7 Ways Trudeau Can Make Our Cities More Resilient

Perhaps the most appealing environmental policy change proposed by the federal Liberals — besides acknowledging climate change is a real and destructive force, of course — is its commitment to invest in green infrastructure and public transit.

During the election, the Liberal government promised to put $125 billion on the table for infrastructure investments in the next decade — representing a doubling of the $65 billion pledged by the previous government. Of that, some $20 billion has been earmarked for public transit funding, with another $20 billion promised for other green infrastructure projects.

Light-rail transit, wastewater facilities, electric vehicle charging stations, wildfire protection, renewable energy projects, climate impact analysis — you name it, and it was probably on the list of ideas forwarded by the party during the marathon 78-day election that eventually crowned party leader Justin Trudeau as the next prime minister of Canada.

But now comes the very tricky part: translating very lofty rhetoric about greening the country into reality.

We asked experts across Canada to break down where the funds are needed and how Trudeau and his cabinet can get the best bang for their buck in terms of mitigating climate change.

1) Build Smarter Cities

Public transit is a fascinating subject but often gets left out of grand-scale sustainable city planning.

Anthony Perl, professor of urban studies and political science at Simon Fraser University, says while the Liberal platform features an admirable commitment to transit funding (as mentioned, $20 billion over 10 years) it fails to discuss issues such as land-use, sustainability planning and the construction of mixed-use communities that promote walking, biking and transit use.

This could be either a real catalyst for building those more sustainable communities or it could be disconnected and actually work against that by putting the transit in and having to retrofit it later,” Perl says.

Perl points to Toronto’s Line 4 Sheppard subway route as an example of what happens if a city doesn’t retrofit land-use as well as they could have, resulting in underwhelming ridership. He suggests such problems could be averted by requiring municipalities to “get their act together in advance” and plan to house more people along transit corridors in “complete communities where they can walk to the rapid transit and not need cars.” Land-use planning is ultimately a municipal issue, but such funding conditions could provide the right incentives for change.

2) Grant Cities More Financial Power

Municipalities are legendarily hamstrung when it comes to raising revenue.

Municipalities are responsible for construction, operations and maintenance for 53 per cent of our nation’s public infrastructure, but collect just eight cents of every tax dollar paid in Canada,” the Canadian Union of Public Employees notes.

Cities can’t run deficits and are usually forced to rely on an unpopular combo of property tax and user fees.

Alan Broadbent, author of Urban Nation: Why We Need to Give Power Back to the Cities to Make Canada Strong and chairman of Maytree, a civic advocacy charity, says such a reality makes it very difficult for cities to construct forward-thinking infrastructure, especially since provincial and federal funding for infrastructure projects tends to arrive sporadically which forces cities to play catch-up.

They really haven’t done anything that you call a structured, focused agenda with long-term funding or anything like that,” he says. “They certainly have not done anything in terms of transferring tax points or creating a greater ability for municipalities to be able to raise their own revenues.”

Project-specific funding has filled the gap. Perl says such a strategy can work for a time but a broader framework —a national urban transportation strategy, for instance — is required to make the most of the available money.

n the provincial domain, the new government could also encourage premiers to re-evaluate how municipalities can raise revenue (think a municipal sales tax, or more revenue sharing, or granting more authority to cities to decide what money is spent on).

3) Introduce a Home Adaptation Audit Program

As demonstrated in the summer of 2013 (most notably in Calgary and Toronto), heavy rainfall can result in rapid and destructive flooding. Basements often get hit the hardest. That’s why Blair Feltmate, chair of the Climate Change Adaptation Project at the University of Waterloo, recommends the launching of a “home adaptation audit program,” a tool that would help lower the probability of flooded basements when the big storms occur (and which will increase in frequency in coming years).

Feltmate notes that more than half of claims for property damage liability insurance in Canada come from water-related damage, mostly flooding. Feltmate previously wrote that this trend has resulted in the creation of “uninsurable areas” — that is, regions that insurance companies won’t touch because it’s too risky. ” A shrinking insurance market will negatively impact the mortgage market, because to qualify for a mortgage, you need house insurance,” he wrote.

Pilots for such programs have been executed in Kitchener/Waterloo and Calgary: Halifax's Ecology Action Centre concluded the pilot was “a huge success” and for every dollar spent on an audit “the homeowner avoids an average of $7.50 in flood damage risk over 10 years.” The federal government could easily create and fund a national program.

4) Conserve Urban Forests and Natural Areas

In mid-2014, TD Bank published a study that suggested Toronto’s urban forests (made up of 10 million trees) account for $7 billion worth of value — or $700 per tree. If such a figure seems high, consider the ecosystem services that trees provide: buffering rainfall and snow which reduces strain on soil and stormwater systems ($5.28/tree), removing air pollutants ($1.87/tree) and providing natural shading ($0.63/tree). TD calculated that such “assets” save the average Toronto family $125/year.

However, a whole host of issues plague urban trees: insect infestations, loss of topsoil, salt pollution. And, of course, urban sprawl.

Dupras says policymakers in Montreal's metropolitan area want to protect 17 per cent but there’s only 20 per cent left.

There’s a lot of pressures from traditional developers for typical urban sprawl development,” he says. “We really need both ways, from top-down and bottom-up actions: voluntary actions and more restrictive development within a legal framework.”

Of course, issues pertaining to the regulation and protection of urban forests falls to municipalities and provinces. But Dupras argues the federal government “can really give a strong signal by reviewing the infrastructure program” and redirecting more money from the general infrastructure program (recall, $125 billion over 10 years) to the green infrastructure program ($20 billion in the same window). In the end, natural area conservation is just like anything else: it takes money.

5) Protect Wetlands from Further Destruction

Wetlands are the superstars of the natural world. In natural states, they can mitigate flooding, house greenhouse gases, filter sediment and toxins from stormwater and foster astounding levels of biodiversity.

Unfortunately, more than70 per cent of wetlands near major Canadian cities have been damaged or destroyed due to drainage for urban sprawl.

The most pressing issue is the wetlands. Numbers are challenging because we don’t know on what historical basis to work, but for sure in the last decade we lost over 80 per cent of the wetlands,” said Jérôme Dupras, assistant professor in natural sciences at University of Québec, about Montreal's metropolitan area.

Back in 2005, Thomas Mulcair — then serving as Quebec’s environment minister — called for a moratorium on wetlands destruction. Dupras notes the proposal was shot down by then-prime minister Paul Martin for undetermined reasons.

A decade later, there’s a lot of catch-up to be done. Dupras says there’s an urgent need to review laws and regulations about protection and restoration.

A national campaign to maintain wetlands wouldn’t just save a few mallard ducks (although that’s indeed a very noble cause). Left intact, wetlands could serve as natural green infrastructure, protecting major cities situated in floodplains (as most Canadian cities are) from the worst water-related manifestations of climate change.

6) Update Floodplain Mapping

A highly related issue is that of outdated floodplain mapping. Canada is way behind the times on the subject.

Feltmate says the country doesn’t even have an adequate understanding of floodwater patterns for 2015, let alone 25 or 50 years from now (a problem given storms and flooding are anticipated to grow in magnitude in the span of that window).

As a result, many municipalities simply don’t know how increased precipitation or runoff will impact rivers or current systems. Feltmate gives the example of stormwater channelling into sewers, backing up and flooding part of a city due to inadequate infrastructure. Rigorous calculations are required to create present-day and future-focused maps, he says. Without such forward thinking, investments in green infrastructure the new government makes may end up dead-on-arrival.

The federal government would work with the provincial governments to find out what their needs are in the area, producing flood-plain maps through either one of those two forces, and providing the funding to do so,” he advises.

7) Come Up With Way, Way, Way More Money

The figure of $125 billion over a decade seems sizable. But when one crudely breaks it down, it seems a lot less impressive: some $12.5 billion per year divided into 30 “large urban” centres (with most split between Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver) leaves a mere few hundred million per year for an average-sized municipality.

For reference, Vancouver’s recent transit overhaul (which was voted down in a regional plebiscite) was expected to cost a whopping $7.7 billion.

Perl says the Greater Toronto Area could absorb the entire $20 billion allocated for public transit and “still not be where they need to be.”

It sounds like a lot but Canada’s an awfully big country and we’re now an urban country,” he says. “If we’re serious about moving beyond auto-dependence, that means there’s a lot of catching up to do.”

New revenue sources have been announced such as an increase of personal income tax on highest earners and the cancelling of income splitting. But real change may not truly arrive until a “city agenda” is prioritized.

Broadbent says the federal government hasn’t focused on municipal affairs in any significant way, really since the days of Pierre Trudeau. However, the department of urban affairs that he created was a “short-lived experiment much reviled by some of the provinces,” in the words of Dalhousie University professor Jennifer Smith in her book Federalism.

Despite such facts, Broadbent’s optimistic: “I think we have a group in Ottawa now that really kind of gets these issues in a way that previous governments didn’t,” he says. “I think we’re going to see something significant in a better, more thoughtful approach.”

Image: Canadian Urban Transit Association