The Creative City and Sustainability: Leadership Lessons for Sustainable Initiatives

Vancouver, host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, is a vibrant, global, culturally diverse city which recognizes that culture contributes to the ecosystem and sustainability of a city. Vancouver’s Creative City Initiative is part of a ten year cultural plan that incorporates the four pillars of sustainability

[1]: Environmental responsibility, economic health, social equity and cultural vitality.
 Objectives include sustaining art and culture, supporting creative industries, and creating lively communities where people want to live, work and play.

Woodwards Tower VancouverWoodward’s, a major urban renewal project, exemplifies the ideals of the Creative City. Built in 1903, Woodward’s was once a substantial department store, serving the low-income community of the Downtown East Side (DTES). When it closed in 1993, the area deteriorated into a wasteland of urban decay, homelessness, drugs and poverty. Redevelopment was stalled for years because of competing interests amongst business, developers, government and never-ending conflicts with DTES activists.

The City of Vancouver purchased the building in 2003 with a commitment to include a mix of social housing, market condominiums, businesses, educational facilities, non-profits and government offices in the redevelopment. This might seem unworkable to many communities, but the success of this project provides valuable leadership lessons for other cities and towns involved in sustainability initiatives.

Woodward’s Tower. Photo courtesy of
Darren Kirby Bulliver

Creative City Leadership Lessons

1.  Establish Principles to Guide the Project

Vancouver developed a set of 19 Guiding Principles[2] including:

  • Be financially and environmentally sustainable
  • Be developed in a timely manner
  • Provide employment opportunities for area residents
  • Act as a catalyst for urban revitalization
  • Incorporate the talents, visions and desires of the DTES
  • Incorporate user group involvement in the design process
  • Create a lively street front
  • Take advantage of heritage opportunities

2.   Establish a Vision in Concert with the Community

Vancouver initiated a “co-design” program to envision, design and plan a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable solution. The program culminated in a week long “Ideas Fair” that brought together several thousand citizens; including artists, local residents, community groups, business people and First Nations interests; to decide what the future of Woodward’s should be.

3.     Build Partnerships: Shift Power from Imposing to Including

A Woodward’s Community Advisory Committee (CAC) was convened and staffed by volunteer community leaders, activists, housing experts, architects, and business people. 70% were welfare recipients. Michael Flanigan, Vancouver’s Director of Real Estate Services, says, “The work of the CAC was directly responsible for securing the largest non-profit sector hub in any private development in Vancouver.”

4.   Define Roles and Responsibilities for City Council to Adopt as Policy

These policies helped keep the project on track even when power changed hands after municipal elections.

5.    Shift from Conflict to Collaboration

Jim Green, a DTES community advocate, and former elected City Councillor, was instrumental in getting the project off the ground. He points out: “The low-income community and the developer worked in tandem for mutual benefits. Neither group could have accomplished this alone. It was the creativity of the low-income residents that allowed the private sector to flourish.” Green, now a consultant to the developer, calls this process “reciprocal development.”

6.    Demolish Myths about Community Planning

When the condominiums sold out within two hours (in 2006) at prices ranging from $250,000 to $1.4 million, Green asserted, “The myth that you can’t sell condominiums in the DTES, (especially with social housing in the same building) was destroyed.”

7.   Honour the Desires of the Community to Achieve Sustainability

Woodward’s is the realization of a vision where people from different walks of life can live and work side-by-side and thrive. The 400 million dollar project will be completed in January 2010, and features a Silver LEED certified sustainable environment with green spaces on rooftops, Simon Fraser University’s School for Contemporary Arts, W2, a community-based media and arts centre; a rooftop daycare centre, 536 condominiums, 200 non-market housing units, office space for non-profits and governments, a supermarket, drugstore, bank, restaurant, public atrium and plaza.

Flanigan says, “Woodward’s serves as a model of inspiration for all future City initiated cultural, social, mixed use market and non-market housing projects. Now US cities are looking to Woodward’s as a role model.”

This article was first published as part of  the “Managing Public Leadership” series in the Arizona  League of Cities and Towns December 2009 Connection Newsletter.

What lessons from Vancouver could you apply in your community?

Linda Naiman is founder of Creativity at Work, and helps organisations develop greater capacities for creativity, innovation, teamwork and leadership, through coaching, training and consulting. She has worked with municipal and federal governments in Canada and the US, including the US Navy, and is co-author of Orchestrating Collaboration at Work. She is proud to be a resident of Vancouver. For more information, please visit


[1] The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability: Culture’s Essential Role in Public Planning, (2001) by Jon Hawkes