WELL, I knew it was bad, folks, but I didnt realize it was quite this bad. According to Statistics Canada, Winnipeg leads the pack of large Canadian cities in terms of greenness loss greenness being defined as the presence and health of vegetation in urban areas as a measure of urban ecosystem health
The StatCan Urban Greenness Study, conducted over 18 years, targeted 2001, 2011 and 2019 as its key survey years. Over that time, Winnipegs ratio of green areas relative to population size dropped to 38 per cent, while cities such as Toronto and Edmonton stood at 70 per cent and 60 per cent, respectively, as of 2019.
In other words, Winnipeg is now a lot greyer and browner, compared to most other major Canadian cities, than it was in 2001.
So what, exactly, is behind the loss? Well, the fact were losing an average of 5,500 public trees every year, owing in part to pests and diseases, may have something to do with our diminishing greenness. Not to mention the fact that in 2021 only 19 per cent of those trees were replaced.
But the bigger issues related to greenness loss in Winnipeg, according to StatCan, are the combined impacts of urbanization and prolonged drought.
And thats where a vicious cycle begins. If a city such as Winnipeg sacrifices too many mature trees, intact forests and green spaces to development, especially during a period of prolonged drought, the impacts are multiplied, because the city doesnt just lose the cooling effect of the trees and green spaces that are destroyed to make way for roads and development.
Their loss accelerates the damage caused by drought on other green areas across the city by exacerbating what scientists call the heat island effect a bubble of heat that forms over cities as a result of too little heat-mitigating green and too much heat-absorbing asphalt, concrete and buildings.
In other words, the fewer the trees and green areas and the higher the temperatures, the more severe the heat island effect becomes. And its not just humans that suffer trees, greenspaces and wildlife across the city become stressed and are placed at risk.
But wait a minute, you say you cant stop progress and growth. Winnipegs population is predicted to keep expanding. People need housing, we need more roads and shopping malls and parking lots. Life cant stop, right?
Well, heres the question: is that really the life we want? Do we really need more malls and parking lots, or do we need more trees and greenspaces where we and our kids can play and enjoy the shade and wildlife on a hot summer day? Should we be sacrificing valuable intact forests and the cooling services they provide for overpasses? Do we really want a downtown core with nary a tree or blade of grass in sight?
In other words, are growth and progress, as we know them, really the be-all and end-all of life?
In a climate-change context, our 19th-century take on the virtues of limitless growth and progress may well be the end all. According to the Prairie Climate Centre, hot dry summers are quickly becoming the norm in Winnipeg, thanks to climate change.
And if our citys greenness keeps shrinking, life is going to get a whole lot tougher, because the more greenness we lose, the more we stand to lose, and the worse our chances of mitigating the impact of prolonged droughts become.
There are signs the city is waking up to this reality, given councils recent commitments to produce a Master Greenspace Plan and add another 1,000 acres to city parkland. But is that enough?
No, its not. Not by a long shot.
What we really need is a major shift in attitude at city hall, in which city councillors and urban planners start focusing on a different kind of progress and growth. Progress that is measured in terms of climate resiliency, and growth that is gauged not only in terms of urban forest and greenspace protection and expansion, but also in the implementation and promotion of green building codes, tree protection bylaws and green technology, from electric vehicles to alternative energy.
Its also long past time this city started getting serious about its carbon-reduction goals and viewing the urban forest and greenspace expansion as way to help achieve those goals. If we dont, I shudder to think where our greenness rating will be by 2030, the year in which were expected to reduce our carbon emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels.
To put it bluntly, perhaps its time Winnipeg transformed itself from a national loser into a national leader in urban greenness, in every sense of the word.
Erna Buffie is an author, filmmaker and interim chair of the Trees Please Winnipeg Coalition. Find out more about Trees Please at https://treespleasewinnipeg.com/