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Government and Sustainability: 7 Lessons From The Calgary Water Centre

Government and Sustainability: 7 Lessons From The Calgary Water Centre

All images sourced from the City of Calgary's website.

The Calgary Water Centre teaches us many lessons about large-scale sustainability, making environmentalism widely appealing, proving that governments can lead on sustainability, and more. Here are the top seven lessons to take away from this exceptional Emerald Award winner:

1. Sustainability Can Be Pretty Too

The Calgary Water Centre is a gorgeous building, that much is indisputable. What’s especially poignant about that beauty is that it comes with some pretty gorgeous nuts and bolts too, which carried it to a LEED Gold rating. The Mosaic Centre, a 2017 Emerald Award winner also followed this model of beauty and sustainability with its LEED Platinum office centre. Sustainability can be just as beautiful as any other kind of design and when it is the choice between the two becomes even more clear.

2. Efficiency Comes In All Shapes and Sizes

The sheer size of the Water Centre is commendable. This isn’t a small or even medium-sized building we are talking about, it’s a mammoth at 183,000 square feet. The fact that it’s also so efficient is doubly impressive. This proves that big or small, efficiency just works and that there’s no set formula for sustainability, it can be done in a variety of ways. This opens up the conversation about what sustainability can look like and creates opportunities for rethinking how environmental progress can be achieved in unexpected areas.

3. Make It Appealing And They Will Come

Sustainability on its own simply isn’t appealing enough to some folks, however, and we should accept that reality. It’s not enough sometimes to just offer solar panels, but instead to crank sustainability up a notch with something like Tesla’s solar roof which is a striking accomplishment in “beautiful sustainability”. When we can reduce the choice as much as possible to a dichotomy between something nice and something nice and sustainable, the latter will always win.

4. Incremental Gains Can Be Better Than Radical Changes

The Calgary Water Centre provides a model of large-scale sustainability for one, but it also shows how we can become more sustainable by making existing processes more efficient rather than radically changing the whole system. Becoming more efficient in the way it uses heating, lighting, and waste has allowed the Water Centre to achieve its high level of efficiency and it did so by improving existing processes. Of course, we need to change how we power society but it is worth noting that a lot of GHG emissions can be averted through efficiency and incremental changes.

5. Big Can Be Sustainable

There’s a perception around large scale things in our world, be they large buildings or large vehicles, that asserts that smaller is always better and that big is inefficient. The Water Centre proves that big buildings can be just as or even more efficient than smaller buildings which is a big deal (pun intended) when considering how many people they serve. Like the economic idea of “economies of scale”, there is a sweet spot where things can be made better (more efficient) by scaling up. Just look at ideas like district energy and combined heat and power which groups multiple units together in energy, heat, and power service and proves far more efficient than individual units alone.

6. We Can Demand More From Our Leaders

When I first started researching the Water Centre, the thing that amazed me the most about it was that it was a government building. This was an example of the government being a true leader and raising the bar for the rest of us. In tandem with other recent environmental policies, this proves that our leaders are serious about climate change and listen to the voices of environmental groups. Since governments are made up of elected officials they respond to the will of the people. If that will is pointed in the direction of sustainability then politicians will adapt from there and create a virtuous cycle of environmental progress.

7. The Public Sector Can Teach The Private Sector

When governments are innovation leaders it benefits society in a myriad of ways. Similar to how disruptive companies can turn markets on their heads and provide a new direction for firms and consumers, so too can a government. What’s more, if a Government Institution does become a leader in a field, it doesn’t have an incentive to guard its secrets for success, its sheer existence is focused on the public interest. This means that expertise can be shared and passed throughout society, across government lines as well as between the public and private sectors.


Making environmentalism appealing to all in society creates buy-in from citizens and mobilizes businesses, consumers, and politicians to make sustainable choices. Scaling sustainability up allows efficiency gains to permeate across sectors and creates cohesive and comprehensive greenhouse gas reductions. Government bodies leading the charge in sustainability not only promotes best practices in sustainability but provides strong leadership on the direction we as a city, province, or nation will move. The environment is not owned by any single person, when it is diminished and polluted, we all lose. On the upside, when we become more efficient and sustainable, everyone wins, from the richest to the poorest and from the youngest to the oldest. Sustainability simply makes sense.


This Term's Writer: Sofia Osborne

This Term's Writer: Sofia Osborne

Government and Sustainability: The Calgary Water Centre

Government and Sustainability: The Calgary Water Centre