Green infrastructure — trees — is good for our cities and towns

Natural infrastructure is good for the climate and communities

David Suzuki columnist

Natural infrastructure is good for the climate and communities

Across Canada, towns and cities face a one-two punch: aging infrastructure and the extreme weather climate change brings. Unless we do something, many of our roads, railways, transit lines, bridges, stormwater pipes and other built structures could become obsolete.

Our newly elected federal government took up the challenge with a campaign pledge to double infrastructure investments from $65 billion to nearly $125 billion over the next 10 years. Ontario has committed to spending $130 billion over the same time period, and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has also promised a hefty infrastructure stimulus package.

While these political commitments are long overdue, we shouldn’t lose sight of less-expensive and longer-lasting solutions to many of our infrastructure needs, like planting trees in urban areas for stormwater management and other services.

Many municipalities and non-profit organizations are exploring ways to improve how we plan for, plant, maintain and protect urban trees as key infrastructure assets in our built environments. But higher levels of government must also fund and participate in urban forest strategies to ensure that trees are promoted in our ever-densifying urban centres.

We often take trees and green spaces for granted, but we shouldn’t. They clean and cool air, filter and regulate water, reduce energy use and protect homes and businesses during storms.

Recognizing urban trees as infrastructure assets opens up new ways to assess their value and justify investment in their maintenance. Living, green infrastructure increases in value over time, unlike grey infrastructure, such as stormwater pipes, which depreciate. As trees mature they provide exponentially more benefits to residents.

Healthy street trees can lengthen the lifespan of built infrastructure like roads and sidewalks by shading them and reducing effects of weathering, and they provide significant human health benefits. This summer, using data from Toronto, David Suzuki Foundation Ontario director Faisal Moola and his academic colleagues found that adding 10 trees to a block can produce health benefits equivalent to a $10,000 salary raise or being seven years younger.

Despite their enormous value to society, urban forest canopies are stressed and in decline in many parts of the country. Hot, dry summers and increasingly frequent and extreme storms are wreaking havoc on city trees. Urban development, invasive species like the emerald ash borer and other threats have also reduced growing space and killed millions of trees.

Unfortunately, urban forest stewardship varies widely across the country.

Few municipalities have the necessary financial resources to manage and protect their urban forests in the face of growing and diverse threats.

Too often, municipalities scramble to handle damage caused by unpredictable storms, invasive species and urban development using a triage approach, when a proactive and comprehensive strategy is critically needed.

To help resolve this, provincial and federal governments need to update the definition of infrastructure to include green infrastructure such as trees, rain gardens and permeable surfaces, and allow municipalities to spend money to develop and maintain these assets.

Higher levels of government must also update the standards by which municipalities report and manage their government assets to include trees, parks, wetlands, woodlots and public aquifers.

That would facilitate setting minimum provincial standards for maintenance of critical green infrastructure and would improve management practices. We have provincial standards for grey infrastructure such as roads, so why not for green infrastructure?

With the help of the David Suzuki Foundation, the tiny town of Gibsons, B.C., has already started on this path.

It’s also important to make living, green infrastructure a crucial component of provincial and federal climate change strategies. Urban forests contribute greatly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide in tree biomass, understory vegetation and soils. Urban trees also help us adapt to and cope with climate change impacts by shading communities during periods of extreme heat. The unique, multi-purpose benefits of living, green infrastructure make it an incredibly valuable tool for cities and towns to improve resiliency in the face of climate change.

If we’re going to build, let’s build green. Green infrastructure complements and reduces costs associated with traditional grey concrete, steel and asphalt infrastructure. It also provides a multitude of co-benefits that improve the health and well-being of residents and makes our communities more beautiful and pleasant.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Ontario and Northern Canada Director Faisal Moola and the Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

Just Posted

Sierra Acton, regional district director for Shawnigan Lake. (file photo)
New parkland in Shawnigan creating connections

Used to created parking for the popular Masons Beach Park

By protesting uninvited in First Nations’ territories, conservationists are acting in a neocolonial or paternalistic manner, says Huu-ay-aht Chief Robert Dennis. Photo by Heather Thomson
A closer look: do Vancouver Island First Nations support the war in the woods?

First Nations/environmentalist old growth alliance uneasy, if it exists at all

Chris Wilkinson
Chris Wilkinson column: This could be the worst thing done to you during the pandemic

As a result, all of us will contend with more ‘scarcity’ thinking and mindset.

The Crofton trailer park home where the bodies of two people were found. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Mom still waiting for answers after daughter and her fiance found dead in Crofton

Pair discovered dead in their Crofton home in May identified as Rachel Gardner and Paul Jenkins

FILE – Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous Peoples Day must be a ‘call to action’, says Assembly of First Nations chief

Discovery of children at Kamloops residential school site must lead to change, Perry Bellegarde says

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
VIDEO: Border quarantine to soon lift for fully vaccinated Canadians

Eligible travellers must still take multiple COVID-19 tests

Chilliwack secondary school’s principal is apologizing after a quote equating graduation with the end of slavery in the U.S. was included in the 2020-2021 yearbook. (Screenshot from submitted SnapChat)
B.C. student’s yearbook quote equates grad to end of slavery; principal cites editing error

Black former student ‘disgusted’ as CSS principal apologizes for what is called an editing error

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross. (Photo by Peter Versteege)
BC Liberal leadership candidate condemns ‘senseless violence’ of Okanagan church fires

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross says reconciliation isn’t about revenge for past tragedies

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A coroner’s inquest will be taking place at the Capitol Theatre in Port Alberni for the next week. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Teen B.C. mom who died following police custody recalled as ‘friend to many’

Police sent Jocelyn George to hospital after intoxication had gone ‘beyond the realm’ of normal detox

FILE - In this Nov. 29, 2020, file photo, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta. Nassib on Monday, June 21, 2021, became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Nassib announced the news on Instagram, saying he was not doing it for the attention but because “I just think that representation and visibility are so important.” (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
Nassib becomes first active NFL player to come out as gay

More than a dozen NFL players have come out as gay after their careers were over

Penticton Indian Band Chief Greg Gabriel speaks to the Sacred Hearts Catholic Church burning down early Monday morning, June 21, 2021. (Monique Tamminga Western News)
Penticton band chief condemns suspicious burning of 2 Catholic churches

Both Catholic church fires are deemed suspicious, says RCMP

COVID-19 daily cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day moving average to June 17, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections drop to 90 on Sunday, 45 Monday

Pandemic spread dwindles as 77% of adults receive vaccine

Emergency vehicles are parked outside of the Wintergreen Apartments on Fourth Avenue. (SUSAN QUINN / Alberni Valley News)
Port Alberni RCMP investigate stabbing on Fourth Avenue

Two men were found with ‘significant’ injuries near Wintergreen Apartments

Most Read