Canada has joined an international pledge to reverse biodiversity loss and protect natural areas by 2030. Underscored by a $3.2-billion budget commitment, the Canadian government is seeking to protect 25 per cent of lands and waters by 2025, to set the stage for 30 per cent protection by 2030 and also to plant two billion trees in the same timeframe. While these commitments are excellent steps in the right direction, meaningful conservation of biodiversity and critical natural systems will not happen without a specific focus on protecting near-urban areas.
Near-urban nature is made up of the highly biodiverse and often-degraded ecosystems that surround and intersect Canada’s major cities. The federal government has supported significant progress toward protecting natural landscapes in Canada, but little progress has been made in southern Ontario and southern Quebec.
Existing protections have been achieved by working with provincial governments and Indigenous communities and with support from Canadian foundations and community organizations. These efforts and partnerships need to continue but must also use unique approaches to focus on protecting near-urban areas.
Why protect near-urban nature?
Near-urban nature across southern Canada contains some of the country’s highest levels of biodiversity, while it also faces some of the greatest threats. These natural areas help protect our homes and businesses from flooding, and protect vulnerable communities from heatwaves. A growing body of evidence shows they make us happier and healthier, too, because daily doses of nature lead to improved physical, mental and social well-being.
Near-urban nature is also a critical element of “nature-based solutions” for climate change.
Nature-based solutions are emerging as cost-effective, practical options that address the twin biodiversity and climate crises. Nature-based solutions work by conserving ecosystems to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while providing a range of other important benefits, such as recreation space, cleaner air and water, protection from flooding and extreme heat, and habitat for biodiversity. Examples of nature-based solutions include allowing forests to regrow, restoring wetlands and using agricultural practices such as cover crop rotation, which support healthy soils.
According to the 2020 Living Planet Report Canada: “Since 1970, populations of Canadian species assessed as at-risk have plunged by an average of 59 per cent and species assessed as globally at-risk have seen their Canadian populations fall by an average of 42 per cent.” A significant portion of this decline has occurred in and around urban areas in southern Ontario and southern Quebec.
The Greenbelt Foundation, Équiterre and the Société pour la nature et les parcs (CPAWS – SNAP Québec) have identified similar challenges and solutions to biodiversity protection in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, and the metropolitan areas of Montreal, Ottawa-Gatineau and Quebec City. These areas are collectively home to nearly 15 million people. Recovering biodiversity in these regions will not be easy. But it can be done with the right strategy and funding.
In metropolitan regions in Ontario and Quebec, urban footprints are so large that they have eroded habitats and disrupted wildlife connections. Important wildlife habitat and corridors used for the annual migration of birds, butterflies and mammals, as well as the climate migration of flora and fauna, could be seriously undermined if the urban footprint continues to expand without effective protection.
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Continually expanding city boundaries puts remaining near-urban nature and agriculture at risk of permanent loss. Historic development patterns have led to fragmented ecosystems. The conventional model of protecting large-scale natural areas does not work here. Rather, many smaller parcels of land need to be protected in a co-ordinated, regional fashion to ensure broad ecosystem health and ecological connectivity. But this poses another challenge – much of the land needed for conservation and restoration is in private ownership and land prices are costly.
The good news is that there are solutions that will not only address biodiversity loss but will also improve the quality of life for millions.
The first step is to establish regional co-ordination for conserving whole ecosystems fragmented by different land uses. There is a need to protect wildlife corridors that intersect our cities and connect to large remaining pockets of habitat on the outskirts. These corridors will weave across varying landscapes and land uses. By protecting these ecological corridors, we will conserve the pathways used by migrating species of plants and animals, allowing whole ecosystems to adapt and become more resilient to climate change.
Ultimately, for this work to be successful, federal programs need to have a distinct focus on protection of near-urban nature.
Any near-urban strategy must involve multiple partners to preserve and enhance natural systems and ecological connectivity while improving public access. This requires a well-resourced strategy that supports private landowners in undertaking voluntary stewardship and protection measures. The importance of this work stems from the land’s proximity to large population centres. It is less about the size of the parcel of land and more about the land’s ecological function within a bigger ecosystem.
Meeting the challenges of protecting near-urban nature begins with an awareness of nature’s benefits.
Indigenous knowledge systems for preserving nature should inform strategies and advance management of lands, water and wildlife in our near-urban areas. Federal funding is needed to help Indigenous communities exercise their responsibility to care for the land and waters, and to continue cultural traditions and ways of life. It takes a lot of time and resources for Indigenous communities to participate in this type of distributed conservation model, so funding is essential to allow them to contribute meaningfully.
We should be under no illusion – restoring nature in near-urban areas will be hard and it will take time. But it needs to happen if we are to conserve our country’s biodiversity. There are many reasons be hopeful. The federal government has taken important first steps. We must now ensure there is dedicated funding and focus to meet the conservation needs of our major urban areas in Ontario and Quebec.