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The Future of Evergreen: never changing, never staying the same

After starting a series of small businesses in university, Geoff Cape fell in love with big ideas and mustered the courage to explore these ideas, learning much along the way.

This is the story of Evergreen.

On September 25th, we were fortunate enough to have Geoff Cape, Founder and CEO of Evergreen, join us for our Inspiring Action for Social Impact lecture series. As we listened, it is clear that it has never been a straight path for the organization, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, but it continues to be guided by a simple idea: we need to integrate nature into cities by engaging people in transforming the urban experience. From the very beginning, Evergreen brought this idea to life on the ground with activities like tree planting, but it has always played with complex issues as well, working with unusual partners to spark creative projects.

The Urban Century – what is happening to our cities?

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Calgary’s 2013 flood showed Canadian cities were vulnerable to natural disasters. Photo by Stuart Dryden/QMI Agency

In 1990, environmental messaging was about saving the polar bears, saving the rainforest or thinking about wilderness landscapes – none focused on cities. While Evergreen didn’t have the capacity to tackle the full complexity of urban issues at the time, they were always focused on the urban experience. It is at the heart of their work.

A nightmare scenario is now playing out globally in cities as a result of urban sprawl and population growth, creating sterile and isolated urban communities. Combined with the intensifying impacts of climate change, cities have also seen damaging fires, extreme weather storms, and water damage that have the ability to cripple industries and local economies. The 2013 Calgary storms caused billions worth of damage.

From a simple idea to radical innovation

Before receiving permits from the City of Toronto, Evergreen commissioned an artist to create an art project that would symbolize Evergreen's vision for the Don Valley Brick Works.

Before receiving permits from the City of Toronto, Evergreen commissioned an artist to create an art project that would symbolize Evergreen’s vision for the Don Valley Brick Works. Photo c/o: Ferrucio Sardella

Innovation has always been at the core of Evergreen’s DNA; they were one of the first organizations in Toronto to  have an internet connection and email addresses. Evergreen continues to push for innovation while staying true to its mandate through creative and often grassroots programming, such as its work to transform children’s learning environments.

By literally bringing nature to children in their playgrounds and other learning environments, Evergreen ignited the re-design of children school grounds across Canada. This fresh approach resulted in changes globally and has inspired similar projects in California. The concept puts civic engagement into the hands of community, allowing them to transform their shared spaces leading to empowered communities and, often, introducing a way to bring the interest of both corporate and political partners to the table. More recently, Evergreen transformed the Toronto city landscape with Evergreen Brick Works. The Don Valley Brick Works Factory helped literally build the city, including landmarks like Casa Loma and Massey Hall, but once it closed, it left a heavy industrial footprint. Evergreen had the vision to reimagine what it could mean for the city – before it even had permission to do so. Combining bold artistic statements and creative thinking, they found an architect who could help realize their vision, while also keeping and retrofitting the original industrial structure.

Photo provided by Diamond Schmitt Architects

Photo c/o: Diamond Schmitt Architects

Unusual Partnerships and Bringing Funding to the Table

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Logo from Evergreen

When Toyota officially came on board as a partner 15 years ago for Evergreen’s school landscape program, this kind of partnership was rare.  In 1998, when talks around partnership began, no environmental organization would partner with a car company and Geoff was heavily criticized for suggesting the idea – many staff nearly resigned.

Feeling his way forward, Geoff created a partnership strategy that incorporated the strong values of the Evergreen staff. He drew up a charter, which was signed by the CEO of Toyota and Geoff, holding both partners accountable to be leaders in their respective fields. As of 2010, the partnership has worked with 2,200 schools and has had a direct impact on almost 900,000 students across the country.

Through the years, Evergreen learned that by connecting externally and building unusual partnerships they could foster creativity, but with unusual partnerships, there was also a need to listen carefully to the community, ask for help, and ask good questions to navigate the unknown.

What’s in the future for cities?

With a majority of the world’s people living in cities, it is estimated that $50 trillion will go towards building urban infrastructure in the next 15 years.  Evergreen knows we need to build something fundamentally different to the status quo and wants to be part of bridging and developing the ideas that support sustainability, resilience to climate change, and efficiency. The future of our cities should not just deliver more infrastructure, but engage citizens with equality to create a higher quality of life.

Lasting Lessons

Evergreen has and continues to evolve as an organization by running a diverse variety of programs, being comfortable working with ambiguity, and operating with both distributed leadership and constant restructuring to make sure the organization reflects its priorities.

It is rare for a founder to continue as CEO after 25 years, a fact that is not lost on Geoff. He admits he is not sure it makes sense for him to lead Evergreen in the future – although at this stage, he would like to. This is not the talk you hear or expect to hear from a CEO whose job security relies on the board of directors being confident in a CEO’s vision and leadership.

This is also not the first time Geoff has voiced these exact worries.

Back in 2008, just as Evergreen Brickworks was starting to secure its funding and bring new partners to the table, the organization was experiencing a pivotal point of growth. At that stage, Geoff expressed concern that he would become an institutional bottleneck that would stifle creativity in the organization.

Seven years later, we know this couldn’t be further from the truth. During his 25 years, Geoff has handled controversy and risk taking, continuing to earn the support and confidence of those at Evergreen.  Every challenge is faced with Geoff’s trademark of open leadership. Being self-aware of himself and the organization, and transparent with his staff, he is committed to doing what is right for the organization and the urban communities they seek to inspire and empower.

These values are now at the roots of Evergreen.

For Geoff’s full talk, watch below!

Greening Cities, Healthy Planet with Geoff Cape – MaRS Global Leadership from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

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Karen Gomez About Karen Gomez

Karen is the Associate at SiG National. Karen is a recovering public servant who worked in several research, policy and administrative roles within the Government of Ontario.

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