Windsor, Ontario: A Staff Led, Community Supported Approach

The City of Windsor Ontario has been advancing their adaptation work since 2012, using a staff-led, community supported approach to address local impacts related to changes in precipitation and temperature, extreme heat, extreme weather events, and changes in freshwater levels. Windsor is one of the southernmost communities in Canada, situated along the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair. The City attracts many immigrants from around the world. In 2016, 27.7% of the City’s population was foreign-born; this is the fourth highest proportion for a Canadian metropolitan area. Visible minorities make up 25.7% of the population, making it the most diverse city in Ontario outside the Greater Toronto Area.

Faced with several extreme temperature and precipitation events, the City has undertaken multiple initiatives to understand and plan for localized risks and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Examples of the City’s climate change adaptation activities include:

  • Tree planting programs
  • Climate Change Adaptation Plan (2012)
  • Low Impact Development pilot projects (e.g., Thermal Comfort improvements in City parks and playgrounds)
  • Stay Cool Windsor Essex
  • Basement flooding subsidy program

The City has completed a vulnerability assessment, its community-based adaptation plan, and some implementation of actions. Adaptation work involves internal City departments, community partners, and other partners.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

The City of Windsor is experiencing impacts related to changes in precipitation and temperature, extreme heat, extreme weather events, as well as changes to freshwater levels. There is a quantifiable history of climate change in Windsor. The 30-year mean temperature in Windsor has increased from 9.1°C in 1960-1989 to 10.1°C in 1990-2019, representing a 1°C increase in average annual temperature. The 30-year mean annual rainfall has increased from 840mm in 1941-1969 to 955mm in 1990-2019, an increase of approximately 7%. In the last decade alone (2010-2019), the mean annual rainfall has been measured at 995mm. Projections show that the average number of days above 30°C will more than double by 2050s and more than triple by 2080s. An increase in average precipitation is expected, particularly in winter and spring, while summer may eventually see a slight decrease in precipitation coupled with increasingly warm seasonal temperatures. More events of extreme precipitation are expected. Water temperature of the Erie basin continues to increase, negatively impacting wetlands, habitats and biodiversity.

High water levels and heavy precipitation have caused three major one-in-100-year storms in 2010, 2016, and 2017 that caused an estimated $400 million in damage. Windsor is also one of the hottest cities in Canada with temperatures often reaching +30°C in summer, posing major health risks for residents and damaging road infrastructure. In addition, the Chief Medical Officer of Health has noted that previously not present vectors are now being traced in Windsor and the surrounding area. The City knows they are at risk of West Nile Virus mosquitos – because of the changing climate (warmer temperatures and increased precipitation) which make it possible for these mosquitos to survive where they previously could not – but new information notes that Zika-carrying mosquitos are emerging and could be a new vector for concern for the City.

Identifying Actions

Recognizing their climate risk, and following up on the 2012 adaptation plan, the City undertook a broad community process to develop the 2019 Strategy, Degrees of Change. Degrees of Change was a staff-led process that engaged over 14 service areas and agencies through various workshops and engagements to present climate projections, identify impacts, assess vulnerability and risk and identify adaptation actions. Additionally, department-specific meetings that layered in the community perspectives on risks helped the City identify priority climate impacts for further study.

Degrees of Change represents a comprehensive adaptation plan that looks across the entire community of Windsor. Climate change impacts included in the supporting assessments, as well as the actions in the Plan, address a range of changes (e.g., precipitation changes, extreme weather events, changes in freshwater levels). The actions included within Degrees of Change aim to achieve seven key objectives:

  1. Integrate Climate Change Thinking and Response
  2. Protect Public Health and Safety
  3. Reduce Risk to Buildings and Property
  4. Strengthen Infrastructure Resilience
  5. Protect Biodiversity and Enhance Ecosystem Functions
  6. Reduce Community Service Disruptions
  7. Build Community Resilience

In addition, City staff documented that over the period 2015-2019 the City of Windsor spent over $8 million on emergency response and unplanned capital investments and the broader community experienced $232 million in insured losses as a result of the 2016 and 2017 flood events. Facing these realities, one of the objectives of the work was to build a business case for action by considering costs of inaction. To do this, City staff developed climate change impact summaries that, where possible, estimated the costs of doing nothing. This required assessing either past events, climate change modeling that may be representative of future events, known current costs to the City, or published papers that identified possible costs.

Implementation

The City’s new Degrees of Change Plan includes a section on specific adaptation actions that will be taken, that fit within the seven key objectives noted above (Identifying Actions section). Some examples of these types of actions are provided below, including implementation considerations (timeline, cost, level of effort):

  1. Integrate Climate Change Thinking and Response •
    • Action 1.1: Incorporate climate change considerations into Municipal Decision Making –
      • Incorporate climate change into the City’s Official Plan;
      • Integrate climate change considerations into Windsor’s new and existing Plans and Policies, as well as Administrative and Consultant reports.
      • Lead: Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change department; Support: all departments
      • Timeline: On-going
      • Cost: low
      • Level of effort: low
  2. Protect Public Health and Safety
    • Action 2.1: Update Community Development and Health Services Emergency Response Plan
      • Consult with County stakeholders to discuss regional approaches; City of Windsor staff training for emergency response; Conduct exercises to test opening emergency shelters; Develop a notification system for the public on what to do and where to go in an emergency
      • Lead: Community Development and Health Services; Support: Fire, Recreation, Communications, ERCA
      • Timeline: Short-term
      • Cost: Low
      • Level of effort: Low

The Plan includes an implementation and governance section to the plan, which outlines the various parties responsible for implementing the plan, including the City’s Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change Office, the Community Task Force and other key community partners (e.g., Essex Region Conservation Authority, school boards, etc.). Various funding strategies are outlined in the plan to fund climate change adaptation actions, including integration, asset management and capital planning, incremental operational budgets, external funding sources (e.g., Federal Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund, Municipal Climate Innovation Program, Green Municipal Fund, etc.).

Outcomes and Monitoring Process

There has been a noticeable shift in attitudes on climate change, both within the City and in the broader community since adaptation work began in 2012 – namely, in 2012 there were a number of individuals that did not believe in climate change or think that it should be prioritized. In carrying out the update, Degrees of Change, City staff felt that all participants were respectful and participated in meetings. One of the most notable outcomes since Degrees of Change was endorsed by Council, has been the establishment of the Windsor-Essex Climate Change Collaborative (WEC3), which was established to address regional issues and the multitude of climate change vulnerabilities and risks facing different sectors.

Some challenges noted by City staff include the challenge in having enough knowledge to connect local weather events, to climate impacts, to long term climate change. Being equipped with reputable and accessible scientific information when speaking with partners and stakeholders is vital as it helps to build trust and validate the process.

At the City of Windsor, staff worked to overcome the challenge of getting participation and buy-in (internal and external) by finding someone who could act as an ally or “champion” for the project to bring other people onside. Finding these allies who could “speak the language” of the department helped as they were a trusted voice that could help to make the work relevant in a variety of contexts. Meeting regularly with staff from across departments has helped to build capacity on climate action among City staff as it is an opportunity to provide information and necessary tools (e.g. data, checklists, etc.) needed to move forward with implementation. The regular meetings have also highlighted where within the city there are allies that can help to advance climate action across various departments.

Next Steps

To ensure that the community actions outlined in the Plan are implemented, the City created an implementation and governance structure outlining the various roles and responsibilities of partners in implementing and maintaining momentum for Degrees of Change. As part of its work the City of Windsor included a schedule for monitoring and review where at a minimum the climate change projections, as well as the vulnerability and risk assessments will be reviewed every five years. Including provisions to track progress within the City’s Plan is important, as it enables the City and Community to assess whether the actions outlined in the Plan are producing the desired results. The biennial reports allow the City and the community to measure progress not only related to the status of implementation but also the degree to which any course-corrections may need to be made. The five year review cycle also ensures that the community can assess whether local risks and vulnerabilities are changing.