As we all grapple with the consequences of COVID-19, it’s tempting to look forward to the day when we return to our old reality. However, we’ve recognized for some time that many of the ways we have traditionally lived and worked have come at a cost to the environment. The extent of that impact has become clear during quarantine, from the clearing of Venice’s canals to improving air quality through notable greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions worldwide.
Rather than re-establishing the status quo, we have a choice to redesign our systems so they are more resilient and adaptable in the face of dynamic environments. Green infrastructure is a great place to start. Green infrastructure incorporates natural systems, such as wetlands, urban forests, parks, or a hybrid of natural and human-made structures such as green roofs, permeable pavement, and rain gardens. This kind of infrastructure provides a multitude of social, environmental, and economic benefits compared to conventional infrastructure.
Roads, buildings, and other hard infrastructure interrupt efficient natural systems by increasing impermeable surfaces and decreasing space for wildlife habitats. The results include increased flooding events, a loss of biodiversity, poor air and water quality, and, in many cases, more strain on our ‘grey’ or traditional infrastructure. By building more green infrastructure in our cities, we mitigate these risks and also create opportunities for new jobs and economic growth.
The severity of storms, flooding, wildfires, and droughts, and the number of record-breaking temperature days are increasing in frequency. The effects of the climate crisis are already affecting our health, infrastructure and economy, and we are likely to see that impact increase over time (barring increasingly ambitious global action).
Insured losses in Canada have reached over CAD $1 billion/year for the past five years, with payouts in 2018 reaching nearly CAD $2 billion.
In response to the crisis , investment and insurance experts, such as the Insurance Bureau of Canada, are highlighting green infrastructure as an important part of the solution: it can not only mitigate the risks and costs associated with severe weather, but also sequester carbon and therefore reduce GHG emissions.
Climate change is an increasing concern among Canadians, with 67% of voters in the 2019 federal election wanting climate change policies to be enacted, and 78% supporting a large-scale investment in clean energy and green infrastructure. As public awareness and attitudes towards the sector evolve, in part as a result of increased awareness of the benefits of green infrastructure, the sector is seeing increased engagement from key stakeholders across the value chain.
Investing in green infrastructure projects translates into jobs across many different industries; jobs include those involved with design and planning, engineering and maintenance—including landscape architects, technical and environmental consultants, building contractors—and suppliers such as equipment manufacturers and growing nurseries.
Our team at The Delphi Group recently conducted a study for the Greenbelt Foundation and Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition on the current and potential future economic and employment impacts of the green infrastructure sector in Ontario. The study revealed that in 2018, the province’s green infrastructure sector employed 84,400 people and generated $4.6 billion in GDP.
That’s more than the province’s wood product manufacturing sector ($1.5 billion in GDP), computer and electronic product manufacturing sector ($3.5 billion in GDP), and the pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing sector ($3.4 billion in GDP). Looking forward to 2030, Ontario’s green infrastructure sector could be worth more than $10 billion in GDP and employ more than 146,000 jobs with targeted investments and policy support over the next decade.
While the numbers are specific to Ontario, provinces across Canada can reap similar benefits by investing in green infrastructure.
Investing in green infrastructure projects creates ripple effects in the value chain that ensure the local communities retain the economic and environmental benefits. Green infrastructure work must largely be performed within a province, so projects rely on local environmental, scientific and technical consultants, such as water resource and civil engineers, landscape architects, specialized trades, and other groups. Of the many takeaways that have emerged from the COVID-19 crisis, one is the strategic value of ensuring supply chains are as local as possible since they are more adaptable to sudden shifts. Green infrastructure investments present one avenue for making communities and surrounding regions more self-sufficient and resilient.
Integrating green infrastructure design into city planning is an innovative concept; it encourages decision-makers to re-think the value of infrastructure assets and take on a wholistic, systems-based approach to urban design. While the use of vegetation, permeable surfaces, rain barrels, and green roofs are fairly standard best-practice tools for cities, the re-thinking of urban design using green technologies has led to new applications of these technologies to create more efficient solutions. Examples include using geographic information systems (GIS) to produce stormwater modelling, or mapping of trees and forest assets using light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology. These innovations are paving the way for the application of emerging technology to improve the efficacy and impact of green infrastructure.
In the near term, governments at all levels will be focused on bringing some semblance of normalcy back to communities and economies across Canada. While this will be welcomed by many, it’s important to consider how we can rethink investment and redesign old systems so that our infrastructure is more resilient in the long term.
In a letter released on July 14, 2020, 235 Canadian organizations asked the federal government to invest in nature-based climate solutions and conservation as part of its COVID-19 pandemic economic recovery and resiliency efforts, creating jobs for communities across the country in the process. At an individual level, you could use your quarantine time to invest in a small personal garden, plant a few more trees in your yard, invest in a rain barrel system, or show support for local organizations and conservation agencies who advocate for green infrastructure projects in your community.
Shanna Killen is a Consultant at The Delphi Group. For more information about food waste solutions or Delphi’s Green Economy and Corporate Sustainability service areas, feel free to reach out to Shanna directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.