Mayor Gregor Robertson on his vision for Vancouver

To take a stroll along Vancouver’s waterfront and through its central business district is to experience positive public impact writ large. Sure, there are challenges – high property prices and many homeless people, for example – but the overriding experience is favourable. No freeway blight here – instead its citizens walk, cycle and jog everywhere. With Stanley Park, the Pacific Ocean and surrounding snow-capped mountains completing the vista, it’s no wonder that the city is regularly cited as one of the world’s best for liveability.

Overseeing the city, and preserving this urban and natural idyll for generations to come, is the responsibility of Mayor Gregor Robertson – recently re-elected for the third time. He is quick to acknowledge that his predecessors set the bar high. “Vancouver has a legacy of good leadership – from stopping freeway development through the city centre to protecting the watersheds in the surrounding mountains and protecting our nearby agricultural land.”

He goes on to say that this inheritance offers a firm bedrock on which to build, while offering no excuse for complacency. “There is no doubt this helps drive the pace for our next steps,” he explains. “But there is always room for improvement. For example, we still over-consume our resources by three or four times. Our eco-footprint is still far larger than it should be. So we need to work harder to achieve zero waste and make progress on things like water and energy consumption.”

Local and national: going green

As befits someone who has aimed to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world by 2020, Mayor Robertson was one of many city mayors attending the COP21 climate talks in Paris. Although he was delighted by the outcome, he agrees with the suggestion that the hard part – implementation – is still to come.

“People come to Vancouver from all over the world and choose to live and invest here because it is a beautiful green city,” he says. “There is a strong local commitment to safeguard that for future generations – which is something of a tradition here. So, my goal to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world by 2020 is building off of historic efforts. But to take it to the next level we need to ensure that all our decisions go through this frame of looking after our precious environment. In doing so, we want to help teach other cities around the world what we have learned from our experiences and make sure this is a race to the top for cities globally, as they grow and the imperatives to deal with climate change intensify.”

The Greenest City Action Plan incorporates many different aspects of the city’s operations and footprint, all of which are tracked online via specific goals and targets aligned to three primary areas of focus: zero carbon, zero waste and healthy ecosystems. Robertson says that the initiative that had the biggest impact was the push to make the majority of the city’s transportation undertaken by transit, bike or walking by 2020 – a goal they achieved in 2015, five years ahead of schedule.

This success, he believes, is ultimately down to the local population choosing active transportation over driving a car. “The city’s role in this is to make walking and biking safer, as well as more convenient,” he says. “We have taken two major steps to this end. First, we have built safer biking infrastructure like separated lanes and an improved bike network in the city, and this has led to record numbers of cyclists in recent years as this network has been built up. And second is about good planning for walkable neighbourhoods that are convenient for transit and walking to work. So we focus on making sure our developments align with our transportation goals – this interconnection is really important.”

Such successes doubtless formed part of the conversations during Robertson’s meetings with his counterparts and others at the COP21 talks, and he believes that cities are leading the way on shifting to a low-carbon future. “In Vancouver we aim to be using 100% renewable energy by 2050,” he points out, “and there is now a network of cities called the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance working towards this target. This coalition will really drive the pace of implementing the Paris agreement. We also have strong partners in the private sector with many leading corporations involved and, again, this will help the move away from fossil fuels to take effect as fast as possible – which is what needs to happen globally.”

However, he goes on to say that cities cannot succeed on this agenda without the active support of national governments. “We have to get off fossil fuels in order to safeguard our climate and environment, and cities have some of the tools – with land use and transportation and changing lifestyles – to achieve this,” he says. “But we do rely on national governments to do their part. I’m emboldened by the agreement in Paris, but we still have a lot of work to do on the ground to really move forward.”

Partners in power

This reliance on national governments is not limited to matters environmental. Although he believes that city mayors enjoy several advantages in terms of ability to get things done, theirs is a remit restricted by the fact that national governments enjoy a far greater ability to tax and spend as they choose.

“Local versus national is a challenging subject,” he concedes. “We are limited in our powers locally, as 90% of our tax base is collected by national and provincial governments. So we have to make do with the remaining 10% to run the city’s operations – ranging from policing to community centres to transportation. We are able to make change and impact people’s lives much more directly by being hands-on and entrepreneurial, but we can achieve more by working hand-in-hand with national colleagues. The cities that are having the most success are aligned with their national and provincial governments – and, with the election of Prime Minister Trudeau, we’re looking forward to a new era of that in Canada.”

Trudeau’s electoral successes, and the mayor’s own successive re-elections, are a testament to their personal strengths – and policy agendas – but Robertson says turning a good idea into real impact is down to many different factors, not least of which is strong stakeholder support. “Ideas are only great if people take action and make them real,” he says.

“A leader needs broad support for major change to occur – we can lead the charge in government but engagement is crucial. Some 35,000 residents were involved in shaping the Greenest City 2020 plan, and this has led to many different neighbourhoods and community groups having a direct stake in what we are doing. Ultimately, it’s all about people power.”

 

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