IN MEMORIAM: Erik Karlsen (1945-2020) – as a professional planner, he was someone quite special

Note to Reader:

Erik Karlsen (1945-2020) made many contributions to development of a guiding philosophy for leading and managing change in British Columbia. He conceived the “What / So What / Now What / Then What” concept as away to frame a process for building consensus around a vision and a strategy.  The approach was introduced in February 2005 at the Okanagan Conference on the Future for Water.


“Erik Karlsen was a splendid person and public employee.  Whether it was the Environmental and Land Use Commitee Secretariat, the Agricultural Land Commission, or municipal planning and development, he was a quietly skilled leader with huge people skills,” stated Mike Harcourt, former Premier of British Columbia (1991-1996), when he reflected on the passing of Erik Karlsen

Editor’s Context

“It is with deep sadness that the Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia informs our Waterbucket News readership of the death of Erik Karlsen, a lifetime member of the Partnership. Erik’s influence was profound and far reaching. He touched many lives over the course of his unique career in public service. He was a mentor in the ‘art of the possible’. He will be missed,” stated Kim Stephens, Partnership Executive Director.

“Over the course of his career in government, Erik Karlsen bridged the worlds of municipal affairs and environmental stewardship. For a generation of elected representatives, his was a familiar face in the local government setting. In this issue, we present six retrospectives that provide insight into the influence and impact that Erik Karlsen had on partnerships and community development practices in British Columbia. Here is a sample of what you will learn about Erik Karlsen:

  • “He turned networking skills into an art form.” – Joan Sawicki
  • “He had a remarkable impact on the shape of BC communities.” – Dale Wall
  • “He was one of a kind who was universally respected by colleagues and politicians alike.” – Eric Bonham
  • “He understood how to play a hand of opportunities to advantage.” – Tim Pringle
  • “He never hesitated to travel around the province to meet with elected representatives and community members.” – Peter Law
  • “He understood all sides of an issue and ably brought people with different perspectives together to find common ground.” – Lynn Kriwoken

“Erik Karlsen began his planning career in 1968 and was a pioneer in numerous areas of endeavour. His career accomplishments were many. To name a few:

  • first Director of Regional Growth Strategies in the Ministry of Municipal Affairs
  • Chair, Agricultural Land Commission (2005-2010)
  • Chair, Smart Growth on the Ground
  • Associate Faculty member in the Masters of Environment and Management program at Royal Roads University for many years

“Erik Karlsen has a special place in the history of the Partnership for Water Sustainability. He was the ‘eminence grise’ during development and early years of implementing the Water Sustainability Action Plan for British Columbia. He guided us through a sharing and learning process that produced an intellectual foundation for ‘convening for action’ in BC. This has stood the test of time. His legacy lives on the Georgia Basin Inter-Regional Education Initiative (IREI). To quote Erik, “implementing change is primarily a people matter, not a technical one”.

“The way-of-thinking captured in the graphic below is one of the many philosophical contributions made by Erik Karlsen during development of the Water Sustainability Action Plan for British Columbia.”

“Erik Karlsen served the public interest almost without equal, with a style likely not to be seen again for a very long time” 

As a fairly new elected official in the early 1990s, I learned a lot in a very short time under Erik’s tutelage,” remembered Joan Sawicki. She was the 30th Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia (1992-1994), and then served as Minister of Environment during the 1996 through 2000 period.

“I first met Erik in action when we were assigned to work together, from mid-1994 to 1996.  I had just been appointed parliamentary secretary to Minister of Municipal Affairs, Darlene Marzari. She put us together – and the Georgia Basin Initiative was born.

“Through Erik’s guidance, professional – and dare I say, political – wisdom and networking, together we charted at least a pathway, if not an enduring entity, towards ‘sustainability’ in the Georgia Basin bio-region.

Ecosystem-Based Planning

“Erik turned networking skills into an art form. Even in those ministries where the ‘p’ word (the ‘planning’ word) was not allowed to be uttered, you could count on Erik to know the one person in every agency or organization who shared even one common thread of commitment to ecosystem-based community planning.

“You could also count on Erik to nurture that fragile seed into yet another interdisciplinary cross government committee – of which he himself was always an active member.

“When I became Minister of Environment, working to try to implement the Fish Protection Act, it was Erik Karlsen from Municipal Affairs who was our most effective front man.  Where my staff couldn’t get in the door with streamside protection guidelines, Erik not only got in the door, but managed to convince local governments to help write guidelines to which many of them were fundamentally opposed.

“Erik served the public interest – the public hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow, for the environment, for human communities, and for future generations – almost without equal. And, he did it with a style likely not to be seen again for a very long time.”

How Erik Karlsen described the “Convening for Action Process”

“Erik Karlsen leaves us with an enduring positive impact on the way we build communities” 

“I had the honour of working with Erik Karlsen from many years.  As a person Erik was generous and gracious and a great conversationalist.  As a professional planner Erik was someone quite special. His career included the Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board and the Provincial Environment and Land Use Secretariat, as well as the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, which was where our paths crossed,” stated Dale Wall, former Deputy Minister, and a lifetime member of the Partnership.

“Students of BC planning history will recognize the influence that these bodies have had on the shape of B.C communities.  Indeed, Erik had a remarkable impact on the shape of BC communities.  This came through his influence on BC planning law and policy, his even greater influence of encouraging the adoption of new planning practices by BC communities, and his role in building the professional networks that still shape community planning in BC.

“Erik was a public service entrepreneur.  He was tireless at building networks and at mentoring professionals. His amazing collection of friends and associates spoke to his ability to build and maintain relationships.

“During the time I worked with him he was instrumental in the development of the Georgia Basin Initiative, and in building the base for the protection and restoration of urban waterways. He would later go on to lead the Agricultural Land Commission.

“Erik leaves us with many fond personal memories, but he also leaves us with an enduring positive impact on the way we build communities, that will endure far into the future.”

“Erik Karlsen was a master in finding ways to get things done” 

“Erik Karlsen was one of a kind who was universally respected by colleagues and politicians alike. He played a major role on so many fronts, including in the development of creative government policy,” recalled Eric Bonham, a former Director in two Ministries – Environment and Municipal Affairs. He is a founding member of the Partnership for Water Sustainability; and is a passionate champion for collaboration between the local government and stewardship sectors.

Stream Stewardship

Erik’s contribution to stewardship initiatives was significant; and his natural ability to work across ministries to achieve a common goal was much admired by his peers and all who knew him.

“Erik played such a significant role in the inter-ministry stewardship committee. What was creative about this informal group was the diversity of collaboration, resulting in contributions from related programs that made things happen. For example, a funding contribution was received under the Urban Salmon Habitat Program. Erik and others likewise sourced opportunities that resulted in the production of invaluable community information brochures and guidance documents as part of the Stewardship Series.

“The Stewardship Series included and supported timely community endeavors such as the greenways project and the stream stewardship initiative, leading to creation of the Stewardship Centre for BC.

“Erik was a master in finding ways to get things done….often in unorthodox ways!”

“Erik Karlsen helped to change history” 

“My thoughts about Erik always gravitate to the first interactions we had,” recalls Tim Pringle. At that time, Tim was the first Executive Director of the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia (1988-2008). Upon his retirement from the Foundation, he was the Partnership’s inaugural President.

Tim Pringle continues to play a leadership role as Chair of the Ecological Accounting Process (EAP), a Partnership program to mainstream a methodology and metrics for local governments to use, so that they can determine the value of ecological assets for the purposes of asset management strategies and plans.

Green Infrastructure 

“We got to know each other in 1998 when the multi-party funding for proving out the vision for the East Clayton Sustainable Community in Surrey was stalled. As it turned out, the Province and the Real Estate Foundation devised and implemented the strategy that got the $$$ flowing. Erik demonstrated his pragmatism and vision; he understood how to play a hand of opportunities to advantage.

“Two decades ago, the planning and design for East Clayton in Surrey as well as UniverCity on Burnaby Mountain stand out as the first large-scale ‘sustainable’ residential communities in BC (and among the first in North America) based on use of green infrastructure concepts of land use. Erik Karlsen helped to changed history.”

Members of the Streamside Protection Committee led by Erik Karlsen were honoured with a Premier’s Award in 2001. The award was in the Partnerships category.

“Erik Karlsen had unique insight into the important role an informed local citizenry and their local governments can play” 

“Wow. What a vibrant and connected person Erik Karlsen was,” remembers Peter Law. Formerly a Senior Biologist in the Vancouver Island Region of the Ministry of Environment, he is a founding Director of the Partnership for Water Sustainability, Also, he is President of the Mid Vancouver Island Habitat Enhancement Society, and an advocate for citizen science.

Peter Law served with Erik Karlsen on the inter-ministry committee that developed provincial regulations for streamside protection. Subsequently, Peter Law was Chair of the inter-governmental committee responsible for development of Stormwater Planning: A Guidebook for British Columbia. The Guidebook was an outcome of their work together on streamside protection. The Partnership is the steward for the Guidebook, and is building on the Guidebook foundation with the Beyond the Guidebook Series of guidance documents.

Streamside Protection in British Columbia

“Erik played the central role in bringing the attention to streamside protection that it deserved politically. He did that by drafting the wording of Section 12 (riparian protection) in the Fish Protection Act of 1997. His participation in resolving provincial land use conflicts, with a growing chorus of environmental conservation (in the 1970’s and 1980’s), gave him unique insight into the important role an informed local citizenry and their local governments can play in implementing effective conservation strategies (on the private land base) to protect salmon.

“Erik was delegated the role of being the lead in developing the wording of an Order in Council to enact Section 12.  It was a unique position, as this legislation was a Ministry of Environment initiative, led by Erik, who was the Director of Regional Growth Strategies in the Ministry of Municipal Affairs.

“Salmon management was a big deal in the late 1990’s, as Coho and Chinook populations were under threat from habitat loss. Federal agencies were wanting Provincial leadership on the issue of habitat protection, especially riparian areas adjacent fish bearing streams.

“In my view, there was nobody more suited to the task of crafting a Regulation that, in the end, would be embraced by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the Province and of course, very wary local government staff and politicians.

“Over a period of two years, Erik Karlsen chaired a ‘colourful’ committee of experts in a process that focused on the science, the policies, the costs, the benefits (the good, the bad and ugly) with a goal of gaining consensus from all sectors.

“During this time, Erik took great care in keeping all ‘interested parties’ up to speed with the direction of the work, to ensure that politicians, at all levels, were aware of how things were taking shape.  This was an enormous task, and he was ‘on the road’ meeting with local government Councils and staff (from Kamloops to Courtenay), in open Council sessions, with packed chambers full of local citizens – from stream stewards to loggers.

“Erik always impressed upon me a quotation from Aldo Leopold, author of Sand County Almanac: The real substance of conservation lies not in the physical projects of government, but in the mental processes of citizens.’

“Erik had an ability to engage people with compassion for the subject, and empathy for other positions or concerns.  He would do this, face to face – not by email, or other means of communication…so I am not sure whether ZOOM would have worked for him.”

Mind-Map Created by Erik Karlsen for the “Convening for Action Process”

Erik Karlsen chose a triangular diagram, rather than a circular or Venn diagram, to illustrate the “convening for action” process. His rationale was that making choices requires turning points. At each corner a commitment must be made to proceed to the next step. The triangle summarizes a set of nested processes that address needs for change, and provides a mind map to illustrate how ‘we will get there’.

“With Erik’s passing, we say thank you and goodbye”

“Erik Karlsen marched to the beat of his own drum. He stood out from others as a change leader, a contrarian thinker, and a gifted teacher,” summarizes Lynn Kriwoken, recently retired as an Executive Director in the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.

Lynn’s support, commitment and advocacy inside government made possible the Water Sustainability Action Plan. Lynn was the Province’s lead person for the Living Water Smart program, from its inception to implementation over the past 15 years, highlighted by passage of the Water Sustainability Act in 2014.

“Erik cared deeply about people and what they had to say. He understood all sides of an issue and ably brought people with different perspectives together to find common ground.  And importantly, he got things done!

“I met Erik when I joined the BC Ministry of Environment as a fledgling planner in 1988 and, over the years, was one among many who looked up to him for professional and personal guidance.  In addition to opening doors to developmental opportunities, Erik was generous with his practical advice – such as never use the colour red in a PowerPoint presentation, how to brief a Minister (and how not to), and mind-calming meditation practices for every-day life.

“Erik was a voracious reader and a lifelong learner, continually refining his ideas and keen to hold court and share his learnings with whoever would listen.

“During the formative years of the Water Sustainability Committee, the team always looked forward to Erik bringing new thoughts, ideas and the latest technology to our meetings. Memorable was the day he arrived excited to show us his new little gadget called a USB flash drive. Unquestionably, without Erik’s vision and star qualities, the Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC would not be what it is today.

“With Erik’s passing, we say thank you and goodbye to an advocate for communities and the environment, a mentor and a good friend.”