Complete Gregor Robertson Interview

Photo courtesy of Mischa Bartkow.

[Editor's Note: As many of you know, we just launched Spacing's second National Edition with Gregor Robertson's interview being the main feature of the magazine. However, as is often the case with print, space limitations required that we edit the full interview down to a comfortable size. Naturally, certain Vancouver-specific content was chosen for omission with the idea being that we would run the entire 30 minute interview exclusively through Spacing Vancouver. So...here it is!]

Mayor Gregor Robertson and the centre-left Vision Vancouver’s November 2011 election victory further cemented the upstart Elector Organization as a powerful political force in the city. The Coalition of Progressive Electors, from which the Vision party sprung, was shut out Vancouver’s ten council seats in the most recent vote, while the venerable Non-Partisan Association (NPA) won just two seats—an improvement from the one seat it garnered in 2008, but a far cry from elections past.

Spacing Vancouver Editor Erick Villagomez managed to catch up with Robertson at his office to discuss how Vision pulled off this reelection win, what it means for Vancouver, and how he and his party intend to fulfill the promises made during the campaign.

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Spacing: We are fortunate to be in the office of recently re-elected Mayor Gregor Robertson today. Thank you, Gregor, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with us.

First and foremost, I’d like to congratulate you – and the rest of the Vision candidates – on your successful campaign. It must means a lot to you and your team; particularly given impressive political track record of NPA since being founded in the late 30’s. Do you think this is indicative of a greater changing mentality among the Vancouver citizens away from the centre-right stance associated with the NPA?

Robertson: It is definitely a shift to more progressive and pragmatic politics in Vancouver that deliver solid results on the ground on the priorities people care about. We focused our agenda on homelessness, affordable housing, and Greenest City goals and those clearly resonate—more so than standard campaign slogans and rhetoric. I think we are on a new track of people expecting more from government and a new team—a new party—in Vision that seizes that opportunity and delivers.

I’m thrilled to have an opportunity to continue the work. We set out goals that were far longer than one term of office, which I think is a benefit to the city to rally around and ensure we have consistency and competency in the team that’s on Council. It’s great to have an opportunity to carry on this work and feel that there is broad support throughout the city.

Spacing: Vision’s platform seems to resonate with voters under age 35. What’s the significance of engaging that demographic?

Robertson: Typically the younger generation is left out of political priorities. They are at best a strategic platform target. We focused on goals that will make sense for the long term and benefit the younger generation, to ensure that the city is focused on opportunities for our future—not just taking care of business day-to-day, which skews toward the older generation. We are setting stretch goals and we’re doing creative engagement using new tools and focusing on issues that matter to every generation and future generations. People are getting that and supporting it.

The key thing is getting the younger generation to vote in greater numbers. Even this election there was still a heavier vote among older voters. That’s a trend that needs to be addressed with more engagement and electoral reform, and there is more work to do on that. It’s good to see voter turnout go up (finally), but it’s still way lower than it should be—particularly with younger generations. The numbers aren’t anywhere near as high as they should be.

Spacing: Now, you and your council have a clear mandate with regards to the green values and ethics expressed in the “Greenest City” initiative.  Given the outcome of the election, locals are equally supportive. Some have suggested your first term was focused on activities that were “in the margins,” so to speak, of these admirable goals. It strikes many that follow and write about Vancouver urbanism excellence  that you now have an opportunity to make some larger, more significant moves; such as the citywide plan laid out in A Convenience Truth: a Sustainable Vancouver by 2050 – a publication produced by the City and UBC’s schools of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and Community and Regional Planning. Will you now pursue some of these larger ideas consistent with the Greenest City initiative as a strategy to strengthen and enhance neighbourhoods outside of the downtown core?

Robertson: Definitely. We see the need for a new city plan that integrates transportation planning and addresses the many challenges facing us that weren’t accounted for decades ago, at the major points where the city was planned and built. Climate change is now a daunting reality, as is the cost of energy. Even water supply now factors in a coastal temperate rainforest. We have to make significant changes and plan those throughout the city and region to ensure we are rebuilding a city that is sustainable for the long term.

I think Vancouver has done better than most cities around the world in planning, development, transportation, and our ecological footprint. These we can now measure and contrast with other cities and strive to do better. We need to ensure we have input from across the city—the best thinking from our academic institution and business experts.

This input needs to be pulled together into a cohesive plan going forward with the new realities integrated. It’s a huge task, but A Convenience Truth is a breakthrough piece of work that sets that stage for it. We have to reimagine our public spaces, we have to focus development around transit and ensure we are taking it to the next level in terms of a city whose infrastructure is transformed to support long-term viability and resilience in a dense urban setting.

Spacing: As you know, housing issues are a hot topic locally, in terms of planning, development, and affordability. One of the main aspects of the Vision platform was the creation of 38,000 new affordable housing units. How do you plan to balance this radical change with maintaining Vancouver’s unique architectural heritage and neighbourhood character?

Robertson: It’s a big challenge. The city has retained great character and uniqueness despite the growth pressure for decades—although we’d agree that there is room for improvement and we’d love to see better and better architectural design and planning. We need to build the housing. It’s a matter of focusing it where there is transit and arterials, and seamless integration within neighbourhoods; like with lane-way housing, where we can add a layer of density citywide that doesn’t disrupt character.

We need to add density and affordable housing wherever it is possible and use more creative approaches while finding a balance between affordability, green buildings, architecture, and aesthetic. We have to ensure that we do our best with that. They aren’t always easy to nail collectively. But it’s work that Vancouver, and other cities, are striving for now—to find the magic formula of affordable, green, and beautiful. We are blessed with a great setting and that challenges us to raise the bar.

We do have hardcore realities around building affordable housing and ensuring our workforce can live in the city and that youth and seniors have opportunities for housing here. That means cranking up the volume for many years to come.

Spacing: But in the meantime, despite recent economic woes, local housing prices are still amazingly high across the city—and they continue to increase. You even spoke to the issue of affordability at your inauguration. This is having some serious implications – both good and bad. To be fair, on the positive side, this has fostered interesting urban transient population that comes here for short periods of time and contributes creatively to the city: a phenomenon that has historically helped create many great cities of the past. On the other hand, the issue of unaffordable housing serves to displace important stable populations that are the foundation of the city—such as families with children who are slowly retreating from Vancouver in response to housing costs.

What are the consequences of local housing prices, and what advice would you give to residents who are seeing their wages being depressed but house prices still increasing?

Robertson: It’s a tough situation seeing the cost of housing vastly outstrip the growth of incomes over several decades now. It’s a big concern at City Hall as we grapple for solutions beyond the market. The market is clearly driving that gap and changing the fabric of the city in the process.

We’re looking at opportunities to leverage City land. [The City of] Vancouver has a huge portfolio of land and buildings that we need to get highest and best use out of, and ensure that affordable housing is more readily available. That means collaborating with public and private partners, looking at new, innovative models to build affordable housing, and applying different leasing and ownership models.

I’m striking an affordable housing task force to look at the array of opportunities, using City assets and rezoning tools. What are other cities doing? What can we do with our existing public housing stock to maximize the opportunity? How do we ensure we protect the affordable housing we have? These questions need to be addressed urgently. I see the next three years as our chance to lay that groundwork and initiate a great number of projects that get affordable housing built in different ways and different forms, and answer this predicament that the market is not solving right now.

Spacing: Housing and development can’t be separated from the economics behind cities, and much is said about what drives Vancouver’s economic engine. Straightforwardly, what in your view defines this city’s economy?

Robertson: Diversity. There are many industries active in Vancouver, primarily driven by small business and entrepreneurs. We have the most entrepreneurs per capita of any city in North America. Canada outstrips almost every other country in entrepreneurs per capita. We’re the leading edge for entrepreneurs and small business stitching together a diverse and successful economy. This is heartening, and yet there are vulnerabilities and weaknesses in not having more big head offices; not having the gold rush of an oil and gas economy or a manufacturing economy like Calgary or Toronto have had.

I think, over the long term, we are on a more sustainable path. We are seeing incredible growth in the knowledge-based economy. The green and creative economy—being subsets of the knowledge economy—are growing leaps and bounds. They are the fastest growing industries in the world. Vancouver is a globally significant player in the green and creative industries now, with clean tech and digital media hubs that are the envy of many cities.

We are blessed to be emerging now as a powerhouse in these fast growing sectors that also contribute huge benefits to the growth and development of the city. We can apply our clean tech and green economy prowess to transforming our city to be the greenest (and most efficient) city in the world. We can export, or open source, this to help other cities achieve these gains.

We’ve got many things working well in our city. It may not be typical of other cities. We rely on entrepreneurial ingenuity. It’s working well and the world is noticing.

Spacing: One of our regions most amazing and significant initiatives was the creation of The Greater Vancouver Regional District – currently Metro Vancouver. As you know, it was founded in the late 1960’s bringing together what is now 21 incorporated municipalities to administer resources and services which are common to all – such as water, sewage, housing, transportation, and parks. Since its inception, it has created some really progressive documents – notably the Greater Vancouver Livable Region Strategic Plan (LRSP).

With this in mind, Metro Vancouver effectively functions as an integrated “economic region,” however economic development efforts remain fractured among our 21 local municipalities. Now, there is a strong argument that this lack of regional coordination ultimately results in missed opportunities and more inter-municipal conflict. Despite several past attempts to create a comprehensive economic governance structure, can you explain in more depth why there continues to be no regional economic plan or strategy?

Robertson: The GVRD functions primarily around land use and utilities. The weakness has been on transportation and economic development being tied into the region wide goals and actions. That said we’ve made great progress on economic development recently.

For the Olympics, we have a Metro Vancouver Commerce Program that attracted over $300 million in economic activity and created over 2,500 jobs. 10 of the cities in the region collaborated on a program that attracted investors and companies to Vancouver for the Olympics, and connections into the business community here. That was breakthrough collaboration; there’s a lot more dialogue and cooperation between cities in the region built off that partnership that will reap big benefits going forward.

We don’t have an actual economic development agency that supports the whole region, but the teams in each city and working well together and seeing the wisdom in sharing the opportunity. Companies from elsewhere that locates in Surrey will be good for Vancouver too. Wherever the fit in the region is fine; it contributes to the whole.

We are all out there travelling, attracting economic activity to the region. It’s a sea change from years ago. That’s really promising for Vancouver. Collectively the mayors are now working in partnership and we’re seeing the results.

The economy of this region is doing much better than most big cities around North America right now. That’s—in part—due to this collaboration. It may never be formal, but we’ve created new ways of working together that are delivering results. That’s ultimately what counts.

Spacing: You and rest of the Mayors’ Council recently voted to raise regional gasoline and property taxes to help pay for a $700-million capital plan that includes construction of the long-awaited Evergreen rapid transit line that will service Coquitlam and Port Moody. But there was a clear division on the idea. Can you elaborate on this decision and, ultimately, its impacts?

Robertson: It was the right decision to make, for the good of the region. Tough, because it came just weeks before our elections; but it also confirmed the priorities for many of the mayors in the region. We think transit is crucial to Vancouver. We don’t have a perfect model to fund that. This was an incremental step to improve the situation and set a course to a new funding model and governance approach that accelerates development of transit throughout the region and ensures that we can serve the growth that is coming at us.

We have a process underway now with the B.C. government to develop a new menu of financing tools. [We’re] looking at the carbon tax, at road pricing; new alternatives to the old formula of property tax and fuel tax that really limit us, and don’t directly connect to transportation priorities and incentives.

We’ve got lots more work to do on this. This was a step to ensure that we get the Evergreen Line built to the northeast and make improvements to address the massive demand growth. We’re going to see unbelievable growth over the past couple of years. It’s awesome to see, but it needs to be served. That means we’ve got to push the pace now—find the funding and ensure the priorities match the needs going forward.

Spacing: One of the boldest and seemingly most heated decisions during your first term focused on the creation of separated bike lanes. Data released seems to show these new lanes have been a great success, and there is a lot of anticipation from local bike advocates about what your second term has in store. Are there more separated bike lanes to come, or changes expected to existing lanes?

Robertson: We need to continue improving the safety and convenience of the entire bike network in Vancouver. [The] separated bike lanes need more tweaks and improvements. We’re working with the business community and cyclists to fine tune [the existing lanes]. Then the decision will come on making those permanent (or not). That’s the next step on the separated bike lanes.

We don’t have current plans to do [more] separated bike lanes downtown. We’ve got the network through downtown completed. More focus needs to go on other parts of the city and improving the existing network; looking at best options to improve the safety, separate where appropriate.

We have a huge bike network that is less intensive farther away from the core. We want to be sure that people feel safe wherever they are riding to and from. A key part of this is supporting kids walking and biking to and from school. Making sure that school hubs have safe routes and better bike infrastructure so parents don’t have to drive and we can reduce that danger. There are a lot of challenges with cars and kids being dropped off and safety issues. It’s an ongoing challenge that we want to take throughout the city.

Those are next steps. Improving the whole network; focusing in and around schools; and, improving the “hot spots” in the network where safety is an issue, or connections and convenience can be improved.

The transportation plan will focus on a more cohesive citywide bike network that puts safety first and gives people every reason to seize that opportunity.

Spacing: It seems clear that Vancouverites need a place for the public to gather in larger numbers. This is especially true in light of the post–Stanley Cup riots, Occupy Vancouver, and other initiatives like Vancouver Public Space Network’s Where’s the Square design competition. The Vision platform for creating more livable neighbourhoods included one lonely, but important, sentence on the creation of “a new public square downtown.” Can you elaborate on this?

Robertson: We’re working on a public square opportunity at Robson Square. We had a section of Robson Street closed for a long period after the Olympics, with construction and rebuilding. We are looking at that space for permanent closure for a public square. City staff are working on how we might do that: how we might adjust the bikes routes and ensure that it works well for everybody downtown. That’s one area we are working on. We expect in the next few months to have the next step on that. We’ll hear back on what we might do next.

The other spot that is being considered is the old Larwill Park site. We have given an option to the Vancouver Art Gallery to use two acres there. We’re hopeful that we see a significant public square–type space that’s part of that whole new vision for Larwill Park—the old bus depot. That’s the other big potential public space that we have an opportunity with in the near term.

Vancouver has always been more of a city of edges focused on the seawall and our coastline. Downtown is pretty tight for space; we don’t have many options. We have a small park in the works at Smithe and Richards, and Emory Barnes Park being finished now, which is fantastic. Land is hard to come by in the downtown peninsula but we’re looking at every opportunity.

There’s the new park coming at the head of False Creek, next to Science World, wrapping around the north side. We’re working on re-imagining that shoreline and park space, and building that park as soon as possible. It’s become a real priority. That connects to the viaducts and eastern core question—what new public spaces can be created as we find the highest and best use of that part of the city.

Spacing: Bringing things back to your reelection, it is said that learning from ones own failures is key to developing wisdom. Can you discuss what you believe your failures were during your first term, and how they will affect your leadership second time around?

Robertson: We relied upon historical approaches to consultation and engagement at the City for the last term and tried some new approaches, like Talk Green to Us, the new budget consultation process, open data, and new strategies to get best ideas and input. But with planning and development, the old processes are clearly not serving us.

So we definitely learned that we need to transform how neighbourhoods and citizens are involved in shaping our future, particularly with neighbourhood planning. We’ve got four neighbourhoods now doing local area plans. In the past it was one every three years. We’re now doing four times that level of neighbourhood planning.

Looking at the citywide planning piece integrating with the transportation plan, we went from grappling with very difficult decisions and a contentious process to a commitment to really scale up engagement and consultation and—at the same time—ensure we are taking action immediately, as well.

Our Greenest City program had an expert panel that recommended “quick starts” as well as a multi-year engagement process that had tens of thousands of people involved. Those quick starts are really important to start demonstrating what’s possible and what pilots may be best for scaling into bigger opportunities.

We made some mistakes expecting that the old way of doing things would still work, given the huge challenges we face with affordable housing and sustainability. We have to use new tools. We have to reach out throughout the city in robust ways and we have to take immediate action and start proving new models.

Those new approaches all stem from challenging spots through the first term trying to make chance. I’m much more optimistic that there’s new ways that will enable us as a city to really thrive and take advantage of new ideas and build support around them.

Spacing: We’ve covered a lot of topics here today, and I’d like to thank you again for spending the time to chat with me about them. Do you have any parting words you would like to share with Vancouverites and the Spacing readers across the country?

Robertson: I love Spacing. It’s been a great forum for ideas in this new age of urbanism and city building. It’s good to see real attention being paid to it, and good insights and energy resulting from that dialogue. It’s long overdue.

Spacing: Thanks again….and all the best for your second term.

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One last sincere thanks to Gregor Robertson for taking the time out of his busy schedule to meet with the Spacing Vancouver team and field a flurry of questions.  Also, a special thanks goes out to Yuri Artibise who did an amazing job of transcribing the interview and Andrew Walsh who recorded it for the Spacing Radio podcast.

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Erick Villagomez is one of the founding editors at Spacing Vancouver. He is also an educator, independent researcher and designer with personal and professional interests in the urban landscapes. His private practice – Metis Design|Build – is an innovative practice dedicated to a collaborative and ecologically responsible approach to the design and construction of places.

Yuri Artibise is a public policy analyst and social media specialist. Through his Yurbanism brand, he explores the ‘Y’ of urbanism by sharing ways to make our cities more livable, community-oriented places one block at a time. He currently works with PlaceSpeak, an online location-based community consultation platform.