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May 25, 2020

Could Natural Infrastructure Projects Be The "Green Recovery" Canada Is Looking For?

Could Natural Infrastructure Projects Be The "Green Recovery" Canada Is Looking For?
As Canada grapples with the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis, climate change barrels on, bringing with it extreme weather and the need for costly infrastructure upgrades. Across Canada, an estimated $5.3 billion per year is needed to adapt infrastructure to climate change,[1] a troubling number given the stress municipal budgets are currently under. While there has been much talk of a Green Recovery to COVID-19, it is unclear how economic and ecological priorities might overlap. The Greenbelt Foundation advances natural infrastructure projects, which occur at that very intersection.
Wetlands, trees, grassed areas, and other green features are examples of natural infrastructure that provide quantifiable services to surrounding communities, such as preventing flooding, modifying temperatures, and purifying fresh water. By formally accounting for and investing in these assets, municipalities can save on grey infrastructure costs, improve their resilience to climate change, and create stable, full-time jobs for local workers.

In the spring of 2018, the Greenbelt Foundation began working with Municipal Natural Assets Initiative (MNAI) on a three-year project geared towards making natural asset management a mainstream practice for municipalities across the region. Last week, the Foundation announced a flagship milestone within this broader initiative.

The Greenbelt Foundation and MNAI, working closely with Mayor Meed Ward of Burlington, Mayor Eisenberger of Hamilton, Conservation Halton, and Royal Botanical Gardens, announced a groundbreaking natural asset management strategy for Halton Region’s Grindstone Creek watershed, which originates in wetland areas above the Niagara Escarpment and drains an area of 91 km2. This project involves a site-specific evaluation of the watershed for its function and infrastructural capacity. The outcomes of the evaluation and subsequent management strategy will lead to minimized flood risk for local communities and reduced phosphorous loading in Hamilton Harbour. 

“There is growing evidence that healthy natural assets provide local governments with core infrastructure services such as stormwater management — sometimes at lower capital, operating, maintenance, and renewal costs — than engineered alternatives and often with numerous other benefits,” says Roy Brooke, Executive Director for MNAI. “Understanding, valuing, and better managing nature’s role in providing infrastructure services could play an important part in helping local governments recover from the pandemic.”

Investing in natural infrastructure also has other added benefits:  
  • Natural infrastructure tends to increase in value with age because as ecosystems mature, their capacity to perform infrastructure services also grows; 
  • Improved greenspace boosts local tourism and recreation industries, and leads to high-quality jobs;
  • Additional full-time jobs are created for local workers in planning, construction, asset monitoring, and stewardship; and,
  • Improving the function of natural assets inherently improves the health of surrounding ecosystems, allowing these greenspaces to sustain greater amounts of biodiversity.
“Given the strain that COVID-19 is putting on Ontario’s economy and workers, it is more important now than ever to find cost-effective solutions to the impacts climate change is having on our communities,” says Edward McDonnell, CEO of the Greenbelt Foundation. “When managed properly, natural assets like Grindstone Creek can play a critical role in protecting residents and their property from flooding, saving municipalities money, and providing much-needed jobs in planning, design, and construction for local workers.”
According to a report that came out earlier this year by FCM and IBC, Natural infrastructure is shown to provide a 6:1 return-on-investment.[2] That is, for every dollar invested in climate-resilient, natural infrastructure, six dollars is saved in future damages.
A recent study also shows that natural infrastructure is an increasingly important and valuable economic asset. An assessment by the Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition, funded by the Greenbelt Foundation, shows that Ontario’s green infrastructure sector contributed $4.64 billion in direct GDP in 2018. That’s 28% more GDP than the pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing sector and 31% more than the computer and electronic manufacturing sector. Including indirect and induced impacts, the green infrastructure sector was responsible for more than 120,000 jobs in 2018. 
As Canada looks for ways to begin economic recovery post-pandemic, as well as protect the economy from the future costs of climate change, it’s important to find solutions that do both. By investing in natural infrastructure and natural asset management, like that undertaken at Grindstone Creek, we can create stable, full-time jobs for local workers and save municipalities money now, while also protecting ecological assets and offering relief to municipal budgets for a smart, clean future.
[1] Natural Infrastructure in a Changing Climate Toronto: Greenbelt Foundation, 2020.
[2] Investing in Canada’s Future: The Cost of Climate Change: FCM, IBC, 2020.
Header Photo: Greenbelt Foundation
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The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Prepared by Michael Young of the Greenbelt Foundation

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