licence 2.0.
File image/jpeg, 77k
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Electronic reference

Lisa M Westerhoff, Emerging Narratives of a Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood: The Case of Vancouver’s Olympic VillageArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 14 | 2016, Online since 26 April 2016, connection on 05 March 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Lisa M Westerhoff

Lisa Westerhoff is a recent doctoral graduate from the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Her work utilizes social science and humanities-based approaches to explore the material and social dimensions of climate change and sustainability transitions, as well as their implications for citizen engagement and decision making. Prior to her doctoral work on sustainable urban neighbourhoods, Lisa explored processes of multi-level climate change governance as a part of the EUR-Adapt project based out of Umeå University in Sweden. Lisa also holds an MA in Geography from the University of Guelph in Canada. Email:

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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