reprinted from the Vancouver Sun, December 7, 2011
Let’s protect the nature in our neighbourhoods
BY FAISAL MOOLA, MICHELLE MOLNAR AND PATRICK MOONEY,
SPECIAL TO THE VANCOUVER SUN
Despite being a vast nation of mountains, forests and ice, Canada is truly an urban society. Close to 80 per cent of Canadians now live in cities, and last year, more than half of our country’s economic wealth was generated in five metropolitan areas alone (Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary and Montreal).
Cities are emerging as Canada’s hot spots of economic and social capital, with world-class universities, growing high-tech and clean-tech driven economies and ethnically diverse populations. Yet, poorly planned urban growth continues to have a devastating impact on what economists refer to as natural capital — forests, farmland, wetlands, rivers and other natural areas that sustain the health and well-being of the people who live there.
For example, more than half of the original wetlands in the Lower Mainland have now been drained, diked, dug up or paved over. The Okanagan has lost more than two-thirds of its antelope brush, largely due to recent urbanization.
The precipitous loss and degradation of near-urban nature and farmland should concern all of us. We often think of nature as something out there in the wilderness. But nature within and surrounding our urban communities provides much more than just a nice place to jog or have a picnic. These ecosystems are the source of an astonishing suite of ecological services that provide billions of dollars in benefits each year, and are the primary reason why B.C. communities are cited as some of the most desirable places to live on the planet.
Local governments in the Lower Mainland and elsewhere have a critical role to play in preserving and restoring natural capital. B.C.’s population growth in the next decade will be mainly in cities, with the Lower Mainland’s expected to grow to more than three million by 2020.
This pressure, coupled with the provincial off-loading of responsibilities, has left local governments with the burden of managing their natural capital assets.
With scarce resources and little guidance, these agencies are charged with developing and enforcing many of the policies and programs necessary to ensure that urban development doesn’t consume what’s left of the natural world closest to home.
The good news is that local governments have many policy options that can be used to protect and restore natural capital, as documented in a report released last week by the David Suzuki Foundation.
Many of these promising policies and programs are already being implemented in the region, providing essential services and tremendous benefits for residents.
The Maplewood Flats Conservation Area in North Vancouver has been transformed from derelict industrial site into naturalized wetlands, bringing a richer level of biodiversity to the area and providing tremendous psychological and physical health benefits for residents.
At the regional level, the 24 local authorities that make up Metro Vancouver recently passed an Ecological Health Action Plan, which is centred on a comprehensive protected areas strategy (called a Green Infrastructure Network).
If implemented, this plan could envelope the region’s cities and suburbs in a connected greenbelt of protected nature and farmland, as has been achieved in major cities elsewhere such as Toronto, Sao Paulo, Frankfurt and Melbourne.
Although occupying only two per cent of the world’s land base, cities are responsible for 75 per cent of our world’s natural resources consumed and waste produced.
If we have any hope of reducing our massive and growing ecological footprint, we must ensure that our local governments have the knowledge, technology, financial resources and, most importantly, political power to manage our urban and near-urban ecosystems and other natural capital in a manner that fosters their resilience in the face of increasing human pressures.
Dr. Faisal Moola and Michelle Molnar are policy experts with the David Suzuki Foundation. Dr. Patrick Mooney is chair of the Landscape Architecture Program at the University of British Columbia.