Lisa Hemingway found her perfect week, by leaving Vancouver—and moving to Nanaimo

Lisa and Hazel enjoy connecting to nature, near their new hometown. Lisa and Hazel enjoy connecting to nature, near their new hometown.

Are you a creative person who feels a little trapped by the rising housing costs in Vancouver? Lisa Hemingway, a creative consultant and graphic designer, felt the same way. So, she picked up and moved 50km west, across the Straight of Georgia, to Nanaimo—a city of ~80k people. Today, Lisa talks about why she left, how the transition was, and what she likes, dislikes, and misses. (This is the first in an 6 part series.)

Tell me about your time in Vancouver:

I moved to Vancouver in 2001 (from the interior of BC) to go to school for Communication Design at Emily Carr University. Over the years I’ve lived in a bunch small apartments and learned to use space efficiently: attic suites, basement suites, garden suites, and I owned two small condos in Mount Pleasant near Cambie (not at the same time). I worked for some great local businesses and ended up starting my own, Backyard Creative in 2007 and became 100% self-employed in early 2010.

When did you decide it was no longer for you?

My husband, Mike and I both grew up in small towns (Armstrong and Salmon Arm, respectively). In our 30s, we realized that we wanted to make space for the family we dreamed of having one day. We knew if our lawyer and doctor friends couldn’t afford to live in the city, we’d have a tough time (as a teacher and graphic designer). At the time, we lived in a bachelor suite with a deck, covered in a mini-garden.

We did a lot to make those small spaces work. We managed to dry our tent in our living space. We grew veggies in a garden at city hall. We air dried our clothes on top of our couch. And, we tolerated the challenges that come with living in close quarters. For me, the last straw came after working for 2 years to change a policy in our strata, so it would be non-smoking. The policy wasn’t enforced. This led us to cough all night, as the smoke from the chain-smoking tenants downstairs flowed freely between suites.

Friends sometimes stayed with us and slept on our pull-out. We rarely made dinner at home, though, as our kitchen was hard to work in. We spent a lot of money eating at restaurants (which was fun, but expensive). We loved the city for all the concerts, events, and work opportunities but most of our friends moved away to raise families. Some moved across the country and others moved to the suburbs of Surrey and Maple Ridge. One thing was clear: we needed to find a new home, because there wasn’t enough room for our cereal boxes let alone a child!

By moving to a place with lower real estate costs, Lisa and her family were able to afford a heritage house, which they’re currently renovating. By moving to a place with lower real estate costs, Lisa and her family were able to afford a heritage house, which they’re currently renovating.

Why did you chose to move to Nanaimo?

My twin sister lives here and her first baby was the catalyst for considering it. We’d spent about 2 years travelling casually into other towns in BC (hiking, camping, and simply walking around downtowns trying to imagine ourselves in these places). A lot of small towns in BC look very similar thanks to the Starbucks and Tim Hortons of the world. We were surprised to find downtown Nanaimo chain-store free (which, I later found out, is intentional). This stood out considering what we’d seen elsewhere.

We also spent a bit of time google-mapping out routes to visit family from prospective new homes. This helped us consider how many times we’d realistically make these trips. We loved the vibe in places like Nelson and the Sunshine Coast. Nanaimo won out, though, due to its proximity to family and my clients (who are mostly in the lower-mainland).

What do you like, and dislike, about Nanaimo?

The city’s centrality is one of it’s main perks. It’s close to Victoria, Vancouver (GVRD), Tofino/Ucluelet, Comox Valley and Mount Washington. I love taking the float plane into Vancouver for meetings/presentations—it makes me feel like a rock-star (and it only takes 20 minutes).

The people here are brave (or blissfully naive—I’m not sure) they start businesses without a lot of experience and have the financial freedom to learn and grow from their mistakes. There are a lot of relocated Vancouverites here too, which is not entirely surprising! I love how often we go for hikes and walks in nature. We’ve always loved hiking but now it’s not such a big deal to take a couple hours, do a substantial hike, and get on with the rest of the day. We have many options nearby.

I suppose the only down side to island living is the ferry. That said, I took it (without my 14 month old daughter) the other day and it was a relaxing break! Time to read uninterrupted, and have a coffee, while looking for wildlife? Honestly, not something to complain about.

Lisa still visits Vancouver for meetings and to see family—sometimes by plane, and at other times by ferry. Lisa still visits Vancouver for meetings and to see family—sometimes by plane, and at other times by ferry.

There’s also a real division between North Nanaimo and South Nanaimo. We live in the old city in the south and some people in the north seem to think it’s shady down here (Gang and drug issues were rampant in Nanaimo in the ’80s. This is a hard association to break, for some islanders). We live in a 100 year old house (that is full of ‘off screen’ projects) and our neighbours are amazing. They’ve become friends and there’s a real sense of community: lane way libraries, sharing tools, gardening together and sharing food—so dreamy.

Even though our house is a lot of work sometimes, we’ll never move so long as they’re here! In my 12 years in Vancouver I never felt as welcome as we do here.

What kind of work do you do, now?

I work collaboratively with BC-owned businesses and change-makers who believe they are making the world a better place. I love branding, systems, info-graphics, and multi-page document design—but we do a bunch of other stuff too.

I can’t say the type of work I do has changed much, or even the people I work with. As time goes on (it’ll be three years here, for us in May) I’m creating more working relationships in my immediate vicinity. I’d also love to be make more of an impact locally.

I’ve always worked with people across the province. As a remote worker, I feel like I work even more efficiently (as there isn’t so much time wasted going to and from meetings and the office everyday).

Sometimes Lisa’s friends drop by with a fresh catch, for an evening barbecue. Sometimes Lisa’s friends drop by with a fresh catch, for an evening barbecue.

Do you miss the city?

Yes, sometimes. I do go back there every month or two, though. I make a point of scheduling work-focused trips. These allow me to connect with my clients and collaborators over lunches and in-person meetings. We also have a lot of family in the Lower Mainland, so, we go back there for personal visits quite a bit, too. Mostly, I just feel lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the world.

How do you stay inspired? How/where do you take in new culture?

I look to nature for daily inspiration. Having an active dog and small toddler also does wonders for staying inspired—as you notice things on a level you wouldn’t otherwise. My dog continually flexes my empathic muscles as I try to read his mind. My daughter’s sense of wonderment and constant discovery keeps me open to inspiration.

We try to take in the happenings here in Nanaimo to connect with people and get to know our community. For the first full year we lived here, we challenged ourselves to go somewhere new to both of us, once a week, as an act of discovery. This was a great way to get to know what is available here. You can see my images on Instagram or check the hashtag #new52nanaimo.

So much of culture is driven by people and its everywhere if you look for it. We also love to travel which is a major cultural outlet (locally and abroad).

Since making the move, Lisa and her family find more time for ‘off screen’ projects. Since making the move, Lisa and her family find more time for ‘off screen’ projects.

What words of advice do you have for creative people in Vancouver, looking to relocate to somewhere smaller?

Think about your ideal lifestyle. What does a ‘perfect’ week look like to you? Get clear on your vision of success and then design your life around this. Your job is just one part of it all—albeit a really big part!

The benefits of the technological age allows us more freedom than ever—embrace tools that help you feel more in touch and know what you need to feel connected.

Life is short, go after what you want now, and do whatever allows you more of your ‘perfect’ week. If you leave Vancouver, you’ll make a new home and continue to create wherever you go. If you’re particularly awesome, please come to Nanaimo, we need more people like you! :-)

Have questions of your own? Lisa would be happy to answer them. Request a session with Lisa Hemingway.