Greener, and cleaner
The hiring of Vancouver’s new deputy city manager signals the start of a new era
They’re not quite Vancouverites yet, but incoming deputy city manager Sadhu Aufochs Johnston and his partner Manda Aufochs Gillespie have all the qualifications they need to fit right in to Lotusland.
For starters, there are those intriguing, ethnically ambiguous names — Sadhu and Manda.
Then there’s that geeky enthusiasm for eco-living, and that romantic story about falling in love while planning a sustainability conference when they were college students, their heads tilting sweetly toward each other as they bent close over the computer …
They just may be Vancouver’s first all-natural power couple.
Green “whiz kid” Johnston has recently wrapped up his duties as Chicago’s chief environmental officer.
In Chicago, Johnston introduced an ambitious Climate Action plan, and spearheaded new policies for all city government buildings. That included implementing green cleaning practices, mandating energyefficient light bulbs, banning bottled water, installing solar systems in every city facility and implementing “green fleet” strategies such as increased use of bio fuels, hybrids and electric vehicles.
O n N o v . 1 wh e n h e w a l k s through the doors of a new office at Vancouver city hall to serve as the deputy city manager, the “green file” will land on his desk.
Gillespie, an environmental living writer and teacher, will stay in Chicago for a few more months to ease the transition for their daughter Zella, 3, and of her business, thegreenmama.com, an educational website and consultancy group.
Importing a substantial new hire from Chicago may seem counter-intuitive. Chicago is, after all, the city memorialized by Carl Sandburg as “Hog butcher for the world … stormy, husky, brawling, city of the big shoulders.”
How would Sandburg see Chicago in his imagination now, with its 250 green-roofs, bees on the roof of city hall, its grassy medians planted with butterfly flowers, its leadership in green building?
Although Chicago still has a reputation as the gritty, hard place that gave us Al Capone, steel-frame skyscrapers and urban gun violence, it now regularly makes top 10 lists of the gentler variety: top 10 greenest cities in America, top 10 best cities to bike in.
On a planning level, the Windy City has also squared its shoulders to meet the coming weight and cost of climate change.
Since 1989, Mayor Richard Daley has planted 500,000 trees in the city, and tasked Johnston with the administration and execution of larger environmental initiatives.
Johnston seems comfortable straddling the bridge between the bureaucratic and natural worlds.
He is as much a policy-maker and administrator as he is a nature lover; his track record in Chicago shows he is comfortable managing with either the carrot or the stick; he is a bike-riding communitybuilder and urban-dweller, a dual Canadian and American citizen.
When I asked him to describe himself, however, he paused, then said: “I’m a seeker.”
It’s an inclination he gets from his parents, although the quest is different.
Born in England to a South African mother and a Canadian father, he moved with his parents to India when he was a child, and later to Germany and the U. S., where he was raised in different communes and spiritual communities.
“They moved around the world as spiritual seekers,” he said. His parents named him Sadhu, after the wandering mystics of India.
“Sadhu is an Indian holy man, in the Hindu religion when the male of a family renounces his family and worldly possessions,” he said. “I like my worldly possessions and am not willing to give them, or family up.”
Sadhu was a given name; the middle name he shares with his wife, Aufochs, is a chosen one.
Johnston explained that his maternal grandmother es - caped from Nazi Germany, and was the sole survivor of her family. Her family was killed in concentration camps, and her name, Aufochs, disappeared. He and Gillespie chose to take the name Aufochs in their honour.
As we chatted on the phone, Johnston and Gillespie were driving from Chicago to Cleveland. They were on their way to Oberlin College, where they met as students in its renowned environmental program.
In the background, three-year-old daughter Zella wailed. She was unhappy about the car journey, she wasn’t slipping off into her nap, and she was mad that one parent was driving and the other was on the phone.
Johnston was unfazed, calmly offering Zella soothing words, never losing his cool even as her protests grew more insistent.
Her voice in the background was a siren call, a loud reminder of what is most important about building a sustainable future.
Although Johnston grew up in a series of spiritual communities, what he wants is squarely of this physical world — something cleaner, and greener.
He is refreshingly light about it — it’s something he and Gillespie have both learned is a more sustainable approach than dogmatism.
Over the the phone Gillespie was quirky, bright, thoughtful. “There’s so much judgment that goes along with being a parent. I’ve had to nurture the levity and fun aspect of being a green mom,” she said. “If you strive for perfection, you’ll drive everyone crazy.”
Johnston, who is sincere without being earnest, buttered our conversation with words like “awareness,” “willingness” and “enlightenment.”
“Many of the things we do [at home], composting, being conscious about how we use water and energy, we’re not extremist. We just try to live in a conscious way.”
It is easy to get swept away by the vision of virtuous, prosperous, clean and climate-change-prepared community he floats.
If Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s city hall garden and chicken-keeping ordinances have some critics mumbling about token efforts, Johnston’s arrival may signal that Vancouver is about to be greenstormed rather than greenwashed.
“Six years ago, no other mayors were talking about greening as a priority,” Johnston said. “Vancouver has already done so much in terms of building a wonderful sustainable quality of life. I feel like I could contribute and take it to another level.”
Robertson knew Johnston by reputation before meeting him at an environmental conference two years ago.
“Sadhu will bring a whole other level of expertise and global connections to the city,” Robertson said. “I’m intrigued with Chicago’s successes and hopefully we can implement them here.”
Snagging the Chicago “whiz kid” looks good on Robertson, who just launched a marketing campaign to rebrand Vancouver as the world’s “Green Capital.”
If the brand sounds more like a bank slogan than an environmental one, it’s intentional.
Vancouver’s new identity is as much a “business brand” as it is an environmental one.
Robertson is looking to capitalize on a boom in the green economy — one in which “capital” and bottom line are measured by social, environmental and financial yardsticks.
“The city hasn’t focused much energy on economic development in the past,” he said. “Being a green capital makes it easier to attract entrepreneurs.”
The competition to be the “greenest” city and attract that new business is a hot one — San Francisco, Chicago and Portland are all vying for a piece of the pie.
“Many cities have aggressive green plans. It is a fierce competition,” Robertson said.
“Pixar and Digital Domain [who are moving to Vancouver] looked all over the world for a city to put their next base in. Vancouver’s green planning was a great asset to them.”
City manager Penny Ballem said the deputy manager post also drew applicants from around the globe — a nod to Vancouver’s reputation as a magnet city.
Johnston’s resumé was the one that hit all the right notes.
“Our sustainability issues are so fundamental to our city, I set out to find someone who could bring some credibility to that file,” Ballem said.
“He is clearly a leader and is able to bring people from diverse areas from the community together to look at common policy goals. He really understands performance management — when you have a vision, goals and objectives and you actually measure when you’re getting there.”
Part of Johnston’s success in Chicago was the way he was able to get departments and groups with different agendas to share the green dream.
“A lot of what I was trying was to work with various city employees to get them engaged n the power of what they can do, engage coordination between city departments and take the things we felt worked well and drive them into the private sector in creative ways,” said Johnston.
Rather than mandating green building requirements — a strategy that has been met with resentment in some cities — Johnston developed an incentive-driven green permit program.
“We provided a faster permit for developers with green buildings. That built a lot of goodwill. We now have more green buildings than any other cities that have mandated it.”
But it isn’t all about getting buy-in by using the carrot.
“I’ve engaged in ‘the stick’ as well, developing mandates that include the most aggressive construction and demolition recycling ordinance in the country — 50 per cent construction recycling — and an aggressive storm water ordinance.”
Climate change is already a matter of life and death in Chicago, Johnston said. “We had over 700 people die in the mid’90s due to an extreme heat wave.”
The city has developed urban heat maps, built reflectors and green roofs and commissioned studies using Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) models to aid in long-term planning for the effects of climate change on the city over the coming century.
His work in Chicago also reached out to communities. “People wanted to volunteer and help, but there was no way to engage them.”
Johnston created a very successful new program called the Chicago Conservation Corps, to which interested volunteers could apply.
“Those that were approved would take six half-day classes to learn about energy, water, air and different environmental issues specific to Chicago.”
Afterward they would graduate into the Corps — with the mayor handing out diplomas — and go on to develop a project in an area of interest.
Johnston said he’s eager to learn more about Vancouver, to see what the needs are and what the ideas are. He spent time here as a child, and Gillespie has family in B.C.
“There are clearly challenges,” said Johnston. “Rolling out new programs would be difficult when budget cuts are happening.”
Still, he sees possibilities for driving a green agenda into Vancouver’s grittiest areas, such as the Downtown Eastside.
He wants to bridge gaps between community organizations to work together on complex urban issues like homelessness, poverty and drug addiction — creating jobs “for people who have been left behind.”
“People need to come into facilities with good air quality. We built SROs [single-room occupancy] in Chicago with grey water systems, where people could grow their own food.”
Gillespie said she is “a little scared” about the move — but excited to learn about B.C.
She recalls growing up in a low-income family in “a burnt-out downtown core” in America’s Midwest. There she watched her mom turn a vacant lot into a flower and vegetable garden, drawing life from the asphalt. It instilled in her a belief in the transformative power of nature — something she’s eager to share with Zella. Wild nature is something the family will find here, a place that is already literally green with sea and forested parks and mountains.
“We love the natural beauty in and around Vancouver,” Johnston said. “Vancouver has already done so much in terms of building a wonderful sustainable quality of life. I feel like I could contribute.”