Jimmy Pattison recently announced that he wanted to build a couple of 40+ storey office buildings in Vancouver’s downtown core. The announcement must have been music to the ears of city planners who for years have been concerned about the “condo-ization” of Vancouver’s core. The pace at which new condos are being developed downtown is far outstripping any kind of major commercial development. This isn’t a new phenomenon, in fact, it’s been happening for at least the last 20 years.
When you look at Toronto’s skyline, you quickly notice that their tallest tower (excluding the CN Tower) is filled with white collar jobs. In Calgary, the tallest edifice known as the Suncorp Energy tower at 53 storeys is also filled with white collar, high paying corporate jobs. What about Vancouver? Its skyline has two tallish towers which stand out above all others. Are they filled with corporate jobs? Are they home to Vancouver’s version of Microsoft or Boeing? Hardly. At 60+ stories high, the Shangri La is a hotel/condo complex filled with millionaires and modestly paid hotel workers.
Is there anyone else that sees a problem with this picture?
When it comes to attracting and growing a corporate presence, Vancouver is running so far behind Seattle, Calgary or Toronto, we're not even in the race. While Toronto has emerged as Canada’s financial hub, Calgary its energy hub and Seattle as a high tech hub, Vancouver is left rolling the dice that it will one day become a new green hub. But the problem with the concept of being a "green economic hub" is that no one knows what it is.
Promoting "green industry" also ignores all the successful businesses that call Vancouver home that don't fit this category. For example, one of the few manufacturing companies based in Vancouver is Purdy's, and not many of us want green chocolates.
Since his launch of the Greenest City project, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has appeared more concerned about the branding and public relations components of this initiative than the practical side of how it will all work. Few details have been provided to the public regarding exactly how Robertson plans to translate his green concept into greenbacks. Separated bike lanes, backyard chickens and vegetable gardens may be well intentioned, but they will hardly generate the 20,000 new "green" jobs Robertson has promised within the city's boundaries.
I do agree with Robertson that Vancouver has a great opportunity to generate new wealth and jobs (green or otherwise), but I think this effort must have more substance than costly branding campaigns and overseas junkets. As the Mayor often says, he’ll need to “kick it into gear” if he wants to get anything accomplished over the remainder of his term, let alone the next decade.
So what should Robertson be doing? Here are few basic elements that I think should be the cornerstone of his green jobs creation plan.
Firstly, let’s learn from Calgary’s experience regarding how they used energy as an economic driver. They clearly capitalized on their access to vast quantities of non-renewable fossil fuels to generate jobs. But how did they do it? We need look at best practices and replicate it wherever possible.
Vancouver should also publicly declare that when it comes to unsustainable fossil fuels of the 20th century, it will concede victory to Cowtown. We should also understand that non-renewable resources will continue to shape our economy for the foreseeable future. However, it's projected that non-renewable energy will lose ground to more renewable sources in this century.
As part of any green jobs strategy, Vancouver should declare it will aggressively move to become the world HQ for alternate energy suppliers, research and technology development. In that regard, Vancouver should set up a formal working partnership between UBC, SFU, BCIT and local colleges who would commit to becoming active partners in making Vancouver a world leader in the field of alternative energy. We should set as a goal to become the next Silicon Valley for alternate energy and work to attract the right talent to our region.
To make this happen the City must partner with federal, provincial and other local governments. This is one of Vision's great weakpoints – no one outside city limits really wants to work with them.
Once it has the academic sector aligned, Vancouver should then seek out ways to make the business climate as friendly as possible for cutting edge alternate energy producers. The Mayor should undertake a regular dialogue with key alternative energy producers in order to determine what incentives they need to expand and make Vancouver their new home turf (the answer is probably land, good transportation links, and low taxes). It might also be beneficial to expand the group to include several key provincial cabinet Ministers responsible for energy, environment and economic development.
Whether it’s run-of-river projects, tidal or wind energy, solar power, fuel cells or some alternative fuel we haven’t even dreamed up yet, Vancouver could become their corporate hub. We should also look closely at what ancillary jobs could be generated through this strategy.
For example, Pulse Energy, a company often touted by Mayor Robertson as a shining light, would stand to benefit tremendously by Vancouver becoming a corporate hub for alternate energy. Pulse Energy is a Vancouver-based green business which designs software to help companies reduce their energy bills by understanding their consumption patterns. There are clearly countless other small enviro-friendly companies like Pulse Energy which could one day become Vancouver’s next Boeing or Microsoft, but they won’t if we continue to think small.
Supporting bike lanes and vegetable gardens is considered enviro-friendly, but it is merely tinkering on the edges. If Vancouver’s Mayor truly wants to create tens of thousands of new green jobs, he will have to get serious and develop a comprehensive plan in consultation with the broader community – soon.
So do I think Robertson will take up the challenge of making Vancouver the alternative energy HQ, while also promoting reduced consumption? Maybe, but I believe there is one major hurdle which stands his way of making any real progress. Oddly enough the problem may be his own environmental supporters and financial backers.
You see, the environmentalists who claim they are opposed to the consumption of fossil fuels are the same ones who oppose the development of alternative fuel sources. Take for example the ongoing opposition by environmentalists to run-of-river projects in British Columbia. If approved, these alternate energy generators could create millions of megawatts of green energy, create thousands of construction jobs and will eventually fuel our ever-expanding need for electricity.
Yet despite their obvious green credentials, the headlines bear out the fact they are being opposed by environmentalists. They claim these projects leave too large of a footprint on the local environment and are harmful to local fish habitat amongst other things. I suspect Calgary oil executives and American coal producers must be rubbing their hands in glee watching all of this debate unfold. It’s not just run-of-river that has run afoul of the powerful environmental movement, ditto for wind, tidal, solar power etc...
As Calgary frets about dwindling fossil fuels over the next few decades, Vancouver is well poised to become Canada’s future green energy capital. That is, if it can move beyond focusing so much of its efforts and political capital on bike lanes, backyard chickens and vegetable gardens.
I hope that in the not too distant future day my son will one day be able to look out at Vancouver’s skyline and see a vastly different landscape. Perhaps it will be a skyline dotted with tall towers filled with the green jobs Mayor Robertson talks about.
What if the mayor of the day attended the ribbon cutting of a new 75 storey office which has become HQ for AlterGen, the world’s largest alternative energy company? Far-fetched you say? Great cities are built from big ideas – anything is possible if we put our mind to it.
What do you think? Should British Columbia's biggest city become the new alternative energy hub?
- Post by Daniel