Folks wanting to live sustainable in Victoria, B.C., get a lot more than just some modern-looking buildings. They enjoy a learning environment too. That is, if they care. Dockside Green, one of the continent’s most ambitious sustainable communities with a goal of no net impact on the environment, fits as a case study in everything from urban planning to community engineering.

After all, with an in-community sewage treatment plant as one of the main selling features of the 15-acre, mixed-use development, embracing the behind-the-scenes aspects of environmental and building engineering becomes a must-do.

Started in 2004 long before sustainability became all the rage (the first neighborhood wasn’t ready until last year) and surviving an up-and-down time through the economic smoldering, Dockside Green still attempts to be a showcase for what an urban community—this one is located just north of the city’s harbor district on the waters of the Strait of Georgia—but not with all the show that comes with many current projects.

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And it must be a delight for planners and engineers to get to see if the thing even works. With community and building systems right out in the open, residents of the largely condominium-based development take part in the systems just like those who designed it. 

Many of the waterways throughout the development are actually water-cleansing wetlands flowing from the community sewage treatment plants (and with Victoria’s recent announcement of actually being able to treat their raw sewage before it flows into the waters untouched, this may actually be a bigger deal than it originally appears).

Even the heating system is a lesson, with an $8 million plant that turns local wood into clean-burning gas, eliminating fossil fuels from the Busby Perkins & Will-designed center. The clean burn also exempt residents from B.C.’s costly carbon tax.

Of course, you can’t miss the wind turbines, solar panels, walking trails, passive solar design, energy monitors in units and special parking for electric cars.

Landscape architects from PWL Partnership in Vancouver, B.C., the same folks that put the massive living roof on the new convention center there, built an entirely new seawall at Dockside Green and incorporated living walls as part of the residential features. With living walls becoming more popular by the second for residences, it still remains to be seen, in my opinion, if they are truly sustainable and actually provide much more worth than their apparent “green” factor. After all, some of these systems require plenty of water and energy to keep looking sharp.

Beyond the systems, the simple mix of urban uses also plays heavily into the development, which was once contaminated from industrial use.

But there is one more lesson in Dockside Green: an economic lesson. With one-bedroom units upwards of $400,000, the costs are extravagant. We’ll see if Dockside Green realizes its dream of being a model of sustainability, or if the test case for new systems needs to go back to class.