Interview: Mark Heyck, City of Yellowknife, NT
FCM spoke with Mark Heyck, mayor of the City of Yellowknife, about the range of sustainability initiatives contributing to the environmental, social and economic development of the northern municipality. The city received a 2013 FCM Green Champions Award for its dedication and leadership in sustainable development.
FCM: First, can you give us some background on sustainable development initiatives in Yellowknife?
Mark Heyck: The City of Yellowknife has developed three main strategies to combat the escalating cost of doing business in the North with the goal of becoming a more effective, efficient and sustainable service provider. These initiatives include the Smart Growth Development Plan, the Community Energy Plan Implementation Strategy and the Community Waste Management Strategic Plan. All three initiatives aim to reduce costs in a sustainable way and take advantage of existing infrastructure as a means to do more with fewer resources.
FCM: Why did the city decide to follow this path?
Mark Heyck: The city suffered a major impact on its tax revenue stream with the closing of two gold mines within the city limits. This loss of revenue couldn't easily be recovered from the remaining tax base without placing undue hardship on residents, and the status quo wasn't sustainable in terms of how the city provided essential services. This meant that attitudes, operation and maintenance practices, as well as service delivery methods had to change for the city to remain a sustainable entity.
FCM: What steps were involved in making the vision a reality? What obstacles did you face along the way?
Mark Heyck: After the sustainability vision was developed and then adopted, extensive research went into exploring options for Yellowknife. Consultants were hired to review and develop action items and practices that would work within our environment and location. In the past, consultants tried to promote practices that worked well in southern regions of Canada but were not very successful in the north. Yellowknife is a very consensus-driven community. For the vision to become a reality, we needed a great deal of discussion to get buy-in from political leaders as well as the general public.
FCM: How did you engage the community and has it been supportive?
Mark Heyck: The City of Yellowknife takes community involvement very seriously and major public consultation was a key factor as we developed the strategies. This included public forums, workshops and surveys. Once finalized, the initiatives were vetted during the city's public process — through committee and council meetings — which allows for additional public input.
FCM: Tell us about the Centralized Composting Pilot Project. What costs were associated with implementing this project? What savings have resulted from it?
Mark Heyck: Centralized composting was a key element of the Community Waste Management Strategic Plan. Before proceeding with centralized composting, the city had to confirm that this was a viable waste diversion option — essentially, would composting work in our harsh climate? The city was very fortunate to partner with Ecology North, a local service group whose passion, expertise and hard work ensured the pilot project was a success. Centralized composting is still in its infancy and will be phased in throughout the city in the next few years.
The pilot project cost between $60,000 and $90,000. The major savings are related to landfill space and volume, which is critical given the city's location. Land is an expensive commodity within the city limits. Any waste diversion practices that extend the landfill's life will have a positive impact and will help to contain costs for future generations. Once the available landfill space is full, the city will have to look beyond its limits and will face extensive costs to transport waste. Centralized composting will help divert enough organic waste from landfill to allow operations well beyond 100 years.
FCM: Did this project result in other economic benefits in your community, such as new jobs?
Mark Heyck: This is still to be determined, but centralized composting will create a valuable commodity. There is a limited supply of topsoil available to the city and its residents. Compost, used as a soil amendment, will help us meet the high demand for quality topsoil.
FCM: What environmental impacts has the project had?
Mark Heyck: The major impact will be extending the life of the existing landfill through waste diversion, but it has also significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the landfill.
FCM: What lessons did you learn from this project? Has this experience influenced any other initiatives in your community?
Mark Heyck: The major lesson learned is how successfully the city can work with local service groups. In this case, the city was able to keep costs down during the pilot project stage and thoroughly assess whether the initiative would work. Yellowknife will continue to look for ways to develop such partnerships to help achieve our goals.
FCM: What do municipalities have to gain by taking sustainable development and environmental actions and what advice would you share with them?
Mark Heyck: Given the current economic issues facing municipalities, there really isn't any other option. Municipalities should explore the sustainability of every aspect of their business entity — from service levels, staffing, operations and maintenance, to asset management and programming. There are major environmental and financial benefits for municipalities that embrace sustainability and use resources wisely. The best advice is to be proactive, not reactive, and engage with your community in long-term sustainability planning.