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In-depth

Green roofs are just one of the ways North Americans are trying to naturalize our urban landscapes (Architect: Busby Perkins + Will)

Photo: Jim Burns, Stantec.
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The natural city
Toronto hosts North Amercia's Natural City Conference, an international effort to move our metropolises into the future
By Jenn Hardy

Learn more:
• Toronto's green rooftops
• Canadian Environment Awards
• Where we live
Pollution-related health problems, unsustainable urban sprawl and problems with public transportation—a few of the many failures North Americans had in trying to plan cities.

Organizers of this year's Natural City conference, to be held at the University of Toronto from May 31 to June 2, 2006, plan to use the success stories of the past in order to move forward. "We hope to find ways of highlighting productive solutions and opportunities for positive change, rather than simply continue to focus on our collective failures to advance sustainability," says Dr. Ingrid Leman Stefanovic, Director of the Centre for Environment and professor at the University of Toronto. "My father is an architect and he wisely pointed out to me years ago that it is much easier to tear down the bridges than build them up in a productive way."


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"We hope to find ways of highlighting productive solutions and opportunities for positive change, rather than simply continue to focus on our collective failures to advance sustainability."

— Dr. Ingrid Leman Stefanovic, Director of the Centre for Environment

As far as at least two of the speakers are concerned, Canada's economy is at the heart of the need to make cities function properly.

"If we want continued economic growth—especially with a growing population—on this finite planet," says Storm Cunningham, executive director of the Virginia-based Revitalization Institute, "then we have to base our economic development on renewing the health and capacity of the built environment we've already created, and on restoring the damage we've already done to our natural resources."

Glen Murray, Chair of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) says he and other members took the challenge of finding out what a "carbon-constrained economy" would look like.

"It's very long-term strategic thinking," Murray says of NRTEE's recent report to the government. "We think the report sets a new series of objectives for Canadian economic policy. I think we're going to make the business case for a stronger economy." He names tillage technology, carbon sequestration and tidal power as ways of creating room for investment and prosperity for Canadians.

"It's challenging Canadians to live their lives differently—the transit choices we make, how we build buildings, what we buy, how we move. There are a whole series of choices you can make that have huge implications for the kind of planet we're going to leave for our kids."

NRTEE has been focusing on climate change and hopes to engage community, business and government leaders and environmentalists to test NRTEE’s solutions. "This is going to be a big win for Canada in the next 10 years," he says.

"I think we're going to make the business case for a stronger economy."

—Glen Murray, Chair of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy

Cunningham, who wrote The Restoration Economy in 2002, says conservation, where possible, is always preferable to restoration. "The trouble is there are precious few pristine places left on Earth," he says.  "Virtually every ecosystem on Earth is either dying from pollution or the effects of pollution suffering from declining biodiversity or being invaded by exotic species." The solution, he says, is ecosystem restoration, because it can go hand-in-hand with conservation.

The conference's keynote speaker is Stephen Lewis, UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Topics on the agenda include Buddhist practice in sustainability, the question of whether or not private sector money is "bad" and reducing poverty through curb-side recycling in Latin America.

"We all know what the problems are," says Donna Workman, manager Program Development and External Relations of the Centre for Environment at the University of Toronto. "Now we want to know what the best practices are. Everyone who has been invited to speak has a story on the positive side. We're focusing on the success within the challenges."

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External links:
The Natural City Conference



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