Opinion: Public rallies against loss of manicured green space but not natural ecosystems

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Rents are rising at their highest rate in decades and home ownership is increasingly out of reach for many Calgarians. Simultaneously, human encroachment, climate change and urban development are destroying native ecosystems at an alarming rate. Can we build the homes our growing population requires without destroying ecosystems?

Housing discourse has increasingly reflected the mistaken view that increasing density has negative effects on our environment. This argument is often being co-opted by opponents of density under the auspices of “protecting biodiversity” or “retaining green space.”

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We need to stop pretending that manicured lawns are natural oases.

Calgary has relied almost exclusively on being unconstrained by geography to accommodate periods of explosive population growth. As a result, Calgary has a low population density, requiring more kilometres of roads built per capita than any major Canadian city outside of Alberta, which has eaten into critical habitat and natural areas at the edges of the city.

Community designs for these sprawling greenfield developments often require the creation of new green spaces, which are manicured, manipulated or filled with non-native species quite unlike the native ecosystems lost in the process. Ironically, these manicured areas in new developments are considered “green” or “natural,” and are instrumentalized to oppose beneficial urban design and increased energy and transportation efficiencies in the name of environmental protection.

Why do some urban residents focus on manicured green spaces and single trees in the pursuit of environmental protection? Acres of manicured Kentucky bluegrass and introduced tree species do not offer the same benefits as naturalized or native ecosystems. Habitats for native species, effective drought and flood resilience, and plants uniquely adapted to local conditions should be the goal. When we lose these ecosystems, we also lose the associated benefits to human and environmental health.

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Ricardo Ranch, 35 kilometres from Calgary’s downtown, pushes up against one of the last undeveloped wetland areas along the Bow River within city boundaries. Ninety per cent of this wetland has already been lost to development. It features a diverse ecosystem including rare nesting habitat for birds, suitable conditions for amphibians, sprawling native grassland and an active wildlife corridor.

Glenmore Landing, a shopping complex in an established southwest community 14 kilometres from downtown, is bordered by a manicured green space adjacent to a roadway. A recent development proposal includes several highrise apartment buildings next to a rapid transit route. A short walk away is a popular public park, which connects to a natural area along the Elbow River.

Where Ricardo Ranch was protested by local environmental groups, conservationists and anti-sprawl advocates, Glenmore Landing received fierce opposition from those in surrounding neighbourhoods. Their opposition has been based on concerns that the public park adjacent to the development will be “overused” — and the two small, road-adjacent patches of manicured grass would be lost.

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The difference in public response to these two projects is stark and illuminates how some city residents may misunderstand the difference between protecting manipulated green spaces with protecting key ecological areas. Patches of roadway-adjacent grass hold a different ecological value than that of a complex riparian ecosystem. Claims of environmentalism can be used against the genuine need for housing. If we continue with the status quo and continue to delay much-needed changes to Calgary’s growth strategy, we risk leaving behind vulnerable people, and damaging or losing vulnerable ecosystems at the same time.

Ricardo Ranch was ultimately approved by city council, with some recognition that the systems and processes that allowed the development must change. The same council was able to see through the noise of protest around Glenmore Landing, approving the sale of a parcel of manicured “parkland” to facilitate a much-needed development.

Urban encroachment into intact ecosystems accelerates habitat fragmentation and cuts off species from their habitats. This has a much greater effect on the environment than the loss of manicured grass.

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We know better than to build in high-risk, sensitive areas such as flood plains and riparian areas. Adding homes to already established areas must be prioritized to combat biodiversity collapse, climate change and the housing crisis.

Calgary’s residential rezoning proposal is an important step in this direction. By being open to change and seeing the forest for the trees, we will make our cities truly great places to live for humans and nature alike.

David Barrett is a researcher at the University of Calgary focused on effects of urban areas on aquatic ecosystems. He sits on the City of Calgary Established Areas Growth Strategy working group.

Nathaniel Schmidt is a criminal lawyer with training in environmental law. He is a board member with Alberta Wilderness Association, Calgary River Valleys, Nature Calgary and More Neighbours Calgary.

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