(Contributed) Flooding in Maple Ridge near the Haney Bypass after a severe storm last September.

Going Green: Valuing our natural assets

Smarter, cheaper to invest in maintaining and expanding forests, urban parks and stormwater ponds.

It’s interesting how we measure wealth.

When I was a little kid, my parents, my two sisters and I lived in a teeny old house in a genteel (shabby) neighbourhood. The trees were big when I was small, the yards filled with flowery discoveries. I remember the carefree feeling of being pushed in a stroller, taking in the play of light and shadow from the trees along the sidewalk. the lavish burst of springtime fragrance from the lilac hedge in the back yard.

And then we moved.

My dad’s business had done well and we could afford a big house in a new part of town. There was a bedroom for each of us girls. The whole house seemed phenomenally spacious. It was the largest one on the street. It had a swanky red hipped roof you could see all the way down the block.

And there wasn’t a tree, flower or blade of grass within miles.

RELATED: The great transformation.

My six-year-old heart broke at the thought of the leafy heaven I’d left behind. If my dad had all this money, couldn’t he have bought some nice big old trees?

Fast forward a few years (quite a few), and I’m learning a new language to describe old loves.

Over there? That’s not a ditch, pond or slough — it’s a rain garden or bioswale.

That collection of trees and shrubs is now an urban forest.

Restoring creeks we once recklessly paved over is called daylighting.

Collectively, these features are called natural assets – or green infrastructure – as opposed to built or engineered assets.

And we’re beginning to realize they offer concrete, measurable and superior benefits to cities that have the wisdom to include their contributions in business and financial plans.

One spectacular example is Gibsons. A few years ago, the town planned stormwater drainage improvements, set to cost $4 million for a network of concrete pipes. Those in Gibsons knew that with climate change dishing out more frequent and severe storm events, they needed to be proactive. But the price tag was a lot for the small town to afford.

Then municipal staff came up with a different idea: why not extend an existing park, create more ponds and plant more trees?

Today, Gibsons has the numbers and evidence to show that it’s smarter and cheaper to invest in maintaining and expanding natural assets – such as forests, urban parks and stormwater ponds – than to design, build and manage engineered stormwater infrastructure.

Emanuel Machado, Gibsons’ chief administrative officer, put it this way: “For roughly the same costs as building man-made infrastructure, we can build something that can last in perpetuity, with relatively low costs for maintenance, that provides other services to the community as well. It’s a fantastic investment.”

The City of Nanaimo was listening. It followed up with an assessment of the Buttertubs Marsh Conservation Area to compare the financial value of stormwater services – such as flood mitigation – to the cost of replacing those natural services with engineered alternatives.

Nanaimo determined the storage benefit of the conservation area was $4.7 million more than an engineered solution could provide, and under climate change scenarios this increased to $6.5 to $8.2 million.

And back to Machado’s mention of other services provided by green infrastructure. Sure, it’s vital to avoid flooding like Maple Ridge experienced last year. And while natural assets mitigate these risks with efficiency and grace, unlike engineered solutions they also serve up measurable social, economic and health benefits.

READ ALSO: Widespread damage from flooding in Maple Ridge.

For example, by creating small park areas connected by green corridors, cities encourage their residents to walk and bike further and more often. This is a direct health benefit to the riders and walkers, reduces pollution from cars, and improves security in neighbourhoods through increased eyes-on-the-street.

These connected corridors support biodiversity in a way isolated parks can’t. They make it safe for young city residents to get around on their own steam. The trees suck up CO2 at a truly impressive rate. And well-designed green infrastructure enhances the desirability and value of communities, neighbourhoods and properties.

As community residents, we have many opportunities to thoughtfully influence the direction our cities take in the coming years.

Maple Ridge’s ongoing Lougheed Highway transit corridor study and Pitt Meadows’ official community plan review are two such opportunities and there are more.

Let’s make sure our assessment of the health and wealth of our cities and our vision for the future include all the sustainable benefits that precious and purposeful green infrastructure can provide.

Kirk Grayson is a digital strategy consultant, communications chair for the Maple Ridge Environmental Advisory

Committee and convenor of

Maple Meadows Green Drinks.

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