On Monday, 18 November, WSIC discussed the challenges of infrastructure resiliency in Canada in light of our changing climate. Heavy flooding in Toronto this past July and the recent devastating effects of Hurricane Haiyan in the Philippines have shown Canadians that serious consequences could occur us if we don’t start planning now for the future extreme weather events. Leading our discussion on this matter was Chris Fonseca, city councillor of Mississauga and representing Ward 3, and Abe Khademi, a water resources engineer and sustainability manager at The Municipal Infrastructure Group Ltd.
Chris began the discussion by acknowledging the seriousness of weather events on infrastructure and pointing out that some parts of the GTA are still not fully recovered from the summer’s big storm. Planning however, has started long before then. Since the advent of Hurricane Hazel in 1954, a great deal of time and money has been spent on storm water infrastructure and managing future weather events. In the past 50 years, municipalities have become better educated in planning and development and continue today to look at ways to adapt to climate change and growing urban developments. The challenge is trying to find a balance between creating a liveable urban space while at the same time respecting the environment. Since the flooding in July, further studies have been commissioned on erosion of creeks and resulting impact on residents. One new development that will be launched shortly is the establishment of a storm water fund to charge residents for water discharged off of their property.
Abe pointed out the historical challenges of building storm infrastructure are that it is costly and municipalities often don’t budget for future maintenance and repair expenses. As a result, issues are only dealt with when they are at a critical stage. However, in light of ever increasingly extreme weather activity, cities need to reassess how they tackle this issue both strategically and from a budgetary standpoint. Scrambling afterward is not a good planning policy. Status quo will not help moving forward and innovation at the municipal level is desperately needed. At the same time, however, when cities try something different and untested it opens the door to possible liabilities and negative consequences pushing developers and planners to continue with the status quo. Investing in low impact infrastructure (for example, shifting rain water into people’s backyards instead of into street sewers) may be one option, but implementing these changes is not always straightforward or embraced by residents.
During the open discussion segment, the speakers were asked whether Canada needed legislation (whether on a federal, provincial or municipal level) to compel better management and development of storm infrastructure. Both Chris and Abe shared the view that the answer was not clear cut. Generally speaking, cities are not inclined to change their ways unless there is a need to do so. However, recent weather events have highlighted the fact that there are deficiencies in our existing infrastructure and something needs to be done. Implementing a storm funding program, where residents pay for what they discharge off of their property, is one way cities are looking to change how they react from storms. This is not the result of new legislation but coming more from a reaction to set of weather events. Nobody wants to see taxes increase but the reality is that the infrastructure we take for granted requires money to build and maintain.
Another WSIC audience member asked about the best way to engage community members so that they become educated and involved with storm infrastructure developments within their municipalities. Chris responded that as councillor she holds public meetings as well as virtual meetings through social media sites such as twitter. Mississauga City Council has also adopted the Living Green Master Plan in 2012, an environmental master plan focussing on environmental sustainability. Abe recognized that infrastructure projects are funded by taxpayer’s dollars – so if a city is going to fix something they need to show residents that there will be a return on investment.
Both speakers agreed that since the Toronto floods in July, more people are connecting and getting engaged and educated with respect to storm infrastructure and how to best manage and prepare for future weather events. We know that climate change is real and happening and that dealing with the issue will involve a continuing dialogue between cities and their citizens. While good progress is being made, we still have far to go. Municipalities will need support of residents to build smarter, denser, and more innovatively.