In political circles, the news of Gregor Robertson’s decision not to run again as Vancouver mayor has led quickly to discussions about who will replace him.
Perhaps, though, before we get all wrapped up in the question of who, it might be useful to spend a minute or two on the question of what. As in, what should be the agenda - or vision, if you like - of Vancouver’s next mayor?
I’m not interested here in the location of the next bike lane or the height of the next condo tower. I’m thinking about bigger questions.
For example, as we move into the next decade, will Vancouver embrace and welcome the world or turn away and close its doors? For a long time, Vancouver worked hard to draw attention to itself on the world stage. Expo 86 and the 2010 Winter Olympics are the most obvious of these efforts. And at the same time, our population has been diversifying, as we have welcomed people from every corner of the globe. Of course it’s not been without some debate along the way, but if you look at my elementary school class pictures from half a century ago and compare them to what you’d see today, there’s been nothing short of a transformation.
As for me, this change has made Vancouver more dynamic, more interesting, more reflective of the world. Today's New York Times even has an article about Kissa Tanto, a Vancouver restaurant that serves, in their words, "Italian food made with Japanese sensibility and ingredients."
But now there is talk of prohibiting foreigners from owning residential real estate. You can hear the sound of doors closing.
The influx of foreign capital has obviously influenced home prices. The precise extent of that influence remains up for debate, but it’s clearly been a factor. But since 1986 the population of the City of Vancouver has grown almost fifty percent, and yet the city’s boundaries have not grown. Sooner or later, relentless population growth within a limited geographic area will drive up the value of land. Without significant increases in density, that kind of population growth is inevitably going to put pressure on housing affordability.
The policy debate about affordability often reduces to a debate between constraining demand and liberalizing supply, as though it were either or, when it’s really a need for a balance of both kinds of mechanisms. But it’s essential to be clear on the fundamental question: are we excited about the prospect of a Vancouver that continues to diversify, urbanize and grow, or have we decided to turn away from that path?
A second issue. For a decade Vancouver has been led by a mayor whose most heartfelt aspiration has been to make ours the “greenest city in the world.” Now Vancouver was built on the revenues, capital and jobs of resource development. Today BC’s resource economy is still an indispensable foundation of Vancouver’s prosperity. But our public discourse is often dominated by the voices of opposition to resource development. As mayor, Gregor Robertson was often one of those voices.
Even though the city would come to a complete crashing halt instantly if we no longer had fuel for our vehicles, natural gas and electricity to heat our homes and power our streetlights and smartphones, or concrete and lumber to pave our streets and build our condo towers and homes, it’s become fashionable to imagine that we can have all of the benefits of resource development while actively opposing the enterprises that make them possible.
Yes, we need to accelerate our transition from a carbon-dependent economy to a reduced carbon economy. And pollution is no longer an acceptable byproduct of industrial activity. But is it really an either or debate? Can we possibly imagine a Vancouver which is a world-leading centre - and cheerleader - for responsible, sustainable, innovative resource development? And what is the role of our city governments on these issues? Should city governments be spending tax dollars on costly interventions in provincial and federal regulatory project approval processes, or on the provision of municipal services: clean water, sewage treatment, paved streets, local parks and community centres?
And then there are the problems of social distress. Gregor Robertson began his first term as mayor a decade ago with a promise to end street homelessness. For all of his efforts - and they were significant - the homelessness count is higher today than it was when he took office. And we are staring into the face of an appalling epidemic of drug poisoning caused by the introduction of fentanyl into the street user drug supply chain.
These two issues bring into sharp focus a reality: our system of government, with responsibilities divided among federal, provincial and municipal authorities, was designed in the 19th century for a largely rural society. A century and a half later, we are a largely urban society, and our most serious social problems are most acutely visible on the streets of our cities, and yet city governments lack the tools and resources for comprehensive responses to those issues.
If we’ve learned anything from the last decade we ought to be wary of civic politicians who make promises they literally cannot keep. But city dwellers would not forgive a civic politician whose response to homelessness and the opioid crisis was to say, “not my problem.” Where to strike the balance here? All of the major social issues facing Vancouver have a provincial and federal dimension to them. Is the best option an adversarial posture with the other levels of government, or an insistence upon working collaboratively? The essence of successful government is the ability to advance through compromise. The question for the next mayor will be whether to work as a partner with other governments, or an adversary.
Some will argue that there are other issues that ought to take centre stage on Vancouver’s policy agenda for the next decade. I also acknowledge that questions of style and process are important because it’s increasingly difficult for politicians at any level of government to advance policy without careful and thoughtful engagement with stakeholders and the public. But I return to the place I started. When we ask the question, what do we want from our next mayor, we’re really asking, what do we want Vancouver to be?