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February 29, 2024

PaRx People: A Conversation with Gregor Robertson

Gregor Robertson is a leader and entrepreneur in business and politics. As Vancouver’s longest-serving mayor, he led the city through record-setting years for new housing, job growth and the lowest carbon emissions per person for any major city in North America. The city consistently ranks among the top five most green and livable cities in the world.

He is currently the Global Ambassador of the Global Covenant of Mayors, helping over 12,000 cities in the world’s largest city network solve climate and energy challenges.

Gregor is also Executive Vice President of Nexii Building Solutions, a green construction company that designs and manufactures green buildings across North America. Nexii is the fastest Canadian company ever to reach “unicorn” status (>$1bn valuation) and was named to Fast Company’s 2022 World’s Most Innovative Companies list.

Before his three terms as mayor, Gregor served in the BC Legislature, was an organic farmer, and co-founded/led Happy Planet Foods, Canada’s leading fresh juice, smoothie and soup brand.

PaRx Director Dr. Melissa Lem sat down with Gregor to hear his perspectives about how his early years outdoors and as an organic farmer continue to inspire his mission to build a healthy, biodiverse world with vibrant and inclusive cities, why urban nature is so important for health, and how health professionals can move action on nature and human wellbeing forward.

Research tells us that children who spend more time in nature are more likely to grow up into adult environmentalists. Could you tell me about some of the formative experiences you had outside, and what effect they had on your career path?

I was very lucky to grow up in Vancouver and the Bay Area of California with parents who cared about nature, and exposed me and my brothers to it when we were young—both around our home with a kitchen garden, and with hiking, sailing and backpacking trips into the wilderness during holidays. I’m eternally thankful to my parents for making sure I had that experience growing up.

Gregor’s father John backpacking him as a baby, and his mother Corneil outdoors. Photos supplied.

Our kitchen garden was very small, but it changed my life. It ultimately was part of the reason I became an organic farmer, and saw the merits of trying to produce very healthy food at scale for lots of people.

I can directly connect the dots to my first taste of fresh corn right off the stalk, and how incredible it tasted compared to store-bought corn that was not bred to be as sweet as it is today. That fresh corn was a revelation for me, and those impressions as a child were incredibly powerful.

We would go hiking in the North Shore mountains, skiing at Whistler in the winter when it was a much smaller ski area, and visiting cousins in the Okanagan in the summers. In California, we spent time in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and Yosemite was a favourite spot for backpacking. BC and California both have incredible wilderness and amazing food and agriculture. The exposure to what we grow and the wild places we can readily access is as good as it gets around the world.

I was privileged to have that exposure at a young age—although for many kids, including my own, it can feel like a chore when you'd rather be with friends or stay in town. It's not the easiest for parents, particularly in the teen years, but it has incredible positives for the longer haul, and in shaping who we are as people. More kids should have that opportunity.

Gregor being sworn in as Mayor of Vancouver in 2008. Photo supplied.

You spent 10 years as the longest-serving mayor in Vancouver, and launched the “Greenest City Action Plan” that among other things expanded active outdoor mobility options like the bike network, and planted 150,000 trees. Why were the Plan and these two particular initiatives important to you?

First and foremost, I got into politics to make an impact on the connection between people and environment. In our lifetimes we've seen dramatic change in the climate, loss of nature and species extinction. We’re seeing devastating impacts on people and our planet, yet we keep losing these battles year after year, despite knowing how brutal this would be for our future and for our kids and grandkids. So I got into politics to try and change that.

I first entered politics provincially because the province has primary responsibility for stewardship of the land base and shoreline. But I was challenged there being in opposition, and unable to make the scale of change I wanted. Then I had the opportunity to run for Mayor of Vancouver after I was elected as an MLA, and really saw the opportunity to put Vancouver on the world stage for something we're already very good at. We were already one of the world's greenest cities, frankly. For generations we've had a legacy of protecting watersheds and agricultural land, and preventing freeways from coming downtown. All these world-leading green initiatives were led by citizens and elected people making very thoughtful decisions to shape our future here, and make this an incredibly beautiful and healthy place to live.

But I thought, well, we can take the next step. We can be a model for cities around the world to really scale their efforts to reduce impact on the environment and put the health of people and the environment first. That opportunity was very compelling for me once I was an elected official. I thought, I'll propose that as my platform as Mayor.

And right away there was huge support. There was great interest in setting a big goal like that for our city—one that people could contribute to day to day with their actions, but also that the city could advance through regulations, through incentives, and through partnerships in the community and with other governments and business. There were just enormous opportunities to make that change.

Gregor opening the Dunsmuir separated bike lane in Vancouver in 2010. Photo supplied.

The initiatives on active transportation, walking and biking, were really about making it safe for people to make the best choice for their own health and for the health and wellbeing of the city. And it's more affordable. It's something the city has most of the jurisdiction over versus public transit or automobiles; the city has a lot less control over shifting how much those are used, and the related infrastructure. Frankly, Vancouverites have chosen to walk and bike ahead of any other city in North America for decades. We just needed better and safer infrastructure to do that. So that was an obvious leadership step to take.

Tree planting is just a no-brainer. Although we can talk big numbers—planting millions or billions, or now a trillion trees—in an urban context, in a city as confined as Vancouver by the ocean and the mountains and the US border, we intentionally chose a number of trees that we could grow successfully into our canopy. Oddly enough, Vancouver's tree canopy has been declining for many years. For several decades the numbers were plummeting, and we had to turn that around.

Tree canopy is essential to the health of a city, particularly with global warming and the extreme heat events we’re having now.

Again, the city has lots of jurisdiction over trees. People love to plant trees and look after them, so we established lots of good community partnerships. It was really about setting that initial goal, and achieving that, and scaling it from there.

Bike lanes and tree planting are two direct, tangible goals that are a lot more relatable for people than, you know, what are our carbon emissions across the whole city and how do we dramatically reduce those? In the years ahead it’s critical we get there, but it’s more abstract and it takes a lot of different actions to succeed at. So we made some of our goals much more limited and defined to be successful, and really relied on people making good choices in their lifestyles to support the work of the city.

Gregor at a tree planting event in Templeton Park with kids from Lord Nelson School in Vancouver, BC in 2015. Photo credit Dan Toulgoet.

It’s harder in cities like Toronto where the winters are ruthless and not easy to bike in. But even though Montreal winters are arguably worse than Toronto’s, it has good cycling numbers because they built more infrastructure and do more training, education and support. We're seeing cities being planned and built differently like this all over the world, which hopefully continues in the cities that are growing the fastest. Unfortunately, a lot of car infrastructure is still going into the fastest-growing cities globally. That’s a big worry, because they're growing too fast and they're not keeping their cities people friendly.

Before you became Mayor of Vancouver you were an organic farmer, and cofounder and CEO of Happy Planet Foods. How did your work as a farmer compare to the leadership positions you’ve held since then, and did you carry any lessons forward into the work you do today?

Wow. I don't get asked that question much. I don't know if I've ever been asked that.

Being a farmer is a hard life. It is incredibly hard work. No matter what you grow or raise, it's basically 24/7 work, and most of the year, depending on whether it's animals or crops, it never stops. And so it is very demanding, and in some ways it’s thankless work.

I think we take our food for granted: where it comes from, and the people who make it happen, and the challenging lives they live. Unfortunately, the food system does not benefit farmers as much as it should. Farmers are a tiny fraction of our population in Canada; not many people can choose that as a career path.

There are definitely opportunities with organic food that have emerged over the last few decades, though. People are willing to pay a little more for healthier food, when they know where it comes from. That enables people to get into organic farming and grow food locally, which is fantastic. The fact that BC has an Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) is a godsend. That was an amazingly powerful change made in the 1970s, to protect the ALR. Most of North America is corporate farming now, because the agricultural land isn't protected. Everything gets mechanized, automated, and scaled up to a non-human scale.

I was lucky to be an organic farmer. But it's a lifestyle. It's hard work. You do it because you love being on the land, or you love working with animals. And it's amazing when you see the food reaching people and making a difference in their lives.

Gregor visiting his former organic farm site at Glen Valley Organic Farm in Abbotsford, BC in 2020. Photos supplied.

So many people are disconnected from their food—we worry about kids thinking all food comes from grocery stores instead of the land and the ocean. The ability to make those connections is the reward of being a farmer. If you enjoy the lifestyle and you get that feedback loop of your good food making a difference for people in real time, that’s what keeps people in farming.

But we have to create the right conditions. The Marketing Boards we have in BC also enable families to have a profitable way to grow food. We have some innovations here that make BC special, but we need more support to educate and make sure people can make a living farming here and grow healthy food locally, because it’s not easy.

I felt very fortunate to be able to farm for many years, but I quickly felt the need to scale my work to try and get more healthy food to more people, which is why I started Happy Planet. I got into processing high volumes of organic food and getting it into stores in juice and smoothie and soup forms that people could buy every day, knowing it came from farms here in BC. That was where I saw my mission, but that took me away from the farm.

Ever since then I've just been able to grow a garden to keep my hands in the dirt. But I treasure the time I have to keep gardening, and I'm thankful for the people who do dedicate their lives to farming.

Living systems are all the same at different scales. When you look at the life in the soil that enables plants to grow, and in some cases the animals who eat those plants and grow, our food comes out of that cycle of life that starts in our soil. There are very direct connections to the health of a city or the health of a person. You have to look after all of the critical elements that make life possible.

Health is ultimately cultivated by looking after all of that. If you look at it at the scale of a farm, how do you keep building up the base of life, of biomass, of nutrients, so that you can grow healthy food and productive crops? There's a direct relationship to how you look after people in a city, and support them in all the ways to keep them healthy and living good, productive lives. You just have to think about all of it holistically.

Gregor building vegetable beds outside his condo in Vancouver’s West End in 2020. Photos supplied.

I think that was the lesson I carried forward from farming. The microcosm of a farm is representative of other circles of life, whether it's a community, a city, or a human being. We have to make sure that all of those determinants of health are taken care of.

In these times, in city life, people are so far away from the land, away from nature, and don't know where their food comes from. And we’re largely interacting with machines; we live digital lives. But we're living beings, and we can't divorce ourselves from basic biology and what keeps us healthy and thriving. I learned a lot of that in my Biology degree in college. I also learned it farming. And it's just a different scale when you look at the ecosystem of a city. It has lots of direct ties back to the ecosystem of a farm.

You’re currently the Global Ambassador of the Global Covenant of Mayors, which is helping over 12,000 cities in the world’s largest city network solve climate and energy challenges. How can you see increasing our connection to and accessibility of nature solving the issues we face?

The more connection we have to the world around us, the more we can understand how to reduce our impact on it. Accepting that we're having lots of impact is step one, and most people are there. But what can you do to reduce your impact?

Those healthy choices are easier to make when you feel the direct connection; when you walk out your door and can appreciate how important nature is, and you feel a direct benefit when you're in it. Whether it’s transportation, or food, or housing, we make better choices when we respect nature.

Gregor speaking on behalf of the Global Convenant of Mayors at COP28 in Dubai in 2023.

You’re an avowed outdoor enthusiast. How has nature influenced your health and wellbeing through your life, and today?

Gosh. I mean, nature is a huge part of my life. If I don't get my nature fix, I'm not as happy and productive. When I was young I learned I needed that exposure every day. I needed my hit of being outside, being active and ideally getting exercise, but some days even just getting outside to breathe and walk and spend time with my dog. As a baseline, it has to happen every day for me.

I live in the West End, so I'm close to Stanley Park, and the beaches, and the seawall all along the water. I swim in the ocean a lot in the in the warmer months—which is a wilderness most of us don't recognize right in front of us. When you look out at the ocean, that's effectively wilderness right up to the shores of our city. People look at me funny when I walk across the beach with my mask and snorkel and fins and go snorkelling. Some days I see all kinds of amazing stuff. We’re lucky that we have orcas and humpbacks and dolphins swimming into Vancouver now. I don't remember that as a kid growing up here, but they're coming back. It’s remarkable to have that right on our doorstep, along with the mountains and parks.

I love seeing more people swimming now, people taking winter dips, and cold water therapy, and diving into the ocean and lakes and rivers. The Polar Bear Swim was record size this year. Jumping into cold water to keep ourselves healthy goes back to Indigenous traditions, as a practice to regulate our bodies and minds.

A sunset paddle in English Bay in Vancouver, BC. Photo credit Gregor Robertson.

I travel a lot, and I'm in lots of big cities, and it's challenging in some places to get exposure to nature. A lot of cities were built without enough park space, enough green space, particularly, that's walkable from every residence. That’s a goal we made for Vancouver in the Greenest City Action Plan. We're way better than most cities, but if people don't have access out their doors to nature, at least even a representative sample in a small park where they can go and be in a form of nature, it really detracts from health and well-being. And I feel that personally. If I don't get my nature fix, it affects me directly. I've had some years where I was outside in nature all the time, and I loved it. I treasured those times.

But a lot of us don't have that kind of access. Our careers are different or our circumstances are different. We just have to figure out how we can get enough nature into our lives every day, and make sure our families have that access too. And that's where government has a really important role and responsibility with urban planning. You have to make sure you enable access to nature as leaders in the community. We gotta’ keep agitating to make sure that's happening, because it makes such a difference in our lives. There's no question.

I’d say there's also responsibility at other levels. For example, businesses or organizations need to make sure everyone can access nature in the workplace. If you enable people to take a smoke break, I used to think, why aren’t we enabling people to take a fresh air break? I'm not a smoker. I'm allergic to it. I wanted to walk outside and get fresh air, not walk outside and be around smoking. And historically, I felt like there was a double standard there.

The more a workplace can do to support and enable outdoor time, the healthier and more productive everyone who works there will be. I think that trends like this are growing. I mean, your PaRx program is a great driver of that. Putting nature time into a different context where people think, this needs to happen for my health.

Gregor hiking St. Mark’s Summit in Cypress Provincial Park, BC, during the first snow of the season in October 2020. Photo supplied.

You once wanted to be a doctor, and even applied to medical school. Do you have any words of wisdom for health professionals who want to move action on nature and health forward?

Well, first of all I think your nature prescribing initiative is remarkable. It's been amazing to see the uptake among health professionals. I would recommend jumping on that really important bandwagon within the structure of the health care system.

When I wasn’t accepted to UBC medical school, I chose food as my medicine path. Food and nature are essential to human health. Anything health professionals can do to encourage support for people accessing nature for their own health, and eating food that comes from healthy farms or fisheries where nature is respected, versus overpowered and dominated and destroyed, is important.

Connecting those dots is really critical. We see it all over the world now with how much damage food and agriculture have done to the natural world. We have to reconcile that. We’ve got to get 30 per cent of nature protected by 2030 and 50 per cent by 2050, and that means changes to food and agriculture, which means changes to what we eat and how we eat.

Connecting those dots right now through education and through people we trust is important, because those conversations are challenging within families and friends. Food is a sensitive topic. You don't want to force people. You want people to opt in and make the right choices.

People do trust health professionals. You're in a very influential and privileged position to encourage people to make those good choices, and connect the dots between our health, food and nature, and taking care of the natural world.

Gregor with Melissa at the Clean50 Summit in Toronto in 2023. Photo credit George Benson.

Follow more of Gregor’s work and life outdoors on Instagram and Twitter/X.

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