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Vancouver's Greenest City Planner tells all

Lindsay Cole and son in a photograph by Naomi Devine

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.

One on one with Lindsay Cole (LC) and Naomi Devine (ND)

Sustainability: "kind of a compulsion for me"

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.

Quiet leadership

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: My approach is very much process … sustainability as process and not an 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 quiet leadership. 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.

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