This executive summary lays out highlights from the report Parks+: A Program to Accelerate and Scale-Up Natural Infrastructure in Canadian Urban Centres, written by Max Bell School Master of Public Policy students Linda Bùi, Ankitha Cheerakathil, Janmejay Sahoo, and Prodpran W. as part of the 2023 Policy Lab.
Access the summary and presentation below, and read their full report here.
As part of the Max Bell School of Public Policy’s 2023 Policy Lab, Intact Financial Corporation presented the following policy challenge: How should Intact Financial Corporation actively engage the federal government in accelerating the conservation, protection and restoration of natural infrastructure in Canada?
This is a timely question. In 2022 alone, floods, wildfires and storms caused $3.1 billion in insured damage alone, according to the Catastrophe Indices and Quantification Inc.i The evidence now indicates that the country will experience annual losses arising from extreme, climate-related weather events amounting to $25 billion (equal to 50% of Canada’s projected GDP growthii) by the year 2025. Extreme weather events can cause catastrophic losses to households, communities, insurers, and governments at all levels. There is a need not only to mitigate climate change, but also to simultaneously adapt to the impacts of climate change which will be felt for years to come. Although the federal government has adopted a National Adaptation Strategy in 2022, efforts undertaken so far fall short of addressing the urgency of the crisisiii.
Natural infrastructure is considered a solution for both climate adaptation and mitigation to improve community and ecosystem resilience. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), “Natural infrastructure is an area or system that is either naturally occurring or naturalized and then intentionally managed to provide multiple benefits for the environment and human well-being.”iv It is low-cost, resilient, and provides multiple benefits to communities and ecosystems. Examples may include strategically managed forests, wetlands and or flood plains. As opposed to traditionally engineered grey infrastructure, like dykes and seawalls, studies show that natural infrastructure are cost-effective and achieve similar or better performancev. A 2018 joint report released by the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), demonstrates the value of natural infrastructure in providing ecosystem services, value for money, and should be implemented by all levels of governmentvi.
As such, this policy brief recommends Intact Foundation advocate to the federal government for a national program that uses natural infrastructure as a powerful medium for climate action and community resilience. Building natural infrastructure implies restoration, conservation, enhancement and management of natural ecosystem features and materials to aid in climate mitigation and adaptation. Leveraging nature’s inherent ability to protect against climate change impacts will result in healthy ecosystems that halt biodiversity loss and enable nature to facilitate adaptation for the overall well-being of humans and the larger environmentvii.
In order to reduce rising climate risks, and protect communities from preventable losses to life and livelihoods, this policy brief proposes Intact Foundation advocate to the federal government to adopt the program, Parks+ (pronounced ‘parks plus’).
Parks+ is a collaborative demonstration program to accelerate and scale up natural infrastructure solutions in all provinces and territories across Canada. A cohort of 13 urban parks, one in each province and territory would be identified to multisolve the cities’ most pressing climate risks and community challenges. Urban parks were selected as they provide an ideal testing ground for collaborating with multiple stakeholders while simultaneously reaching a wider audience and population in urban settings. What makes Parks+ distinct is that the primary goal of these urban parks is to tackle specific local climate risks, rather than only focusing on recreational use or aesthetics.
Given that Parks+ is fundamentally a shift in how land is used and given Canada’s history of colonization and dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their land, to ensure Parks+ is equitably operationalized across Canada, the design and implementation must be done in ways that honour traditional knowledge, respect Indigenous leadership and advance federal commitments to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. Moreover, in order to design effective natural infrastructure interventions, the establishment of Parks+ sites must be guided by principles of Integrated Watershed Management (IWM). This ensures a more holistic valuation and management of both ecological and human factors. IWM principles applied to an urban setting can also build opportunities for collaboration and future up-scaling.
Parks+ is an ambitious program and opportunity for the government to expand upon its current plans by scaling up action on natural infrastructure. It provides an avenue for multiple sites for this infrastructure and builds capacity for future action. It also provides opportunities for cross- sectoral capacity building given the multidisciplinary nature of the initiative and the necessity of working collaboratively with partners across the insurance sector, civil society, Indigenous governments, and public post-secondary institutions.
Parks+ will accelerate natural infrastructure solutions because it will draw from private sector expertise, including those of the insurance sector, and actors like Intact. It hopes to create new institutional arrangements that will fast-track the establishment of natural infrastructure. Parks+ is also a clear signal to the private sector, and Canadians at-large about the federal government’s priorities in reducing climate risks, which in turn can attract innovative partnerships, investments, expertise and political support.
The Parks+ program consists of five main pillars, necessary for this scaling up and acceleration of natural infrastructure, and includes:
- Institutional Arrangements: It is recommended that a federal Steering Committee be established with representation across federal departments and leadership from Infrastructure Canada. This committee would be responsible for the commission of the study into the creation of Parks+. To ensure a diversity of voices at the table, consultations with Indigenous partners, provincial and territorial governments, and partners must be undertaken.
- Co-Governance: It is recommended that a combination of top-down and bottom-up approach be applied to center Truth and Reconciliation, as well as principles of IWM, bringing together various partners and actors including Indigenous communities and governments. Each Parks+ site should have a co-governance board or a variation that is appropriate to the local realities of the site.
- Criteria: Although each Parks+ site may be different depending on the local geographies and contexts, it is recommended that there should be some minimum standards in place. This proposal recommends that all Parks+ must be within an urban setting; have a public engagement component with the general public; be designed with community climate risk reduction and resilience in mind; have an established minimum threshold for the size that is demonstrably impactful on a neighbourhood scale to ensure a good return on investment for climate risk reduction and other co-benefits; partner with public post-secondary institutions for creating training and learning opportunities related to natural infrastructure, as well as, leveraging academic expertise; and form co-governance partnerships with Indigenous communities.
Additionally, this proposal recommends prioritizing sites that display a strategic case for accelerating natural infrastructure that might include 1) sites that aim to expand wetlands 2) sites that will reforest native plant species 3) and sites along, and that protects, critical freshwater resources. These are strategic given the evidence presented by studies from the Intact Centre for Climate Adaptation which has demonstrated that wetlands conservation and restoration is a cost-effective means to reduce flood risks to Canadiansviii.
- Capacity-Building: It is recommended partnerships be formed with post-secondary institutions in order to establish training opportunities or programs, and dedicated research funding to further expand the capacity in natural infrastructure. Capacity-building and professional development programs for partners that are involved in the establishment of each Parks+ site may also be conducted independent of these partnerships as appropriate.
- Monitoring and Evaluation: It is recommended that a centralized data hub be created that allows for decentralized but coordinated access and management of data across different sites. The federal government should work with each Parks+ board to develop monitoring and evaluation metrics and performance indicators that can be reviewed and assessed over time.
What makes Parks+ a worthwhile investment?
A report from the Canadian Climate Institute (CCI) finds that for every $1 spent on the adaptation measures, including natural infrastructure, there is an estimated $13-$15 in total benefits accrued. This also includes $5-$6 of benefits through avoided direct damages like premature infrastructure repair or replacement costs and $6-$10 through benefits that are circulated through the economyix. These savings can be invested elsewhere into the economy and communities.
There are also many intangible benefits. These benefits can be enjoyed in the immediate term, and most importantly, yield long-term benefits. Through achieving Parks+’s climate risk reduction goals, losses of life and livelihoods will be avoided. These are benefits that may not be fully valued in monetary terms but nonetheless are just as, if not more important. Programs like Parks+ are not only a form of natural infrastructure, but also a form of social infrastructure, which are spaces that help to foster community connections. Access to green spaces and nature promotes physical and mental health, builds social connections, and is linked to positive health outcomes, which consequently can reduce costs on the healthcare system.
Investing in natural infrastructure can also support capacity-building and professional development because there’s a greater demand for skills and knowledge. Finally, this also enhances political support for future natural infrastructure projects, with greater attention and recognition of these co-benefits. Indeed, one of the key co-benefits of this program is that if done well, these parks can be integrated into the everyday lives of Canadians. Think about well- loved urban parks, such as Mont Royal Park in Montreal, Stanley Park in Vancouver or Central Park in New York. These are parks that make up the “heart” of a place or community. Similarly, natural infrastructure can also contribute to placemaking. This is crucial to raising awareness of the role natural infrastructure can play in reducing climate risks. Its popularity and public support can help build political will to advance the creation of natural infrastructure.
Why is Parks+ feasible?
To determine the potential costs for implementing Parks+, an analogous method of costing was adopted, which involves identifying case studies as a reference for estimating the cost of individual urban parks. This information was then aggregated as subcomponents of the Parks+ to arrive at a total cost for the entire project. Deriving from this approach, there are three potential scenarios. In the most likely baseline scenario (depending on the wide range of projects with different scopes), Parks+ could cost around $1.7 billion dollars over a period of 10 years. In an alternate high-cost scenario, Parks+ could cost as high as $3 billion dollars over a period of 10 years taking into account the highest initial development cost and annual maintenance costs. Similarly, under a low-cost scenario, Parks+ could cost around $0.6 billion dollars over a period of 10 years. Prior to implementation, a subsequent sensitivity analysis could help determine the feasibility of the baseline scenario and examine the extent to which results are affected by changes in methods, models, values of unmeasured variables, or assumptions.
Should this policy proposal be accepted, the following next steps are recommended: Intact Foundation should:
- Engage with government partners on the federal, provincial and local levels to gauge support and validate the proposal.
- Engage with other insurance and private sector actors through the IBC or through other tables it is a part of to garner commitment to support the federal government in the rollout of Parks+. Intact can also play a leading role in spearheading a strategy that would streamline the actions of the insurance sector.
At a later phase of the program, the federal government should:
- Engage with Indigenous partners, provincial and territorial governments, and communities to establish effective co-governance.
- Study and establish a model for a federal-level Steering Committee to oversee the implementation of Parks+ across the country, with the recognition that each Parks+ site should have its own independent co-governance structure.
- Commission further studies to identify preliminary sites for consideration of Parks+ within each province and territory. The results of this study could inform a more in-depth analysis of the costs and benefits associated with this proposal.
The types of infrastructure a society chooses to build indicates what it values. Choosing to make long-term investments in natural infrastructure such as in programs like Parks+, is to show that it is possible to tackle complex problems like climate change in ways that prioritize both sustainability and community resilience. Infrastructure projects can be daunting in scale and costs. But if Canada wants to fulfill its climate commitments including net-zero emissions by 2050, and protect communities from the devastating impacts of climate change for years to come, long-term investments in natural infrastructure programs must be made.
i Insurance Bureau of Canada, “Severe Weather in 2022 Caused $3.1 Billion in Insured Damage – Making It the 3rd Worst Year for Insured Damage in Canadian History,” Insurance Bureau of Canada, accessed July 5, 2023.
ii Environment and Climate Change Canada, “Canada’s National Adaptation Strategy Will Protect Communities and Build a Strong Economy,” news releases, 2022.
iii Ryan Ness and Sarah Miller, “Closing Canada’s Adaptation Gap: Key Elements of a National Adaptation Strategy” (Canadian Climate Institute, 2022).
v Shalini Vajjhala and Dimple Roy, “Mobilizing Capital for Natural Infrastructure in Canada: A Guide for Project Champions and Funders” (International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2020).
vi N Moudrak et al., “Combating Canada’s Rising Flood Costs: Natural Infrastructure Is an Underutilized Option” (Prepared for Insurance Bureau of Canada. Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, University of Waterloo, 2018).
vii Dr Blair Feltmate and Marina Moudrak, “Climate Change and the Preparedness Of 16 Major Canadian Cities To Limit Flood Risk,” n.d.
viii Natalia Moudrak, Anne-Marie Hutter, and Blair Feltmate, “When the Big Storms Hit: The Role of Wetlands to Limit Urban and Rural Flood Damage” (Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, University of Waterloo, July 2017).
ix Dave Sawyer et al., “Damage Control: Reducing the Costs of Climate Impacts in Canada.” (Canadian Climate Institute, September 2022).