On Wednesday June 7, 2023, there were 414 wildfires burning across Canada. In seven out of thirteen provinces and territories, forests were ablaze, including in British Columbia, Alberta, Northwest Territories, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. With government modelling predicting this summer to be “an especially severe wildfire season,” it calls into question the disaster preparedness of our communities and what best practices can be implemented to build climate resilience in our municipalities.
This is not the first year we’ve seen extreme weather events. Climate-related natural disasters have increased globally by 83 percent over the last twenty years, and Canada is no exception. In the last five years, the country has seen heat waves, forest fires, and floods - many of which were the worst on record. It is becoming clear, with research and experience, that climate change is the main probable culprit for these increased rates of disasters.
Local governments are first-responders to these disasters, with each event testing their emergency systems and plans. The stakes are high. Acute and long-term risks to public health, and much of the costs associated with infrastructure damage and resource deployment falling upon municipalities. The pressure is on to build resilient communities that can withstand shocks like natural disasters and lessen negative consequences as much as possible.
Building more resilient cities and communities can help protect and defend against the impacts of climate change. According to the report “Building a Climate-Resilient City: Disaster preparedness and emergency management” by the Prairie Climate Centre, a resilient city is “one in which its institutions, communities, businesses and individuals have the capacity to survive, adapt and grow in response to any kind of shock or stress that they may experience.”
A city can prepare for these shocks or stresses by equipping both the built environment and the social community with the materials and skills needed to reduce their vulnerability and increase their ability to respond when disaster strikes.
How can we do this?
While there are multiple paths to preparedness, citizens can advocate for their municipalities to build more resiliency in their communities in three key ways: participatory planning, infrastructure, and preparedness.
Any good decision-making process involves the communities that will be affected by the decisions being made. Participatory feedback sessions can happen both as a means of preparation, before the next anticipated disaster, or as a means of reflection, when a disaster has occurred already. Both allow potentially affected or already affected residents to voice their concerns, to build relationships of trust, and to help reduce the risk of further harm being incurred. With greater transparency and participatory processes, municipalities invite members of the public to better understand prevention plans, any limitations, and reasoning behind actions, leading to more support and adherence to community safety protocols. This is especially the case for those who have been historically ignored by cities, as it creates space for people to be validated and heard in their concerns as opposed to feeling forgotten or cast aside. By incorporating communities’ experiences, strengths, weaknesses, and doubts, emergency and preparedness plans that are created in consultation with citizens become rich with experience, lessons learned, and assurance that no one will be left behind.
Advocating for infrastructure improvements is another way that community members can push for greater resilience in their city. Different natural disasters expose different vulnerabilities of a community. Heat waves highlight the quality of building codes and urban tree canopy, for example. In areas where people are without air conditioning or where buildings are poorly insulated, or where access to adequate shade outside is limited, citizens are particularly vulnerable to heat stroke and other conditions related to high temperatures. Floods reveal the consideration of flood mitigation in the built environment, where a dominance of impervious surfaces and developments on flood plains can only make flooding more inevitable. Forest fires lay bare development standards: for example, where suburban neighbourhoods are built with only one entrance and exit, and where the access to fire hydrants is inadequate, communities’ ability to flee to safety are jeopardized, as is firefighters’ access to the tools they need to fight the fires. Not only do these vulnerabilities risk human safety and health, but they also risk the health of a community’s economy.
The Financial Accountability Office of Ontario estimated, in a 2022 report, that severe weather events will cost municipalities millions of dollars in infrastructure damage if cities don’t address their vulnerabilities now. Money spent on repairing vulnerable infrastructure is money taken away from other key municipal systems like emergency services such as firefighting, public transportation, and waste management, thereby draining communities of safety nets and services. The costs of inaction are simply unaffordable.
When embarking on routes of consultation and infrastructure (re)development after crises arise, municipalities must consider both short-term and long-term timelines. In the short-term, it is important to consult the immediately affected population groups and learn from their experiences. Setting up enough sites of refuge from extreme temperatures or for evacuees, as well as assessing infrastructure damage, are also necessary steps in the interim. Once the disasters are passed and no longer imminently threatening, municipalities should take lessons learned from previous experiences and should begin to anticipate and prepare for the next one. Identifying and mapping out vulnerable populations and developments are key first steps toward initiating important conversations, raising awareness, and redesigning infrastructure. These elements are crucial for informing long-term decision making and preparedness planning. Operating with both short and long-term timelines allows for a fluid responsiveness in planning for disasters, in being able to both respond to crises in the moment, and to apply learnings in creating future solutions. In other words, it is important that both short- and long-term timelines be considered in tandem, to position municipalities for effective responsiveness in times of crisis while also preparing to circumvent future crises.
These last few weeks have been difficult and have made clear that we are no longer waiting for climate change to arrive – it is here and we are feeling its effects now. While municipalities are bearing the brunt of the current pressure, we must remember that responsibilities for mitigating the effects of climate change fall on all levels of the government. Just as local level governments have to cultivate healthy communities and invest into more resilient infrastructure, the provincial and federal governments also have a role to play – notably by building up social services and safety nets, and rapidly moving away from fossil fuels. If municipalities do not have enough time or resources to rebuild themselves between each successive disaster, then any long-term plan they create risks being rendered useless. We must continue to advocate for resilient communities at all levels of decision making so that we can begin building a safer world for all.
Further reading and events:
- IISD: Building a Climate-Resilient City: Disaster preparedness and emergency management
- Rockefeller Foundation: City Resilience Framework
- Climate Caucus’s Fall Local Resiliency Series - register here: https://www.eventbrite.ca/cc/local-resiliency-series-climate-caucus-p4a-2192179