Water Management And Sustainability In Canadian Cities

David Miller

A Q&A with David Miller, president and CEO for World Wildlife Fund Canada
(Reprinted with permission)

The Greater Toronto Area has a population of over 6 million people and is projected to be the fastest growing region of the province, with its population increasing by 40 percent, to reach over 8.9 million by 2036. With climate change already showing adverse effects on our local resources, people, landscapes and infrastructure, what does this mean for the future of sustainable Canadian cities?

The Canadian Water Summit, held in Toronto on June 18th, 2014, sought to provide some answers to this question. This year, the summit focused on urban water issues and connected 33 speakers, 26 supporting organizations and over 200 attendees. The chair of the event, David Miller, provided insight on the challenges of urban water management throughout the event. As part of a follow-up to the Canadian Water Summit and to catch up with the President and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund and former Mayor of Toronto, Partners in Project Green sat down with David Miller to discuss sustainability in our Canadian cities.

Question 1: What was the biggest take-away from the Canadian Water Summit?

For me, the biggest take away was the need to get Canadians engaged in water issues. It’s something that we’re working on at the WWF in a couple of different ways and I think a lot of different organizations who were at the summit were working on that issue. It’s important because the health of our freshwater in Canada is vital to our ability to live, literally, and it’s also vital to our economy. and I think we take it for granted because we have a lot of water; not everywhere in Canada but lots of parts of Canada we are wonderfully blessed with freshwater. So I think, in a way, that prevents people from being really engaged on the issue unless there is a serious threat, like the export of water to the southern US. That was the number one takeaway from the summit for me and it came up in almost every panel and lots of side conversations too.

Question 2: What do you see as being some key challenges for effective water management in Toronto?

DM: I think the big issue in the GTA with respect to water is the fact that we’ve allowed so much of our community to be paved over, over the last 40 years in particular. Now, we’ve been very lucky that there has been such a huge boom. But the consequence is that, particularly in the 50’s and 60’s, we didn’t value green space enough and we thought we could manage water through hard infrastructure like sewers. And that’s turned out not to be true.

So, you know, we see today a really significant challenge because of climate change, an increasing severity and frequency of storms and because we don’t have enough green infrastructure, enough settling ponds, these storms can have a really serious impact. And I think the solution to that is to start working on the green infrastructure and certainly, while I was mayor of City of Toronto, we took significant steps – our green roofs bi-law, our wet weather flow master plan, which incorporated green infrastructure not just hard infrastructure. So, things like downspout disconnection, like settling ponds, like re-naturalizing areas. Grenadier Pond in High park, for example, the edges of that have been re-naturalized, which is very important for water management and for fish habitat. There are many possible steps like that – permeable pavement, for instance. Anything that helps unpave a place that has too much pavement, too much hard surface is really critical. And I think that’s the biggest single challenge that’s unique to Toronto. The biggest challenge nationally, of course, is climate change because that’s affecting the whole country.

I think that’s interesting that you bring that up because Partners in Project Green is working on a lot of Low Impact Development projects at the moment and trying to grow our repertoire, so I think that’s something we can look at in the future.

I think there’s huge potential and one of the beautiful things about creating green infrastructure for water is that it makes a community or a city a better place to live. So there’s a social benefit, an economic benefit and an environmental benefit and that’s always true when you do the right thing for the environment. You’ll always get a social benefit and you’ll always get an economic benefit. I think sometimes we look at them as separate, but they’re all together. If you have literally greener parks and more trees and more plants and local native plantings instead of invasive species, you’ll live in a healthier, more pleasant environment and, ultimately, that’s the kind of place that people want to move to and the kind of place that businesses want to locate as well. So, it is a very positive step for everybody and it starts by thinking by thinking about the right thing for the environment first and, in this case, the right thing for water.

Question 3: What do you envision for the ‘ideal’ sustainable Canadian Cities and what are some of the key steps cities like Toronto need to take to get there?

DM: I think an ideal city starts with public transport and starts with the philosophy that you shouldn’t have to own a car in order to live in the city. Toronto has a lot of attributes to the ideal city. Our official plan does say you shouldn’t have to have a car. Now, we haven’t gotten there with public transit because we stopped building it in essentially the 1980s. But if you have a framework of public transport that allows people to get around by foot, then you can build a city around that that is incredibly vibrant particularly from a business perspective. Small business strips thrive because people are out on the streets and they aren’t just driving through the place, they are going to the place.

It also creates a very positive pressure to build great green space and have a city that has strong environmental values. It all comes together. But if you build a city that you essentially have to drive to or through, you loose all of that because it becomes a place that people go through instead of stay and you have to build hard infrastructure for the cars and so forth. So, I think it starts with public transit and then you build a city that is liveable, that is green, that encourages walking, that encourages cycling and you get a really positive environmental impact and, of course, a very strong economic impact because, again, it’s a really liveable city that businesses want to locate in.

Question 4: As you may know, Partners in Project Green helps organizations in the GTA achieve their sustainability-related goals. What do you think the role of the private sector is in “greening” the Greater Toronto Area?

DM: I think the private sector has a really significant role in greening the GTA and I think it’s a matter of enlightened self-interest, and there are a lot of layers to it. If we have a region that has far more physical green space – more trees, more parks, more flowers, more habitable place – you have very strong health benefits as well. That’s really important for businesses. There are studies that show that proper office design with environmentally sustainable, for example, low emission or no emission carpets, all of those things produce far more productive employees. Same thing is true if the city that the business is located in is a very healthy place to live; you’ll have far more productive employees.

Secondly, if the place is vibrant and interesting to live in, people are going to want to live there. If you’re a business that relies on, for example, the IT sector, you tend to rely on young people as your human resources; they want to live in interesting, exciting, beautiful cities and so there’s a business benefit there as well.

And the third thing is I think there are very direct business benefits from participating in green initiatives; you might be saving money. Green roofs, for example, are a little more expensive to put in, but studies show the roof membrane lasts twice as long. So, you’ve got a capital expense, but you save on operating and you save on maintenance. Almost every green project I’ve ever seen works the same way; sometimes it’s more expensive at the beginning but, in the long run, you do much, much better. So there are all those benefits for business.

At the World Wildlife Fund, we work quite closely with some businesses on one of our projects called Living Planet at Work. The feedback we’ve gotten from businesses is their employees are demanding that they set high green standards and, because they are able to partner with us and achieve high green standards, they are able to attract and retain employees far more easily. So, that’s an important thing to think about too – a very direct business benefit is the attraction and retention of employees if you’re actively involved in something like Partners in Project Green. Plus, there is a direct benefit in terms of saving costs over time if you’re doing the right thing for the environment. Plus, and probably most important, you feel really good; people want to do the right thing and business owners are the same. They want to succeed in business, but they also want to do the right thing and we know this is the right thing.

Question 5: What water-related projects are the WWF working on that you’re most looking forward to?

DM: Well, we’re doing two things that are connected that I’m really excited about. The first thing is in Canada we actually don’t know enough about the health of our rivers. We have some information but, until now, nobody has figured out how to compare the river health of our great watersheds across the country. We’re in the midst of doing that and we’re using the available data in a consistent way to compare the water quality, water quantity, the health of the bugs (benthic invertebrate) and the health of the fish across the same time.

At the same time, thanks to the generous support of Loblaw’s, we’ve created the Loblaw’s water fund, which gives grants to community organizations to help address the health of their rivers and the great watersheds in the countries. And, when we combine these things, we will see where the problems are. Maybe it’s an issue of flow, maybe it’s an issue of water quality and maybe there’s an issue with fish that would respond to better fish habitat. And we’ll be able to help fund groups that are working on that. For example, by re-naturalizing rivers to help create healthier fish habitat to help bring back fish, like was done in High Park in the Humber River in Toronto over the past 15-20 years. So, I’m very excited about these projects; it’s a way we can contribute quite directly on a very important issue.

You must see very tangible results pretty quickly

Well, the great thing about our water work is that we are working directly with communities and these challenges are huge, they are national in scope and you can’t overcome them just from one organization. WWF Canada is probably a large organization from an environmental perspective, but in the big picture we’re quite small, we’re 130 people. By partnering with communities, we can achieve terrific results. I think that’s more and more true on every environmental issues. If we can bring business to the table, if we can bring active, engaged citizens and residents of Canada to the table, environmental non-for-profits can be a real catalyst to achieve goals that everybody shares. People are sort of saying, “Well, who’s going to do it, who is going to lead it?” That’s our role I think; bringing people together, finding the right path and, once you show people that path, they’ll take it in droves, and that’s true of businesses, that’s true of individuals, that’s true of non-profits and, hopefully that’s true of governments too.

David Miller was Mayor of Toronto from 2003 to 2010 and Chair of the influential C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group from 2008 – 2010. Under his leadership, Toronto became widely admired internationally for its environmental leadership, economic strength and social integration. He is a leading advocate for the creation of sustainable urban economies, and a strong and forceful champion for the next generation of jobs through sustainability.

Mr. Miller has held a variety of public and private positions and university affiliations and, in his former capacity as Counsel, International Business & Sustainability at Aird & Berlis LLP, he advised companies and international organizations on issues surrounding the creation of sustainable urban economies.

David Miller is a Harvard trained economist and professionally a lawyer. Since 2013, he has assumed the role of President and CEO for World Wildlife Fund Canada.

SOURCE: GTAA Partners in Project Green/WWF Canada