Stories from the Greenbelt: Our Cities Need Nature Too

Apr 29, 2021   •   , News

Our Cities Need Nature Too

  April 29th, 2021

  I live about a five-minute walk from Lake Ontario, which together with the four other Great Lakes store an estimated 20 per cent of the world’s surface freshwater. I always find this fact mindboggling, but the lake means more than this to me on a personal level. It’s an incredible place and the source of an abundance of life—home to millions of humans, along its shores. And yet, it was rare that I went to admire these shores pre-pandemic, when more of my time went to social commitments and commuting to the office. It is really timely that I got to know this nature close to my home when I did.

By investing in and prioritizing near-urban nature, we can address issues of biodiversity and species loss, climate resilience for our urban communities, and equitable access to outdoor recreation spaces."

Over the past year, I’ve been working on a project through the Greenbelt Foundation with a coalition of partner organizations. Together, we are helping to protect, restore, and conserve a connected network of near-urban natural places found in and around Ontario’s Greenbelt. The Southern Ontario Nature Coalition or “SONC” is comprised of eight organizations, including the Greenbelt Foundation, and has been working to develop a Near-Urban Nature Network that will protect important natural areas across the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

Near-urban nature includes the forests, river valleys, wetlands, grasslands and farmlands, and other ecological features that surround and intersect our communities. A network of near-urban nature includes cores (like wetlands or forests) connected through ecological corridors that allow animals and plants to move. All life in the region relies on these areas to thrive and with impacts from climate change projected to worsen, we will need them more than ever.

I often get the sense that people think conservation of biodiversity looks like protecting wilderness areas far away from human communities, but southern Ontario is one of the most biodiverse regions in Canada. Being near urban centres puts unique pressures on our region’s biodiversity. Because one in four Canadians and many Indigenous Peoples and communities live in this region, there is high demand here for the benefits that nature provides.

What many people may not realize is the connection between biodiversity and their day-to-day lives. It goes like this: biodiversity has an influence on ecosystem health. Healthier ecosystems are more resilient to climate change and in turn, make the communities around them more resilient to climate change. Healthy ecosystems provide what we call “ecosystem services.” These are things like preventing communities from flooding, maintaining clean and abundant sources of fresh water, and helping to make the air feel up to 11°C cooler during heatwaves. These services will only become more important as climate change progresses and biodiversity will be key to ensuring our ecosystems continue to benefit us.

There are 3.2 hectares of lands and waters and 8 million people in the Greater Golden Horseshoe that can benefit from and contribute to this near-urban nature network.

SONC has been working with Indigenous consultants and starting to engage with the Williams Treaties First Nations in the east end of the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Part of the work we are doing is building our understanding around the obligations that we have as Treaty people in this region. As non-Indigenous people, it’s important to understand treaties and the commitments made by settlers of Canada. Working to gauge interest and ensure that Indigenous communities can contribute meaningfully to these efforts as they see appropriate is an important part of this project.

To build cross-cultural understanding and walk along the shared path of Reconciliation, settlers like myself must first acknowledge the harms of colonization. I also want to acknowledge the leadership that First Nations communities are showing. In this region the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples have long stewarded these lands and stood up for nature and their people as Water Walkers and Land Defenders.

This region is now home to many diverse First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. Indigenous Peoples, as well as Indigenous Knowledge Systems, science, and ways of knowing are intricately connected to the land. As we begin these dialogues, I’m humbled and very appreciative of the communities who have met with us, understanding they have many obligations, and that building relationships takes time. 

In addition to these engagements, we’ve also had input from hundreds of non-Indigenous people including conservation experts and land stewards, who we’ve engaged through workshops, surveys, and interviews held virtually last fall. These consultations are crucial because we found that access to nature is not equitable. Improving the equity of access to natural areas and all the benefits they provide was identified in our discussions with the conservation community as being a high priority for this project.

Canada has committed to protecting 30 per cent of lands and waters across Canada, and in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH), we still have over 30 per cent natural cover that could, over time, be permanently protected, while connections between protected areas could be restored through the creation of protected ecological corridors. These ecological corridors are crucial for promoting species migration, which is necessary for large scale ecological resilience. To support migration, we will need to use innovative approaches and work together to protect and restore ecological corridors, some of which run through private lands. As a result, working closely with private landowners, including farmers, is a priority of SONC.

By investing in and prioritizing near-urban nature, we can address issues of biodiversity and species loss, climate resilience for our urban communities, and equitable access to outdoor recreation spaces. Ultimately, this project shows how by working together across communities and professions, we can achieve much more and start to build a near-urban nature network for all life to thrive.

This work is being supported by the Government of Canada and the Province of Ontario via the Greenbelt Foundation.

Jackie Hamilton is a Senior Research and Policy Advisor at the Greenbelt Foundation