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Dowser Interview: Geoff Cape of Evergreen

, ,    /   Mar 19th, 2010Education, Government, Interviews

Geoff Cape, whose background was in carpentry and real estate development, founded Evergreen in 1991 to help city-dwelling Canadians reconnect with nature at a time when urban planning was obsessed with expanding the built environment. He has enlisted tens of thousands of volunteers to transform more than 2,400 schools and public spaces into green sanctuaries. In his interview, he explains how he got started, talks about key decisions, and reflects on the fate of societies that fail to respect the environment.

Dowser: Most environmentalists protect natural habitats. Evergreen brings nature to cities. What gave you the idea to start the organization?
Cape: During the economic boom in the late 80s and early 90s, when I was working in real estate, there was a huge push toward urban development. But green space was never part of the conversation. I recognized that Central Park creates value in New York City.  It became crystal clear to me that a primary ingredient in city building should be the inclusion of natural spaces that allow you to escape the city without going too far.

Evergreen’s Learning Grounds program greens schoolyards, while Common Grounds restores natural public spaces. Why those areas of focus?
We recognized that schools are an important place to focus energy because children are the next generation’s thought leaders. If you can influence them at an early age then you might have the opportunity to change their relationship with Nature and the way they make decisions.

Common Grounds is about restoring the public park systems that are integrated into cities. If you affect the public space, you change the public’s consciousness.  Again, it’s the Central Park idea.

How did you spark your initial support?
On May 1, 1991 we brought some private foundations and corporate donors to Evergreen to celebrate Tree Day. We planted trees on 180 school grounds and at a large park on the Toronto waterfront.  By creating an event day, with a series of partners around it and the media to cover it, we were able to generate enough critical mass to make something happen, and from this launched Evergreen.

What’s a big obstacle you faced?
When we introduced Toyota as a partner in 2000. We were an environmental organization bringing a car company in as a sponsor. It was a very complicated decision.

The worst?
Hiring so-called experts before making sure they understood the organization’s values and how we work.

What does society have to learn in order to transform our relationship with nature?
If we don’t align human interests with those of our environment, there will be no future for us. That’s been proven over the last 3,000 to 4,000 years. Civilizations have come and gone almost exclusively because they disregarded environmental issues. The very first civilization that emerged in the Middle East, in the Euphrates Valley, disappeared because they cut down the entire forest, the Fertile Crescent turned into a desert, and the civilization died off.

What are the lessons you’ve learned?
The initial concept for anything is always misguided and needs to be reworked as you develop the plans. Everything is always harder than you think it will be. And action by the community can have tremendous ripple effects.

For example, all of our school projects involve developing green spaces on a school property. On their own, these green spaces are not particularly big. But when you get 16,000 schools involved, they can change the whole idea of what a school environment is about.

Thomas Edison said, ‘I didn’t fail. I discovered 10,000 ways it won’t work.’  What did you discover that didn’t work?
Membership donor programs. Connecting different departments of the federal government such as Health Canada and Environment Canada. Changing tax policy to support urban land conservation.

Evergreen partners with a spectrum of businesses and government agencies, not just the typical environmental groups. What is the key to bringing together people from different backgrounds?
Trust, and respectful, inclusive dialogue. We deliver what we promise. We can get influential people to participate in things because they trust us.

Why is Evergreen important for cities now?
More and more people are moving into cities, and cities are becoming bigger and more congested. The infrastructures are falling apart under the burden.  It’s like putting too many rats in a cage. Tension begins to grow and the rats start nipping at each other [laughs]. Creating an outlet with green spaces is what our work is about.

How do you finance Evergreen?
Charitable donations, government grants, corporate sponsorships and individual donors—your average mix, although we’ve placed more emphasis on corporate partners. Earned revenue is about to grow dramatically for us as we open at Evergreen Brick Works, an education center in Toronto which hosts activities such as gardening, organic food markets and youth leadership programs.

What’s your fundraising advice for social entrepreneurs?
Create diverse revenue streams. You need to think about the types of people you have around the organization, the types of networks you have available to you, the subject you’re dealing with and who might respond to it.  Design revenue streams around the unique qualities of your context.

What are your short-term expansion plans?
Opening Evergreen Brick Works, deepening our relationships in the 14 Canadian cities where we work and maybe extending programs into the U.S. and/or Europe.

How do you balance work and family?
I coach soccer, try to be home for dinner every night, and am around almost every weekend. I try not to travel too much.

How do you blow off steam?
Lots of exercise. Biking to and from work. Tequila shots occasionally.

What’s the most absurd thing you’ve seen in your work?
People having sex in a public park. [laughs] You know… using nature properly.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo: A Developed World

3 Responses

  1. Nate says:

    Thanks Elyse, Manuel and Sean for featuring Geoff, Evergreen and Evergreen Brick Works–next time you’re in Toronto we’ll take you on a tour!

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