Building resilience through parks

Designing parks as sponges that soak up rainwater help mitigate the damaging impacts of extreme weather—and create new, beautiful green spaces.

Lower Don Trail, Toronto

Lower Don Trail, Toronto

Green infrastructure is a key element of building more resilient cities through parks. Green infrastructure includes engineering natural spaces, like bioswales and rain gardens, that better capture, soak up, and treat rainwater where it falls as opposed to whisking it away into grey infrastructure, like pipes. This helps reduce the flooding associated with heavy rain events, but also improve water quality.

While we found cities across Canada are experimenting with green infrastructure in parks, only 48% of cities we surveyed have a citywide strategy for integrating this into park planning at a systems scale. As we reported in our 2017 Resilient Parks, Resilient Cities report, an integrated strategy is critical for making green infrastructure standard practice.

As a city that is forecasted to experience increasingly heavy rainfall due to climate change, Vancouver leads the way with its citywide green infrastructure strategy. The strategy includes plans for streets, trees, parks, developments, and the City’s maintenance practices. Staff reported that “without comprehensive policy, green infrastructure projects have mainly been staff-led pilot initiatives...rather than as an integral part of City capital programs.”

Approved in 2016, the Rain City Strategy pushes Vancouver to evolve beyond pilots, using an ecosystem approach to integrate green infrastructure citywide and treat rainwater as a resource. According to the City, over half of Vancouver is made up of impervious surfaces that cannot absorb water. The strategy’s target is to divert 90% of rainfall before it meets waterways.

The plan’s implementation is a partnership between City departments, including Planning, Engineering, and the Vancouver Park Board. Cameron Owen, who works in the Engineering Department’s Green Infrastructure Branch, said that the sweet spot is when a project can help meet water management, biodiversity, and park access goals in one.

Two recent examples:

  • The 63rd and Yukon Street green infrastructure plaza. The plaza creates a green amenity that also captures run-off from a surrounding 1,170 square metres of impervious surface through bioretention systems, like rain gardens.
  • The Tatlow and Volunteer Parks daylighting project. A buried stream is being brought to the surface, allowing stormwater to more naturally filter through plants before reaching the ocean.

The department’s hope is that this green infrastructure work can also help connect existing parks together by creating more park-like experiences along streets, contributing to an overall better green network in the city.

There are lots of co-learning opportunities between the Park Board and Engineering, Cameron said, adding that it's the diversity of knowledge within the department and its ability to work closely with Park Board colleagues that leads to innovative solutions.

The Green Infrastructure Branch includes landscape architects, planners, green infrastructure engineers, water engineers, and more. “When we start looking at how to solve a problem, some people are detail-focused and some are systems-focused,” Cameron said. “Which really led us in a different direction than if we had just been a group of landscape architects or engineers to solve the problem.”

Other highlights:

  • Saskatoon is creating a green infrastructure strategy. Work to date includes a baseline inventory of all of the city’s green spaces and their functions, including areas of impervious surfaces. The final strategy will be released in 2020.
  • Toronto piloted green infrastructure in Fairford Parkette and created the Green Streets Technical Guidelines, which includes a tool to select the right type of green infrastructure for a project.
  • Delta works in partnership with the volunteer-based Cougar Creek Streamkeepers to install rain gardens, including a 500 square foot garden built in a hydro corridor that will filter more than 2 million litres of rainwater in the Blake Creek watershed area. As Deborah Jones, Rain Gardens Coordinator with the Streamkeepers, told the Peace Arch News: “Rainwater that seeps underground from a rain garden to a salmon stream is cool and clean, whereas rainwater that’s piped directly from pavements and roofs into that same stream is warm and polluted.”
  • The Township of Langley’s work in integrating green infrastructure into neighbourhood and green space development was featured in a 2017 case study, including the establishment of a Green Infrastructure Services department.
  • Charlottetown has piloted bioswales alongside Simmons Arena as part of the Atlantic Stormwater Initiative.
  • Hamilton is building rain gardens into a new downtown park, John Rebecca Park, with a goal of infiltrating 90% of stormwater onsite.

Is it a park or flood protection infrastructure? Both.

Calgary future-proofs itself from floods by designing the stunning West Eau Claire Park along the Bow River.

«West Eau Claire Park», Ville de Calgary

«West Eau Claire Park», Ville de Calgary

Ever since a devastating flood in 2013 caused over $400 million in damage and the evacuation of thousands of people, Calgary has been working on ways to better protect itself.

«West Eau Claire Park», Ville de Calgary

«West Eau Claire Park», Ville de Calgary

Following those floods, the City approved a Flood Resilience Plan, which included both upstream and community-level risk mitigation measures along the Bow and Elbow Rivers, which run through the city. One of those community-level projects, West Eau Claire Park, completed its first phase in 2018.

West Eau Claire Park is a revitalized linear waterfront park along the Bow River. The $10.6 million project puts 30% of those costs towards flood mitigation elements.

Daniel England, Project Manager within Parks, Planning, and Development at the City of Calgary said that the project was an exercise in “how to change design to protect the downtown” from floods.

“We want to make sure people embrace the waterfront,” he said, providing an accessible promenade and maintaining as many mature trees as possible, but at the same time build infrastructure to protect from major floods. Elements couldn’t be included within the design, for example, that could be lifted up and damaged by rising water.

The park is designed to protect against a 200-year flood, which exceeds what occurred back in 2013 by about 35%. It achieves this not by building huge retaining walls, but by nestling flood mitigation infrastructure into the design so that it becomes a part of a new public amenity, rather than a barrier to the riverfront. A second phase, funded by the Province of Alberta, will extend the project to Reconciliation Bridge.

The park’s design includes an earthen berm to raise land to protect against high waters and cement walls with benches where raising land wasn’t feasible. It also includes systems built into the river’s edge that conceal panels that can be dropped into place during a potential flood.

As well as acting as a barrier, the park itself is a sponge, with bioswales located to catch run-off. “We wanted to make sure any of the water that drained off the hard surfaces was collected and utilized onsite,” Daniel said.

Biodiversity buzz spreading across Canada

Protecting biodiversity and ecosystem health is a national challenge, but city parks have an important role to play.

Piper Creek Pollinator Hotel, City of Red Deer

Piper Creek Pollinator Hotel, City of Red Deer

A new report by the Canadian Biodiversity Action Council sounds the alarm on biodiversity loss, arguing that the “three critical drivers augmenting biodiversity loss are our disconnected relationship to the land, over consumption and habitat loss.”

Piper Creek Pollinator Hotel, City of Red Deer

Piper Creek Pollinator Hotel, City of Red Deer

Their calls to action include setting concrete conservation targets, dealing with landscape and parks connectivity, collaborating with Indigenous peoples, integrating biodiversity strategies with community planning practices, and repositioning conservation as an urban initiative.

We found that 83% of cities have a biodiversity strategy, but that many are engaging in small-scale efforts to increase biodiversity and, in particular, habitat for pollinators.

  • Recognizing the need for more information to communicate and stimulate action, Ontario’s Biodiversity Council produced resources in 2017 on how to talk about biodiversity and climate change and the links between biodiversity and public health.
  • The work of the Ontario Biodiversity Council helps form the foundation of more local plans, such as Oakville’s 2018 Biodiversity Strategy. The strategy includes tips on mitigating the impacts of off-leash dogs and outdoor cats and decreasing the impacts of light pollution on wildlife.
  • Vancouver approved its Biodiversity Strategy in 2016, which includes, importantly, metrics for evaluating the success of the strategy. One goal is to restore 25 hectares of natural habitat by 2020, including the restoration of the salt marshes at New Brighton Park in 2018, which resulted in the reintroduction of wild salmon.
  • In Delta, it’s all about the birds. The City’s Birds and Biodiversity Conservation Strategy was approved in 2016. Delta is home to over 275 species of birds, and millions of migratory birds that use the Fraser River Estuary and Delta as a stopover, making it one of Canada’s Important Bird Areas. The strategy includes a strong focus on strengthening partnerships with local organizations, such as the Delta Naturalists, a local group that offers birding walks.

Pollinators have been a particular area of focus within biodiversity work. The use of pesticides, loss of habitat from urbanization, and threats from invasive species have resulted in urgent calls for action from experts about the ongoing health of pollinators like bees and butterflies.

Canadian researchers recently sounded alarm bells about possible extinction for certain bee species, leading to “cascading impacts” across Canada. Approximately three-quarters of food crops rely on pollinators.

  • Toronto approved its Pollinator Strategy in 2018. It includes directions to increase community partnerships, educational opportunities, and incentivize the creation of habitat corridors. In early 2019, the City launched its PollinateTO grants of $5,000 to assist residents in planting pollinator gardens.
  • Guelph became a certified Bee City in 2018. A 45-hectare former landfill is being transformed into a pollinator park, with the help of local charity Pollination Guelph. Currently the group has planted 3 hectares and has “documented several at-risk birds, bees, and butterflies on the site,” said Victoria Macphail, co-chair of the group. The group also runs art projects and education walks.
  • In Waterloo, another 2018 Bee City inductee, a pollinator working group was struck that includes community volunteers who will help find ways to promote pollinators and educate the public through events and activities. Check out the group’s terms of reference.
  • In 2015, Red Deer designated four pollinator parks, which were meant to protect and attract birds, bees, and bats. The City doesn’t use pesticides in these parks and weeds are hand-picked. As told to CBC, the City hoped that it would spur ideas for how residents could “turn their own yards into an oasis for essential players in the ecosystem.” The City also created a large “pollinator hotel” within the Piper Creek area that allows bees to nest.