Nanaimo is facing the challenges of growth with a radical new approach called “doughnut economics”

    Nanaimo may be famous for a certain layered chocolate treat. 
But the future of this fast-growing city is all about the doughnut — doughnut economics, that is.

    Raising the Bar - Douglas Magazine Feb/March 2023
    One of Canada’s fastest-growing urban areas, Nanaimo is a city of challenge and change. It’s the first in Canada to adopt a theory known as "doughnut economics," which calls for a balance between growth and quality of life. Photo By: Dirk Heydemann/HA Photography.

    It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have a soft spot for doughnuts, but doughnut economics might leave a few scratching their heads.

    Even so, Nanaimo has become the first Canadian city to adopt the somewhat radical economic theory as its guiding principle. It’s a bold vision for a city that is one of Canada’s fastest-growing communities, but has faced its share of challenges. Doughnut economics provides a framework for sustainable development, ensuring that those in need are cared for, the environment is protected and business can flourish — while making the city livable for all.

    Getting to this point wasn’t always easy. “I think some people associate it with Homer Simpson,” city councillor Ben Geselbracht, the driving force behind the decision, says with a laugh. But doughnut economics is no joke.

    A City of Opportunities

    Situated on the east coast of Vancouver Island, about halfway between Victoria and Courtenay–Comox, Nanaimo has all the advantages of a good location and a pleasant climate. It has long been the home of the Snuneymuxw First Nation. The first European settlers arrived in the 1850s and, soon after, discovered riches to be made from coal mining, fishing, forestry and pulp production. 

    Today Nanaimo is best known for its ports, for its three ferry terminals and four deep-sea berths, hence its modern-day marketing moniker “The Harbour City.” This, along with its central location, has made it a profitable destination for trading, servicing and distribution industries. 

    Its economy has evolved far beyond raw resources and a reputation for shopping mall sprawl. Nanaimo has also become a hub of under-the-radar innovation. For instance, homegrown SEAMOR Marine is a world leader in design and manufacturing of high-tech underwater remote vehicles deployed globally in everything from hydroelectricity plants and pipeline inspections to port security and marine debris recovery.

    Taste of BC Aquafarms, a leader in land-based, closed-containment aquaculture, is expanding quickly since its sale last year to Florida-based Blue Star Foods, with founder Steve Atkinson staying on as managing director. And Nanaimo startup HYAS Infosec Inc. has become a cyber crime-fighting powerhouse for clients including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

    Accessibility and prosperity have made Nanaimo increasingly attractive to newcomers from across the country, and the city has undergone a significant population boom, with retirees, families and real estate refugees from the Lower Mainland leading the charge. According to the most recent census, the population grew by 10 per cent from 2016 to 2021, placing Nanaimo among Canada’s top five fastest-growing communities.

    The City of Nanaimo’s population has reached nearly 100,000; the Nanaimo census metropolitan area around 115,000. Consequently, in 2022, the construction industry comprised nearly 20 per cent of the city’s businesses and became its largest economic sector.

    But with growth come challenges and Nanaimo has had its share. According to figures released by Statistics Canada last August, the severity of violent crime in the city surged 44 per cent in 2021.

    Last year, Nanaimo set a grisly record for the most illicit drug overdose fatalities in its history. The city has also struggled to address urban poverty and homelessness. It’s certainly not alone in that, but in 2018, a squalid encampment established by activists next to Port Drive on the downtown waterfront became the province’s largest tent city. 

    Despite attempts to fix the situation, chronic, complex problems remained. Councillor Geselbracht knew something had to be done. He thought the solution might be something called doughnut economics.

    A Civic Reboot

    In 2020, Geselbracht was sitting around a city environmental planning committee table, feeling frustrated. “There was an absence of a clear understanding of what we were trying to achieve, no way to assess how we were doing, no overarching environmental sustainability plan, and no prioritizing,” Geselbracht says. 

    While Geselbracht was stewing at the meeting, disruption was happening elsewhere. The province was still deep in COVID-19 restrictions. Calamitous storms had flooded Fraser Valley farms and demolished portions of the vital Coquihalla Highway to become the most costly natural disaster ever experienced in B.C. Add to that housing unaffordability, homelessness and a toxic drug epidemic that was killing nearly 2,000 British Columbians per year, and Geselbracht was convinced it was time for a civic reboot. 


    Raising the Bar Nanaimo - Douglas Magazine Feb/March 2023

    That’s when he saw a tweet from then Victoria mayor Lisa Helps about doughnut economics. It prompted him to investigate the city of Amsterdam’s embrace of the theory as a tool to guide recovery from the pandemic, and then to pick up a copy of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist by Kate Raworth, the Oxford academic and self-described radical economist who popularized the term.

    He liked what he was reading. Raworth challenges mainstream economic assumptions about limitless growth that don’t square with the reality of living on a planet with finite resources. What especially appealed to Geselbracht about doughnut economics was the blending of social and environmental responsibility into an overarching framework.

    The “doughnut” consists of two concentric rings. The first ring is the social foundation, as defined by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, to ensure no one falls short on life’s essentials. The second ring is the environmental ceiling, as determined by credible scientists, to ensure that humanity does not exceed the natural boundaries that protect Earth’s life-supporting systems. 

    The hole in the middle of the doughnut is where those lacking the basic requirements of life reside. In Nanaimo’s case, that would include the massive tent camp on Port Drive. The outer ring represents the threshold beyond which humans are wrecking the planet, which could include car-dependent suburban sprawl or unabated waste.

    Between these two boundaries lies the ecologically safe, socially just space in which humanity can thrive. That doughnut-shaped sweet spot got Geselbracht’s attention. 

    Enter Politics

    In late 2020, Geselbracht and fellow councillor Tyler Brown introduced a motion asking city council to adopt the doughnut economic model. The motion passed with a narrow 5-4 vote on December 14, 2020, and Nanaimo became the first Canadian city to place doughnut economic theory at the centre of all civic planning, from how it procures bunk beds for its new fire hall to where it puts walking and biking paths.

    Next, Nanaimo City Hall moved to put the doughnut into the official community plan (OCP), which was up for renewal. And that’s when the conspiracy theories started to surface.

    In June 2022, when the city hosted a public information and engagement session for the draft OCP, dubbed Reimagine Nanaimo, few people showed up. But among those who did, a majority expressed opposition — not to the substance of the community plan — but because of concerns that globalist interests were driving the doughnut agenda. Geselbracht says he’s had to spend a lot of time dispelling these and other similar misconceptions.

    Nonetheless, on July 4, 2022, council officially adopted Bylaw No. 6600, now renamed Nanaimo Reimagined, a blueprint for the next 25 years. The 304-page plan outlines five city goals: a green Nanaimo, a connected Nanaimo, a healthy Nanaimo, an empowered Nanaimo and a prosperous Nanaimo. In the introduction, the document clearly states: “Nanaimo’s vision of its future is based on a sustainability model called Doughnut Economics.” 

    Balancing Economy and Environment

    Councillor Sheryl Armstrong was skeptical about doughnut economics from the outset and hasn’t missed an opportunity to oppose it. She voted against Geselbracht’s motion back in 2020. And last summer she and fellow councillor Ian Thorpe dissented again after Reimagine Nanaimo went to a vote.

    Armstrong says the number-one issue she heard from most voters during the last municipal election was crime, not climate change. And, she says, with the city looking at a 6.2 per cent property tax increase just “to maintain services,” people are more worried about the cost of living. 

    Still, Armstrong says she will move forward with council to implement Nanaimo Reimagined, even if she thinks doughnut economics is long on visionary statements and short on measurable goals. 

    Geselbracht doesn’t agree that the model lacks targets and benchmarks. He says that’s exactly what the city is in the process of setting up right now with its integrated action plan, the follow-up to the OCP. And others agree.

    Among them is Kim Smythe, former CEO and president of the Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce. Most of what he knows about doughnut economics he learned after city hall asked him early last year to chair a working group to find recommendations for implementing the doughnut. Now Smythe believes doughnut economics can align the business community, non-profits, citizens and civic institutions around common goals of sustainability and social responsibility. It’s a way to ensure that Nanaimo looks at “both sides of the coin,” he says.

    “A lot of centre-right people say doughnut economics is bullshit, but I don’t believe that it’s going to be expensive, or cost taxpayers,” Smythe says. “[We] can’t grow a healthy economy in an unhealthy environment. We can continue to crap on our environment or we can be more conscious about the decisions we make.”  

    Contrary to those who see red ink when they think about doughnut economics, Smythe believes the doughnut presents opportunities for new and existing businesses, whether it’s a company that makes products from construction materials diverted from the landfill, or an IT startup that wants to locate in a city that takes social and environmental responsibility seriously.

    One of the recommendations of the working group he chaired was to develop a program recognizing businesses that adopt a regenerative approach that puts social and ecological sustainability at the core of their operations.  

    Already at Work

    In Nanaimo, like a lot of cities, people are already working within the doughnut economic model, some without even knowing it. 

    Raising the Bar - Douglas Magazine Feb/March 2023
    Doughnut economics can support small businesses like Fred Jeffery’s popular record and fashion store Lucid in downtown Nanaimo. Photo By: Kris Krug.

    Fred Jeffery’s popular record and fashion store Lucid, located on Commercial Street in Nanaimo’s historic centre, has been an anchor of the local business community for the past 20 years. He is intimately familiar with issues surrounding homelessness and social dysfunction in the downtown core, and has more empathy than antipathy for the unhoused people who frequently sleep in Lucid’s covered entrance — even if he occasionally has to clean up after them. 

    Regarding doughnut economics, Jeffery is more amused by the conspiracy theories swirling around it than anything else. But he recognizes that social initiatives such as the city’s Clean Team and community safety officers (city employees who liaise between the public, business owners and Nanaimo’s homeless) have tackled a chronic downtown poverty issue that he admits scares a lot of people away. If doughnut economics means supporting small businesses and keeping downtown vibrant, he’s all for it.

    Loaves & Fishes Food Bank is a perfect example of the doughnut economy at work, even though executive director Peter Sinclair is too busy managing growth to think much about it. This non-profit launched in 2012 with a staff of four, a handful of volunteers and one beat-up pickup truck to collect best-before-date expired food from a single grocery store partner. A decade later, Loaves & Fishes has 30 employees, 200 volunteers and agreements with 30 grocery stores from Ladysmith to the Comox Valley. And every year, 5,000 to 8,000 Nanaimo citizens access food from the operation. 

    “Our goal is to divert as much food as possible from dumpsters,” Sinclair says. About two-thirds of the food they collect is fit for human consumption, according to Canadian Food Inspection Agency criteria. The rest becomes feed for farm animals or is composted. According to Sinclair, Nanaimo City Hall has been supportive from the get-go, starting with a $69,000 investment that allowed the non-profit to buy its first refrigerated truck.

    In 2017, the city provided $275,000 that enabled the food bank to move into a larger warehouse. Now Loaves & Fishes is moving again, onto a property the city bought for $3 million and is leasing to them for 30 years at a token $10.

    “I’m no expert, but that said, I can see how the work we do will translate well to what doughnut economics is trying to do,” Sinclair says.

    Mike Leopold, CEO of Convertus Group, a company that specializes in building and operating industrial-scale composting facilities agrees with Sinclair. 

    Last summer Convertus completed an $8-million upgrade of its Nanaimo operation ($3 million of which came from provincial government grants), transforming it from a simple pile-and-compost facility to one with enclosed silos that can produce landscape-ready compost in 14 days. Its capacity of 50,000 tonnes per year more than doubles the amount of organic waste the old facility could process. And it comes at no cost to local taxpayers. 

    Doughnut economics was something Leopold had heard floating around in the ether of big picture sustainability thinking along with “zero waste” and the “circular economy.”

    “The goal is to reduce the carbon footprint and divert organics away from the landfill, and this new facility will help the region meet its waste diversion goals,” he says.

    Leading Change 

    Ben Geselbracht concedes that work remains on the education front, but firmly believes they can change the minds of skeptics.

    Mayor Leonard Krog, a lawyer and former NDP MLA (2005 to 2018), was one at first. In December 2020, he voted against Geselbracht’s motion, fearing it would add to already overburdened city staff resources. But in 2022, he voted in favour of Nanaimo Reimagined, a de facto endorsement of doughnut economics. 

    That’s a big, bold move for The Harbour City.

    Raising the Bar - Douglas Magazine Feb/March 2023
    Reinvigorating Nanaimo’s historic downtown is a priority under the city’s ambitious Nanaimo Reimagined plan. Photo By: City of Nanaimo.

    “For me, the concept is simply a recognition that we live on a finite planet, that growth therefore has limits, and our job as politicians is to try and ensure that citizens should be able to lead healthy lives in safe, livable communities,” Krog says. “The business community should have no fears and, indeed, having gone through the nightmare of supply chain issues with COVID, should welcome the opportunities it presents for local economic development and economic stability.”

    Geselbracht says it’s not about anti-business or tax and spend; it’s about being more thoughtful about how Nanaimo grows as a city and economy. Even so, he admits the name “doughnut economics” can be off-putting.

    “A lot of people have a reaction to the term ‘doughnut economics.’ The conspiracy theorists were connecting a lot of dots that weren’t there,” Geselbracht says. “But from my experience, doughnut economics is one of those things that once it’s explained, people like it.”

    Besides, who doesn’t like a fresh doughnut?