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Building Resiliency at Evergreen

Lessons learned during year one of the pandemic  

Evergreen Brick Works and the surrounding greenery at dusk. Image: Tom Arban
Image: Tom Arban

Published on March 11, 2021

We have been tested. 

Cities, businesses, governments and each of us at the most personal level have been forced to react real-time to the ever-changing normal since the pandemic swept the world this past year. For Evergreen, a national not-for-profit that for the last 30 years has been facilitating change in communities – testing new ideas and solutions is at the core of what we do as city builders. 

One of the biggest challenges faced by our organization began on March 13, 2020, when we closed our office doors at Evergreen Brick Works, our headquarters and test site for piloting new ideas to shape communities for the better, and suspended public programming on-site and across the country. 

It was devastating and complicated - the essence of our work, the way we bring people together in unique spaces that inspire creativity and action was brought into question. 

Twelve months later, did we rise to the challenge faced by this ongoing global pandemic? Is it truly possible to connect and collaborate with two metres between us? Did we achieve this virtually? 

And, more importantly, what’s next? 

Our post-pandemic rebuild began immediately. We quickly channelled the spirit of innovation that has guided us through many complex and difficult situations and looked to the future to anticipate the work required. Seeking expert advice in the areas of financial and economic forecasting, we set out three scenarios on how to Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild Resilience at Evergreen, a plan that we shared publicly later that spring. We opted for the worst case, advancing the most conservative scenario, where physical distancing measures would continue through the summer months, resulting in a recession that does not begin to recover until Q2 of this year. In the end, the past year was in fact even worse than our worst case. Our office remained closed, and while some programming returned in the summer months (we had predicted fall), the duration of the restrictions due to COVID continued much longer than expected.

We are grateful for the continued support from our community, our staff, partners, volunteers and funders through this uncertainty. For our staff in particular, juggling work-life balance and burnout has been incredibly difficult. Throughout, the Evergreen team has shown great creativity, resourcefulness and positivity at every stage. We could not be here today without their passion and hard work.

As an organization, we acknowledge that we certainly didn’t get everything right, but by looking forwards and moving cautiously in designing a path, we innovated, protected against downside risk, and took bold steps in building a more resilient Evergreen. 

And we learned considerably along the way: 

Scenario planning as a way to make sense of possible futures

Scenario planning, preparing for our urban futures when the unexpected arrives, was and continues to be a key ingredient in planning for the future. We use this tool in our work with cities, with a focus on future infrastructure needs and largely in relationship to climate change issues. And we now know that there are other issues that can impact the future, like a pandemic. This year we created a Foresight for Resilient Cities Toolkit to help other communities navigate their future planning.

Looking back, one of our greatest failings in our pandemic scenario planning was understanding the scale and length of the restrictions due to COVID. For the Brick Works site, for example, although we were able to start offering programs in the spring and summer, to this day these remain very restricted. This is most evident in the hospitality and event assumptions - we had expected to begin seeing a recovery starting in the fall. But with gathering limits remaining restrictive, revenue generation remains a struggle. 

That said, we had planned for decreased site revenue, anticipating a 71 per cent loss of site-earned revenue (approximately $8M in social enterprise revenue) and a 47 per cent decline in overall revenue. A modified reopening earlier than anticipated resulted in overperforming revenue streams like parking and retail, but these were offset by areas that underperformed like event rentals and leasing as a result of extended restrictions. The financial burden on the organization was significant, but managed with the help of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program. 

Swift response and agility integral to building resiliency

We adopted a revised operating plan and budget, a decision that was not taken lightly and resulted in significant upheaval for many of our partners, our staff with reassignments, reduced hours and temporary layoffs of more than 50 staff members, and our community as a whole. Reliant on the wage subsidy program for remaining staff, we scaled back our operating maintenance costs for the site, meaning fewer areas were made available to the public. The Brick Works site closure has been the biggest financial challenge, as much of our work is dependent on markets, camps, exhibits, events and public programming. 

There was an immediate and unprecedented shift in our programming, reimagining how we deliver our offerings in real-life to virtual, from a Farm in a Box to a modified Saturday Farmers Market, ‘To-Go Gardens,’ virtual school visits and the reimagining of our Future Cities Canada Summit. The realization came quickly that our programs needed to be more accessible, learning what COVID-19 was teaching us about running a community gathering place. As we continue to learn and innovate, these changes will make Evergreen much stronger in the future.

Changes in how we work

Collaboration, integral to Evergreen’s work, has been a big challenge as communication has been harder than expected. The initial success felt with video conferencing gradually gave way to virtual fatigue and a breakdown in the easy flow of ideas possible in an office setting. We continue to rethink our policies, technology and work approaches to support our work together in the near- and long-term. We can expect to see some of these changes endure.

At the start of the pandemic, we didn’t fully understand how remote work and a sense of isolation would impact staff, and how everyone would experience COVID and working from home differently. While some have adapted well, others have struggled with the virtual world and the lack of physical connection. There was an additional strain on parents, and while we put in place a caregiver leave program, we learned that a single solution did not provide support for the varying needs. We also struggled with the disparity in the real-life experiences of staff. More difficulties were being felt by some than we could manage or appreciate. These issues are in play now - real time - and we are trying to find solutions to these extremely complicated issues. The human challenges are harder to measure, but they are more costly in the long run. Solving them is a priority in the weeks and months ahead.  

Public space is essential

At the beginning of the pandemic, we expected that few people would come to the Brick Works site, but soon we realized how essential public space is for residents across the country. Being outdoors became a major way for people to get outside, connect with nature and with one another in a safe, distanced way. We kickstarted our Climate-Ready Schools program, demonstrating how schools and schoolgrounds provide a vital space for social cohesion, as well as playing a role in how a city will, or will not, adapt to climate change. At the Brick Works site, studying our visitorship through the lens of the parking capacity, we saw a steady climb from April 2020, which remained fairly strong though the late summer, fall and winter. (Though important to note it still represented half the volume compared to the previous year.) It is inspiring to see the ways in which our visitors experienced the site over the past year and that we were a part of what made this year okay for many. We know that it is vital to rethink the way we develop visitor experience and create more passive and self-guided activities versus active engagement with visitors. 

While this year has not been easy, it has shown us that building resilience has never been more important or necessary. The pandemic has certainly taught us new ways to connect and engage with communities beyond our physical site. 

We know that when we are able to gather again, we will be able to take these learnings and continue to make our programming even more accessible.