Sunday, May 17, 2015

Pollinator Health in Hamilton's Urban Official Plan

When dealing with protecting natural areas, one of the biggest challenges is the idea that this means anti-development. According to City of Guelph planner April Nix, “You need to find a way to walk that middle.”

To what extend you agree with Nix, “It is about the message that we can have meadow habitats, the same way we can have woodlands and have development too.”
Nix emphasizes that it is about having a complete community and that includes a complete Natural Heritage Systems (NHS): “It is not one or the other. It is about wanting to do things a little differently. So, no you can’t do that here, but there are other opportunities.”

Nix helped create the city of Guelph’s Official Plan (OP) and has wise tips to offer us as we begin to look at Hamilton’s official plan (urban plan review is in 2018) and how it can be stronger on the biodiversity and pollinator health front.

She points out the OnNature document as a useful guide to help make policy clearer. For example, although ‘pollinators’ is not strongly themed in it, there are a lot of principles that are talked about in terms of how to build policies and how to make them clear. They’ve got a section about making sure that it is understood what’s mapped in a planning context and what is not mapped and how the policies apply—and that is something that would most often apply to our meadow communities and pollination environment.
Photo by Randy Kay

It’s Tricky: Mapping
Mapping can be tricky and with the emergence and popularity of GIS and google maps taking off, the idea of having unlimited access to aerial images and pulling something up and looking, that's changed the way natural heritage planning is assumed to work.

Nix explains that 20 or 30 years back, an OP would have had some green blob areas which would have been known rough features (such as provincial wetlands) and it would have been understood in the OP that those things were flagged constraints. Now the assumption is that everything will be meticulously mapped out into the OP and shown on the schedules and that will be your "be all and end all" as far as constraints go--that everything is known. “Everything is not known. Particularly when we deal with species and species habitat it is probably one of the most challenging aspects,” Nix says.

As well, with wetlands or woodlands for example, you can look at an aerial and define these areas, “but wildlife habitat is hugely more complicated because it depends on which wildlife you are dealing with, and how do you map that?” she asks. “If I map something as a deer habitat, does that mean that it is not anything else? Of course it’s other things, but what you map is a challenge, and how do you include it in an OP?”

Guelph’s OP has attempted to include Natural Heritage Systems (NHS) in their OP based on features and areas. It includes a layer for significant wildlife habitat and it will include more mapping for more locally significant habitats as they go along.

Greenbelt Review:  An Opportunity for Pollinator Health and increased Wildlife habitat creation and protection.
I am excited that the Greenbelt Plan is under review and that we, as Ontarians and Hamiltonians have a chance to voice our ideas on how to make it better, and include pollinator health, since municipalities have to take direction from the province.
I asked Nix what her thoughts are concerning this, and increasing the focus on natural areas. She tells me that although NHS is in the Greenbelt plan, it doesn’t apply in urban areas!

“None of the NHS policies in the plan as it stands today, apply in urban areas. It would only apply within the rural plan in Hamilton nor the urban plan.”
 I mention Urban River Valleys and how municipalities now how the ability to grown the Greenbelt into this publically owned lands if they so choose to.

Nix points out a challenge: “It doesn’t include river valleys as features, it is not based on a NHS. It only applies to publically owned lands within a river valley. It doesn’t look at protecting an entire feature-- like here’s a river valley that is significant and here is how we want to protect it in an urban context.”

Okay. So, wouldn’t that be a reason to include this concern in the review? She concurs. For more ideas on Greenbelt improvement, Nix advices checking out the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) 2014, where in the Natural Heritage section (2.1), one of the points of clarification make a distinction that a rural versus an urban (settlement areas) versus and agriculture, that they will vary in size and form.

In Greenbelt, “Settlement areas” are considered urban areas, and “Protected countryside” is the rural area.  “If the province made this distinction in the PPS that natural heritage areas will vary in their size and form if they are in a settlement area versus agricultural area, why couldn’t we take that over to the Greenbelt plan and have two different NHS plans--an urban NHS and a protected country side NHS?" Sounds good to me!

Photo by Randy Kay,
Get ye a wish list

What do we want to see in the official plan for urban Hamilton?

“Part of it is figure out what is the goal, what is the vision, what do you want to achieve, and then what are some of the tools and mechanisms to get there?” Nix advices. Think about which ones can use planning and planning policies and opportunities to contribute to.
 “You may need to look at other tools, planning can’t do everything,” she cautions that planning is one tool and it has limitations; but in the urban context especially with pollinators it is possible to have pollinator habitat on a scale that will not necessarily be features and areas.
People won’t want their front and back yards mapped as being seeing as a natural environment constraint but the reality is people can do some really good stewardship through their own space, “So having policies that encourage and support those kinds of initiatives or make connections to other programs that you might have in the community is a good start.”

Focus on inter-sectionality of programs. For example, one of the things she is finding is that you can do water efficient landscaping and it also has the benefit of helping with wildlife habitat. It’s also supporting management of invasive plants by selecting non-invasive plants by either going native or planting appropriate plants.

Further more, Nix thinks that if in the OP the municipality wanted to include a directional policy that's on the private side, it is important to have the encouraging policy saying the city “may support,” “shall support” in there too. “You have to have both sides of that coin—the one is what is the city going to do as a leader and the flip side is encouraging local stuff, stewardship programs for residents.”

Unlikely partners
Nix suggests doing a project in partnership with a developer that supports ecosystem health in a way that is integrated—or a landscaping project for pollinator opportunity in an amenity space
“When the next OP review comes up—if you have some examples you can point to and say, “we would like to see more proactive policy in the OP we’ve even partnered with XX in the community,” it will be very positive.”

Money talks
Municipalities are likely going to respond when they understand that infiltration and meadowland communities—that is, green infrastructure, will save the city money.
“Tell your councilors, they should care about this because it has the potential to reduce the city’s liability, health benefits, and climate. If you can connect it to dollars there will be some councilors economic value, their ears will suddenly perk up!”

Action to date:
Nix says we are doing all the right things: we are collecting information, asking questions, making connections with our planning department, pro-actively starting a dialogue raise awareness before we get into the review. So kudos to us! Stay tuned for an update shortly.