09/21/2017 12:15 EDT | Updated 09/21/2017 12:15 EDT

Want Resilient Cities? Try A National Policy On Green Infrastructure

While other global jurisdictions are building the great cities of tomorrow, excellent places to invest and live, Canada is lurching along hesitantly.

Outside the world of environmental and/or municipal infrastructure and urban design policy, you could be forgiven for not knowing what green infrastructure is. You may not have given more than a passing thought to 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 that have been hit hard by the near endless rain that has marked the summer of 2017. If your community has been affected by flooding, you may have a newfound interest in how your city's infrastructure manages water and, well, it seems many places aren't managing very well. This is where green infrastructure comes in.

rootstocks via Getty Images
Traditional, or "grey," infrastructure includes storm drains that simply displace water.

Traditional (grey) infrastructure design takes all the water that falls as precipitation and puts it in a pipe under the road where it gets channelled off to 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, currently 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.

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 aroundthe world have embraced green infrastructure policies, many of which utilize 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. 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. 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 (per Sarah Brudler in Water Research 106).

After years of missed opportunity we find ourselves far behind the curve.

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 be increased 100, 500 and 1,000-year storms, and the effects of water. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, property and casualty insurance payouts from extreme weather have more than doubled every five to 10 years since the 1980s, and the primary cause of claims in the past seven years was flooding. Furthermore, with over 70 per cent of Southern Ontario's pre-settlement wetlands lost to development — according to When the Big Storms Hit: The Role of Wetlands to Limit Urban and Rural Flood Damage, a report prepared for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry — 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 U.K., and the U.S. 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 The Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, we are not ready.

shansekala via Getty Images

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 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, with disparate references buried within multiple policy papers, diffused among several agencies. Ontario's green infrastructure policy is largely 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 lack of coherence trickles down to where the water meets the road, as demonstrated by the City of Ottawa's green infrastructure policy, which 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. While other global jurisdictions are 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 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. It's time for Canada to develop a national policy on green infrastructure.

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook

Also on HuffPost: