Importance of Urban Biodiversity
Our planet is going through an undeniable biodiversity crisis, and Ottawa is no exception. Animal and plant species around the world are going extinct at 1,000 times the natural rate.
In Canada, over 700 species have been classified as at risk and about 60 of them live in Ottawa. Most species at risk are found in the most densely populated areas of the country, which means that cities have an essential role to play in conserving biodiversity.
Biodiversity is nature. Healthy and biodiverse ecosystems provide services that we depend on for healthy communities and a strong economy. It is clear that conserving biodiversity is in everyone’s best interest.
Unfortunately, we are experiencing an unprecedented rate of biodiversity loss because of human-caused threats, including habitat destruction, overexploitation, invasive species, pollution and climate change. We see examples of this within the City of Ottawa, as new development projects - especially at Ottawa’s urban fringes - eradicate or degrade greenspaces at the expense of vulnerable species and ecosystems.
One of the most valuable ways to support urban biodiversity is by implementing Nature-Based Solutions, such as rewilding initiatives.
First things first: what is rewilding (a.k.a. naturalization)?
Rewilding is a method of conservation that helps nature thrive. In urban spaces in particular, rewilding is all about reimagining our relationship with nature. It involves deliberate planting of native species and allowing this vegetation to become established through natural regeneration.
Cities around the world are embracing the idea of rewilding. If Ottawa is serious about a green and just recovery from the Covid pandemic, rewilding initiatives must be prioritized.
MORE NATURALIZED RESIDENTIAL YARDS
There are several City of Ottawa by-laws that could be substantially improved to not only allow residents to have naturalized gardens, but to encourage planting that supports urban biodiversity. The Property Standards (2013-416), Property Maintenance (2005-208), and the Use and Care of Roads (2003-498) By-laws need to be amended to encourage residents to transform their lawns and boulevards (i.e., the area between the street curb and the sidewalk that is often planted with grass) to eco-friendly gardens that provide habitat for critical pollinators.
While there are certainly legitimate health and safety concerns (for example, road visibility) that these by-laws address, the way they are currently written results in more residents sticking to grass lawns, despite knowing that manicured lawns are a desert for pollinators (and most wildlife). Residents are often reluctant to take their chances with these by-laws for fear of having to tear up their gardens or get fined. This fear and uncertainty is a major barrier for Ottawans who would like to support urban biodiversity.
The Use and Care of Roads By-law is up for review in 2021 and the Property Standards By-law is set to be reviewed in 2022. These amendments are already overdue – now is the time to make them happen! Other cities have started making these changes and Ottawa needs to follow suit!
MORE NATURALIZATION THROUGHOUT CITY OF OTTAWA PARKS
The ongoing development of the Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan is the perfect opportunity to make rewilding initiatives a priority in Ottawa parks. The City’s existing naturalization targets will remain ineffective unless more money is allocated to meet and maintain them.
It is essential for City staff to be provided with the resources needed to plant and maintain these rewilded spaces. These include proper signage and training on how to manage naturalized spaces (including how to mitigate safety concerns such as ticks and wild parsnips). The lack of signage has resulted in the accidental mowing of small trees and taller plants in areas that were meant to be left to grow. Plus, adopting naturalization practices throughout City parks will result in less maintenance work and costs in the long run.
MORE GREENSPACE PROTECTION
Ottawa’s greenspaces (forests, wetlands, parks, and fields) are fundamental to the health and happiness of its human residents and the wildlife species that also call this region home.
Many Ottawa residents assume that natural spaces are protected. However, poorly planned developments and inadequate protection measures continue to pose a threat to our local greenspaces.
Protecting vulnerable greenspaces in Ottawa means demanding more sustainable patterns of development across the city. This includes:
- Less incursion of new development into vulnerable areas and maintaining clearly defined greenspaces.
- Better (i.e., denser, mixed-use and walkable) community design and planning practices.
- More protection for species at risk.
- Stronger enforcement of tools to protect local greenspaces and the species that rely on them for survival.
Educating the public on the benefits of rewilding in urban areas is essential. It is still a common misconception that rewilding initiatives mean that absolutely no maintenance will be done in those areas and they will become hazards.
On the contrary, maintenance needs to be done in a way that complements the type of naturalized area. For example, areas that are intended to grow trees still need to be spot checked and treated for invasive species on a regular basis. It is entirely possible to have naturalized areas that provide critical habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, while also being safe and beautiful for residents and tourists to enjoy.