Tackling climate change and progressing toward sustainability goals across Canada’s built environment is an existential challenge.
With buildings continuing to contribute the third-largest portion of the country's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – trailing only the transport and oil gas industries – our role as managers of millions of square feet of real estate in Canada is a critical part of the solution.
The challenge is often overwhelming, and while the most significant emissions reductions will come from large-scale retrofits of the existing building stock and will take longer to implement, there are other actions we can take now.
Contributing to nature-based climate solutions is one of them.
With relative ease, it can be folded into our existing and new building envelopes to help restore biodiversity corridors in urban areas, where it is needed most.
There is a tremendous opportunity to activate this space in ways that can help companies achieve the goals they have for their buildings while also delivering on their broader commitments to tackle climate change and make a positive impact in the community.
It is important to have a tailored approach focusing on identifying opportunities where we can drive immediate and longer-term impacts through meaningful and scalable initiatives.
We know that nature-based solutions alone are not going to get us all the way there, but it is a critical piece of the puzzle and when done right, will help accelerate the transition.
Restoring biodiversity in the built environment supports broader climate, community goals
Roughly one year ago, the Canadian government released its 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan.
It’s an ambitious roadmap that outlines a sector-by-sector path for Canada to reach an emissions reduction target of 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 — and net-zero emissions by 2050.
The plan incorporates input from various levels of government and 30,000 Canadians, including Indigenous Peoples, and involves a series of strategies and investments to enable the national building stock to hit those reduction targets.
We know Canada’s current building stock accounts for about one-fifth, or 17 per cent, of the country’s total emissions footprint.
We live in a massive country, but we have built most of our cities (and largest buildings) on the most arable land in Canada – land that would otherwise provide essential carbon-absorbing biodiverse ecosystems.
This makes the organized and concerted transformation of these buildings and cities extremely important.
Our big-city buildings are a major part of the overall climate problem, but they are also key to the long-term solution.
Our built environment can and must be activated in ways that help restore biodiversity. It’s a lofty ambition, but one that we believe is achievable.
This is where programs such as Colliers Real Estate Management Services’ (Colliers REMS) nature-based property activations come into play and one of the ways our national Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) team is working with clients and property management teams to make an impact.
Role of nature-based climate solutions
Achieving emission reductions at a pace that will deliver on the country’s net-zero 2030 and 2050 targets is heavily dependent on the rapid acceleration of retrofits and innovation across existing buildings.
That said, nature-based solutions present an opportunity to positively add to nature’s balance sheet while also enabling improved ESG performance for buildings and the communities they are a part of.
As reported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), nature-based solutions and broader land sector restoration could contribute up to 30 per cent of the climate mitigation needed by 2050 to meet the Paris Agreement objectives.
Nature-based solutions are actions or policies that protect and restore ecosystems to increase resiliency while protecting biodiversity and human well-being.
Examples include protecting ecosystems like forests, mangrove forests and coral reefs — but also implementing strategies that improve biodiversity in our cities.
Our buildings and cities have replaced forests and wetlands, reduced rainwater absorption and increased pollution and flood risk while destroying or degrading wildlife habitats.
The WWF says nature-based solutions such as green roofs, rain gardens, or constructed wetlands can reduce damaging runoff, reduce flood risk and protect freshwater ecosystems.
Natural solutions also keep cities cooler during the summer, support birds and pollinators, and make our cities more pleasant and comfortable.
Introducing nature at any scale helps restore biodiversity across dense urban areas across the country, creating a corridor of micro-ecosystems that support and encourage healthy flora and fauna.
For example, Colliers REMS has been scaling the development and installation of bird-nesting habitats, edible and pollinator gardens, and native perennial garden projects at properties we manage, intentionally foregoing ornamental or decorative alternatives.
Garden and pollinator program supports wellness and biodiversity
Among the industry’s leading nature-based strategic initiatives is the Colliers Edible and Pollinator Garden program.
This work aims to create new community spaces, support wellness, achieve sustainability certifications and restore urban biodiversity.
Gardens have been launched at more than 80 Colliers-managed properties across the country and the program continues to expand.
One such edible garden was planted at 95 St. Clair Ave. W. in Toronto, owned by Desjardins Global Asset Management.
Each year, the garden produces vegetables and herbs that are donated to local community food organizations.
This initiative also helped the property earn the International Outstanding Building of the Year Award (BOMA International TOBY Award) in 2020.
Programs like this can be scaled across buildings, cities and regions with relative ease, creating shared value that is recognized by tenants, occupants, the community, and investor stakeholders.
An edible garden in an unusual space
In Whitby, Ont., an effort emerged last year to produce an edible garden at a functioning industrial warehouse facility.
Students from Durham College's Horticulture and Horticulture Technician programs teamed up with the college's Barrett Centre of Innovation in Sustainable Urban Agriculture, Colliers REMS and Fiera Real Estate to design and maintain the garden to provide an attractive and relaxing space for warehouse workers while also producing fresh food for the community through a food box program.
The garden features raised-bed planters with various herbs as well as vegetables including snap peas, sweet peppers, tomatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, arugula, purple cabbage and butternut squash.
All of the food is donated locally.
“The integration of natural spaces within the built environment provides many benefits,” says Jag Singh, director of ESG at Fiera Real Estate, the owner of the Whitby facility.
“Not only do these spaces improve biodiversity within our communities, they also support our resilience against the effects of climate change while supporting our physical and mental health.”
Small interventions, when scaled, help generate big results
We’re all in this together. Actioning strategies that aim to restore biodiversity across the built environment is something that each of us can do, and we will all be better for it.
While there is no magic formula or one-size-fits all solution to the existential challenge of climate change, we know that even the smallest changes add up.