Canada: How Can Municipalities Protect Biodiversity And Engage In Conservation?

Last Updated: March 14 2018
Article by Kirsten Mikadze

Municipalities often find themselves struggling to reconcile numerous conflicting interests when it comes to the balancing conservation and urban growth.

As the world's biodiversity increasingly comes under threat, including from urban expansion into natural areas, municipalities are recognizing that they have an important role to play in conserving and preserving threatened species and the habitat in which they exist. Municipal responses can be particularly important when other provincial or federal responses are inadequate.

Global efforts aimed at conservation

Biodiversity loss is a global problem, and international efforts have increasingly brought focus to its contours. Annual reports compiled by WWF (formerly, World Wildlife Fund) have highlighted the urgency of the situation. Recent findings have revealed that nearly half of the world's UNESCO-designated Natural World Heritage Sites are threatened by industrial activities1 and that half of the world's wildlife has already been lost.2 Urban development, and its encroachment upon species habitat, is one of the main drivers of this problem.

Traditional conservation efforts aimed at preserving habitats have sought to carve out spaces in which human activities, such as agriculture, development, and resource extraction, are prohibited or limited. Some states have entered into multi-lateral environmental agreements whose purpose is to commit states to doing just that. For example, the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, part of the Convention on Biological Diversity ("CBD"), commit signatory states to extending their respective coverage of protected areas to 17 per cent of national landmass and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, by 2020.3

Canada is a signatory to the CBD and has worked to implement its commitments through a variety of legislative and policy instruments.4 However, the federal government, who is responsible for implementing Canada's targets under the CBD, has been subject to criticism that although the necessary regulatory and legislative frameworks are in place, the actual implementation of conservation goals has lagged.

In response, as part of its 2018 budget, the federal government recently announced a five-year, $1.3 billion investment in natural conservation, including through the acquisition of land and the expansion of national wildlife areas and sanctuaries.5 While this recent promise of support will likely make a positive difference in future, the urgency of the situation has, in recent years, already prompted many municipalities to take action.

What can municipalities do (and what have they been doing)?

Although such large-scale conservation activities have traditionally remained the domain of federal or provincial-level governments, municipal governments around the world have increasingly found it necessary to undertake their own efforts. Provincial or state-level governments are more likely to have the jurisdictional and financial resources required to effect large-scale conservation efforts, which often require the acquisition of large amounts of land. However, municipalities frequently experience the environmental impacts associated with biodiversity loss up close. As such, when other levels of governments are sluggish in responding, it is often necessary for municipalities to spearhead conservation efforts.

For larger municipalities, this can mean purchasing land both in and surrounding their municipal boundaries. New York City, for example, has purchased large tracts of natural territory in the Catskills, located in upstate New York. The City has recognized that this is a cheaper means of protecting sources of clean water than relying upon purification technology.6

Often, municipalities use conservation easements, or similar instruments, to arrange with private landowners or would-be developers for the preservation of land that might otherwise be subject to development, agriculture, or other activities.7 A conservation easement is a legal agreement that restricts land uses on a given property. Because they are generally attached to the title of a property, conservation easements can work in perpetuity. Easements are often held and monitored by conservation bodies that are statutorily created governmental or not-for-profit organizations, land trusts, or municipalities.

Many municipalities, however, are not in a position to acquire large tracts of land or are unable or unwilling to employ conservation easements. They may also be hesitant to cede ownership or control of lands to entities such as land trusts.8 So municipalities must often turn to alternate solutions.

What non-traditional options are available to municipalities interested in conservation?

Alternative municipal solutions are more likely to involve modification to existing human landscapes rather than creating or preserving habitat through the establishment of protected areas.

For example, rather than set aside, or restrict the use of, swaths of land, some municipalities establish, sponsor, or encourage small gardens designed to attract and sustain at-risk species. Such gardens or spaces can be set up on lands already in use, and so can be done without re-zoning or sacrificing existing uses. In recent years, such gardens, particularly those planted to attract threatened pollinators, such as bees or monarch butterflies, have proven popular in municipalities across North America.9

Municipalities can also engage in awareness-raising by "welcoming" species that have settled in the urban environment. Wild mountain lions living in parts of Los Angeles have become "urban folk heroes" with a fan base of followers on Facebook, for example.10 Awareness-raising can also be done by way of stewardship and more traditional education programs. This can include informing citizens about sensitive species they may encounter on their lands and incentivizing the creation or preservation of habitat.11

Flexibility and expediency

Although often smaller in scale, municipal responses can and, increasingly, have become crucial to conservation efforts. When municipalities devise creative, flexible responses to biodiversity loss, the local and global impacts can be impressive.




3. (Target 11).


5. (pages 149-150)


7. For a description of the situation in Alberta, see e.g.

8. In the rural Manitoban municipality of Stuartburn, for example, the Nature Conservancy of Canada—a large non-profit organization that acquires land for the purpose of conservation—is the largest landowner. See

9. For example, through the Bee City project, municipalities can apply for designation as a "Bee City" by committing to engaging in certain kinds of activities aimed at increasing the presence of bees within municipal boundaries ( ). Examples of ad hoc municipal efforts aimed at attracting pollinators through gardening also abound. The City of Guelph, Ontario, for example, encourages landowners to use existing gardens to attract pollinators (see


11. For examples of efforts that municipalities in Nova Scotia are undertaking, see

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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