Robertson: Vancouver is uniquely connected
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson associates his city with three words: vibrant, prosperous and green. Now in his third term and eighth year as mayor, Robertson is hoping to add three more words — affordable, innovative and international — to the list.
Robertson recently sat down with China Daily to discuss plans for the greening and globalization of Vancouver.
In July of last year, Robertson was the only Canadian representative invited to the gathering of mayors in Vatican City for the Pope’s climate conference, which he said was a “rare honour.”
In November, he attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris where, along with 1,000 mayors from around the world, he signed an agreement in support of using 100 percent renewable energy in their cities.
Vancouver had already pledged to achieve this goal by 2050.
“Vancouver is one of the world’s greenest cities and we aim to be the greenest,” Robertson said. “There’s a lot of good progress made in the Paris agreement, and we’re seeing leadership particularly from cities that have been pushing the pace to reduce our climate impact and grow the green economy globally. You see it in China.”
Green energy is not only a humanitarian mission but a good economic strategy. “Economic growth is supported by strong environmental policy, and we’re seeing that in Vancouver. We have the strongest economy of any city in Canada, the strongest in North America, and we’re also the greenest in North America,” he said.
“We see great economic opportunity from going green, from renewable energy, clean technology, and improving our quality of life and taking care of the health of people. If we put that first, the economy will grow. The costs of not doing that are enormous, and I think people are realizing that around the world.”
Sometimes called “Hollywood North,” Vancouver has also become a production site for Hollywood films, animation and major TV series. It also hosts top IT firms such as Microsoft, SAP and a homegrown enterprise, Hootsuite.
Vancouver could face lateral competition from other Canadian and US cities that offer similar incentives to businesses.
Robertson believes Vancouver can distinguish itself by making use of its historical status as a Pacific gateway and the longstanding international ties that has fostered.
“Vancouver is very much a Pacific city, and most of our economy and culture is reflective of the Pacific and Asia,” he said. “We facilitate a lot of trade across Canada and the US as the gateway to the Pacific.”
“We’re unique in that we’ve become a very harmonious mix of connections between Asia and Europe,” he added. “These connections and this diversity are a real strength of our city.”
Another advantage that Canada has in the globalizing economy is its progressive policies for retaining international post-secondary graduates from Canadian universities and assisting with their immigration, which attracts a cosmopolitan and talented workforce.
BC is home to more than 100,000 international students of all education levels, according to government figures. Around 36,000 are enrolled in post-secondary programs.
“We are working with the federal government to deal with immigration challenges, because we want to be sure that these companies can recruit people and students who are graduating from our programs here,” Robertson said.
“It’s a challenge because there are a lot of job opportunities — particularly in the green economy, creative industry and technology — in Vancouver, a lot of companies are trying to grow even faster, but they are limited by their need for more talented people.”
According to the 2011 census, there were around 420,000 people of Chinese heritage living in the Greater Vancouver area, an increase of 5 percent over 2006. The number is expected to double by 2030.
“I think the vast majority of people in Vancouver welcome newcomers — almost all of us are immigrants, Aboriginal people here make up 1 to 2 percent of our population,” he said. “Immigrants have brought new ideas, resources and perspectives to our city to make it more diverse.”
He acknowledged that affordability is a real challenge for the city and a persistent one, given the combination of its limited geography and its livability and attractiveness to people from around the world.
“There’s been lots of investment historically in real estate in Vancouver from Asia and China in particular. We’re seeing more investment now into the start-up ecosystem,” he said. “We want to see that new support into our start-ups and entrepreneurs to enable them to create more jobs and to be able to increase the trade back and forth between China and Canada.”
With China’s shift away from being the world’s factory to one of the biggest consumer markets, Robertson also sees opportunities for Vancouver on the other side of the Pacific.
Born in North Vancouver, Robertson ran an organic farm near Fort Langley and created Happy Planet Foods. He served as MLA for Vancouver-Fairview before resigning the position to run for mayor in 2008.
He has a personal connection to China by being related to Dr Norman Bethune, his grandmother’s cousin, a Canadian field doctor beloved in China for his work during the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45).
Robertson has a picture of Bethune in his field hospital, a gift from the mayor of Guangzhou, he keeps near his desk.
“My family’s connections to China are very deep and strong, so that’s something I’ve felt since I was a young boy and very important with my whole family,” he said. “Growing up in Vancouver, you hear Chinese spoken all the time, eat Chinese food all the time, and it’s just part of life.”
“We are a melting pot of different cultures here and we celebrate each other’s culture; when we have the big Chinese New Year Parade, it’s people from different cultures coming to celebrate and that’s who we are,” he said.
Last year, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Guangzhou and Vancouver’s sister-city relationship, Robertson led a business delegation to Guangzhou to attend festivities and look for potential Chinese partners.
“There are many connections for generations now between Vancouver and Guangzhou, and there’s been a lot of focus to celebrate our connections both with culture and business,” he said. “We had a lot of success on both fronts.”
One question made him laugh. Given his workdays of “16 hours on average” left him no time for leisure reading except “late at night,” did he want to continue being mayor until retirement age?
“That would be a very long time,” he said. “But I love my job.”
Mayor Gregor Robertson of Vancouver in his office with a picture of his grandmother’s cousin, Dr Norman Bethune, at work in his field hospital in China. The photo was a personal gift from the mayor of Guangzhou, in East China’s Guangdong province. Gregor Robertson, mayor of Vancouver