Connect Urban Planners and Urban Ecologists to Create Sustainable Canadian Cities

Carly Ziter, Montreal.  Matthew Mitchell, Vancouver.  Adrina Bardekjian, Toronto.  Tenley Conway, Toronto.  Angela Danyluk, Vancouver.  Michelle Molnar, Toronto.  Marcin Pachcinski, Vancouver.  Justin Podur, York.  Valentin Schaefer, Victoria.  Josephine Clark, Vancouver.  Sinead Murphy, Vancouver. 
15 September 2018

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
To move towards more sustainable and resilient cities, it is essential that we connect urban ecology researchers and practitioners to find and implement solutions to urban environmental issues. The question, though, is how to do this?
The Challenge of Managing Urban Ecosystems

Cities are increasingly understood as mosaics of grey, green, and blue infrastructure that interact in complex ways to affect the wellbeing of urban residents (Ahern 2007, Svendsen and Northridge 2012). In particular, green and blue infrastructure provides important benefits to urban residents (Lovell and Taylor 2013) such as flood protection by urban wetlands and forests (Lennon et al. 2014), improved mental health from greener streets and park visitation (Bragg and Atkins 2016, Shanahan et al. 2016), and food production from community gardens (Russo et al. 2017). This ecological infrastructure also supports key wildlife populations in urban areas (Hough et al. 2004). However, with this new view of cities comes a key challenge: how to integrate specialized knowledge and ecologically-sound management practices into urban planning in order to maintain natural areas and promote urban ecosystem services.

Urban parks and green infrastructure like Calgary’s Nose Hill (left) and Montreal’s Mount Royal (right) parks protect important ecosystems and provide key benefits to urban residents. Photos: M. Mitchell

Just as grey infrastructure can falter without proper care and maintenance, green and blue infrastructure—and the benefits it provides—can break down if urban ecosystems are not properly managed. Improper selection of street trees can lead to increased allergen exposure or property damage (Roy et al. 2012), failure to effectively manage forested areas in or near cities can lead to infrastructure damage when wildfires occur (Calkin et al. 2014), and unfamiliarity with animal movement corridors can lead to car accidents and loss of both animal and human life (Malo et al. 2004). Added complexities include understanding the social aspects of the workers who are maintaining urban green and blue infrastructure (Bardekjian 2016), as well as navigating the values and preferences of the multicultural communities that make up today’s cities (Wilkerson et al. 2018).

Managing urban ecosystems is not simple; it requires understanding of both the ecology of these ecosystems—how living organisms relate and interact with each other and their surroundings (Lepczyk et al. 2017), and the socioecology of cities—how human, built, green and blue infrastructure, ecosystems, and social-economic systems interact across urban areas (Andersson et al. 2014). In other words, decision-making must draw on and effectively integrate urban ecology and urban planning/management knowledge (Aronson et al. 2017, Groffman et al. 2017).

In order to move towards more sustainable Canadian cities, our municipal governments need to adopt a collaborative systems approach, where conversation and cooperation among urban planners, managers, arborists, landscape architects and ecologists is the norm rather than the exception.

Canada and the integration of urban ecology and planning

Eighty percent of Canadians that live in cities are directly affected when urban temperatures increase, urbanization leads to flooding, or species shifts lead to human-wildlife conflict in cities. Urban ecology focuses on topics that have direct implications for the ecosystem services that contribute to human wellbeing in urban areas (Ziter 2016) and thus can provide valuable information about how to manage the places where most Canadians live. However, despite the rapid increase in attention to urban ecology around the world (Mayer 2010, McDonald 2016), there has historically been relatively little focus on urban ecosystems among the Canadian ecological community compared to other regions (e.g., Europe, US, Australia). Rather, there has been an emphasis on ecology in “natural” areas, or production systems (e.g. forestry, agriculture), which cities don’t readily fit into. For example, an urban ecology session has been only been part of the two most recent (i.e. 2017, 2018) annual conferences of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, despite the organization’s 13 year history. If Canadians want to build sustainable cities where green and blue infrastructure is effectively managed, urban ecology research that can inform—and is informed by—urban planning needs to be accelerated, supported, and valued.

Edmonton’s river valley green space provides key recreation, wildlife, flood regulation, and urban cooling benefits to local residents. Photo: Merijana cc by-sa

Furthermore—or perhaps consequently—urban planning and ecology research in Canada (as often occurs elsewhere) currently operate too often in parallel, rather than cooperatively. Several key challenges to effective collaboration exist in cities. Academics and city staff may have different goals, unequal understanding of the concerns of urban residents, and thus ask different types of questions. Planners and decision-makers must operate within the constraints of economic systems and budgets that are often unfamiliar to academic ecologists. Different professions often speak different “disciplinary languages” that must be bridged. Early career researchers (e.g. students, postdocs) may be new to a region or on a short term contract, and thus lack the time or connections to build the relationships necessary for co-produced work. And academic incentive structures may not sufficiently support or encourage collaboration of this type. In Canada, it is a particular challenge that federal agencies explicitly separate funding for natural science (NSERC), social science (SSHRC), and health research (CIHR). This means there is limited support for research that explores complex urban socio-ecological systems (Conway 2018).

Increasing awareness of urban ecology in Canada, however, offers an opportunity to ensure that urban ecologists work together with Canadian urban planners/decision-makers to produce rigorous and practical solutions for Canada’s cities. Development of a national culture emphasizing collaborations among urban ecology researchers and practitioners will have two primary benefits. One, it will ensure that ecologists engage in research that can be meaningfully applied to urban management challenges. Two, municipal planners will more rapidly gain the knowledge they need to effectively design and manage green and blue infrastructure in cities. To move towards more sustainable and resilient cities, it is essential that we connect Canadian urban ecology researchers and practitioners to find and implement solutions to urban environmental issues.

The question though, is how to best do this?

Fortunately, we can look towards a number of Canadian case studies as examples of urban ecology initiatives that successfully transcend disciplinary boundaries and overcome some of the above challenges to connect ecologists and planners for the benefit of Canadian cities and their residents. The following three examples (contributed by participants of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution’s inaugural urban ecology symposium in 2017) demonstrate the benefits of building partnerships between researchers and practitioners, connecting ecological knowledge to people, and speaking the language of urban governments. 

Case Study 1: Managing urban invasive species

The District of North Saanich, British Columbia, increasingly has to deal with invasive species that threaten parks and natural areas. For example, recent invasion by Carpet Burweed (Soliva sessilis) has reduced the use and enjoyment of public spaces for recreation. However, dealing with invasive species can be extremely expensive, and can be controversial since some people like problematic species (e.g. Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) for its fruit). Faced with difficult decisions around invasive removal, North Saanich staff recognized the potential for ecologists to advise on best strategies. In 2012, North Saanich developed an Invasive Species Management Strategy (Manton and Schaefer 2011) that was widely successful. It provides clear direction and a coordinated approach for dealing with the invasive species, and has subsequently been a model for other locations (e.g. Kathrens et al. 2016). Integral to this success was the establishment of strong partnerships between ecologists, planners, municipal staff, and the public.

Exclosures like this one at Cattle Point in Oak Bay, adjacent to the District of Saanich, help contain the spread the invasive species Carpet Burweed by people and pets. Photo: V. Schaefer

The Strategy has largely been successful because it was developed through an inclusive process that allowed it to be harmonized with other local municipal and provincial plans, policies, and legislation. The process included presentations and publication of comprehensive educational materials; facilitator-led workshops and interviews with politicians, management, operations staff, volunteers and the public; and an Open House and online survey to facilitate input from the public. This extensive consultation process introduced the public to the technical, logistic, and political issues of invasive species management. This was critical to deal with challenges such as collaboration and sharing of resources across different municipalities within the region.

The inclusive process helped inform the urban ecology contributions to the Strategy and their harmonization with the policy goals of North Saanich, and provided a valuable learning opportunity for the ecologists involved. For example, urban ecologists helped to develop “Watch Lists” to identify which species should be publicized amongst staff and the general public to report new sightings. Ecologists also guided management and removal efforts for heavily impacted public areas; prioritizing removal of species that affect important ecosystem processes (e.g. Garlic mustard) or present public health threats (e.g. Giant hogweed). Finally, ecologists worked with municipality staff to determine which species should be maintained at current levels rather than eradicated, which frees municipalities from some public pressure to undertake costly and often unfeasible complete eradication of invasive species.

Ecologists, in turn, learned how to effectively work within the political and regulatory framework familiar to urban planners and decision-makers. Guidelines integrated into the Strategy couldn’t be based solely on ecological values, but had to agree with the values and goals of several additional plans (e.g., the Saanich Park and Natural Areas Guidelines, Bylaw Policies and Legislation, and Provincial and Federal Environmental Protection Legislation, to name only a few). By virtue of substantial involvement of volunteers and community organizations in regional invasive species management and the development of the Strategy, ecologists also gained insight into community engaged approaches to science that are often outside the traditional academic repertoire. Taking adequate time to ensure that all involved groups were “speaking the same language” was a key component of long-term success.

Since its inception, the Strategy has resulted in a strengthened working relationship between local stakeholders in the region, clear statements of the vision and goal for invasive species management in North Saanich, and a plan for optimizing municipal resources for invasive species control. This has, and continues to be, facilitated by the strong academic-municipal-public partnerships built during the creation of the Strategy.

Further Resources:

  • Kathrens L, Jennings J, Schaefer VH. University of Victoria Invasive Species Management Strategy. Victoria, BC: Office of Campus Planning and Sustainability. University of Victoria; 2016. Available at:
  • Manton C, Schaefer VH. Invasive Species Management Strategy for Saanich. Saanich, BC: District of Saanich; 2012. Available at:

Case Study 2: Providing guidance for urban forest climate adaptation and design

Metro Vancouver—a federation of 21 municipalities, one Electoral Area and one Treaty First Nation that collaboratively plans for and delivers regional-scale services—has identified climate adaptation as an important piece of building and maintaining a livable region. Consequently, the region is currently incorporating climate adaptation into its policies and regulations to both conserve biodiversity and enhance quality of life.

Urban forests, including park forests and street trees, were identified as a particular policy focus due to their contribution to multiple ecosystem services and role in climate adaptation. However, practical region-specific guidance on how to plan and manage urban forests within the built environment and in a changing climate was lacking. To address this knowledge gap, an advisory panel of planners, urban foresters, and ecologists (from academia and government) worked together to develop the Urban Forest Climate Adaptation Framework and Design Guidebook based on the most recent science. This work includes a tree species selection database with 144 species to support evidence-based decision making. Multiple perspectives were critical to finalizing these recommendations. For example, the database was specifically designed to balance the practical difficulties of tree survival in harsh conditions (a frequent planning justification for planting of non-native trees) against the need to be cautious about planting invasive species (a value often held by ecologists and conservation groups). Navigating this challenge required careful consideration and discussion of the concerns and goals of different stakeholders, including negotiation of values held by different parties. Discussions ultimately resulted in a compromise among planners and ecologists, recognizing the validity of arguments on each side. This compromise involved inclusion of a strong communications strategy around invasive species built into the resultant products, and recommendations to prioritize native plantings in locations in close proximity to natural areas—but without eliminating non-native trees from the guide altogether.

Metro Vancouver’s Urban Forest Climate Adaptation Framework and Design Guidebook will ensure that street tree selection and management in the region takes into account likely future climate change. Photo: Canuckdon cc by-sa

The creation of the Framework and Design Guidebook demonstrates the need for interdisciplinary collaboration to develop strong, evidence-based recommendations for urban planning. Those involved in the process also highlighted the importance of identifying the unique levers and barriers for each stakeholder group to make progress, and the need to take time to appropriately tailor their messages. Planners learned to be open to the suggestions of ecologists, while ecologists in turn learned the importance of recognizing values outside of their own, and of adapting their language and messages to a new audience. The next step—and an ongoing challenge—of this project includes looking at ways to increase the ease and accessibility of this information to different end users, which will be critical to support the implementation of urban forest plans and climate adaptation strategies across the Metro Vancouver region. A promising early success has been the recent incorporation of the Framework into the University of British Columbia’s Urban Forestry Masters Program, which educates the next generation of urban foresters.

Further Resources:

Case study 3: Partners in Action: A shade policy in the City of Toronto for skin cancer prevention

It is not often that medical doctors, dermatologists, urban foresters, researchers, health consultants, planners, architects, landscape architects, urban designers and municipal employees come together to address a common goal. However, the creation of Toronto’s shade policy represents a successful synergy linking ultraviolet radiation awareness and skin cancer prevention with public health, city planning, urban forestry, civic design and health promotion policy. Integrating the expertise of these diverse groups to inform policy in Canada’s most populous city demonstrates the strength of building diverse partnerships across academia, practitioners, and other stakeholders, and the importance of aligning ecological knowledge with key urban policy goals.

The provision of shade (natural, built, and mobile) is a key method of preventing skin cancer caused by environmental ultraviolet radiation. Public policy to support shade creation is thus an important component of skin cancer prevention. The Toronto Cancer Prevention Coalition Ultraviolet Radiation Working Group (TCPC – UVRWG) successfully put shade on the city’s cancer prevention agenda through collaborative pilot projects. Although the group’s goals were medically motivated, an ecological perspective was important to the success of the strategy as outdoor access to shade is a result of urban planning, site design and landscaping decisions, requiring strong knowledge of urban forestry.

Selection of urban street trees in Toronto will now have to incorporate consideration of shade. Photo: Vanessa Sabino cc by 3.0

The formation of such a large, interdisciplinary group, as TCPC-UVRWG represents, presented challenges in negotiating multiple perspectives and agendas. Ensuring that each member was heard necessitated the creation of mechanisms whereby everybody had an opportunity to speak or contribute – particularly in a situation where a wide array of educational and professional backgrounds was represented. Ultimately, this broad representation was critical to the policy’s success. The City of Toronto is now the first city in Canada to have implemented a Shade Policy (2015), including guidelines for the selection of shade trees. The official nature of the policy has resulted in an increased awareness of the relationship between green spaces and public health, at both the general public and institutional levels. Additionally, several communities across Canada have since approached the TCPC for help in developing their own shade policies, encouraging urban forestry initiatives in cities more broadly.

Further Resources:


Incorporating urban ecology knowledge into urban planning and policy is increasingly essential as Canadians seek to improve human well-being and biodiversity outcomes in cities. The challenge is how to do this effectively in the complex social-ecological landscapes cities represent. Our case studies exemplify how urban ecology, when attentive to the social, governmental, and practical considerations that come into play when managing urban systems, can help inform urban management and lead to positive outcomes.

Key to this are processes that facilitate communication and understanding between the diverse groups involved in urban planning. Urban ecologists, in particular, must be prepared to adapt their language and approach for new audiences, and embrace the need for compromise when faced with alternative value systems. In addition, improved incentives within the Canadian university system for this type of work are also required, including more opportunities to develop long-term research partnerships with city governments. In the meantime, urban ecologists and planners in Canada and worldwide—whether working for government or as part of academic or NGO organizations—should continue to strive to work collaboratively to ensure that urban management strategies are based on sound, current, and relevant ecological knowledge.

Carly Ziter1, Matthew Mitchell2, Adrina Bardekjian3, Tenley Conway4, Angela Danyluk5, Michelle Molnar6, Marcin Pachcinski7, Justin Podur8, Valentin Schaefer9, Josephine Clark7, Sinead Murphy7

On The Nature of Cities

1Department of Integrative Biology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
2Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia
3Faculty of Forestry, Department of Forest Resources Management, University of British Columbia, and Tree Canada
4Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto
5Sustainability Group – Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability, City of Vancouver
6David Suzuki Foundation
7Parks, Planning and Environment Department, Metro Vancouver
8Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University
9Department of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria


This article is the result of a symposium organized by Carly Ziter and Matthew Mitchell at the 2017 Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution Annual Meeting entitled “Accelerating urban ecology in Canada: Identifying current research approaches, gaps, and needs in Canadian cities”. Ziter is supported by a Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada doctoral fellowship and a PEO Scholar Award. Mitchell is supported by a Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellowship.


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Matthew Mitchell

About the Writer:
Matthew Mitchell

Matthew Mitchell is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. His work focuses on identifying ways to better manage human-dominated urban and agricultural landscapes for both people and nature.

Adrina Bardekjian

About the Writer:
Adrina Bardekjian

Dr. Adrina C. Bardekjian is an urban forestry researcher, writer, educator and public speaker. She works with Tree Canada as Manager of Urban Forestry and Research Development. Her current academic research examines women's roles, experiences and gender equity in arboriculture and urban forestry. She is also an Adjunct Professor with Forestry at the University of Toronto.

Tenley Conway

About the Writer:
Tenley Conway

Tenley Conway is a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. Her research explores on socio-ecological interactions in urban landscapes, with a focus on urban forests and green infrastructure.

Angela Danyluk

About the Writer:
Angela Danyluk

Angela Danyluk is a Senior Sustainability Specialist at the City of Vancouver. Angela is a biologist and works across disciplines on projects and programs related to adaptation to sea level rise and heat as well as ecology and biodiversity.

Michelle Molnar

About the Writer:
Michelle Molnar

Michelle Molnar works at the David Suzuki Foundation as an Environmental Economist and Policy Analyst, where she focuses on the conservation of natural capital using various tools of ecological economics, policy analysis, and public outreach.

Marcin Pachcinski

About the Writer:
Marcin Pachcinski

Marcin Pachcinski oversees planning for Metro Vancouver’s Electoral Area A and leads the regional planning environment portfolio, which is focused on advancing ecological health in the region.

Justin Podur

About the Writer:
Justin Podur

Justin Podur is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. Ongoing projects in his lab include research on urban parks and on urban human-squirrel relations.

Valentin Schaefer

About the Writer:
Valentin Schaefer

Val Schaefer is the Academic Administrator for Restoration Programs at the University of Victoria. He is a biologist and ecologist by training who has developed a unique expertise in ecological restoration and the emerging field of Urban Ecology.

Josephine Clark

About the Writer:
Josephine Clark

Josephine Clark is a Regional Environmental Planner at Metro Vancouver. As a professional biologist and GIS specialist, her work focuses on using geospatial analysis to inform complex ecological issues.

Sinead Murphy

About the Writer:
Sinead Murphy

Sinead is a sustainability strategist and environmental planner with expertise driving strategic initiatives to create impact at the intersection of human and ecological health in cities.

Carly Ziter

About the Writer:
Carly Ziter

Dr. Carly Ziter is a new Assistant Professor in the Biology department at Concordia University in Montreal, associated with Concordia's hub for Smart, Sustainable, and Resilient Cities and Communities.

Carly Ziter

Carly Ziter

Dr. Carly Ziter is a new Assistant Professor in the Biology department at Concordia University in Montreal, associated with Concordia's hub for Smart, Sustainable, and Resilient Cities and Communities. As an urban landscape ecologist, her research focuses on how landscape structure, historical land-use, and biodiversity interact to shape the ways that nature benefits us in the cities where we live, work, and play.

2 thoughts on “Connect Urban Planners and Urban Ecologists to Create Sustainable Canadian Cities

  1. Thanks Mark! I think the point about making sure that ecologists are valued and that their contributions actually inform decisions is a great one. I wasn’t directly involved in any of the case examples that we used in our piece, but will forward your questions to our coauthors to get their input and thoughts about your question. Look for a more detailed response from me soon!

  2. Very good case examples. Often, we ecologists have a tough time cracking the “planning” group. Getting in early with a planning strategy is critical, and I have found that usually there is a champion in the planning staff that recognizes that ecologists should be brought into the fold. However, I caution planners that once ecologists are invited in (often not paid I might add) and there are not good results or ecologists are ignored, it is tough to get those ecologists back. How did you all assure the ecologists that there time would be well spent?

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