Linsday Cole and her son, Maathai, at Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Camp.
Photo: Naomi Devine
Originally Posted: July 14, 2011
Vancouver is poised to adopt a plan designed to make it the Greenest City in the World by 2020, fulfilling an election promise made by Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver team. Described by Deputy City Manager Sadhu Johnston as one of the most ambitious environmental stewardship plans in the world, I thought now was a good time to speak to someone who has been integral to this plan since the beginning.
Lindsay Cole is the Greenest City Planner for the City of Vancouver, and has been for over the past year working with city staff and leading the public engagement side of the plan’s development. Her attachment to the plan didn’t begin there, however. She is also one of the architects of the framework itself, chosen as one of the 15 all star sustainability members (which included Dr. David Suzuki) of the Greenest City Action Team, convened by Mayor Robertson after his election, to fulfill their critical election promise and generate widespread excitement over Vancouver’s bright green future.
Cole is no stranger to innovation in sustainability and green planning, in fact this is something that has marked her career; she has been spearheading and/or a part of almost every notable green milestone in BC’s recent history. From creating Canada’s first comprehensive framework for measuring sustainability performance in universities and colleges, to being a team member on country’s first Leadership in Energy and Environmental design projects to her latest incarnation in Vancouver, Cole has demonstrated an uncanny knack for identifying, leading, and participating in initiatives that are leading the way to a better future. She’s impressive, she’s humble, and she prefers to lead from behind. Hers is a career to keep an eye on.
As the plan goes to Council for approval (today, and you can read the details on how the plan will work in the 160 page report here ), here’s my interview with the inspiring and unstoppable Lindsay Cole.
ND: What got you interested in sustainability, and how did you know that it would form the basis of your career?
LC: I’m not quite sure, honestly. It’s kind of a compulsion for me, whether that’s healthy or not, I’m not quite sure [laughs] perhaps someone should ask my family about that!
My Mom tells me that when I was a kid it must have been some defining moment in elementary school that got me riled up about garbage and food choices and that kind of thing, because I’ve always made choices that were not in line with what my family was doing, like riding my bike to school, you know, and deciding to be a vegetarian when I was very young and sort of making those willful decisions that drove my Mom pretty crazy! Maybe it’s in part response to the community I grew up in [Kelowna, BC] which was an idyllic, orchard and lake centred town when I was a kid and turned into a sprawling, car and consumption centred city as I was a teenager and sensing that there was something that was missing from it that wasn’t going to last. I felt like we were missing the important things and replacing them with consumption and TV watching and those sorts of things that were just not aligned with my values. I think it kind of grew from there.
ND: As sustainability practitioners we all have a certain personal stamp we want bring and leave on the work we do. How would you describe your approach to sustainability?
LC: I think I’ve learned over the years that my approach is very much process … sustainability as process not end state, and that in that process we need to be building capacity across organizations or communities or whatever sector that you work in. It’s about bringing more and more people into making that word and concept and those values meaningful to them in their own ways. There’s a certain amount of preaching and advocacy that needs to happen and I’ve been in that place and I definitely appreciate that work. But that’s not for me.
The stamp I put on my work is – when I was doing my masters’ thesis, my supervisor called it quiet leadership or leading from behind. I think that’s what I try and do.
ND: Your masters’ thesis was a pretty important one and it led to the creation of a very robust sustainability measurement framework for institutions of higher learning to measure their progress. It’s known as the Campus Sustainability Assessment Framework (CSAF). What drew you to the measurement side of things?
LC: When I was doing my undergrad at the University of Victoria I was increasingly frustrated by some of the things that I saw that the institution was doing that were not aligned with my values as a student, you know the ultimate customer that the university is serving. When I started learning about the investment practices and some of the pension funds is when I really got riled up and felt that the university as an institution of higher learning should be demonstrating/practicing/modeling, the values of protecting future generations.
Universities need to be responsible and responsive with resources in ways that protect future generations [and because they weren’t] that kind of inspired me to become more active in making my campus more responsible, more ethical, and more sustainable for the long term. I got into doing some work at UVic and was inspired by some students at Mount Allison University who I think were the first in Canada to really assess where their university was at in a fairly comprehensive way. So I got involved in an informal network of students across Canada who were doing university based sustainability work and activism and realized that a tool to help students encourage their universities to be more responsible and sustainable would be really useful. That was how I arrived at focusing my masters on creating the Campus Sustainability Assessment Framework.
ND: Is it fair to say you are the creator of the CSAF?
LC: I guess so. The way that I approached the creation of if was through a methodology called participatory action research. What that means is getting the people involved in the implementation of your work also involved in the creation of it. I pulled together the leaders at the time from academia, the administration and the student movements; there was probably a group of ten or fifteen of us from campuses across Canada, to advise me in shaping this framework. The advice I sought was – what kind of tool could we create together that is going to be useful in the work that you are trying to do?
I think that how it’s being implemented and evolved, being led through the Sierra Youth Coalition, over the last ten years has followed that method. Again it goes back to capacity building and providing the tools and resources for people that will help them achieve their objectives. The other thing about it is that it is holding universities to account for their actions and being a bit more open about some of the impacts they have.
ND: From there, you worked with a developer for a while, as a part of Victoria’s groundbreaking Dockside Green development. Tell me more about that.
LC: Yeah, so when I was at Royal Roads doing my Masters one of my classmates, when I was quite broke and doing a lot of volunteer work, kindly connected me to a project called the Vancouver Island Technology Park. This ended up being the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified project in Canada. Through that I ended up in a few years of work with a company called Windmill Development Group that led quite a few of the really groundbreaking green building projects in Canada – there was one in Ottawa, a couple in Calgary, and then Dockside Green in Victoria.
It was really interesting work that taught me to be a consultant and operate a business – skills that were really important when we were opening up SSG. And it was just inspiring to work in a sector that I never imagined I would work in and to see what leadership and what kind of potential for powerful change can come when a business is being transformational in a sector that isn’t usually seen as leading the way.
ND: Sounds like it was an important formative experience. So from there, you went on, with a group of people, to create Sustainability Solutions Group, which is a cooperative run sustainability consultancy. What was the impetus behind that?
LC: The people that started it, my co-creators, we all met through the campus sustainability work. The inspiration behind it was that we were tired of trying to get funding for projects that were difficult to fund. In the early days, it was hard to get it funded and people to understand what it is that you are trying to do and why it’s important, and on top of it we were really young. So we thought, we’re smart and we’re about to graduate and people can pay us for what we know how to do [laughs], and that led us to think let’s start a consulting firm! And while we’re at it let’s try and make it the most ethical business model we can imagine. That’s when we found the worker’s co-op structure, which is our legal entity, and structure and we’ve tried to model it after participatory economics.
Participatory economics is a world of theory that’s great if you haven’t already gotten into it, created by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, who are the big names behind it. We pulled some of the ideas from it to apply to our work – like flat structures, pay parity, and balanced job complexes. It means that there isn’t a hierarchy and people share the workload and its not a case where only some people get to do all of the fun work and others do the mundane stuff. It’s a flat structure, there’s pay parity between all the members, meaning we all get paid the same amount based on the hours that we work. So we operate in the business world but also do it in a way that really models that a different motivation behind business was possible, one that wasn’t profit oriented but that was oriented towards doing good work in the world and based on finding meaningful work for people.
ND: That’s something I really have always admired about SSG – the work you all put into building an ethical practice.
ND: How important would you say innovation is to you in your work?
LC: Innovation or creativity or whatever you want to call it is essential. Probably more important or more critical is finding those points of integration and common ground, and I find that is a lot of the value that I’ve been able to add in the work that I’ve done. I look at challenges or situations or projects in new ways that are more integrated and from a fuller picture. I like finding creative solutions that pull you out of a traditional way of looking at a challenge or problem.
ND: From SSG you became a member on Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Team. How did you become involved with this initiative and what was that experience like?
LC: The Mayor of Vancouver [Gregor Robertson] and Vision Vancouver was elected on four platform commitments, one of which was for Vancouver to become the greenest city in the world by 2020. Because of my expertise and working on green buildings I was asked to sit on, I think it was a fifteen-person team, which the Mayor and Councilor [Andrea] Reimer pulled together to advise the city on how they could achieve those targets. That was a volunteer gig and it was really interesting – we looked at best practices from cities around the world to establish a set of goals and targets and some potential actions that the city could take and came up with a list of quick start actions. Quick start actions were things that the city could do in the year leading up to the Olympics to kick-start the city and make sure that we were acting in addition to planning.
From there I became the staff person in the Sustainability Group at the City working on the development of the Greenest City Plan.
ND: It has been three years since this process began, and you’ve spent just over a year inside the City of Vancouver on the implementation side of the plan, so how does this feel now that it is about to go to Council for approval?
LC: It’s a great milestone. We’ve engaged 35,000 people from cities around the world in the development of this plan and over 10,000 people from Vancouver in the creation of this plan. 130 organizations really directly advising the process and at least 60 or 70 staff from most of the departments across the city have been involved in creating this plan. Plus there was a lot of leadership from Mayor and Council and our Senior Managers here at the city so it’s really touched most people in parts of the organization and has been a really cross-departmental effort.
The plan is great and it sets the course for our work. As I’m coming to the end of my work on this plan, I’ve been trying to find a bit of time to reflect on the work to figure out what the most important pieces have been. I think that the most exciting thing for me is that we’ve been able to build capacity and excitement in all these staff to really figure out how to integrate these goals and these targets into their daily work. The same thing has happened with all the community partnerships that we’ve built. We’ve got community organizations who come and say ‘yep, we’ve integrated helping the City of Vancouver become the Greenest City in the World by 2020 into our own non-profit strategic plan, and we’ve figured out really practical and tangible ways we can support and contribute to that.’ Evergreen, ClimateSmart and the Strathcona Business Improvement Association are some examples that come to mind. And there are so many stories like that, that are out there that are really inspiring and I think that’s what’s going to make this work – all of the leadership coming from all kinds of different places. Some of them are really surprising places throughout the organization and throughout the city.
ND: What would you say the biggest thing you’ve learned about integrating a major vision like this into a large organization like the City of Vancouver? Are there a few top things?
LC: One is that you can’t do this kind of planning work without integrating it into the financial planning of the city. That sounds obvious, but it’s key. We have been working with the people in the financial services groups to make sure that what we are committing to is what we can deliver. So it’s not a bunch of empty promises. The result is that the plan is real and it’s tangible and filled with things we can do.
I think the other interesting thing has been trying to find the balance between keeping aspirational targets that will be quite challenging to meet, and holding that because that is where we need to go in order to create the cities of the future that are going to last, and thrive and survive and be healthy and resilient for people. And at the same time creating plan that we can actually implement and those things don’t go together easily – it’s been quite challenging to find the balance between those. That will be the hard work of the next nine years – is to continue to hold that inspiration and not lose sight of that, while continuing to make those significant moves toward the targets.
Another thing that is interesting about what Vancouver is doing is that we’re creating targets. A lot of community plans like this don’t have clear benchmarks with targets and timelines and baseline levels of performance that they are measuring themselves against, and this has been really critical for us. We’re in the middle of a process to figure out how to regularly report out on progress so that we’re being accountable to what we set out to do.
I think the last thing that has been really transformational here has been the public engagement work. We’ve shown that it’s possible to do public engagement in new ways. We’ve used new methods that hadn’t been used at the City before. Councilor Reimer set up the first Facebook account for the City of Vancouver when GCAT was assembled. We’ve been able to do all kinds of interesting public engagement work through this process and that’s now shaping how other public engagement processes at the City are being run because we’ve been able to share some of those stories and lessons learned with other departments running consultations on neighbourhood plans, housing and homelessness strategy, the transportation plan – they are all building off of what we’ve done which is really great to see too.
ND: That was going to be my next question … How did the public engagement plan come together, and did you look for inspiration from other cities or was it a made in Vancouver approach?
LC: It came together with a lot of hard work [laughs]. We did look to other cities and the tactics that they used, but there was a lot of “made in Vancouver” that happened too. I think the things that really characterized what we did were going to where people are at, not just holding open houses and inviting people to come, but partnering with community organizations that have networks that we wanted to hear from and inviting them to co-design workshops where we could hear what they had to say. Really married the in person with the on-line space and tried to connect them quite closely so that we were building real community in real space and time and also making the content and discussion more accessible by having it on-line through on-line forums and using other social media.
I think the other thing that we paid a lot of attention to was making sure that we were having a two-way dialogue, that it wasn’t a one way “city hearing what people had to say” but we were being really clear what we were doing with that information and really valuing and honouring people’s time that they put in and being respectful and accountable to that. It didn’t mean that we accepted everything that people suggested, but it did mean that we explained to them why we didn’t accept something if it didn’t end up in the plan. People really respected that. We’ve heard a few different times that even if what people suggested didn’t end up in the plan then they understood and appreciated that because they understood the process and can see that they were listened to. Other people said that the on-line forum was really great, and that staff were responding to them, and that it isn’t just a bunch of robots that work at City Hall. It was nice to get some of that reinforcement back from the community that they knew we were appreciating what they were contributing to the process.
ND: How important will community engagement be, and what role will it take on as the plan moves into the next phase?
LC: There are a couple of people that will still be working on Greenest City engagement. They’re still figuring out what the strategy will be for the next 9 years. We know that one of the things we’re going to do is focus on engagement and also other infrastructural programs and staff and resources in one specific neighbourhood. We will through a lot of energy attention on this one neighbourhood to see if we can move the dial in some of our targets in a meaningful way, and if that works, roll that out to other neighbourhoods across the city. That’s going to be the main focus of the engagement work over the next six months.
ND: Overall, when you look back on the plan, what do you think its greatest strength is?
LC: I think the plans’ greatest strength is that it is so comprehensive and it crosses so many departments. People have really integrated the strategies into their work plans and budgets, so it is a plan that will last, it won’t be shelved. It will change, obviously, because the world is rapidly changing, but the essence of it should persist which is one of the things I worried about not happening at the beginning. I wanted to ensure that we worked through the development of this plan to make sure it didn’t end up on a shelf, but that it lasted and it meant something for a long time and I think that’s going to matter.
Other cities are constantly in touch with Vancouver both in terms of our public engagement process and what we did and what we learned through that, and through the complexity and comprehensiveness of the plan. I mean, it doesn’t mean much if Vancouver becomes the greenest city in the world and other cities aren’t vying for that space because we need all cities to be moving in that direction. I hope that’s one of the legacies of this plan – that it continues to inspire and motivate other cities and that Vancouver continues to be inspired and motivated by other cities so that together cities are moving quickly in these directions.
The other thing that’s really interesting about it and some of the criticism that we received early on is that it is a greenest city plan and not a sustainability plan for Vancouver. But if you dive into it you’ll see that there’s a whole section on the green economy and a lot of the goals and strategies have been looked at with an economic and social justice lens. You’ll see that in the water plan – one of the highest priority actions is to increase access to drinking water throughout the city for vulnerable populations in particular. You’ll see in food, buildings, waste, and climate we’ve looked at assessing the new green job potential for some of the jobs that will be needed to deliver those actions and strategies and which ones might be available for people that have a lot of barriers to employment.
Even though it’s a greenest city plan, we’ve really looked at other factors, and I think it was good to do that because it kept us focused and we were able to make it tangible and practical.
ND: What goal do you think will be the most challenging to achieve out of the ten?
LC: Oh – it really depends who you ask [laughs]. I think that the lighter footprint target will be difficult to achieve, and both of the buildings targets as well. And I think the jobs targets are pretty ambitious and will require a lot of work to achieve.
Others will be difficult for other reasons, some of the transportation targets will be difficult, but it’s because many of the significant actions are out of our jurisdiction. Some of the big moves required in clean air will depend on other levels of government or other partners coming on board in a big way so there are things that because they are out of our jurisdiction we can’t control them. So they are difficult for different reasons.
I don’t know if we see any of them as really easy, but the one that might be the least challenging is the water quality target because Metro Vancouver has a new treatment plant coming on line for the whole region, shortly, so that one we suspect will take care of the water quality. We’ve already got pretty high water quality for the region and that will make it even better. But the rest are really challenging in their own ways for sure.
ND: How exciting. Well congratulations on all the work you have done! It has been exciting to watch it all unfold, and I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of some of the engagement events along the way. I’m in admiration of what you all have been doing. It’s great to have Vancouver leading by example.
Now that you have had these experiences, do you have any advice for current students who are thinking of doing similar things?
LC: Yeah, I think I’m actually not the best person to give career advice [laughs] because I don’t plan very far in advance. What works for me is to hold true to your values and go where you feel like you can manifest your values and feel like you are doing work that’s important to you are contributing in a positive way. I think that’s what characterizes most of my decisions.
Also – I would say plan, but also don’t be afraid to go where the energy is sometimes. I fell into that work with the developer by coincidence and that was great. So you need to pay attention to what’s going on around you, and if it is not part of your plan maybe just think about it because it might be an interesting route to go for a while.
ND: What’s next for you?
LC: I am not sure. [Laughs]. It’s been a busy year, so I need just a little bit of time to chill out and hang out with my family, and enjoy summer if it ever comes, and see what comes next.
ND: Thanks very much Lindsay. I wish you great success in the future, and I look forward to seeing what you do next.
LC: Thanks Naomi. That was fun.