Sara recently joined Smart Prosperity Institute as the Senior Research Associate for Sustainable Communities. Her work is focused on green economy policies that will help municipalities address environmental concerns while creating new sources of revenue.

Why are you interested in sustainable communities research?

I have always been passionate about finding ways in which we can live and develop and grow as a society in balance with nature. I saw the rapid suburban growth and the degradation of our natural systems for progress and knew there had to be a better way to do things - I just wasn’t sure how to make it happen. So I started my career as an environmental planner with Conservation Authorities in Ontario, believing that development review was where I would have the greatest opportunity to promote finding a balance between nature and development. The work these folks do on the ground is so important, but time and again I saw how the policies in place were not strong enough and the financial decisions that people needed to make often left environmental protection as a “nice to have” simply because the sustainable choice was just too expensive for most people. So I set my sights on learning why this was and how it could be changed to make it easier to foster sustainable community development.

What were you doing before starting at Smart Prosperity Institute?

After working for many years as an environmental planner I decided to go back to school and enrolled in the Master of Environmental Sustainability program offered at the University of Ottawa. Through that program I gained a better understanding of the basics of economics, law, and policy, and how to critically analyze whatever is put in front of me, looking for ways to make it better. During the year I worked with SP on research related to urban sprawl and development cost charges, which ultimately led me to being offered this really exciting position with SP after graduation!

What will you be working on first at Smart Prosperity Institute?

One of the first projects I will be working on will look at how municipalities can incentivize green infrastructure (i.e. natural systems) for stormwater management – something that could not only help municipalities with their overwhelming infrastructure debts but also provide many co-benefits such as more green spaces in urban areas, wildlife habitat and corridors, flood protection, and water quality management. I will be working directly with Stephanie Cairns, who is the Director of our Sustainable Communities program, on this project and we also have a lot of great ideas for future projects including one on municipal natural capital.

Where can people go to find information about your work and other sustainable communities initiatives?

People can check out our Sustainable Communities webpage and follow me on twitter at @SaraONeillatSP to keep up to date on our latest research and find out about other interesting work taking place in communities across Canada.