12/07/2016 05:16 EST | Updated 12/07/2016 05:16 EST

Canada's National Identity Is Tied To Our Natural Environment

Danita Delimont via Getty Images
Banff National Park is Canadas oldest national park, established in Mountains. The park, located 110 - 180 km (68 - 112 mi) west of Calgary in the province of Alberta, encompasses 6,641 km square (2,564 sq mi) of mountainous terrain, with numerous glaciers and ice fields, dense coniferous forest, and alpine landscapes. The Icefields Parkway extends from Lake Louise, connecting to Jasper National Park in the north. Provincial forests and Yoho National Park are neighbors to the west, while Kootenay National Park is located to the south and Kananaskis Country to the southeast. The main commercial center of the park is the town of Banff, in the Bow River valley.

Blessed with an abundance of spectacular natural wonders, Canadians have always tied much of our national identity to nature. During my recent trip to China, I was reminded that Canada's lakes, rivers, forests and mountains are also the first things that spring to mind when people around the globe think of our country.

However, outside all of those beer commercials and tourism ads is the reality that 82 per cent of our population now lives in urban areas -- four out of every five people. This dichotomy of Canada, the stereotype, and Canada, the reality, is why I was given the great honour to speak at the 1st International Forest City Conference in Shenzhen, China.

The purpose of this conference was to help us all move closer towards the United Nation's goal of creating sustainable cities and communities by proving a forum to share best practices and collaborate on new ideas and models for developing urban forests.

And this event was a real eye-opener for me as it revealed there's an increasing amount of attention being directed towards urban forests throughout the world, and that Canada has leadership role to fulfill in this area. With half of the world's population now living in urban areas, urbanization is a growing global challenge, and nowhere is this reflected more than in our country.

Trees, of course, are the infrastructure of the urban ecological environment, providing shade and clean air, canceling noise, absorbing dust and water, reducing energy consumption, providing people with psychological well-being and more. In addition, trees are a symbol of low-carbon cities, a carrier of a city's unique culture, and a significant sign of urban development and cultural progress.

A far cry from our own long-held stereotypes of Chinese cities choked with smog, Shenzhen is a champion of urban green development. In fact, by the end of 2015, Shenzhen's greenery coverage ratio reached 45.1 per cent with 16.9m2 of parkland per person.

Conversely, here in Canada, it might surprise you that there is currently no federal leadership strategy to preserve, protect and promote urban forests for their life-giving value to Canadian communities. In fact, we are significantly behind other G7 countries when looking at the role of the federal government vis-à-vis our urban forests, especially the U.S., where management of the nation's urban forests falls under the responsibility of an individual equivalent to a Canadian deputy minister.

Moving forward, it's clear we need to take a more strategic approach to maintaining and improving our urban forests at both the provincial and federal level in order to combat climate change and air pollution, urbanization and densification, invasive insects and disease, and the cost of green infrastructure maintenance.

We need to develop a "forest city" ethic within Canada -- one that sensitizes the population to the value of trees. With the help of the private sector and citizens, we must raise the importance of urban forests within the municipal, provincial and federal levels of government.

The creation of new programs which recognize municipalities for successful urban forest initiatives will help, but we also need to continue educating private residents, who actually own up to 70 per cent of our country's urban forest.

One positive first step towards putting urban forestry on our nation's agenda is Tree Canada's recent selection as a Canada 150 partner. To celebrate our country's 150th anniversary of confederation, we're helping the federal government select 150 communities nationwide that will be awarded $5,000 for their urban tree planting and maintenance initiatives. If you want your municipality or First Nation to take part in the celebration, be sure to apply for the Tree to Our Nature, Canada 150 Legacy Program.

Together, on a landmark birthday for our country, we can all work together to ensure Canada's national identity remains tied to our natural environment for years to come, by building and maintaining healthy, thriving urban forests in the cities and communities where we live.

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