Beyond Green: Natural Assets are Community Solutions

By: Roy Brooke, Executive Director of Municipal Natural Assets Initiative

Roy Brooke, executive director of Municipal Natural Assets Initiative, discusses natural asset management and the importance of mainstream management of natural assets at a local level.

Nature is priceless — and the cost of losing it falls on our communities.

Local governments across Canada are faced with significant asset management challenges. Many of the services they provide — including potable water, wastewater removal, transportation, and recreation areas — largely depend on engineered infrastructure assets that are ageing, degrading, and in need of renewal. Meanwhile, the effects of climate change are expected to put even more strain on these assets and on local government budgets.

Asset management is the process of inventorying a community’s existing assets, determining the current state of those assets, and preparing and implementing a budget and plan to maintain or replace those assets. Unfortunately, due to lack of policies and measurable processes, local governments overlook an entire asset class: natural assets.

Since 2016, the Natural Assets Initiative (previously the Municipal Natural Assets Initiative) has been working with local governments to change the way they deliver everyday services through natural asset management. Over the last six years, evidence for natural assets as a cost-effective, long-term solution has pushed more local governments to begin taking action, but natural asset management needs to greatly increase to keep pace with the challenges it can address.

Natural Asset Management 101

Municipal natural assets refers to the stocks of natural resources or ecosystems that contribute to the provision of one or more services required for the health, well-being, and long-term sustainability of a community and its residents. They are part of the broader category of green infrastructure, and include things like wetlands, forests, soil, and rivers.

For example, water and water treatment services are supported by wetland vegetation, and healthy forests and wetlands provide stormwater management services. Natural ecosystems provide direct benefits like clean air, and co-benefits such as recreation areas. The Natural Assets Initiative’s (NAI) Coastal Resilience project with the towns of Gibsons, B.C. and Pointe-du-Chêne, N.B. revealed that coastal ecosystems specifically can often provide more durable protection from erosion than traditional engineered infrastructure approaches.

Example of coastal erosion leading to damage of a railroad in the vicinity of Pointe-du-Chêne, NB. Credit: Daigle, R.  (2011)

Think of it this way: nature is infrastructure that is already built, providing services you already use. And unlike a built levee or pipe, natural assets can be self-sustaining, lessening replacement or repair costs on communities.

While Canada focuses on efforts to reduce climate change, there is growing recognition that we cannot meet our climate resiliency goals without finding ways to adapt.

A natural assets management approach has the advantage of addressing both mitigation and adaptation, taking us to the next level of policy solutions.

Roy Brooke

With effective monitoring, maintenance, and rehabilitation now, natural assets can provide services and add value for decades in ways that many engineered assets cannot match, especially with emergency risks brought on by the changing climate.

“Counting” Nature

The majority of decisions made by municipalities comes down to costs. While this can sometimes be weighed as social costs, financial incentives are a driver for development and planning decisions. Nature has an inherent value beyond the current dollar “worth” of its products. NAI’s goal is not to put a price on nature, but to support a process to determine its service-value so it can be weighed in the context of community decisions.

NAI values services from nature to two beneficiaries: local governments, and communities more generally.  

For local governments, the value of, for example, stormwater management services they receive from wetlands can be calculated by modelling the wetland, determining its condition and properties, and what an engineered asset would cost to do the same job. This is important to do because each day, local governments make decisions on planning, land-use, developments, and infrastructure.

If these decisions proceed without understanding the value of nature’s services, make no mistake: the local government still gives nature a value — it just happens to be zero. The natural asset management valuation component, while far from perfect, helps nature to be present in local government decision-making.

For community beneficiaries more generally, NAI can, for example, determine the value of recreation, health, carbon sequestration, and pollination from natural assets using standard economic approaches. The resulting numbers may not always be useful to local governments, which are not responsible for pollination and health as such. However, they can give a strong sense of the incredible value of the services we receive from nature, raise awareness and interest, and provide evidence for better decision-making in the wider community.

Power Lies with Local Governments

Pebbles Beach in the Town of Gibsons, BC.; Gibsons pioneered efforts in municipal natural asset management, which led to the efforts subsequently carried out by NAI. Credit: Town of Gibsons, BC.

Bringing natural asset management into mainstream practice across Canada is NAI’s ongoing mission. Along with industry partners, professionals, and now over 100 participating local governments, the organization is working to further standards and methods, and remove barriers to allow local governments to account for and manage their natural assets.

A systems-level change that would build a sub-economic sector for natural assets is beyond the scope of any one actor. Change happens when many organizations work towards a common goal, each bringing their own strengths and unique roles to the process. For local governments, that role is to take stock of how, if at all, their natural assets are being managed so they can make decisions to avoid facing the costs of losing nature.

If you only have three hours, organize a facilitated staff or council meeting to discuss:

  • What natural assets you rely on and for what services
  • What you know about those natural assets…and what you don’t
  • What risks threaten the natural assets
  • What webinars or trainings are available

If you have three weeks, explore MNAI’s tools, guidance documents, and open recruitment for natural asset management workshops where you can:

  • Set high-level objectives to make progress in natural asset management
  • Build municipal staff capacity and knowledge

If you have three months, start an inventory of your natural assets:

  • A natural asset inventory determines the type of natural assets a local government relies upon, their condition, and the risks they face. It is an essential first step in the full natural asset management project, which a completed inventory will inform.

Communities have the most control over their own assets. What’s more, natural assets require management at a local level, so while progress is being made on the national standard, policy, and economic levels, the biggest impacts to your municipality’s budget, climate resilience, and sustained services are determined by what you do today.