Image of council members from Musqueam Indian Band, Squamish Nation, Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and City of Vancouver, at a ceremony recognizing the passing of the UNDRIP strategy

Five Insights From Sustainable Canadian Communities

Municipalities across Canada are excited about leading creative projects to tackle the climate crisis. At the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) Sustainable Communities Conference in February, I, along with other SSG delegates, had a chance to hear from them and discuss new developments in the climate action space. Below, we’ve captured five key takeaways from the three-day conference. 

1.Urban land-use planning is an urgent priority for climate action

The National Housing Strategy aims to invest in over 160,000 new affordable homes over the next decade. The types of housing that are built will have a critical impact on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. If these developments are single-detached houses in low-density, car-oriented, segregated enclaves, we will lock-in high energy use, high emissions, car-dependent lifestyles for decades to come.

In collaboration with the¬† Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and FCM, SSG presented a new tool‚ÄĒjointly developed by our organizations‚ÄĒdesigned to help municipalities understand the long-term¬† financial and emissions impacts of land-use decisions.¬†

Using the tool, municipalities can compare the cost of developing and maintaining infrastructure, such as roads, water, and wastewater systems, as well as the greenhouse gas emissions impacts of different types of residential development. We hope the tool, which will be released later this spring, will help local governments struggling to contain sprawl and enable climate-friendly development.

2. Urgent climate action needs to be balanced with investing time in relationships

Many presenters said local governments must invest time in and make genuine efforts to build relationships with Indigenous people. We spoke to many attendees who worried that, without such relationships, climate action will be harder to implement, less effective, or have inequitable impacts. The challenge: communities must figure out how to invest time in building these critical relationships while taking urgent action in the face of the climate crisis. 

Keynote speaker Aftab Erfan, the City of Vancouver’s Chief Equity Officer, said municipalities need to work hard to engage and build trust with First Nations. After years of relationship building with the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, the City of Vancouver became the first municipality in Canada to ratify the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and unanimously adopt the City’s UNDRIP strategy, explained Erfan. A taskforce of council members from all three nations and the City of Vancouver developed the strategy, which calls on the City of Vancouver to recognize the rights of Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh to healthy lands and waters.  

For more information on how to bring Indigenous voices into the climate discussion, check out this interview with Ch√ļk Odenigbo, founding director of Future Ancestors, who led an intersectionality workshop at the Sustainable Communities Conference.

3. Small municipalities can pack a big punch

Over 90% of Canadian municipalities have fewer than 10,000 people, but, together, they account for 30% of Canada’s emissions, according to SSG’s analysis. At the conference, these rural and remote municipalities told us about the challenges of taking climate action, such as operating with only one or two staff, competing priorities, and limited jurisdiction over infrastructure. 

SSGers found it rewarding to share MEED (Municipal Energy + Emissions Database)‚ÄĒa free online tool with greenhouse gas inventories for municipalities across Canada‚ÄĒto get small municipalities started on their climate action journey. By helping to identify the largest emitting sources, MEED gives municipalities the data they need to develop and prioritize actions that will achieve the greatest emissions reductions.¬†¬†¬†

Jeremy Murphy and Noah Purves-Smith from SSG, are presenting a jointly developed tool alongside FCM and CMHC, at the Sustainable Community Conference. Photo: Emi Do

4. Municipalities are re-framing adaptation

For many municipal staff, elected officials, and partners who attended the conference, taking bold climate action has meant advocating for the allocation of staff and resources toward mitigating greenhouse gas emissions‚ÄĒrather than settling for adaptive measures that signal acceptance of climate change as the new normal.¬†

But, the climate crisis is upon us. Weather is getting wilder and weirder. Canadians are facing the devastating effects of wildfires, heat waves, floods, and other extreme climate events that require swift adaptive action to avoid catastrophe. As the City of Windsor’s presentation on their Corporate Climate Action Plan stated succinctly:

ADAPTATION = managing the unavoidable

MITIGATION = avoiding the unmanageable

We also noticed that municipalities are increasingly aware of  marginalized communities that are most vulnerable to climate catastrophes, leading them to reframe climate adaptation as an act of climate justice. 

5. Sustainability and affordability do not have to be tradeoffs

Municipalities across the country must retrofit almost all existing buildings to improve energy efficiency. It’s costly and logistically complex, and municipalities are still figuring out how to go about it. We were inspired by the creative ways municipalities across Canada are retrofitting affordable housing.

The Ken Soble Tower Renewal in the the City of Hamilton is an award-winning example that was discussed at the conference.¬† Faced with a deteriorating, old building that was no longer habitable‚ÄĒand a growing waitlist for affordable housing‚ÄĒCityHousing Hamilton, the City‚Äôs largest social housing provider, opted for upgrading and retrofitting over demolishing or selling the building. To retrofit 146 affordable housing units to Passive House EnerPHit Standards, the City made a sizeable investment, supported by $17 million of federal grant money including $13.3 million from the National Housing Co-Investment Fund and $3.65 million through the Affordable Housing Innovation Fund. Though these and other funding sources (e.g., Green Municipal Fund‚Äôs pilot program) often facilitate retrofits or new affordable housing construction, it is the dedication, vision, and commitment of affordable housing providers that make these projects possible.¬†

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To learn more about our insights or how SSG can support your community or organization with climate action planning, give us a shout via our contact form.