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Stephanie Cairns is the director of Cities and Communities with the Smart Prosperity Institute

This has been a record year of extreme and unusual weather events around the world. Thousands of people from B.C. to California have fled their homes as fires raged. Floods, which account for 47 per cent of weather-related disasters, have brought landslides, death and destruction from Saskatchewan to Vietnam and New Zealand. The damage has cost governments and individuals billions of dollars. Preliminary costs from Hurricane Harvey alone are estimated to range from $65-billion to $190-billion (U.S.). This is just the latest in a growing number of increasingly expensive disasters, many of them linked, as Harvey was, to climate change. The increasing costs have huge implications for the insurance industry, city planning and land development or redevelopment.

For local governments, which are the front lines of defence, degraded infrastructure systems and shrinking green spaces are aggravating the situation. But there is hope. As communities across North America confront these disasters, nature is demonstrating that it can be one of the most effective and cost-efficient ways to fight climate change and adapt to a future that promises even more extreme climate-related impacts.

Wetlands, for example, can be cost-saving heroes. A recent study showed they prevented more than half a billion dollars in direct damages across the mid-Atlantic U.S. during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Similarly, after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, evidence shows that where coastal mangrove swamps were least degraded, disaster impacts were often less severe. Toronto chose a $1.25-billion (Canadian) naturalization project for the highly industrialized mouth of the Don River as the best strategy for critical flood protection on Toronto's eastern waterfront.

Wetlands are not the only natural asset to play a key role in protecting communities. Forests, estuaries, bays and intertidal vegetation also protect communities from storm surges and other weather-related events. These ecosystems are able to absorb and store large amounts of rainwater or water runoff during a storm and buffer against coastal waves and high winds. By doing so, they also reduce property and infrastructure damage, and decrease death, injury and lost work time. Communities are recognizing that nature provides critical services for the health, well-being and sustainability of communities and their residents, and are exploring ways to ensure those services are protected.

Gibsons, a coastal community of 4,400 people on B.C's Sunshine Coast, was the first North American community to tackle this challenge by integrating nature into its operating and financial planning. In 2014, Gibsons started to operate and maintain its natural assets in the same manner as storm sewers, roads and other engineered assets. Gibsons is now saving money by accounting for nature. Maintaining natural ponds that manage stormwater in the town's White Tower Park, for example, costs about $15,000 every three years. Even taking into account the $45,000 required to complete the initial assessment and modelling of these natural services, it is still quite a cost savings when compared with the town's assessment for managing the same services through engineered stormwater management, with replacement costs estimated at $3.5-million to $4-million.

The Municipal Natural Assets Initiative offers methodology and support for local governments to integrate natural assets into core asset management and financial processes. Local governments can now understand, manage and value natural assets in terms of the services they provide – such as localized or downstream flood management – that would otherwise need to be provided through engineered solutions. At a minimum, this approach can help local governments manage risk by better understanding the services that natural assets provide but that have largely been left out of the equation. The initiative's real value, however, is in helping local governments manage natural assets by using the same systematic management practices used for engineered assets to secure sustainable service delivery.

We're learning that working with nature is more cost-effective and efficient in the long run. We all rely heavily on nature's services for our day-to-day well-being. Vibrant communities, prosperous economies and human life depend on healthy nature. Isn't it time for our governments to prioritize sustainable and climate-resilient infrastructure that counts nature in?

An animated rendering shows what Toronto's completed Waterfront will look like

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