Southern Alberta - Are We "Smart Enough"?!

Editor's Note: This is a guest blogpost by Ryan Carriere, Parks Planning Manager of the City of Lethbridge - Infrastructure Services.

In it, he talks about a different way of imagining communities in order to reduce carbon emissions - whether it's how to get around, whether to have lawns - and how to take ideas and practice from elsewhere in the world, and apply it to communities in the Canadian prairie.

Of course, here at the Oldman Watershed Council, we have to add some watershed knowledge to the mix: wetlands, native grasslands and forests!

Wetlands get drained to create more fields. But they hold 20-30% of the soil carbon and are 10 times more effective at storing carbon than coastal wetlands. Prairie wetlands are important! They also help with flood mitigation. You can't engineer or pay for this kind of natural service.

Forests sequester about 25% of the carbon created by human activity. Of course, that literally goes up in smoke the minute they catch fire. All the more reason to ensure that we care about SNOW and not just RAIN. Snow is a slow-release moisture source and helps protect forests from fire.

Native grasslands are down to less than 20% and shrinking yearly. What's left is largely in the Oldman watershed, and much of it is on private land. 1 acre of fescue (native grass) does the same work as taking 150 cars off the road for a year. Early ranchers thought of fescue as "as precious as gold"  because it is so nutritious for livestock, and keeps its nutrition no matter how cold it gets. This grass also needs hardly any water, with roots that go down metres into the earth (good in times of drought!).      

So, to sum up before we finally move on to Ryan's blog - the "URBAN / RURAL" divide that some folks like to talk about disappears as soon as we begin talking at a watershed level. Let's face it - we depend on those upstream to keep the water safe. It flows down to us, and we must do the same for those downstream.

This also means taking care of the forests, grasslands and wetlands. What happens on the land affects the water - and no one can do anything without a plentiful supply of clean, safe water. Less lawn and senseless lawn watering - more parks with native plants. As we build Lethbridge and Southern Alberta into the future, we can implement solutions and do it smarter than ever before. We ALREADY KNOW a variety of smart ways to deal with carbon - but it takes community and political willpower to make it happen.

Alberta is projected to add close to 1.8 million residents over the next 25 years, reaching 6 million by 2041; an average annual growth rate of 1.4%. The maps below show HUMAN LAND USE.  

Here's what the watershed looked like at the turn of the last century. Map Copyright Anna Garleff / Oldman Watershed Council, 2017

Here's what the watershed looked like at the turn of the last century.
Map Copyright Anna Garleff / Oldman Watershed Council, 2017

This is what we're heading into on a "business-as-usual" basis. We HAVE watershed solutions at both an urban and rural levels. (Actually, we are ALL downstream!) Map Copyright Anna Garleff / Oldman Watershed Council, 2017

This is what we're heading into on a "business-as-usual" basis. We HAVE watershed solutions at both an urban and rural levels. (Actually, we are ALL downstream!)
Map Copyright Anna Garleff / Oldman Watershed Council, 2017


Let's hear what else Ryan has to say. We look forward to great things from ranchers, farmers, municipalities and counties alike as we go forward in better watershed management and health!     


According to Environment Canada, the biggest emitters of carbon pollution in Canada are the oil and gas industries, transportation, and buildings. This article will focus on what we are doing now and how we can do better with a few small changes in how we design communities.

What is Resilient Community Design? Although this idea is hyped and is one step away from being jargon, the essence of the idea is about creating efficiencies within the design of communities. So think Smart Energy, Smart Buildings, Smart Mobility, Smart Infrastructure, Smart Governance, etc.

Resilient Community Design... is about creating efficiencies within the design of communities.

In order to understand where we need to go, we need to look at our current and past practices. Today many communities are still being designed based on the focus and needs of single-occupancy vehicles. In most Canadian suburbs, residential density is lowered to accommodate single family homes and focus on maximizing traffic volumes to get single vehicle occupants to their destinations. Destinations are usually not within walking distance, so it is more convenient to jump in your car for a quick trip to the grocery store to pick up that jug of milk rather than walking, biking, or taking a bus.

This design model does not utilize Land Use capacities efficiently. Having fewer people spaced over a greater area leads to transportation and fuel wastefulness, and creates a situation whereby based on the design of their community, people are forced to rely on their car, consume more fuel, and add more carbon to the environment. Urban sprawl also creates longer routes for the transportation of goods and services.

Resilient Community Design is a way of rethinking how we live, work, and play. Rather than focusing so much on single vehicles, we should start designing complete streets that accommodate multi-modal forms of transportation like bikes, walking, and other ways of moving people around the City that expend less carbon.

Rethinking the transportation network will have to include rethinking land use, or how we design where to put residential, commercial, industrial, and recreational areas in our city. How dense do we make them? Do we separate them or try to integrate them into a mixed land-use model?

Compact development and mixed land use - combining residential, commercial job centers, schools, and social services - will ultimately affect how the infrastructure (roads, pipes, and parks) are designed. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, energy use and carbon emissions were halved using principles of efficient land use planning and community design. This suggests that a person’s carbon footprint is relative to where they live.

In a new study, Wouter van Heeswijk, a member of the Industrial Engineering and Business Information Systems research group at the University of Twente, hypothesised that by using his mathematical model, he could cut urban emissions by seventy percent. By focusing on several factors including local regulations, transportation schedules, information sharing, and optimal conditions for sustainable urban distribution, van Heeswijk claims you can reduce the pressure in cities by creating ‘consolidation centers’ that enable goods to be distributed in a far more efficient manner, ultimately lowering congestion, wait times, and fuel consumption.

Parks can be considered ‘soft infrastructure’ and if designed to only function as ‘manicured’ spaces within a community, can greatly impact CO2 concentrations. Trees, wetlands, and grass all sequester carbon, but different types of vegetation and how they are managed will sequester different quantities of carbon.

Mark Hostetler and Francisco Escobedo, members of the Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department at the University of Florida, measured the net carbon sequestration value of different types of green spaces. They found that highly maintained lawns and trees sequester much less carbon than more natural areas with little maintenance. With more lawn cover than tree canopy cover, the balance can actually shift to emitting carbon.

Parks can be more than just places that provide amenities, habitat for wildlife, or spaces for kids to play. If designed right, they can have a huge impact on our ability to deal with carbon while still providing all the amenities and benefits of traditional parks. Naturally designed wetlands, community gardens, food forests, bee conservation areas, and riparian areas can all be designed strategically to combat carbon.

Parks can provide habitat & recreation AND help us reduce our carbon footprint.

Parks can provide habitat & recreation AND help us reduce our carbon footprint.

To summarize, if we start to re-balance where we live, work, and play, we can then rethink how we get around; we can plan to enable alternative and multi-modal forms of transportation. By creating ‘distribution centers’, and focusing on ecologically-designed parks that create food security and provide storm and water quality management while sequestering carbon, the very fabric of our cities will have a great impact on our collective ability to deal with carbon.

The technologies for building design and construction are already here and creating ways for us to lower our carbon footprint in terms of sustainable materials as well as energy efficient lights and appliances. If we really want to deal with carbon on a bigger scale, we need to start focusing on how we design and build our communities.