October 21, 2021

By Michael Twigg


Natural urban ecosystems provide a range of benefits that can improve mental and physical health, reinforce community cohesion, and build resilience to climate change. Although challenges remain, Canadian cities are now faced with an unprecedented opportunity to begin accounting for these benefits when seeking to build healthier communities.


Connecting human health and urban nature

Access to urban nature is vital for the health and well-being of Canadian communities. A recent policy brief in The Lancet reiterates that more urban greenspaces mean improved cardiovascular and respiratory health, as well as reduced exposure to the urban heat island effect. The brief points to the experiences learned during the 2018 heat wave in Montreal where people living in areas with lower levels of greenspace faced twice the mortality risk from excessive heat. Parks and greenspaces also provide vital mental health support and reduce the risk of disease in urban areas - a reality only further emphasized by the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Local and regional governments across Canada increasingly recognize that paving over vital ecosystem services causes additional suffering from poor environmental health, yet development trends continue to favour the short-term gains offered by investments in grey infrastructure.


Valuing good environmental health

To better integrate nature into decision-making, there is a need to understand how prioritizing urban nature can help alleviate the health stresses of city living, and how this can be translated into economic value. For example, the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health estimates that exposure to environmental pollutants incurs between $3.5 and $9 billion of additional annual health care costs. In this case, capturing how a reduction in environmental pollutants could reduce the incidence of respiratory illnesses is relatively simple. In contrast, ascertaining the number of trees needed to reduce the costs of treating respiratory illnesses caused by environmental pollutants requires the consideration of multiple additional variables. In the latter case, planting more trees without considering species, pollution type, and physical characteristics of the urban landscape could result in greater exposure by creating an effect that limits the dispersion of harmful pollutants.


Making a case for investing in environmental health

With more than $3 billion in investments for natural infrastructure up for grabs as part of Canada’s green economic recovery from COVID-19, many local governments are facing both opportunity and uncertainty when investing in nature-based solutions.  The Smart Prosperity Institute’s recent landmark report aims to reduce the uncertainty facing Canadian decision-makers by highlighting the necessary tools, data, assessment methodologies, and evaluation techniques to account for the health benefits of using nature-based solutions. Below are three key highlights from the report:


Accounting for the health impacts of nature-based solutions makes economic sense

At the local level, business case studies in Ontario identified a $3-4 million dollar cost savings annually from investing in nature-based solutions. Nationally, the direct health benefits of more investments in urban nature in Canada have been shown to range from an 8-12% reduction in mortality to up to $227 million in annual health care cost savings from improved air quality. A conservative estimate of the environmental health benefits that could result from increasing investments in nature-based solutions would be 34,000 fewer annual deaths and cost savings of $100 billion by 2050.


Local and regional governments are limited by their mandate to act on environmental health

Health benefits are multi-dimensional and accounting for those generated by NBS requires collaboration across different departments and sectors. In most Canadian jurisdictions, the absence of a clear and binding mandate to include health criteria in project planning and program design has had the opposite impact -  fragmentation of health considerations across different municipal sectors and government departments. Consequently, the integration of health considerations in local and regional planning is often ad-hoc, narrowly focused, and heavily reliant on the support of external experts, and limited by competing priorities and fundings streams.


Health benefits from urban nature are not distributed equally

The burden of poor environmental health is disproportionately concentrated among some of Canada’s most vulnerable populations. Community engagement and health equity must be a top priority for planners and public health advocates when considering the merits of nature-based solutions. Ensuring that people are safe and feel as though they belong in public greenspaces are key to ensuring equitable access to urban nature among local community members. Adequately accounting for these factors requires community engagement strategies that are ongoing and responsive to changes in community needs.


Calling for greater action

Smart Prosperity Institute emphasizes three key priority areas for accelerating action on environmental health in Canada:


1) Empower local governments to act on health with a clear and expanded mandate

Examples in Quebec and British Columbia of an explicit health mandate for local governments have raised the profile of community health considerations, and enable innovative action on environmental health at the local level. Drawing on the lessons learned could enable the horizontal scaling out of nature-health-climate considerations to local and regional governments in other jurisdictions.


2) Harmonize strategies and develop best practices

Vulnerability assessments, climate resilience strategies, and health impact assessments are all being used with varying levels of success. Developing comprehensive guidelines around national standards and best practices will be integral for stimulating the widespread integration of health considerations at the local and regional level in Canada.


3) Align institutions and funding streams to better target the nature-health-climate nexus

Public policy institutions and funding mechanisms that address the nature-health-climate nexus are fragmented. Understanding the role of provincial and territorial health authorities and how these networks connect local communities to national funding streams will be key to fostering more integrated management strategies. Investing in the creation, expansion, and formalization of vertical knowledge networks will be necessary to support the creation and distribution of effective tools and resources to move projects forward.


Canada’s urban ecosystems can provide communities with a range of benefits that can be measured in terms of their monetary value, their contributions towards reaching environmental goals, and their impact on human health. To learn more about current approaches and new policy directions, access the full Nature of Health report here.


To join the ongoing discussion, register for the Smart Prosperity Institute’s upcoming webinar on accounting for the health benefits of using nature-based solutions.

Michael Twigg

Program Director, Land-use, Nature, Agriculture