By Benjamin Hughes, Public Relations Assistant & Jackie Hamilton, Sr. Research/Policy Advisor, Greenbelt Foundation
As our largest cities continue to expand in both footprint and population, it becomes more important than ever to protect sensitive lands and ecological features and provide easily accessible greenspace for urban residents. To offer solutions for this problem, the Greenbelt Foundation has joined forces with seven other organizations to form the Southern Ontario Nature Coalition or “SONC.” The current work of SONC is to develop a Near-Urban Nature Network of protected natural areas across the Greater Golden Horseshoe region.
Near-urban nature goes far beyond just city parks. It is also comprised of forests, river valleys, wetlands, grasslands and farmlands, and other ecological features that surround and intersect our urban communities.
To better connect and protect our near-urban ecosystems in southern Ontario, SONC is working to create a Near-Urban Nature Network that uses cores (important ecological areas like wetlands or forests) connected through ecological corridors that allow animals and plants to move and migrate. This will better protect biodiversity in our region and in return, provide urban communities with improved climate resilience.
Healthier and more biodiverse ecosystems provide “ecosystem services” like water filtration, flood protection, and even help to make the air feel up to 11°C cooler during heatwaves. These services will only become more important as climate change progresses and biodiversity will be key to ensuring our ecosystems remain healthy and continue to benefit our communities. Southern Ontario has some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the country, as well as some of the greatest threats, due to expanding urban areas. By protecting near-urban nature in this region we will maintain high levels of biodiversity and ensure our ecosystems continue to provide services for future generations.
SONC’s work in developing a near-urban nature network for southern Ontario has required engagement with a variety of stakeholders, including Indigenous consultants, conservation experts, and land stewards. The work with Indigenous consultants has been especially important to the project in understanding treaty obligations and creating “ethical space” for dialogue and collaboration with interested Indigenous communities. Indigenous Peoples in this region have long stewarded these lands, and Indigenous Knowledge Systems, science, and ways of knowing are intrinsically tied to the land. Performing these engagements is critical to the success of the Near-Urban Nature Network and will help to build the cross-cultural understanding necessary to ensure that Indigenous communities can contribute meaningfully to these efforts as they see appropriate.
The Government of Canada has made a commitment to permanently protect 25% of lands and waters across the country by 2025. A key goal of SONC, is to make sure that some of these protected lands are near-urban. In the Greater Golden Horseshoe there is opportunity to permanently protect existing natural areas including wetlands and forests, and even expand forest cover to 30% of the region, which could be done by focusing a part of the Government of Canada’s Two Billion Trees Commitment to southern Ontario. Connections between protected areas could also be restored through the creation of protected ecological corridors that encourage migration. Because land protections and ownership in the Greater Golden Horseshoe is fragmented between multiple levels of government, private landowners, and farmers, SONC has focused on engaging these groups to find solutions to protect near-urban nature.
By investing in near-urban nature, we can address issues of biodiversity and species loss, climate resilience for our urban communities, and equitable access to outdoor recreation spaces. The work is only just beginning, and next steps for SONC include mapping wildlife movement corridors, further engagement with Indigenous communities, municipalities, conservation authorities, and private landowners, and working with the Government of Canada to implement the Two Billion Trees Commitment in southern Ontario. With this work, it is our hope that our cities will be able to sustain high levels of biodiversity, support healthy ecosystems, and be more resilient to climate change.
To learn more about this project you can read the Summary Report of recommendations and to stay up to date on future news you can follow @greenbeltca on Twitter. This work is being supported by the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario via the Greenbelt Foundation.
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