Low Carbon Resilience and Transboundary Municipal Ecosystem Governance: A Case Study of Still Creek

This case study of Still Creek from the Adaptation to Climate Change Team (ACT) at Simon Fraser University’s Pacific Water Research Centre illustrates successful collaboration between the cities of Vancouver and Burnaby in Metro Vancouver, the outcome of which led to many ecosystem health improvements and community benefits in the creek corridor, including the return of spawning salmon, after decades of neglect. Partnership, creative governance, community engagement, and innovative funding approaches were all essential components that helped the two cities come together to invest in ecosystem health and initiate restoration in Still Creek, one of only two day-lit streams in the City of Vancouver. Although ecosystem-based ‘green infrastructure’ projects can help municipalities adapt to climate change impacts such as flooding and extreme heat, while also offering other co-benefits, local governments are not currently valuing the full range of benefits and services provided by ecosystems, which undermines the importance of green infrastructure in decision- and policy-making contexts.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Climate change is challenging the ability of ecosystems to adapt throughout British Columbia. Extreme weather, including intense precipitation events, coastal storms and long, hot, dry summers, is testing the resilience of species as they are forced to move northwards and higher on slopes, often colliding with human habitation just as they are similarly challenged by fragmentation and loss of habitat due to human development and resource extraction patterns. Healthy ecosystems assist with flood absorption and passive cooling for built infrastructure, while improving air quality, adding to recreational space, contributing to human physical and mental well being, and augmenting property prices. Ecosystems are therefore increasingly recognized as a significant factor in adaptation to climate change and are emerging as city priorities under the heading of “blue-green infrastructure,” and “Green Shores” approaches in the coastal context. However, many ecosystems span two or more municipalities and may become fragmented due to different or conflicting management approaches in neighbouring cities. This project examines three urban ecosystem case studies in Metro Vancouver in order to explore municipal-level challenges and best practices for transboundary ecosystem governance in a changing climate. The influence of municipal decision making was clear in the Still Creek context, and this case study therefore became the project’s main focus. In order to assess the outcomes of transboundary decision-making, indicators and values associated with ecosystem health were selected and monitored. Changes in each indicator were tracked over time by mapping historical archival materials and reviewing the region’s policy and management history.

Identifying Actions

The research team conducted literature reviews on the indicators of ecosystem health, as well as ecosystem service and ecosystem valuation methods. Surveys of the policy context were completed for three transboundary ecosystems (North Shore forests, Boundary Bay, Still Creek), and a comprehensive management history review and timeline analysis of governance in the Still Creek watershed. Research findings were groundtruthed with municipal and regional practitioners who have been involved in Still Creek management approaches, and include analysis of policy decisions that led to successes or challenges for ecosystem health, and recommendations for municipalities based on lessons learned.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The Still Creek case study demonstrates the value of municipal collaboration and key ways cities can work together to achieve success in this area. The project uncovered a number of successes that illustrate effective transboundary municipal governance, including collaboration and partnership between several levels of government, academic and private institutions, and community groups, leading to joint development of strategies and actions; and municipal efforts in both cities to engage the public and incorporate local knowledge into the planning process, educate and raise awareness, and thereby gain widespread support for policies and plans. Based on these findings, four major recommendations for transboundary municipal ecosystem governance were made (with applicability for other municipalities), including: reach out and form partnerships; establish a formal collective entity; access funding and resources from municipal sources; and engage the community. Several challenges to transboundary ecosystem management in Still Creek were revealed as a result of this case study. For example, the legacy of historical development results in limited developable space, and there are many competing land uses and municipal priorities. Neighbouring municipalities may have quite different land use priorities due to unique management histories and socio-economic contexts. Government and public awareness of the value of ecosystems 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 and enhanced climate resilience.

Next Steps

In addition to the four policy recommendations already noted (reach out and form partnerships; establish a formal collaborative entity; access funding and resources from multiple sources; engage the community), this project includes next steps in terms of further research, which include:

  • Completing a comprehensive analysis of the values provided by Still Creek ecosystem services and benefits across two municipalities;
  • Identifying and analyzing 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;
  • Test policy conclusions developed here for relevance among communities with unique governance and funding frameworks (e.g., First Nations communities, rural municipalities and regional districts); and,
  • Test policy conclusions for relevance in other provinces and territories.