This interview is part of the FCM–ICLEI series, PCP’s Local Climate Change Heroes, which features PCP program members.

With a population of approximately 35,000 people, Campbell River aims to minimize the community’s environmental impact through initiatives, such as an energy-efficiency rebate program for homes and incentives for new construction that is more efficient than the BC Building Code.

Amber Zirnhelt draws on her past work experience with Sustainable Cities International working on a variety of initiatives and long-term planning with communities throughout the world. She is committed to advocating for projects in Campbell River that help to minimize environmental impacts and the City’s carbon footprint, while building a healthy and vibrant community. Amber and her team help build strong partnerships with other levels of government, First Nations, utilities, non-profit and academic organizations to secure funding and design and implement projects in a variety of areas including energy efficiency and renewable energy, waste reduction, urban agriculture and climate adaptation.

Question: What progress have you seen on climate change in Campbell River?

Answer: As a PCP member, Campbell River has achieved Milestone 4 and has been implementing a range of initiatives at both the community and corporate levels. On the corporate side, we have conducted comprehensive retrofits ranging from lighting and HVAC upgrades to installation of solar hot water at four municipal facilities. With the installation of a green roof on city hall, Campbell River was the first community in British Columbia to do a green roof retrofit to an existing municipal building and we have added electric vehicles to our corporate fleet. We have a corporate Carbon Neutral Reserve Fund that we contribute to on an annual basis in lieu of purchasing offsets toward becoming carbon neutral. This fund helps us to carry out our climate initiatives and leverage external funding.

Although we first focused our efforts at the corporate level, we soon expanded our climate change initiatives to the community. We created incentive programs to encourage businesses and households to complete energy efficiency retrofits, such as the Power Down Campbell River energy rebate program run in partnership with the Province and BC Hydro. This year, we partnered with BC Hydro and the province to install electric vehicle fast-charging stations for public use at the Campbell River Community Centre. Our initiatives have continued to grow over the years, and we have established the expectation in the community that the City of Campbell River will take a leadership role, particularly with our Climate Adaptation Plan and an extensive sea level rise plan, which includes flood construction levels and development permit guidelines.

Question: What barriers are you facing in your work now? What do you do to overcomes the barriers?

Answer: The biggest challenge is securing funding and staff time to carry out a project, as we have a lot of important priorities within the municipality. One of the most rewarding parts of my job is being creative to find external funding sources or partnerships. This really helps us to leverage internal sources of funding and to effectively deliver our programs, on a limited budget.

Partnering with other organizations enables us to do more. For example, we would have a limited ability to offer an energy rebate program without the support from BC Hydro or the Province. Over the past few years, we have secured external funding for our projects through a variety of sources including FCM, the Real Estate Foundation of BC, the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM), Natural Resources Canada, the Climate Action Revenue Incentive Program (CARIP) (a provincial program providing funding to local governments who demonstrate efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions), BC Hydro, and the BC gas tax rebate program.

Key to finding external funding is staying on top of current trends and taking advantage of external funding calls by having projects ready to go when opportunities arise. We experienced this recently with our climate adaptation projects, when new funding became available through FCM, UBCM, and a partnership with ICLEI.

Question: What would you say you are most proud of in your career?

Answer: I am proud of the opportunity to work with a great team at the City and showcase Campbell River’s leading-edge projects that put us on the map for climate change planning and action. These projects are carried out with the leadership of our City Council and by the collaborative efforts of multiple departments. For example, through partnerships between the City’s Facility and Asset Management, Long Range Planning and Sustainability, and Recreation and Culture teams, we were able to take advantage of an opportunity with BC Hydro to install an electric vehicle fast charger at our community centre, and we are currently expanding this infrastructure. As well, our sea level rise and climate adaptation projects involve staff from a broad range of departments and disciplines including planning, engineering, finance, communications, protective services, fire, emergency preparedness and environmental backgrounds. This collaboration is key to creating plans and projects with meaningful results. 

Our plans are also developed and implemented through collaboration. The department was brand new when I started, and the goal is really to make our climate initiatives part of day-to-day operations. Initially we set up a corporate Green Team with members from all city departments to identify and carry out projects to reduce our environmental footprint as well as the development of an overall plan to have our operations reflect long-term planning around climate change, energy efficiency and waste reduction. Now we have champions across the organization working to ensure that upgraded facilities, new infrastructure projects and programs align with our goals and help us lead by example.

Collaborating with the community is also an important part of this work. Over the years, we have run numerous awareness campaigns that encouraged public participation. We have also consulted with the community on a number of high profile initiatives, from downtown revitalization to urban forest, to sea level rise.

Our Youth Action Committee is an ongoing opportunity to get direct community feedback, co-facilitated by our department and the Recreation and Culture Department. The Youth Action Committee provides City staff and City Council with advice on City projects and plans ranging from transit service to waste reduction to youth issues to downtown revitalization. Youth involved with the committee have the opportunity to present to senior staff and City Council and to engage their peers on important community issues.

I also take a lot of pride in opportunities to partner with academic institutions to host co-op students and mentor them as they develop their careers and interest in the environment, climate change, and community planning. We host at least two co-op students per year in our department, which really adds capacity to our team of five permanent staff, enabling us to continue to do innovative long-range planning work, while giving students great work experience.

Let’s connect!

Amber can tell you about her experience in:

  • Long-range planning
  • Coordination and facilitation of climate change, energy efficiency and waste reduction projects
  • Engaging city council in decision-making processes

Contact information

Amber Zirnhelt
Long Range Planning and Sustainability Manager
City of Campbell River, ON
T. 250-286-5700

PCP and ICLEI logo

This resource is available through the Partners for Climate Protection (PCP) program. PCP is managed and delivered by FCM and ICLEI—Local Governments for Sustainability Canada (ICLEI Canada) and receives financial support from the Government of Canada and ICLEI Canada.

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