It’s Not Easy Being Green
Simple supply and demand are dictating the slow implementation of green infrastructure in Canada. While municipalities promote its public persona and fix its impotent economic model, is the do-the-right-thing attitude of altruist land owners enough to scale adoption?
There is a lot of pressure on green infrastructure. Part climate change savior, part urban revivalist and part path to civic prosperity, in some circles, green infrastructure is expected to lead the Great Urban Unbuilding of Canada’s next century. But despite testing technology throughout North America since the 1990s, the application of green infrastructure as a stormwater system here has failed to take root in any meaningful way.
The critical mass for green infrastructure lies in retrofitting existing, dense urban land where stormwater controls do not exist in a surprisingly large proportion of Canada’s urban centres. Adding control in this way would be a panacea for cities, but one that, for now, remains out of reach until a viable economic model can be implemented, one which simultaneously fuels public demand and incents private supply. In the absence of a model, the momentum of green infrastructure relies almost entirely on early adopters and the altruist land owner.
Vancouver is Canada’s Rain City, culturally and meteorologically. Inundated by over 1.1 metres of rainfall in an average year, it is the by far wettest of the nation’s big cities. Rain City as a nickname will be immortalized in policy when staff presents to council in early 2019 the Rain City Strategy, a “reimagining” of how water is managed in the region. Utilizing soils, plants, trees and built structures — a toolbox filled with green roofs, bioswales, rain gardens and more — the city’s goal is to capture and clean 90 per cent of the city’s rainfall before “returning it to our waterways and atmosphere.” Melina Scholefield, the city’s manager of green infrastructure implementation calls it a ‘holistic approach.’ “It’s about transforming how we do business, and trying to be integrative to achieve multiple benefits with a single investment,” she says.
By the time the Rain City Strategy receives council approval, Scholefield expects Vancouver to have over 220 green infrastructure assets draining 15 hectares of land. Over 20 assets will have come on line in 2018 and a total of 253 assets will be on line by the end of 2019. This count sounds significant but, she notes, the city has been dabbling in green infrastructure for about 20 years. “But we only did it as one-off projects, pilot projects and demonstrations. We failed to make the leap from one-off projects and leadership here and there to a new way of doing business.” Falling short of a tipping point, Scholefield says, was a by-product of community apathy toward innovative or just simply optimized water management. “People think, ‘We are in a rainforest; there is lots of water.’”
Vancouver is to Canada what Canada is to the world. Nationally, our perception of water as infinitely abundant or, worse, an urban waste product, has set back green infrastructure implementation here by at least a decade. The slow process of changing that perception has required a combination of aggressive education and, sadly, natural disaster. Alberta and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) floods in 2013, for example, killed five people and cost a combined $2.68 billion. In Vancouver, a severe summer drought in 2015 shook the foundation of the Rain City ideal but ultimately helped advanced the new water management strategy. Green infrastructure was, until recently, a solution to a problem most Canadians didn’t know they had.
The Credit River watershed, which drains into Lake Ontario between Hamilton and Toronto, has a split personality. 87 per cent of the watershed’s population lives below Mayfield Road in Brampton and Mississauga; all of the watershed’s significant surface water impairments can be found there as well. According to the Watershed Report Card 2018, surface water quality grades in Brampton and Mississauga ranged between C (Fair) and F (Very Poor). To the north of Mayfield Road, they were much better: B (Good) or C. Roughly one third of the watershed received a failing grade thanks in part to sprawl and bad timing.
Brampton and Mississauga grew fastest — double- and triple-digit population growth decade over decade — in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, a period mostly preceding the arrival of water quality-focused stormwater management regulations in the early-to-mid 1990s. A 2017 Region of Peel study estimates only 20 per cent of Mississauga and 58 per cent of Brampton have any form of stormwater management control. “If we totalled it all up in the GTA, we are probably in the range of 70 per cent of existing developed land has no stormwater control whatsoever,” says Deborah Martin-Downs, CAO of Credit Valley Conservation (CVC). “As we continue to develop, that number comes down a little bit, otherwise the downstream areas were developed without anything: [runoff drains] straight into the sewer, straight into the creek or straight into the lake.”
Martin-Downs calls the retrofitting of existing urban areas with green infrastructure the “biggest bang for the buck” due its distributed nature of water management and multi-benefit payoff. “The bigger infrastructure, like stormwater management (SWM) ponds or even underground retention, is hugely expensive and land intensive, and land is very expensive in these areas. So, green infrastructure is the way to go in boulevards, in the margins of a property, certainly with green roofs.” But the rate of retrofitting in the Credit River watershed has been almost entirely reliant on what the CVC and partner municipalities can squeeze onto public land. At last count, the CVC estimates 30 green infrastructure projects focused on stormwater have been implemented in the watershed. Martin-Downs says municipalities haven’t yet figured out the market levers to interest the private sector. “The wholesale change is not really being incentivized by anyone at this time.”
“It doesn’t pay for a single land owner like a homeowner, an industrial site or commercial site to make a change,” says Martin-Downs. “In the greenfield situation, [green infrastructure] is more cost effective, but for already developed sites, there is no return on investment for doing it.” Martin-Downs notes that even if there is a stormwater fee, which municipalities like Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph, Mississauga and Brampton have implemented or are looking at implementing, it would be 10 years before land owners earn back their investment. “If the charges were hundreds of thousands of dollars it would be one thing,” she adds. “But we’re talking a couple thousand dollars, so on an annual basis it is not a huge budget item they have to be concerned about. So how do you incentivize the change to ask people to go back into existing developments where owners are not changing their land use and incorporate stormwater controls where previously there were none?”
Last year, CVC commissioned an economist to answer this question and in February the answers came. Titled Economic Instruments to Facilitate Stormwater Management on Private Property, it recommends a “paradigm shift” in how municipalities approach stormwater management. Specifically, to improve the uptake of green infrastructure, it proposes a blend of sticks (e.g., land appropriation for easements; new ordinances and design standards), carrots (e.g., municipal credits; offsets; grants; subsidies and loans) and simply reducing the current costs of green infrastructure. Increasing stormwater fees so they, as Martin-Downs says, impact budgets for businesses is one way to push the green agenda, but potentially at fatal political consequences.
Instead, CVC believes significant cost savings can be found through property aggregation. Since the release of the report, they have begun testing the economics of aggregation by applying a green infrastructure strategy to a 38-ha network of 13 highly impervious commercial and industrial properties in Mississauga’s Southdown area. Much of the cost of implementing green infrastructure comes with design, certification, permitting and tendering. By aggregating properties into one neighbourhood-scale management concept, the hope is the economic case, and landowners’ buy-in, becomes viable. Credits for implementing green infrastructure can then be applied to reduce the stormwater fees paid to the city: a combined $120,000 per year for this network of properties. CVC also believes stormwater fee credits need to be combined with other incentives by “stacking benefits” through water and energy conservation channels.
In May, the federal government launched the $2 billion Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund to “help communities better withstand natural hazards such as floods, wildfires and droughts,” a complement to the $26.9 billion earmarked in 2016 and 2017 to support green over the next 10 years. CVC hopes some of this funding will be available to directly improve the stack of incentives for small- and medium-sized land owners who control the majority of target land. But the risk of this funding getting caught up in one-off large-scale capital projects or pilot projects is significant, a pattern consistent with the current state of trickle-down funding. “We don’t need to do demonstration projects anymore,” says Martin-Downs. “We know they work. We know all this stuff works. We need to find a way to mainstream it. And a grant here and there without a sustained funding stream for retrofitting of old infrastructure doesn’t allow it to become mainstream.”
For now, CVC are excited about aggregation. To make it work, the process only requires a champion with a long-term vested interest in the viability of the green infrastructure assets and network, the CVC says. This could be a drainage superintendent from the host municipality, a conservation authority program manager or a property owner. But this model also opens the door for neighbourhood-scale non-profit organizations, signalling the potential future importance of homeowner and business improvement associations in urban water management.
On September 6, in Canada’s second largest green building development just east of downtown Montréal, there was a celebration of sorts. The much-vaunted eco-district Technopôle Angus was turning 20 years old and developer Société de Développement Angus (SDA) was hosting une petite fête. The visionary two million square foot redevelopment project rose from the dust of industrial collapse. In 1992, Canadian Pacific Railway shuttered its Angus Shops (a railcar manufacturing and repair facility) vaporising 12,000 jobs and much of the vibrancy in the surrounding Rosemont-La Petite Patrie borough. Named Canada’s “Best Overall Project” in 2006 by the Canadian Urban Institute, Technopôle Angus has had transformational impact, now housing 2,800 workers from a tech-focused cohort of 65 companies in 13 LEED-certified buildings.
Phase II pairs the existing commercial space with 119 new residential units in the six-floor Cité Angus condominium to complete the vision of a socially focused neighbourhood with green finish. “The main objective,” says Charles Larouche, SDA’s executive vice president, “is to attract and keep middle class families in the city.” 80 per cent of the Cité Angus units have three or four bedrooms, most are more than 1,000 square feet and 85 are designated as affordable housing. As of September, 90 per cent of the units were reserved and decontamination of the site was set to begin in October. “We intend to start construction in the spring and deliver a year later in 2020,” Larouche adds.
The sweeping nature of Technopôle Angus’s redevelopment was an unprecedented opportunity to bring green infrastructure into Montréal’s urban core. Green and blue roofs, rainwater harvesting systems and bioretention zones are all dispersed throughout the 895,000-sq.-ft. Phase II and are designed to capture 95 per cent of all rainwater falling on the site. Water retained in a 60-m³ reservoir will be reused in washrooms, for landscaping, gardening and car washing, reducing the potable water demand by an estimated 40 per cent. In winter, the snow will be pushed to the central courtyard and kept onsite. “Our wish is to use the accumulation of the snow in a big snow bank as an opportunity to create events, games or activities,” says Larouche. “No de-icing agents will be used. In the spring the water will be collected and canalized to the bioretention zones for treatment and filtration.”
Green infrastructure operating costs will be similar to those of a conventional stormwater management approach, but Larouche expects capital costs will be 15 per cent less. However, to get shovels in ground, Phase II still required significant government subsidy. In March, the provincial government announced it would be contributing $20.5 million to cover roughly half of the green infrastructure costs. Larouche admits if the funding had not been awarded, a tough decision loomed. “It would have been very difficult to complete the project that way. We were trying to provide a social good [by offering affordable housing] and environmental benefit. We would likely have had to choose between one and the other.”
What allows SDA to realize a project like Technopôle Angus is their not-for-profit status. “We do not seek the same returns on investments a normal real estate developer would seek,” says Larouche. A self-described ‘social economy enterprise,’ SDA’s core business is “urban renewal projects that deliver significant spinoffs for the local community and embrace sustainable development.” Formed in 1995 only to lead Technopôle Angus, SDA has since expanded their project portfolio, leaving behind a trail of community-minded landmarks throughout the city: Carrefour de l’economie sociale, a 33,000-sq. ft. social enterprise hub opened in 2005; a 59,000-sq.-ft. home for culture and art organizations opened in 2012 called 2-22; and Carré Saint-Laurent, a 260,000-sq.-ft. development, including a 40-stall food hall; Centre d’Histoire de Montréal and office space for 900 provincial employees, is set to open in 2019 as a revitalization anchor at the corner of Saint-Laurent Boulevard and Sainte-Catherine Street.
The slow growth of green infrastructure in Canada is best understood when measured against North America’s green building movement, whose genesis in the 1990s is a useful yardstick. Green buildings gained early momentum in large part due to the efforts of non-profit organizations like the National Resources Defence Council and newly minted US Green Building Council, who set out to galvanize industry players with a “respect for resources” and to “demonstrate responsible construction practices” through the LEED steering committee.
Although a sophisticated schedule of incentives — a combination of tax credits, fee rebates, subsidies, permit accelerations and others — has been developed over time for those looking to build LEED-certified, accreditation is aspirational and entirely voluntary. The green building movement did not wait for regulation to create change in the industry, the industry created change from within while regulations followed.
“I see a lot of parallels between how we’ve been able to transform the state of practice around green buildings and what we need to do now with our water systems,” says Melina Scholefield, who, prior to her current role in Vancouver, led the city’s sustainability group and green building portfolio. “On the water side, I just think we are not quite as mature, but there is a lot to be learned, what are the types of factors which enable and catalyze actions.”
Dodge Data & Analytics has been tracking how motivations to build green have changed over time. According to their most recent biennial World Green Building Trends, “client demands” and environmental regulations were the primary drivers in 2016, but 10 years ago the forces were different. In 2008, building designers sought green solutions because they were the “right thing to do.” Consultants were prophets and proponents were visionaries. The number of survey respondents signalling altruism as a primary motivator declined 17 per cent by 2015, indicating, the report suggests, “a more mature market driven by the benefits of green.”
Green infrastructure in Canada now may be where the green building movement was in 2008, but the example creates hope a robust industry can be developed with the help of the non-profit and private sectors. Economics, and the regulations that follow true innovation, will in the long term drive the adoption of green infrastructure past a tipping point, but the early adopters and altruist land owners who buy into technology regardless of cost will dictate momentum in the short term. “One day, green infrastructure will be like it was many years ago with green buildings, when it was a big deal to say we were going to go to LEED Gold with all our buildings,” says Scholefield. “Not too long thereafter, builders were building Silver or Gold just as a matter of course.”