Geoff Cape, Reimagining Cities at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works

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For a long time, the environmentalists’ mantra was Thoreau’s declaration, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Increasingly, however, environmentalists have become preoccupied by the concrete jungle: the city, dressed in glass, concrete, and steel. The city’s importance can’t be over-stated, because half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and because the city consumes for more than 75 percent of resources, worldwide. In some parts of the world cities are growing rapidly; in others they are losing population and falling into disrepair. Yet, cities everywhere are being forced to reimagine themselves due to variability in population and climate. The way they do so will have massive consequences for our communities and collective ecological resilience.

Geoff Cape stands out among the vanguard of urban environmentalists. Cape is a modest, curious, Canadian. He and his team are testing creative new ways for cities to harmonize natural, commercial, and cultural processes. During a recent conversation, Cape exclaimed, “Cities need natural spaces. Not just manicured parks, but ecosystems.” In order to increase natural space in cities, Cape co-founded Evergreen in 1990. Since then, the non-profit venture has helped fund over 5,000 city greening projects, mostly in Canada.

More recently, Cape and his team have launched an environmentally-focused community center called Evergreen Brick Works (EBW). EBW inhabits a collection of old industrial heritage buildings, nested in the Don River valley part of Toronto’s ravine system. As journalist Robert Fulford wrote, “The ravines are to Toronto like what the canals are to Venice, hills are to San Francisco and the Thames River is to London.” It is fitting then that EBW repurposed the old factory, since the factory supplied the bricks with which Toronto was built. Situated in a factory, in a forest, in a city, EBW’s very presence speaks to the complex relationship between industry, environment, and culture.

Within a few miles away from the ravines, there are 10,000 kids living in lowrise apartments without backyards. Evergreen offers area students classes that aim to make them fall in love with worms, soil, and water. Maybe if they do, the logic goes, they’ll turn the tap off when they brush their teeth. Maybe they’ll remind their parents to do so, as well. An Evergreen staffer picks them up from the subway, and walks them through the ravine to the community center. For many students, it’s their first time exploring the ravines. Cape hopes it won’t be their last.

Chatting with Cape conjured some childhood memories of my own. I remembered the sweaty summer evenings I spent chasing lighting bugs and digging for fossils in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Cape believes that all city dwellers should have such enchanting encounters with urban wilderness. If people are apathetic about their immediate environment, how can they possibly care about more remote environmental issues? EBW tries to cultivate a deeper affection for nature among city dwellers with its medley of hands-on educational programs, interactive workshops, and community festivals.

Beyond its community-based programs, EBW also strives to affect change at the macro level by testing innovative design principles, and sharing lessons learned through their implementation. The revitalized space is itself a showcase of green design, as Evergreen is headquartered in a LEED Platinum addition constructed on the industrial heritage site.

As owners of the derelict industrial site, EBW has tapped several revenue streams, which finance roughly half the organization’s operating budget. These revenue streams include: hosting events, renting space to likeminded organizations, operating a small gardening market, and offering paid parking. The traditional model of grants, sponsorships, and donations required Evergreen to operate on a project-by-project basis. This model prevented Evergreen from building economic and financial support to coordinate across the organization. “The social enterprise model,” Cape explains, “has allowed us to nearly double in size and feed cross cutting support functions like technology, human resources, finance, and marketing. It’s given us a degree of confidence and control over our operations, and has introduced us to a range of other networks and relationships.” Like all social enterprises, EBW must think carefully about balancing financial and environmental/social priorities. EBW’s tenants include a local food restaurant, the Sierra Club, another environmental organization, and Timberland, an eco-friendly boot company.

In summary, Evergreen doesn’t just accept donations from corporations, it does business with firms (by, for example, hosting corporate events), and runs a business of its own in order to support its educational programs. This grants the organization greater autonomy, but also complicates the relationship between business and environment. Just as business principles have spread throughout the social sector, firms and business schools are becoming increasingly concerned with “sustainability”, however vaguely defined. For instance, EBW’s director of social enterprise recently accepted a position with the Boston Consulting Group. Meanwhile, Toronto’s Rotman School of Management business school is writing a case study about EBW. Though anecdotal, these observations seem to reflect the mainstreaming of social enterprise – of a commitment to the idea that commercial principles can mobilized to effectively advance social missions. Whereas firms and environmentalists once evoked mutual ire, they increasingly band together to target consumers and policymakers. Thus, EBW’s story reveals the ways in which “bringing nature to the city” has brought environmentalists and businesses closer together. Whether such a partnership can foster the ecological resistance needed to weather this century’s challenges remains to be seen.

This post is part of a series produced by Student Reporter for The Huffington Post and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. To see all the posts in the series published on The Huffington Post, click here.

Feature Image: Toronto’s Don River valley; Source: Evergreen.

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