Does Canada need a Green Infrastructure Framework?

March 23, 2016 Gordon Plunkett

At the 2016 Esri Federal GIS Conference in Washington, the development of a Green Infrastructure Framework for America was announced. The purpose of this project is to create Web maps of ‘green’- related map layers that can be used by local, regional and national planners as well as the public. Is this a concept that Canada and perhaps other countries should take a close look at?

At the 2016 Esri Federal GIS Conference in Washington, Gary Knell, president and CEO of National Geographic (NatGeo), spoke about how important green spaces are for people and presumably for other living things. He noted that parks are particularly important—not just national parks, but regional and local neighbourhood parks as well.

Gary Knell announced that NatGeo is working on a project with Esri to collect spatial data about green spaces and publish this information as a Web map. He called it the Green Infrastructure Framework for America project.

Esri president Jack Dangermond indicated that these Web maps could be used for planning and local conservation work, and that a pilot project was already underway in San Diego, California. To build the Green Infrastructure Framework for America, Esri is collecting national thematic datasets such as transportation, soils, water and terrain data, and placing this data into Web maps that depict groupings such as ecological assets, cultural assets, scenic assets, hazard areas and land cover. Users can visualize this data via a Web map and perform analytics to produce valuable information for decision-making and action.

Should Canada look into implementing a similar project? Let’s first examine what green infrastructure means and what constitutes a green infrastructure framework.

Everyone is familiar with the concept of infrastructure. Canada has a road infrastructure, an electricity infrastructure and a telecommunications infrastructure. These are sometimes referred to as hard infrastructure and are generally designed and made by humans. As well, Canada has a Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) that is used to share geospatial data. Canada’s SDI is known as the Canadian Geospatial Data Infrastructure (CGDI). Often, these infrastructures are interspersed and depend on other infrastructures. For example, SDIs depend on telecommunications and electricity infrastructures.

Also, everyone is familiar with what environmental technology is. Green technology, in particular, is a type of environmental technology that is designed to protect the natural environment and resources from potentially harmful impacts that can be caused by natural phenomena or human activities. Thus, green infrastructure is basically an interdependent collection of technology for the purposes of protecting the earth’s natural environment and resources. Examples of neighbourhood green infrastructures include urban forests, constructed wetlands, storm sewers, green roofs, porous pavement, bio-retention facilities and shade trees.

So, does Canada need a green infrastructure framework?

It certainly does. Canada prides itself on large expanses of natural space and wilderness. As well, the country takes environmental issues seriously. However, many project and policy decisions are made with little real information and many times, decisions are not science based, primarily because the necessary requisite geospatial data is not available, accessible or trustworthy. For example, should the Energy East pipeline be built or not? No one really knows for sure because no one has collected the scientific evidence (data) to assess its potential environmental impact and draw conclusions one way or another.

Another example is the intensification policy used in many jurisdictions to justify higher building densities. If the policy developers had really studied this policy using a green infrastructure framework in a GIS, the planners would have discovered that when there’s a significant rain event (now known as a ‘rain bomb’), trouble quickly ensues.

First, rain will run into the storm sewer and once the sewer is full, it then fills the streets and then people’s basements. There are few green or open spaces in cities today to absorb or at least hold back some of the rain. No wonder rain event flooding is a major problem in our cities today; even when there is only an above average downpour.

If Canada were to follow in the US’ footsteps, the Community Map of Canada could be the basemap for the country’s green infrastructure framework. The huge advantage of using this Web map is that it is multi-scale; planners and policy makers could easily and seamlessly zoom in to look at street-level green infrastructures and then zoom out to visualize city, regional or even national-level infrastructures or aggregations of green infrastructure.

Finally, Canada would significantly benefit from having a green infrastructure framework. It will enable better informed, science-based decisions towards greater sustainability.

About the Author

Gordon Plunkett

Gordon Plunkett is the Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) Director at Esri Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in GIS and Remote Sensing in both the public and private sectors. He currently sits as a member of the Community Map of Canada Steering Committee, GeoAlliance Canada Interim Board of Directors, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Technical Committee, the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) Committee on Geomatics, the University of Laval Convergence Network Advisory Committee and the Advisory Board to the Carleton University Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre. During his career, Gordon has worked on projects in more than 20 countries and has contributed to numerous scientific conferences and publications. At Esri Canada, he is responsible for developing and supporting the company’s SDI vision, initiatives and outreach, including producing content for the SDI blog.

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