DCN ARCHIVES

April 18, 2012

Can green and grey infrastructure collide with benefits for Ontario?

A province-wide coalition asking the province to support green infrastructure is pointing to social and economic benefits as well as ecological ones.

The Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition released a report, Health, Prosperity and Sustainability: The Case for Green Infrastructure in Ontario, in March.

Co-authored by Ecojustice, a national environmental organization, the 46-page document promotes urban forests, greenways and waterways, and “living” amenities such as green roofs and walls, engineered wetlands and stormwater ponds, and porous paving and ground surfaces.

“Our urban forests are shrinking in most cities across Ontario,” says Janet McKay, a coalition member who is executive director of Local Enhancement and Appreciation of Forests.

LEAF promotes urban forest stewardship in Toronto, York Region and surrounding areas, and McKay says the province has taken steps to protect greenbelt and other rural areas, but more densely populated urban areas also need green spaces and natural systems.

The report outlines assorted benefits. Dense tree canopies and other natural amenities purify the air, induce pollination, mitigate against climate change, reduce combined sewer overflows, ease energy demands, and counter the heat-island effect caused when building surfaces reflect the sun’s warmth.

However, the report points specifically to social, health and even economic benefits. Green roofs and porous ground surfaces help contain stormwater, reducing costs from flooding or maintaining expensive end-of-pipe stormwater systems. And, rooftop gardens and natural spaces offer venues for exercise and stress relief and reduce smog, in turn reducing asthma and other health problems.

“A mature tree will hold about a third of an inch of rain,” explains Steven Peck, founder and president of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, an industry association and coalition member.

“The more trees you have in a city the less stormwater you’ll have flowing into the stormwater system and the more those costs will come down,” Peck says. “Rather than building gas-fired generating stations to support peak load demands, we can reduce the urban heat island and reduce summertime demand for power by about four per cent.”

Developers and builders who incorporate green infrastructure into their projects stand to benefit from increased property values, Peck adds.

“Condominium builders don’t think twice about putting a pool or recreational area inside their building because these create value for the condominium owners and translate into higher per-unit values. Excellent landscaping and roofscaping can deliver the same thing.”

Peck says green and grey infrastructure go hand-in-hand, and the coalition simply wants the province to recognize green infrastructure when it considers and funds overall infrastructure plans and policies.

John Mollenhauer, president of the Toronto Construction Association, says he hadn’t read the report but believes green infrastructure makes perfect sense unless there are compelling reasons not to do it – say if the costs are prohibitive.

“We’re moving in the direction of all things green,” Mollenhauer says. “Initially a lot of it is voluntary, but more and more of it will eventually become mandated and legislated as our planet is more and more at risk.”

Mollenhauer says the province is unlikely to pour incentive money into green infrastructure given the current economic climate, but the government could undertake an awareness program to explain what green infrastructure is available and what it can accomplish.

“They need to have a long-term plan,” Mollenhauer says. “I would begin by sharing more information about solutions that are green and why they make overwhelming sense, particularly when they’re affordable.”

Some European shopping centres have rooftop parks and playgrounds, and hospitals could offer green spaces where patients, families and staff can find comfort and tranquility.

Peck points to an urban farm atop a Brooklyn, New York high-rise, now in its third year of production.

“The building owner is deriving economic value from the roof that he wouldn’t otherwise be getting,” Peck says, adding that the idea replicated atop multi-storey parking garages could reduce their general unsightliness.

Green infrastructure makes particular sense in a tight economy, offering creative ways to solve multiple problems, Peck says.

“We keep hearing about fiscal restraint and that we need to do things differently. If we’re indeed going to do things differently in Ontario we need to look at different approaches to dealing with infrastructure, and we need to look at shifting resources into things that stack multiple benefits as opposed to simply putting more concrete in the ground.”

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