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SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities

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The environmental perspective

In Canada, an important part of making cities and communities sustainable is improving access to transportation, parks, and green spaces, as well as cultural heritage. This chapter's focus on promoting public transit and active transportation and helping Canadians get out in nature supports SDG Global Indicator Framework targets 11.2: By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons; 11.3: By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries; 11.4: Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world's cultural and natural heritage; and 11.7: By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.

Urban resilience is crucial to avoid human, social and economic losses. Meanwhile, improving the sustainability of urbanization is required to protect the environment and face a changing climate.

Increased public transit and opportunities for active transportation support the transition to a net-zero economy by reducing air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and urban congestion. They also support economic growth by enabling greater access to employment as well as other opportunities and services. Public transit and opportunities for active transportation are improving within Canada. Several light rail transit projects are underway in Canadian cities. Cycling networks are also expanding and pedestrian-friendly streets are becoming more common.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected transit systems across Canada. Transit ridership dropped significantly in spring 2020 and has remained below pre-pandemic levels, reducing revenues for many cities and communities. However, during the pandemic, public and active transportation have been essential for those unable to work remotely. Meanwhile, former public transit riders have been able to continue to travel sustainably through active transportation, which includes walking, jogging, cycling, kayaking, and more.

Making cities and communities more sustainable also means providing access to green spaces. Most Canadians agree that access to community green space is important to their quality of life now and in the future, and three quarters say that their local green space could benefit from improvement.

Canadians living in communities with populations of less than 10,000 experience more barriers to accessing physical activity than those in larger communities with populations of 250,000 or greater. This means that rural Canadians currently experience greater barriers to accessing green spaces than urban Canadians, including lack of sidewalks, lack of street lighting, and lack of access to facilities and transportation. These gaps in infrastructure make it harder for those living in rural areas to undertake active transportation. Nature trails are generally free to use, making them an excellent opportunity to advance equity of access to green spaces.

Where the Government of Canada is going

Mandate letters released in December 2021 outline the Government of Canada's direction and policy priorities. Selected commitments related to Sustainable Development Goal 11 are listed below.

  • Continue the transformation of public transit in Canada by accelerating major public transit projects, supporting the switch to zero-emission buses, developing rural transit solutions and continuing the roll-out of the National Active Transportation Strategy. Work on the design of the permanent public transit fund (Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Infrastructure and Communities).
  • Make additional investments through the Natural Infrastructure Fund to support community-led public green space projects by municipalities, Indigenous communities and non-profit organizations (Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Infrastructure and Communities).
  • Accelerate the design and delivery of the next phase of the Smart Cities Challenge (Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Infrastructure and Communities).
  • Develop a national trails tourism strategy that also leverages the creation of new urban parks in order to enhance local opportunities for economic development and youth employment (Minister of Tourism and Associate Minister of Finance; supported by the Minister of Environment and Climate Change and the Ministers responsible for Regional Development Agencies).

How the Government of Canada contributes

The Government of Canada is committed to ensuring cities and communities are resilient and environmentally sustainable. This means improving public transportation and providing support for natural infrastructure. While provincial, territorial and municipal governments own the majority of core public infrastructure, there is collaboration at all levels.

The Permanent Public Transit Fund will support new subway lines, light-rail transit and streetcars, electric buses, active transportation infrastructure, and improved rural transit. This will create affordable commuting options and reduce Canada's emissions. It will also provide local governments with predictable transit funding so Canada can keep building more sustainable and livable communities. In addition, the Government of Canada has released its first National Active Transportation Strategy and launched the Active Transportation Fund, which will help build new and expanded networks of pathways, bike lanes, trails and pedestrian bridges and undertake planning studies.

The new Natural Infrastructure Fund will support projects related to local parks, green spaces, and waterfronts as well as design elements that enhance human access to nature. These design elements may include walkways, ramps, signage, lighting, garbage bins, benches, and multi-functional piers. Natural features will also support biodiversity goals and targets by providing wildlife habitat, resources, and connectivity, and these projects can provide public education opportunities related to natural processes and species.

The Green Municipal Fund (GMF) supports innovative and replicable municipal environmental projects through grants, loans, capacity building, and knowledge sharing. With GMF support, municipalities and their partners can pursue plans, studies, pilots, and capital projects that improve energy efficiency, reduce pollution, and deliver triple bottom line benefits to communities across Canada. Since its original endowment in 2000, the GMF has grown into a $1 billion revolving fund and used the investment of $950 million from Budget 2019 to create new energy efficiency funding offers and endow 7 local climate hubs through the Low Carbon Cities Canada initiative.

Back to the Land

Back to the Land initiatives help further a connection between Indigenous communities and their ancestral land. By bringing Indigenous peoples closer to the land culturally, socially and spiritually, Back to the Land initiatives aid in maintaining sustainable land-use practices, support environmental conservation, and even promote social and psychological well-being. By supporting Back to the Land initiatives the Government of Canada can ensure these benefits are maintained, while also helping to preserve Indigenous cultural heritage and practices. The Mental Health Innovation Network's Going Off, Growing Strong program has helped socially-isolated Inuit youth connect with their community and cultural heritage and build strong relationships, and has resulted in drastically reduced rates of youth suicide through land-based activities such as hunting, fishing, and gathering, all of which build connections between Indigenous peoples with their communities and the land. Back to the Land initiatives respect the rights, responsibilities, needs, and unique perspectives of Indigenous peoples.

The Government of Canada also provides opportunities for Canadians to get out into nature and experience Canada's cultural heritage, including through Canada's network of national parks, national wildlife areas, migratory bird sanctuaries, national historic sites, and other protected areas. A new National Urban Parks program has been launched to create a network of national urban parks in collaboration with local authorities, Indigenous groups, and stakeholders with the goal of protecting biodiversity, supporting health and well-being, supporting reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and connecting Canadians with nature close to where they live, work, and play.

Internationally, the Government of Canada adopted the New Urban Agenda at the United Nations 2016 Habitat III Summit in Ecuador. This will strengthen the commitment to make a meaningful contribution to the sustainable development of towns, cities and human settlements for the next 20 years.

Access to green spaces in Canadian cities

A green space is an outdoor, unbuilt space with trees or other kinds of vegetation. Green spaces include forests, parks, greenways, community gardens, and street trees. Numerous studies have shown that having access to green spaces is associated with a variety of physical and mental health benefits, including improved respiratory and cardiovascular health, lower incidences of obesity, and higher rates of psychological well-being. Green spaces can also provide protection against some of the harmful effects of climate change by improving air quality, mitigating the impacts of flooding, and reducing heat. However, access to green spaces in Canadian cities is not equally distributed. In the largest Canadian cities, lower-income individuals and new immigrants have less access to green spaces. By promoting access to quality green spaces in urban areas where such access is currently lacking, governments can help ensure that the benefits of green spaces are distributed equally across socioeconomic and ethno-cultural dimensions.

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2022-2026 FSDS

Draft Federal Sustainable Development Strategy 2022-2026