City Breakthroughs and Lessons Learned – The Vancouver Experience

Vancouver’s leaders pioneered the development of a smart and connected city. With a compelling vision and a practical program, this port city successfully engaged neighborhood-based community groups, universities, private enterprises and public agencies. Within fiscal constraints, the city government has delivered significant change, greater livability, and enhanced urban sustainability. What are the key lessons that others can take away from Vancouver’s experience?


Introduction by Gordon Feller

I have the pleasant role and responsibility today to introduce to you the mayor of Vancouver. He’s done something remarkable with the city of Vancouver. I think those of you who have traveled to BC and had a chance to see this for yourselves can attest to this. He’s managed to integrate a city that was like a lot of others in North America the classic silo’d city. The transit folks didn’t talk well to the energy folks, didn’t talk well to the building folks, and none of them were talking to the service providers who provided the wired and wireless network infrastructure that makes everything go round and round. The mayor set some goals that he’ll tell you about hammered away at those and got alignment which was extremely difficult. It was contentious. It wasn’t easy but it required the kind of leadership that we talked about. We thought at the end of a long day, we’ve been talking about leadership. We’ve been talking about leadership to inform the public sector and leadership from enterprises to partner with the public sector, leadership from technologists, and leadership from policy makers. We thought what better way to help us begin the process of closing our first day than to hear from a leader here in North America who’s really done something remarkable with his city. Frankly, it’s a work in progress. There’s a lot more that the mayor has in mind and he’s here to tell you about them himself. Thank you, Mayor Gregor Robertson.

Gregor Robertson

Thanks so much. Good afternoon, everyone. It’s great to be joining you. I’m going to spend some time talking about the city of Vancouver and our date with destiny. I want to hopefully have some time for some questions and some dialogue.

I’ll just open up with a big piece of work that we’ve been doing for the last couple of years. Many years ago, people thought the city is a city of destiny. I don’t know if they quite knew what that would turn into. It was a small city on the west coast of Canada, very well-positioned, strategically positioned but it remained a small city attracting people from all over the world, from Europe and Asia over the years quite equally to become a very balanced, multi-cultural society, far beyond what anyone would have imagined some generations ago. There is some real generational commitment. This is where we live. We’re up in the top left corner there on the west coast of Canada, the warmest spot in Canada. A local brewery whose great drinks I enjoy used to say in Vancouver “Think global, act local. Think global, drink local.” Cities are all about action. We are the most entrepreneurial level of government. It is really about the action but we cannot lose the context of the world that we live in. We have to apply that every day on the ground in our cities.

This is the region of Metro Vancouver. We are now probably pushing towards 2.5 million. This slide’s a little out-of-date. It’s a big area that we live in. There’s a lot of agricultural land as well. We are significantly constrained by the land base because the mountains are to our north; the ocean basically surrounds us to the west; and to the south is the US border. We don’t have much room to grow in terms of geography and land base. Lots of people are moving to our city. The growth is relentless for many, many years now. The core city −the city of Vancouver− has about 600,000 people now. An important piece here is related to the core city: about 50% of people do not speak English as their first language. The multiculturalism is starting to rival London and Toronto and the great cities of the world that are a real melting pot of languages and cultures. We are about 50% Asian, 50% European roughly, with some other small populations mixed in as well. I think it might surprise a lot of people about these facts and the one that does jump out is related to low income. 29% of people are low income. Over half of the city rents, which is something you expect in a city like Manhattan and a city like New York. Many North American cities don’t have numbers anywhere near like that because property ownership is a much bigger piece. Again, it speaks to the limited land base and the way that the city has developed. It’s a very dense downtown.

The city has made incredible progress over the years. In recent years, we end up on these Top 5 lists of some very rigorous metrics that go into some of these; some not. For example, Gastown was 4th Most Stylish Neighborhood in the World yesterday. I don’t know what the metrics for that are. I don’t think I was contributing to that. World’s Most Livable City repeatedly for many years over this past decade, 2nd Greenest City in North America behind San Francisco −congratulations, San Francisco. We’ll see you next time when our numbers will be updated. We have done really well on this kind of score sheets. That is testament to generations that have focused on taking care of this place and the people who live in it.

If you look at the history of Vancouver, some pivotal decisions were made going back many, many years. First of all, location, location, location: on the west coast of Canada, the warmest spot in Canada, the end of the railroad on the west coast, and a deepwater port, the largest port in Canada, the largest port on the west coast of North America. Location has been vital to the growth and development and the attraction of Vancouver. Big decisions were made many years ago. A couple of generations ago, the mountains to the north of the city were protected for drinking water watersheds, giant watershed of wilderness and old growth forests that give us the most beautiful water in the world. The agricultural land that surrounds the city off to the right on this picture in the Fraser Valley, the great Fraser River where the salmon runs sometimes exceed 50 million salmon, less so in these times. We have agricultural land, some of the richest land in Canada. It was protected in the 1970s. As agricultural land, it’s designated as such. Not only did we get hemmed in by that geography but there have been generations of leadership who said, “We’re going to protect the watershed. We’re going to protect the agricultural land and make sure we take care of those in perpetuity.” So very, very smart decisions were made in our history that provided us with incredible attributes in these times.

If you go beyond in terms of those decisions, there were decisions made in the ‘70s to stop freeways from coming into Vancouver. I think this was maybe one of the clearest calls in North America. Freeways ran rampant across almost every single city. It actually wasn’t just a bunch of greenies, although Greenpeace started in Vancouver as well, but it was a kitchen table revolution of different ethnicities in East Vancouver that got together and said, “We don’t want a freeway coming through Chinatown and Little Italy.” They rallied together. They elected a new mayor, said “No freeways” in the ‘70s, and blocked a big freeway from coming through the downtown core. This is the green ethos that has been there in Vancouver for many generations but started to really come full force in these last couple of decades.

I was elected 4 years ago in my campaign saying I want to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world by 2020, that we would have a clear goal to do that, that we would lay out targets, set metrics to do that, and go about owning green and stepping into our power and our capacity to transform city in a way that we could share open source with other cities around the world. So I got elected. I think the people of Vancouver embraced this goal in incredible ways. Vancouver has gotten an enormous amount of expertise on the sustainability realm, particularly focused on energy. We’ve had a legacy of hydroelectric power across our province. It means about 95% of our electricity is green and renewable. We have a great green building community that has done great work pioneering a lot of the Leed standards and density. That density was focused in downtown which gives us another advantage. All of this leads to a great body of expertise.

I put together an action team as an early step in my mayorship starting 4 years ago, getting this leadership on board to put together an action for the city to work from and to engage the whole city and how we go about doing to it, setting 10 goals/targets that would work up till 2020. The first 3 are related to jobs and economy: creating green jobs particularly in the realms where we have real strength: green buildings, waste management, and looking at renewable energy. All of those create great job opportunities for our city. We’re looking at reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. A lot of that, again, is through energy, buildings, and transportation. Those are the job-creating targets that we’ve set. For our communities, more broadly clean transportation is at the forefront of that. It’s a big source of pollution. We obviously have issues with waste. Great to see San Francisco hitting the 80% waste diversion goal, just last week, I think it was announced. We’ve got work to do on that front. Making sure everyone has access to neighborhood, walking distance to nature in their neighborhood. Reducing our footprint: even though we have been a very green city, we’re about the 4 planets of consumption per person. That is way beyond what is sustainable. It’s a real challenge to grapple with consumption; it’s not always something the city can move the needle on but something we needed to focus and rally citizens toward. Finally, on the determinants of health: making sure we have the cleanest water and air that we can possibly have, and that we support local food systems and food security as well as having good, clean food.

We, as a team, put out quick starts right away. That was an immediate step to have 48 recommendations to the community to say we’re going to take action right away. Action has been a key word with all of the innovation related to becoming the greenest city.

Partnership is obviously another piece, that goes without saying, not only within the city of Vancouver and the 10,000 staff that we have. We’re implementing a lot of these actions every day with the business community, with our neighborhoods and citizens, with the nonprofits involved. It’s really getting everybody at the table to figure out how we deliver on every element of these goals. We have had enormous support from academia and from students, an enormous upwelling of support and desire to be involved from students in the post-secondary system. We managed to get to get all 6 of the post-secondary institutions together at the table to say, “Can you all put students into city hall to help us solve these challenges, to work on innovation, technology, neighborhood engagement so we achieve these targets?” That’s been a program we all the Campus-City Collaborative (C3) which we haven’t seen models of in other cities. It’s getting students to earn credit working at city hall, focusing on innovation and achieving big goals for the city. It’s been another great boost for us.

We did a lot of public engagement, a lot of big, live events, from kitchen tables to 1,000 people at big events, hearing storytelling and next steps. We used Talk Green to Us website to solicit ideas and then have citizens vote on those ideas. We’ve had over 35,000 people involved in this engagement −live and online− using a variety of different tools and basically trying to get the most from people in terms of next action steps.

Action was really the key piece, as I said immediately moving to action steps. Bike lanes became a big political piece and hot potato for me in my first couple of years. Putting separated bike lane network through downtown across the iconic Burrard Bridge and making sure there is a safe way for people 8 to 80. They ride their bikes through our downtown, which is not a typical thing in North America. It’s becoming increasingly so. We’re seeing big cities around the world embrace bicycles. Citizens are basically driving the demand for this. That has continued as we’ll see shortly.

Composting is a big, popular issue as well. Who would have thunk? I used to make compost in my entrepreneurial days as a farmer and a food processor. Now, I seem to be in the compost business at a whole other scale. We have a huge appetite for people, particularly for people in apartment buildings and condos, I really, really don’t like to throw their food in the garbage. That’s a piece that’s very difficult for us to grapple with but we’re working hard on that and making sure that people have the option, whether that’s at farmer’s markets dropping it off or through the system now of private haulers and the city hauling. That’s what’s happening now.

Green building is a big piece. We have the greenest building code in North America that we brought in the last couple of years. We built the Athletes’ Olympic Village in Vancouver. It’s the greenest neighborhood at the time. I hope someone’s passed that − it’s been a couple of years. The speed of innovation in green buildings is blinding. We’ve really pushed on working with a partnership, being aggressive with the development community saying, “We have to have more energy-efficient buildings. We will come to the table with neighborhood district energy. We want to have renewable energy in neighborhoods throughout the city and make sure that the hot water is coming from renewable sources. In this case, it’s coming from sewage heat recapture, making some use of the warm stuff we don’t need anymore and heating the buildings, the Olympic Village being one of them. A significant chunk of the city is now shifting over to the neighborhood energy systems that are renewable powered.

The combination of the green buildings, the energy efficiency, and the neighborhood energy systems is what’s going to enable us by 2020 to have carbon neutral buildings. We’ll see if we get there. It’s an aggressive target for us to hit for every building from 2020 on to be carbon neutral but I think that combination is the way that we’re going to get there.

Clean transportation and the mode shift is a great story for our city. Since 1995, we had a massive mode shift happen out of cars into walking, biking, and transit. Over these past 3 years, the curve has been steepening more than it has over the last 15 years. We have a goal to have less than half of transportation done in private cars by 2020. I think we’re going to hit that goal but we’re not going to see the end of cars anytime soon, we know that. Electric vehicles and zero-emission vehicles are real focus for us. We’re putting a lot of charging infrastructure. Now hundreds of charging stations going throughout Vancouver and the surrounding area and making sure we have the infrastructure there to support electric vehicles, in particular. Hydrogen fuel cells have been another big cluster of activity in the innovation front locally. They’re also in the game, obviously.

If you look at where we stand right now in terms of carbon emissions, we are the lowest in North America. Thanks largely to having hydroelectric power for our electrical supply, but also with energy efficiency, with the way people have chosen to live and move themselves around. We are doing really well by North American standards. We’re still trying to catch the Stockholms of this world who are, frankly, decades ahead of us in terms of reducing their emissions. We are below our 1990 levels now. We are trying to hit our Kyoto target of 6% by the end of this year, 6% below 1990. That’s been a big challenge and what has made it even more of a challenge is population growth. We’ve had about 26%-27% population growth since 1990 and 18% job growth. We’ve had a thriving economy and population growth across the region at the same time we’re able to reduce our carbon emissions. That’s bucking that trend of saying, “Well, it’s intensity-based. We have to accept a certain amount of growth in emissions because of population and job growth.” That’s going the other way for us here in Vancouver.

We are having a great time with our economy. Again, it defies that myth that you can’t grow your economy and be green. In fact, green is good for business in Vancouver and we’re seeing extraordinary success in our clean tech industries. Technology jobs are booming in Vancouver. Innovation is where it’s at. We’re seeing that −whether it’s ICT, whether it’s clean tech, whether it’s in our creative industries− great growth over many years. Vancouver used to be all about rocks and trees, the forest industry, mining, oil and gas. If you combine all the jobs in those 3 sectors now, they’re significantly less than the jobs in technology in Vancouver. It’s about pushing 40% of the jobs in Vancouver in our technology.

It’s a good time it turns out when you look at what’s happening globally right now, the growth of the green economy and clean tech, in particular. There are massive, massive opportunities. No doubt the private sector is focused on capturing those opportunities. For us in Vancouver, our goal is to be a Mecca for green enterprise. Over this decade, we want to be well-positioned. We’re not alone in that. There are a lot of other cities that are focused on the opportunities of the green economy and are doing what they can. We have a natural advantage and we have an incredible array of entrepreneurs and leadership at all levels to focus on success in the green economy.

I just want to speak a minute about the few other pieces. Housing is an enormously important element in Vancouver. Affordability is a big issue and we need to innovate on that front as well. We want to have green buildings. We want more affordable housing. We’re at a challenging nexus of trying to address that low-income challenge in Vancouver, the limited space, and also not throw up cheap buildings that will fall apart in a few decades. This is a big struggle for us. Maybe our biggest challenge is to hit the mark with affordability to enable younger people, students, young families, seniors to stay and live in Vancouver and build their lives there and, at the same time, build a resilient, energy-efficient city with all that housing. We have a robust plan around affordable housing that integrates green, that looks at new ways to achieve density where it makes most sense. Transit-oriented is where we’re focused right now. We’re trying to do this very thoughtfully in a way that engages neighborhoods. That’s a challenge when you try to make change in a city and add a lot more housing. Even though a lot of people want more affordable housing, it has to be done carefully and thoughtfully.

One other piece we’ve done a lot of work on over the last couple of years is on open data, open standards, and open software. We have had a lot of uptake from entrepreneurs, taking all of the city’s data that we now make available and creating business from it, creating innovation on that front as well. This is work that the city, frankly, isn’t capable of doing. We don’t have that. I’m focused on creating a culture of entrepreneurship as a city, as a public body but we need our startups, we need our people on the ground to actually deliver. Take our datasets and turn them into job opportunities. We have seen lots of numbers, lots of growth in this over these last couple of years. We’re seeing a real revolution of this across the world in many cities as open data becomes a movement that can power a lot of positive change in cities.

One other piece of innovation that we’re working on right now that I’ll mention is what we’ve dubbed the V pole. The V pole is a street light, LED, energy-efficient street light, has communications technology and infrastructure built into it so that there’s Wi-Fi and cellular coverage throughout the city, and also has electric vehicle charging on the ground level, parking services possibly, community bulletin boards as well. It’s integrating all of these technologies and really driven by the necessity to have more bandwidth, to more capacity in our communications network using the city’s public infrastructure, leveraging the street light infrastructure to put new technologies together and capture value for the public, for all of us in the process. Hopefully, we get the best of all worlds. It’s a work in progress. We have a couple of pilot projects that are being built right now that have several elements: electric vehicle charging and cell coverage in a part of the city that didn’t have great cell coverage. We’re looking at the opportunities to keep scaling and building partnerships to produce infrastructure like this. We’ve had lots of interest from other cities that are curious about how we’re doing this and how they might do similar things. It’s just another example of how we’re using the city’s infrastructure and the real advantage potentially in bringing the different partners in technology and having a win-win from that.

Overall, it’s really a focus on innovation, a focus on engaging our citizens, making sure people are part of all of this growth and change and that they believe. There’s an aspirational goal that we can do a lot better when we’re working together and we’re focused on a clear goal, like being the greenest city or taking care of affordable housing or having better technology on our streets. When there’s good, strong partnerships and there is a commitment to that bigger goal, we’re going to get there. Vancouver will remain one of the world’s most livable cities and capable of sharing what we learn, what we develop with the rest of the world. That’s a responsibility. It’s a great place to live but we feel that responsibility to share what we can figure out and develop in our city with the rest of the world. With that, I’ll open it up. Hope to hear some questions and dialogue. Thanks very much.

Question & Answer Session

Gordon Feller: We’ve got 8 minutes for Mayor to answer your questions. Yes, Uwe. Tell us your name and organization.

Uwe Brandes: Hello, Mayor. Uwe Brandes from the Urban Land Institute. Your population is just so extraordinary. Coming from all parts of the world, it’s such an interesting cross-section of intellectual capital. Can you tell us how are you leveraging that with other cities around the world? You talked about cooperating with them and delivering products to other cities, but how do those networks work?

Gregor Robertson: A lot of that networking is driven by individuals, companies, nonprofits. I would say I try and take on a proactive role as the mayor of the city. I travel a fair bit. I try to show up where I think there’s an opportunity for Vancouver to partner in different parts of the world. We have been quite focused on Asia as the North American gateway to the Asia-Pacific. We’ve had a real focus obviously along many generations of connections with China and a lot of immigration continuing from China to this day. That’s a strong connection that we feel a need to be on top of. I was in London for the London Olympics. We had a whole business team that went over for that as well. We hosted the Olympics in 2010 and did a lot of information-sharing with London, and partly, it was to start business connections to London, UK and EU which haven’t been a big thing coming from the west coast of Canada. It is about doing that outreach. It’s trying to put this information forward in an open source way and make it available to other cities and other citizens who might be interested in taking on elements of this. We do a lot of studying and looking at best practices in other cities. Cities are great at stealing ideas from each other. At the same time, trying to figure out what may apply best in your city is part of the challenge with it. Every city is unique and applying those ideas can be tricky at times.

Gordon Feller: Another question for the Mayor, maybe the last. Yes, sir.

Questioner #2: I had the pleasure of working two years in the city of Vancouver on the Olympic Village. It was part of the early team that worked on the district energy project. You talked a lot about your partnerships and the need to be creative and entrepreneurial. Can you talk a little bit about the city’s energy strategy? Cities typically haven’t been in the business of leading energy policy. When I was in the city, we were learning as a group of senior officials and policy makers how we’re going to do the Olympic Village energy plan and how it’s going to translate to the rest of the city. Can you talk a little bit about your energy strategy going forward?

Gregor Robertson: We just actually approved the next steps in terms of neighborhood utilities around Vancouver. We have the one by the Olympic Village that’s been a good success. It’s had its trials and tribulations as you’d expect, but we’ve had several others that we’re hoping to see transform. The whole downtown peninsula right now has a steam pipe system through all of the towers that heat the towers and is powered by natural gas boiler right now. It’s the biggest emitter in the city. We’re looking at the transformation of that facility to have renewable energy as the primary source of that heat. We’re looking at opportunities in other dense parts of the city where there are hospitals, where City Hall is, in the southern part of the city where there’s a lot of development right now where we can integrate new neighborhood energy utility system with a lot of new construction or some big heavy users with large emissions. It’s a big challenge for the city because we have never really been in the energy business. You were in the early days of it. We have some sense of what our role should be. We don’t want to be in the energy business though, quite frankly. We want to have partners that can take this on. It’s finding the right partners, making sure the timing is right. One of the challenges that we have had over these last couple of years is related to low energy prices, natural gas in particular. Electricity is very cheap in BC. If we didn’t have those factors, I think we’d be a lot farther down the road a lot faster. We are learning more from European cities but they have the high energy prices that help drive that pace of energy innovation. We have an aggressive strategy though to roll it out over the next couple of years.

Gordon Feller: Thank you, Mr. Mayor. Thank you so much for your time today. I would say to those of you who want further opportunities to talk with you, you’re going to be joining us in the reception. He’s here with the Vancouver Economic Development Commission team. Lee and Brian are with him. I think probably they’d love to answer questions alongside you.

Gregor Robertson: Absolutely.

Gordon Feller: Thank you so much.

Gregor Robertson: Thank you. Thanks, Gordon.

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