Still Creek, Metro Vancouver: Low Carbon Resilience and Transboundary Ecosystem Management
This year-long research project from ACT (the Adaptation to Climate Change Team) at Simon Fraser University’s Pacific Water Research Centre focused on the Still Creek watershed, which is shared between the cities of Vancouver and Burnaby. One of only two daylit creeks (i.e. creeks free of culverts and paved channels) remaining in Vancouver, Still Creek underwent significant environmental degradation as a result of urbanization. But the creek has benefitted in recent years from a collaborative municipal rehabilitation process, resulting in the return of spawning salmon for the past four years and other benefits provided by ecosystem services. This case study aimed to uncover if policies and decision-making have led to improved ecosystem health and successful transboundary ecosystem management in Still Creek. Partnership, creative governance, community engagement, and innovative funding approaches were all essential components that helped the two cities of Burnaby and Vancouver invest in ecosystem health and initiate restoration in Still Creek. This collaboration led to many ecosystem health improvements and community benefits in the creek corridor, including the return of spawning salmon, after decades of neglect.
Climate change impacts such as flooding and extreme heat are projected to increase in British Columbia over the next few decades, and these impacts will be extremely difficult and costly for cities to manage. Species and habitats are also affected by changing weather patterns and climate extremes, especially when those effects are combined with the impacts of human development. Planning for resilience while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions – a concept known as low carbon resilience – is more important than ever.
Restoring and maintaining ecosystems as a resilience strategy is typically more cost-effective than hard infrastructure alternatives, and has multiple benefits – ecosystems can absorb and store flood waters, heat and carbon, increasing resilience while reducing emissions at the same time. Ecosystem presence has also been shown to increase property values, contribute to physical and mental health, and help other species survive both climate change and the impacts of human development.
Experts are beginning to attribute value to ecosystems at the level of capital assets, acknowledging the benefits provided by water bodies, forests, aquifers and foreshores and the extraordinary costs that would be required to replace them. Cities stand to gain the most from ecosystem benefits, given the localized effects of climate change. However, many ecosystems cross municipal boundaries, and cities often lack the capacity for collaboration that is essential to restore and maintain ecosystem health, resulting in fragmentation and loss of these values and benefits.
Despite these challenges, cities can achieve restoration goals and enjoy ecosystem benefits by partnering with neighboring cities, organizations, and community members to improve ecosystem health. The goals of this project were to assess how policies and decision-making processes have impacted ecosystem health in Still Creek over time, and to determine what factors led to both challenges and successes in regards to transboundary ecosystem management. This research project was made possible by funding from the Bullitt Foundation, the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia, and the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions.
The results of the project are presented in four products you can access here:
- A policy report that tracks the background decision-making processes over time in Still Creek, identifies challenges and the key factors that led to success, and outlines recommendations for other municipalities considering action on transboundary ecosystem governance. The report includes several appendices: literature reviews of ecosystem health indicators and methods for establishing ecosystems goods and services/ecosystem valuation; case studies of two other ecosystem areas that were considered for the project but not pursued (Boundary Bay and North Shore forests); a more detailed breakdown of jurisdictional influences; and an in-depth management history.
- An online story map that orients the viewer in Still Creek and provides a visual journey through the changes over time as well as the benefits that resulted from restoration efforts.
- An infographic illustrating how policies and management decisions affected the physical profile of the creek over time.
- A webinar describing the concepts and rationale that informed our Still Creek project research, as well as the key research findings. The webinar also features content from ICLEI Canada’s Ewa Jackson, who discusses the role of nature in low carbon resilient communities.
Outcomes and Conclusions
Ecosystem Health Outcomes
From 1949–2003, Still Creek jurisdictions proceeded with policy and decision-making individually with little collaboration. During this period, the percentage of open creek sections in the main channel dropped from 97.9% to 74.4%, and the percentage of green creek-side buffer decreased from 86.2% to 45.1%. The creek corridor was also significantly impacted by other aspects of urban development such as pollution. These changes likely resulted in increased costs to the municipality, decreased human health and well-being, decreased potential for resilience to climate change impacts such as flooding and extreme heat, and reduced ecosystem health. From 2003–2014, there was an increase in collaborative decision making in a transboundary context, resulting in restoration actions such as re-vegetation of creek buffers and the daylighting of closed stream sections. The percentage of open creek section in the main channel rose from 74.4% to 75.5%. The amount of green buffer remained constant at 45.1% based on the 30 meter extent we had chosen as our baseline; however, the municipalities invested in restoration of native plants and community clean up programs and the green buffer percentage nearer to the creek increased. These improvements likely resulted in decreased costs, improvements to human health and well-being, increased resilience to climate change, and benefits to ecosystem health. In 2012, salmon returned to Still Creek for the first time in decades and have returned each year since then, spawning in the heart of East Vancouver.
The conservation and restoration of urban ecosystems can provide valuable benefits and services and help communities to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. However, this value may be overlooked or discounted, and management for ecosystem health often falls through administrative cracks. Ecosystems that cross municipal boundaries present further challenges, as governance decisions are not made by one municipality alone, and capacity to collaborate may be limited. Still Creek and its history of major policy change and municipal collaboration provides a useful case study with which to examine the complexities of transboundary municipal ecosystem management, and identify recommendations and conclusions that may be helpful for municipal decision-making in this context across the country. Several challenges to transboundary ecosystem management in Still Creek were revealed as a result of this case study. The legacy of historical development results in limited developable space, and many competing land uses and municipal priorities. Neighboring municipalities may have quite different land use priorities due to unique management histories and socio-economic contexts. In addition, government and public awareness of the value of ecosystems, as well as the complexities of ecological integrity, is still limited. Lastly, ecosystems often fall under the jurisdiction of multiple governments, and ecosystem health is unlikely to be the primary mandate of any one municipality. Despite these political challenges, the Still Creek case study highlights examples of successful ecosystem governance practices that led to positive changes in ecological integrity. Collaborative planning enabled the vertical and horizontal transfer of information between government and non-government entities. Establishment of partnerships contributed to coordinated decision-making and municipal prioritization of ecosystem health. In addition, ensuring public buy-in provided legitimacy to plans and policies; and in-depth community engagement helped to both incorporate local knowledge and raise widespread public awareness. Finally, capacity issues and a lack of resources continue to be a burden for local governments. Innovative and creative ways of framing ecosystem benefits in Still Creek helped grant access to multiple, and sometimes unforeseen, funding sources and opportunities.
The following recommendations are offered to municipalities considering transboundary ecosystem governance:
1. Reach out and form partnerships – In Still Creek, Metro Vancouver’s actions drove collaboration under the Integrated Stormwater Management Plan (ISMP).
- Connect with neighboring local governments and other levels of government who have a connection to the ecosystem in question and whose actions influence local ecosystem health.
- Support and help raise the profile of local environmental community groups and not-for-profit agencies that may be working towards preserving and enhancing local ecosystems.
- Utilize the expertise of local academic institutions whose researchers can provide the latest social, economic and scientific research, and may be interested in applied local research.
2. Establish a formal collaborative entity – Formation of the Brunette Basin Task Force enabled collaboration in Still Creek.
- Focus the mandate on ecological integrity in order to emphasize ecosystem services (particularly those best suited to adapt to the impacts of climate change) and encourage participation from multiple municipalities, regional and provincial government agencies, academic institutions, and local organizations.
- Meet regularly to discuss issues surrounding ecosystem management and facilitate sharing of information.
- If data is missing, jointly monitor ecosystems and ecological functioning.
3. Access funding and resources from multiple sources – Still Creek received input from film studio revenues and transit funding.
- Acquire funding:
- From the public through additional parcel taxes and utility user fees;
- From developers at the time of redevelopment in urban areas; and
- Through grants for infrastructure projects, public health, and education.
- Combine restoration and enhancement projects with other necessary infrastructure upgrades and developments.
4. Engage the community – Still Creek public engagement included Burnaby’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy and art-based events in Vancouver.
- Communicate information to the public.
- Make data publicly available and easily accessible.
- Facilitate meaningful public input, consultation, and engagement in planning and policy-making to incorporate local knowledge.
- Engage the community through support for public art, celebratory festivals, youth educational institutions, and not-for-profit on-the-ground work.
Further Research Recommendations
1. Complete a comprehensive analysis of the values provided by Still Creek ecosystem services and benefits across the two municipalities (for instance, using the valuation methods described in Table 1 of the Policy Report).
2. Identify and analyze changes in other indicators of ecosystem health in Still Creek to provide a more complete assessment of factors contributing to vitality of the system over time (these could be selected from Table 1 of the Policy Report, in the list of “Related Indicators”); for example, measurement of indicators related to water quality, wildlife habitat and presence, and vegetation health.
3. This analysis of Still Creek featured two urban municipalities to provide an example of transboundary governance. The policy conclusions developed here could be tested for relevance among communities with unique governance and funding frameworks, such as First Nations communities, rural municipalities, and regional districts.
4. Since different jurisdictions within Canada operate under unique urban planning frameworks, the policy conclusions presented in this report could also be tested for relevance in other provinces and territories.
Nichol, E. (2017). Still Creek, Metro Vancouver: Low Carbon Resilience and Transboundary Ecosystem Management [Case study on a project of the Adaptation to Climate Change Team]. Ed. Rachel M. Gregg. Retrieved from CAKE: www.cakex.org/case-studies/still-creek-metro-vancouver-low-carbon-resilience-and-transboundary-ecosystem (Last updated August 2017)