Building climate-resilient cities in Canadian prairies

Building climate-resilient cities in Canadian prairies

By Hank Venema

The influential British sociologist Anthony Giddens has argued that we live in a “high-risk, high-opportunity society.” While innovation is opening up astounding new possibilities, globalized societies also face immense and complex risks, not least of which is climate change.

Today, over half of the world’s population live in cities. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, this number will be well over 60 per cent. We know that cities will face climate change impacts such as more frequent and intense extreme weather events, and thus need policies that will protect people and their livelihoods, as well as reducing the costs associated with these impacts.

Despite the severity of the challenge, there also an opportunity for cities to develop innovative policies to build resilience to such risks in ways that will make our cities healthier, more vibrant and more economically prosperous. As much as cultivating craft breweries and high-tech start-ups, resilience is going to be a key factor in making our cities attractive places to live and do business.

The Canadian province of Alberta is no stranger to managing climate risks. One report by a federal working group notes that the province has been “hit by 7 of the 10 most expensive disasters in Canadian history.”

The initiative I co-lead, the Prairie Climate Centre (PCC), has created an interactive Prairie Climate Atlas that visualizes climate change impacts anticipated in the province. These include less predictable weather and greater risk of extreme weather such as flash floods, severe rainstorms, heat waves and droughts, among others.

Albertans have demonstrated impressive resilience strategies to withstand disasters in the past. However, climate change will bring new threats and costs, which will require redoubling efforts to on-going efforts to manage climate risks. In a series of new reports prepared for Alberta’s two largest cities—Calgary and Edmonton—my colleagues and I have painted the broad strokes of the types of policies they can adopt to build their climate resilience. The three principles that underlie these policies are: robustness, redundancy and resourcefulness.

First, we need to enhance our cities’ robustness, designing physical features in the urban landscape that will help cities cope with high-impact climate events. Biodiversity is crucial, as features like trees on streets and significant ecological sites like mature forests and wetlands are valuable assets in cities facing climate change impacts like more frequent floods and droughts.

Second, cities need redundancy, which is to design systems that have the capacity to function despite disruptions and surges in demand. This could mean more reliance on heavily decentralized energy generation coupled to modular storage technologies, using smart irrigation technologies to reduce wastewater and increase potable water sources, and promoting green roofs to  absorb stormwater runoff to rainwater to reduce  flooding.

Third, cities need to adopt policies that encourage resourcefulness. Citizens and institutions need to be aware of climate risks, able to adapt to shocks and stresses and able to quickly respond to a changing environment. This could include, for example, designing transportation systems that encourage public and active transportation, and using technology that allows citizens feedback into the system (apps that allow users to identify hazards like potholes or flooding, or highlight areas that could be improved to accommodate active transport users like cyclists).

Each city is unique and will need to chart its own course to resilience building. Our new reports highlight a suite of potential options. For cities, building resilience is a ‘win-win’ — managing climate risks is the driving force behind adopting such policies, but they also make cities better places to live and do business.

An active commitment to building resilience through investing in innovative infrastructure is essential urban policy and smart investment. Edmonton and Calgary are demonstrating this type of commitment, and we can hope the strategies they develop can help lead other cities across Canada and around the world to make a similar shift from risk to resilience.


Dr. Hank Venema is director of planning for the Prairie Climate Centre, a joint initiative of the University of Winnipeg and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

Cover photo by 8thBox/Pixabay (Public Domain)

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