Urban conservation: necessary priority or ultimate distraction? - Macleans.ca

Urban conservation: necessary priority or ultimate distraction?

Parliamentarians, unsurprisingly, disagree


CP/Adrian Wyld

“We’re doing a happy little make-work project.”

So started Megan Leslie’s opinion of the environment committee’s ongoing study of urban conservation practices in Canada, which she says is a distraction from more important issues. Leslie, the NDP’s environment critic, would rather look at, for example, the impact of shrinking Arctic ice caps on Canadian life—something she says is more pressing. It’s a concern shared by Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan, who hoped the committee could talk about, among other things, the government’s cancellation of the Experimental Lakes Area program. Duncan attempted in vain to introduce a motion at committee to discuss that.

The Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development is studying the following elements of urban conservation:

  • What is urban conservation?
  • What could be the goals of connecting urban Canadians with conservation?
  • What are the best practices in Canada for the same?
  • What urban conservation initiatives are currently in use? What are the best practices and challenges for the same?
  • What are the economic, health, biodiversity and social benefits associated with urban conservation?
  • How do we define a protected space?
  • What role should the federal government play in urban conservation?

Perhaps not surprisingly, Michelle Rempel, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of the environment, disagreed with her colleagues. She said urban conservation is just one element of the Conservative pledge in the 2011 Speech from the Throne to “engage a broad range of stakeholders on the development of a National Conservation Plan, to move our conservation objectives forward and better connect all Canadians with nature.” Many of the committee members represent urban ridings—eight of 12 members, by our count—a statistic that’s reflected in Canada’s demographic shift.

“Over eighty-eight* percent of Canadians live in urban centres,” said Rempel. “This issue speaks to a large population, and affects a broad cross-section of Canadians.”

Leslie might see the study as not exactly urgent, but she and her opposition colleagues have tried to raise broader issues in the context of urban conservation.

“Within the scope of the study, I try to raise issues that are top of mind to Canadians,” including climate change and cuts to Parks Canada, Leslie said. “I think it’s totally appropriate to talk about climate change when we talk about urban conservation.”

But each time a member of the opposition raised those issues with witnesses at the committee’s Oct. 17 meeting, the committee chair, Conservative MP Mark Warawa, ruled them out of order.  At that meeting, Duncan and NDP MPs Laurin Liu and Anne Minh-Thu Quach were forced to change their lines of questioning.

Duncan’s question, which never received an answer, was related to ecological integrity in urban protected areas. “How can we protect ecological integrity when scientists are being cut at Parks Canada?” she asked, adding that adequate monitoring might be made more difficult given departmental cuts. Leslie agreed, arguing it “would be important to figure out how the goals of the department will change based on those cuts.”

Ultimately, Warawa ruled that “the way the question was put is outside the scope” of the committee.

Conservation vs. stewardship

One of the witnesses at the committee’s meeting on Oct. 22 might agree with Leslie that climate change is germane to the conversation about urban conservation.

Adam Bienenstock mentioned climate change when we spoke over the phone before his testimony to the committee. His firm, Bienenstock Design and Consulting, works to connect kids—and adults—in cities with the natural environment. “I am the fortunate guy that gets to go around to cities, and actually physically dig up the asphalt, and drop pockets of nature into our cities,” he later told the committee.

For Bienenstock, conservation is important, but its usefulness in an urban environment is increasingly limited. “Ecological restoration is a joke [in cities],” he says. “Save what? Ash trees? Climate changed, and Emerald Ash Borer took over and killed them.”

Bienenstock says stewardship, not conservation, is critical to Canadians reconnecting with the natural environment. “For me, urban conservation means ‘no bikes allowed, stay on the trail, no rock climbing, no trespassing. Stay out,'” he says. “We’ve been incredibly successful at that.” Instead, Bienenstock says, the feds should provide incentives—whether via funding or tax breaks—to Canadian businesses that are “increasing levels of biodiversity in our urban spaces where people connect: that’s our playgrounds, our parks, our hospitals, and our school grounds.”

David Wise, the chair of the Canadian Institute of Planners’ policy advisory committee, took issue with Bienenstock’s definition of conservation. “Conservation in our respect does not imply preservation,” he said. “Rather, conservation implies a stewardship and a regulation of a range of uses, and potential activities so as to maximize that economic, environmental and net social value.”

Conservative MP Robert Sopuck said he “appreciated” Bienenstock’s distinction between conservation and stewardship.

“In the rural areas that I represent, the word stewardship is a much friendlier word when it comes to our interactions with the environment, as opposed to the word environment itself,” he said, adding that it might be useful for rural residents—who have stewardship “in their bones”—to work with their urban counterparts to develop protected spaces.

Where do the children play?

When we spoke over the phone, Bienenstock referred to the “roam rate” of children, and mentioned it had shrunken over time quite considerably—down to 150 yards from several kilometres when he was a kid. Essentially, he says, children wander around less than in the past, to the detriment of their own health. (It’s worth noting the U.K.-based National Trust released a study [PDF] earlier this year that claimed the “roam radius” of British children had shrunk by 90 percent since 1971.)

Bienenstock suggested a number of ways the government could work to reconnect kids with the natural environment. He said funding efforts similar to the North Vancouver Outdoor School outside Squamish, B.C., where students spend a lot of time learning outdoors, would go a long way to helping kids connect with nature.

* This story originally quoted Rempel as stating 88 percent of Canadians live in cities. That quote has been corrected.

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