Canada Needs a National Policy on Green Infrastructure

Despite its ubiquity in certain circles, you could be forgiven for not knowing what Green Infrastructure is. Unless you are one of those rarefied beasts that has a burning passion for environmental and/or municipal infrastructure and urban design policy. You may not have given more than a passing thought about the form and function of your urban green spaces, how urban water flows, or how big your watershed is. That is, unless you live in Windsor, Ottawa/Gatineau, Michigan or Houston, or one of the many communities across North America who have been hard-hit by the near endless rain that has marked the summer of 2017. If you live in one of these towns, you may be asking these very questions. You are certainly aware that a city’s infrastructure is tasked with managing water, and well, it seems many places aren’t managing very well. This is where Green Infrastructure comes in.

Traditional (grey) infrastructure design takes all the water that falls as precipitation, and puts it in a pipe under the road where it gets channeled off somewhere, likely to be discharged into a local watercourse. Many older cities have combined sewer / stormwater systems, and large rainfalls can overwhelm the system. The result is raw sewage discharged into our lakes and rivers. Green Infrastructure design is a type of urban renewal being adopted globally that seeks to improve urban quality of life and build climate resilience by leveraging, mimicking and strengthening natural systems to complement or improve on traditional (grey) systems. The focus of Green Infrastructure policy is on water management, flood mitigation, environmental adaptation, biodiversity protection and enhancement through which a myriad of social benefits are provided, such as improved air and water quality and a greener, more vibrant and livable urban environment. As we have seen this past season, how water is managed is arguably one of the most important urban infrastructure functions.

Street Side Bioswale

Street Side Bioswale
Image used under Creative Commons License Labeled for reuse – Wikimedia

Good Green Infrastructure policy focuses on using innovative approaches to integrate natural and artificial systems to create spaces that are dynamic, beautiful, functional and resilient. Cities around the world have already embraced good Green Infrastructure policy, the most common of which may consist of urban forests and woodlots, Bioswales, engineered and natural wetlands, ravines, waterways and riparian zones, fields, meadows, parks, green roofs, urban gardens, or simply planting more trees[1]. Green Infrastructure elements make neighborhoods beautiful places to live while providing a bulwark against the damaging effects of climate change. Moreover, according to a 2013 Nature Conservancy study, Green Infrastructure projects, compared to traditional grey infrastructure typically have reduced environmental footprints, lower startup, operating and maintenance costs, and have no end-of-life recapitalization costs due to their self-sustaining and regenerative nature. [1] Green Infrastructure projects in lifecycle analysis have demonstrated significantly lower carbon footprints, and are much more efficient at reducing toxic loading of grey water at point of discharge compared to traditional projects. [2]

Urban Rain Garden & Water Feature
Image used under Creative Commons License Labeled for reuse – Wikimedia

Most of Canada’s infrastructure is at least 30 to 50 years old and is in disrepair. The biggest impacts of climate change in Canada will not be killer heat waves, as much as it will be increased 100, 500 and 1000-year storms, and the effects of water. The Insurance Bureau of Canada has indicated that property and casualty insurance payouts from extreme weather have more than doubled every 5 to 10 years since the 1980s, and the primary cause of claims  during the seven-year period up to 2016 was flooding. Furthermore, with over 70% of Southern Ontario’s pre-settlement wetlands lost through agricultural drainage, development, encroachment, land clearance, filling and road construction, [4] we have undermined our very ability to absorb the worst that Mother Nature would throw at us.

If Green Infrastructure is such a great solution, why aren’t we doing it already? After years of missed opportunity we find ourselves far behind the curve, and Canada’s leadership simply lacks the political will to prioritize climate resilience policies. The United Nations, European Union, The UK, and the US EPA all have strong policies, guides, guidelines and targets for implementation of Green Infrastructure, however Canada has no such policies in place. The other side of climate change mitigation is adaptation. We must be ready to face a changing climate in Canada, and according to A new report by Prof. Feltmate at University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, we are not ready.

While the Federal government in Canada has committed to investing $20 Billion over the next decade to investment in Green Infrastructure, they have essentially abandoned all strategy, policy coordination, guidance or even a basic definition of what in fact qualifies as Green Infrastructure to the provinces and municipalities who are struggling to fill the gap. Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, has no stand-alone Green Infrastructure policy. The province defines, or discusses Green Infrastructure in significant detail, but these discussions are largely buried within multiple policy papers and diffused among several agencies. Ontario’s Green Infrastructure policy is piecemealed between the Ministry of Municipal Housing and Affairs, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, and lacks any coherent framework, let alone tangible targets. This is reflected in the City of Ottawa’s Green Infrastructure policy which, despite having received some genuine engagement and even a pilot project or two, Canada’s capital city is approaching Green Infrastructure as an unproven technology and their policy is just as vague and disjointed as the province’s.

Canada has always been an innovation leader. It is time for us to step up and demonstrate climate leadership. Feltmate’s report stresses that Canada must develop “authoritative, accessible and actionable information” on changing climate conditions, and  “generate greater awareness, leadership and investment in adaptation”. He urges Ottawa and the provinces to each create a position of “chief adaptation officer,” whose mandate would be to identify areas of strengths and weaknesses in flood preparedness and produce regular audits of the jurisdiction’s commitments and actions. [5] This is exactly what is required for Canada lead by example in climate preparedness.

While other global jurisdictions are getting on with things and building the great cities of tomorrow, excellent places to invest and live, Canada is lurching along hesitantly, stymied by the Harper-era shift away from climate adaptation-related public policy [6] just when we needed it most, and politicians who are reticent to take on any new ideas when “staying the course” just seems safer. It isn’t. We are headed into uncharted waters and we need all the tools we can muster. Lack of leadership and coordination creates confusion and paralysis when we need decisive action. I urge Canada’s leaders to adopt Professor Feltmate’s recommendations, and show leadership by developing a National Policy on Green Infrastructure.

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Sources:

[1] Online Source: http://greeninfrastructureontario.org/

[2] The Nature Conservancy (2013) Online Source: https://www.nature.org/about-us/the-case-for-green-infrastructure.pdf?redirect=https-301

[3] Brudler, S., & et al. (2016). Life cycle assessment of stormwater management in the context of climate change adaptation. Water Research 106, 394-404.

[4] When the Big Storms Hit: The Role of Wetlands to Limit Urban and Rural Flood Damage. Prepared for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. – Intact Center for Climate Change Adaptation (Moudrak & et al., 2017)

[5] IBID

[6] Bolivar Phillips. (2013). Adaptive Approaches in Stormwater Management. Ottawa: City of Ottawa. Retrieved from http://documents.ottawa.ca/en/node/6048

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