Yesterday the Government of Ontario promised to spend $190 million to help Greater Toronto Area (GTA) municipalities recover from devastating storms that have hit the region over the last few months.
Local mayors welcomed the funding. It will help pick up the tab for disaster relief centers, hydro crew overtime and the cleanup of thousands of trees downed during a devastating late-December ice storm that left millions of residents without power for days.
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But the climate will continue to change and severe storms will become increasingly common.
Last December's ice storm and Calgary's severe flooding last June are dramatic reminders of our vulnerability to severe weather events. Once referred to as "once in a century" occurrences, extreme storms are becoming disturbingly common in Canada and elsewhere.
The good news: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Communities can become more resilient to the effects of climate change by adopting policies that reduce vulnerability and costs.
One key strategy is to bring nature home. Planting trees and shrubs and constructing bioswales and engineered wetland add green while reducing storm water surges and flooding during heavy rainfall events.
As severe weather storms become more common, interest in preventative green infrastructure is exploding. The City of Philadelphia plans to spend $1.6 billion to convert one-third of its impervious asphalt surface to absorptive green spaces. And the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has begun to shift billions of dollars in expenditures into securing, protecting and enhancing green infrastructure following hurricane Sandy.
Closer to home, Toronto's new Corktown Common development the city's waterfront combines recreational uses with flood-control features, including a system of engineered ecosystems designed to help manage stormwater on-site. These and other Toronto waterfront design features prevented severe flooding in the city's financial district during last June's severe rainstorms.
Unfortunately, Ontario has few policies that promote green infrastructure. And tree planting and other green infrastructure interventions are not eligible for funding under the province's disaster relief programs—including yesterday's funding announcement.
So, as part of an ambitious plan to green our towns and cities, the David Suzuki Foundation is working with Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition, an alliance of organizations and businesses pushing for reform to existing governmental infrastructure rules and regulations.
GIO recently wrote Ontario Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Linda Jeffrey, recommending a special task force to review Ontario's policies and make suggestions to spur innovation and investment in green infrastructure.
Of course, it is not just architects, engineers and city planners who can help bring green infrastructure to the city. Homeowners can green their yards by planting trees and replacing paved areas with permeable landscaping. In Vancouver, resident-initiated programs have helped turn grey alleyways into engineered green "country lanes." Here in Toronto, the David Suzuki Foundation's Homegrown National Park Project is aiming to crowd-source a green corridor along the old Garrison Creek — catalyzing a range of green activities at the household, block and neighbourhood scale.
If devastating storms are the new norm, new infrastructure will be needed. And if we're going to build, let's build green. Green infrastructure will not only help protect our homes and businesses from the effects of extreme weather, it will reduce costs associated with recovery and create greener, healthier communities.