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

This research project outlines the benefits, challenges, and successes associated with transboundary ecosystem management in Still Creek, a riparian ecosystem located in Metro Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Still Creek


Climate change impacts such as flooding and extreme heat are projected to increase in BC over the next few decades, and these impacts will be extremely difficult and costly for cities to manage. Species and wildlife 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 localised 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 neighbouring cities, organisations, and community members to improve ecosystem health.

This case study*of Still Creek from ACT (the Adaptation to Climate Change Team) at Simon Fraser University’s Pacific Water Research Centre illustrates successful collaboration between the cities of Vancouver and Burnaby in Metro Vancouver. 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. 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.

*Download the case study report from the right-hand column. See below for related outputs and key outcomes and challenges.

Project Results

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.

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 (i.e. open waterways, or creek sections that have not been paved over by urban infrastructure) in the main channel dropped from 97.9% to 74.4%, and the percentage of green creekside buffer (i.e. natural/non-urban) 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 vegetating 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 metre 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.

Transboundary Ecosystem Management: Challenges and Successes

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. Neighbouring 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 improvements in ecosystem health. Collaborative planning enabled the vertical and horizontal transfer of information between government government and non-government entities. Establishment of partnerships contributed to coordinated decision-making and municipal prioritization of ecosystem health. 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, sometimes unforeseen, funding sources and opportunities.

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