Commissioner’s Remarks to the Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition Launch:
November 22, 2010, Evergreen Brick Works, Toronto
A Vision for a Green Infrastructure in Ontario
So what is green infrastructure? Before we can answer that we have to understand a more basic question: What is Infrastructure?
The Ministry of Infrastructure says that its objective is to make strategic investments that will meet the needs of a growing population and economy by identifying what infrastructure developments will most benefit key public sectors and the standard of living in Ontario over the long run. They divide those investments into four major categories:
- Health Care
- Municipal and Local:
- Safe drinking water
- Environmentally responsible sewage and waste disposal
- Health promoting parks and recreation facilities
- Better local roads, bridges and transit
Most of those investments are done through an agency called Infrastructure Ontario. On its website, the following current projects are listed:
- 37 hospitals and health care
- 11 justice system
- 4 highways and roads
- 1 data centre
These projects are not driven by provincial mandate; they are based on applications received for capital projects from various institutions in our society. So in a real sense, this is how “we” collectively see infrastructure. And, although it seems that the goal of all those infrastructure things is to keep our water clean and safe, not pollute our environment and protect our health … we mostly do it by pouring a lot of concrete, laying a lot of asphalt and constructing a lot of steel and glass.
These are necessary things, but are they sufficient to meet the goal? Sounds like drinking water is covered, and maybe sewage, but what about storm water … the water that runs off after rainstorms and feeds our streams and rivers? In most urban areas its quality is not so great, and although there are rules and policies, storm water quality isn’t really reflected as a priority in this model of infrastructure.
What about air quality? Surely urban air quality has public benefits and standard of living implications. Certainly the emphasis on health and medical treatment helps us deal with the impacts of smog days and poor air quality – but how does our infrastructure spending model help us improve air quality?
What about thermal control? Our urban areas are often heat islands, accumulating heat well in excess of suburban or rural landscapes surrounding. Of course this adds to our air conditioning energy costs but, more importantly, we must recall the European heat wave of 2003 that killed 35,000 people … we have been spared this type of event so far, but for how much longer? How does our infrastructure model address that risk?
And there are other public benefits and implications to our standard of living. I mentioned energy costs: does our infrastructure paradigm reflect the growing need to improve our energy productivity and control costs? Do we require or even endorse distributed electrical generation? Do we take advantage of ground source or solar thermal heating opportunities? When surplus heat is available, do we capture it in district heating systems like the Europeans do? On a global level, we have a responsibility to reduce our GHG emissions, is such a reduction a natural function of our infrastructure investments? And on a more local scale, are we building infrastructure and protecting it in a way that will maximize its life and thus minimize our replacement costs?
Since there are these other benefits and improvements to our quality of living in the long term that are available, perhaps it would be wise if we reconsidered our perspective of what infrastructure is and how we could bring in other tools and approaches into our infrastructure toolkit. Many of those tools could be things we have come to characterize as green initiatives.
We actually have a lot of interesting green stuff around the province. Toronto and some other cities have some pretty sophisticated systems to improve and maintain tree biodiversity and coverage within the city. We have some urban parks and sometimes have ravines or escarpments that are ecologically rich natural systems. Some municipalities like Richmond Hill have added to these lands by building quite sophisticated and naturalized storm water management facilities.
Toronto has a green roof by-law which in increasing greening its roofscape, but I don’t think it has anything yet like the rooftop of the Rideau Centre in Ottawa where four stories up there are lawns and gardens and trees 25 cm or more in diameter with baby rabbits hopping around. And there are only a few instances where the carpet of living things we put on top of our buildings is encouraged to spread down the sides and integrate into the grey water and storm water management systems and other landscaping. The techniques of actually designing for building integrated vegetation (BIV) are in their early stages of development.
There is a great renaissance in urban agriculture occurring across the province. Although it’s worth noting that what may be new to some, has always persisted in the yards of many immigrant neighborhoods. Nonetheless, it is growing and spreading and presents a different view of the urban landscape.
We love to make our urban surfaces hard to support the weight of our various machines and the high volume of human traffic, and so far our hard surfaces are impermeable to water. Unlike living soft surfaces which absorb water and process pollutants, hard surfaces collect wastes and pollutants during dry periods and shed them rapidly into streams and rivers during rainfall and snow melt events. We know how to build permeable hard surfaces, but their adoption is limited so far.
So there are green tools for the infrastructure toolkit. But they are just pieces, scattered around, not integrated into the normal course of business, because they are not seen as parts of a greater infrastructure approach. The benefits of cost savings and improvements to the quality of life they offer are lost because we see infrastructure as just the buildings and pipes and roads and wires that we construct.
Perhaps it would be useful to step back and consider another complex infrastructure that we are familiar with … it is called a forest. It was here before the urban areas of Ontario were built and it functioned quite well. It ran exclusively on renewable solar energy and had a large built environment that was self sustaining. It produced 100% of the food for its inhabitants and recycled 100 % of its waste. The air in the forest was clean and cool and the shaded environment did not experience photo degradation. The streams of this infrastructure flowed clear, clean and cool.
The forest (much modified) is still with us, of course. It’s all around us and if you look at Google Earth for Toronto, for example, you will see how the forest seamlessly penetrates the urban landscape right down to where we are standing. It is still here and it is still functioning to some extent … still cleaning the air and the water and where we don’t rush in to pick it up, processing its own wastes. It is part of our infrastructure and it is providing benefits and improving our quality of life.
We can’t have the all the environmental benefits of a forest in a human occupied urban landscape, but we can learn from nature. We can see what works and why and investigate the interconnectedness of the systems. We can do things differently. We can make a human landscape that not only utilizes all those tools I have listed to get the benefits described but does more than that. We can have a living environment rich with living things to which people intrinsically respond in a positive and relaxed way.
So my task was to define what green infrastructure is so that the coalition can get on with its task …
Green Infrastructure is a new way of conceptualizing our urban landscape … a way of integrating life and life forces into our urban living spaces that maximizes the utility of ecosystem goods and services thus lowering operating costs and capital replacement investment while improving our well being. Green infrastructure is about good business and a good life.