Reflections from a Canadian Asset Management Tour

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Beginning on a snowy November day in Saskatoon and concluding in the summer of 2020, looking across a Zoom meeting screen to an audience primarily made up of Atlantic Canadians, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) Municipalities for Climate Innovation Program led a workshop series on the integration of climate change considerations into municipal asset management. Between five in-person events and one virtual event, more than 200 municipal staff, elected officials, consultants, academics, non-profit representatives and members of the public participated in the series, pairing FCM resources with federal data provisions and local expertise.

The rationale behind the series was clear. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has been working to advance the inclusion of sustainability and climate in asset management since 2015, during which time the importance has only increased. Through initiatives like the Canadian Infrastructure Report Card, the asset risks associated with infrastructure in poor condition received a degree of quantification on a national scale. However, the condition is not the only indicator or source of risk.

A wastewater treatment plant may be in excellent condition, for instance, but if located at an elevation exposed to extreme storm surge then its state of repair may not be the greatest risk to its capacity to meet service expectations.

The World Economic Forum ranked severe weather and climate action failure among its top risks by probability and consequence in the 2020 Global Risks Report. Seeming like a written articulation of the climbing trend of insured losses following disaster events, these warning signs hang over the designs and operation of infrastructure, requiring the consideration of responsible asset managers throughout an asset’s lifecycle.

Meeting audiences across the country, it was inspiring to see enthusiastic networking, active exchanges with leading communities and earnest discussions during table exercises. Clearly, local governments are recognizing that a business-as-usual approach is incompatible with future-proofing their communities.

Asset management is an efficient avenue to incorporate climate adaptation and resilience into municipal service provision for several reasons. Chief among them is the fact that, to one degree or another, all local governments already do asset management. Procuring, funding, operating and maintaining infrastructure to deliver services means that, rather than adding entirely new responsibilities onto staff’s desks, best practices can be layered into existing systems. Asset management requires balancing levels of service, costs, and risk; adding climate risk into the other factors considered is an exercise in good planning.

While many of the challenges facing local governments are shared across the country – COVID-19, aging infrastructure, growing service expectations and low-tax pressures, to name a few – the different regions of Canada can also experience different climatological pressures and regulatory environments. For this reason, the workshop series was designed to maximize the sharing of local perspectives. At each event, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities set the stage with nationally relevant trends and resources, including the recently released Guide for Integrating Climate Change Considerations into Municipal Asset Management. This was followed by a discussion led by the Canadian Centre for Climate Services using high-quality climate data accessible by every local government in Canada before turning the spotlight over to local knowledge.

Pre-event surveys used to determine the learning objectives of the audience frequently established an interest in more information on the practicalities of integrating climate considerations. Provincial and regional asset management communities of practice are invaluable sources of information to local governments, and were relied upon to provide targeted how-to content for the audiences in attendance. Using a mixture of case studies, overviews of guidance documents and idea crowdsourcing used to fill in a framework of practical solutions, the communities of practice detailed how municipal asset management can support in responding to climate impacts through governance framework modifications, levels of service, condition and risk assessments and capital planning.

Significant attention has been paid in recent years to the role that natural assets and green infrastructure can play in mitigating climate impacts while saving local governments costs compared to engineered alternatives. In Ontario, the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation extolled the value of natural infrastructure as an underutilized option to limit the effects of flooding, drawing on research done with the Insurance Bureau of Canada. This perspective was enforced elsewhere. For instance, in Riverside-Albert, New Brunswick, a wetland complex was found to provide $1.4 million in annual stormwater servicing compared to the cost of engineering and maintaining stormwater ponds, using the Municipal Natural Assets Initiative methodology. This figure grew to $2.6 million when climate change intensification and future development in the area were modeled.

Despite the benefits of natural infrastructure and the emerging methodologies for valuing it, participants made no secret of the challenges involved in retaining these assets. The most frequently cited was the prohibition of listing natural infrastructure as a capital asset by the Public Sector Accounting Board. The inability to list these assets on municipal books provides a disincentive to formally calculate their value, important information when considering development pressures.

In one of the most dynamic sessions of the series, the Manager of Flood Recovery for the City of Grand Forks detailed the role new natural infrastructure would play in long-term flood resiliency. Using funds from the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund (DMAF), the city is buying out flooded properties for a managed retreat from the riverfront. In a novel move, the city is offering impacted residents land swaps for other parcels of municipally owned land, encouraging the population to stay in their community while providing floodplain capacity during future flood events.

One of the most rapidly advancing opportunities for local governments is the availability of climate information to inform risk assessments. The falling cost of LiDAR was cited in Saskatchewan and Ontario as an enabling opportunity for communities to gain a ground-breaking understanding of overland stormwater flow patterns.

In British Columbia, Québec, and the Atlantic Provinces, modeling is providing details of what sea level rise will mean for coastal communities decades into the future. Free, publicly available resources like and the Climate Atlas of Canada offer the unprecedented combination of nationally scaled and locally detailed information capable of informing strategic planning. The City of Selkirk, Manitoba detailed how they worked with the Prairie Climate Centre and the Climate Atlas of Canada to develop their award-winning, asset management-driven Climate Change Adaptation Strategy.

One of the more frequently cited barriers to climate resilience investments in municipalities is a lack of resources, necessitating a strong business case to justify project adjustments that may increase costs in the short term. Surrey, British Columbia offered one of the most extravagant examples of the return-on-investment an adaptation project can yield in Canada. As part of its successful application to the DMAF, the city detailed that a series of coastal resilience improvements including dyke repair, bridge replacement, pump station upgrades and wetland restoration would yield a benefit-to-cost ratio of 126:1, providing total avoided damages of $23.5 billion over the lifecycle of the assets. Speakers from across the country took care to emphasize the importance of community buy-in as part of community resilience-building. Community expectations and values are key aspects to determining levels of service, including necessary responses resulting from climate change.

From a detailed understanding of risks in their neighbourhood learned from decades of occupancy to the prioritization of solutions in response to public acceptance, examples from coast-to-coast offer the lesson that a transformative vision gains momentum with public excitement, while public opposition can stop a plan in its tracks. Further, with climate change distributing impacts throughout a community, a local government cannot act alone to solve emerging risks. The responsibility for solutions is shared between the government and community.

While cited several times throughout the series, including a presentation by the CSA Group, the use of climate-resilient standards for municipal operations, urban planning, and infrastructure design appears to be one of the lesser-used options for improving climate resilience. For example, several communities expressed surprise that standards on climate-resilient wastewater treatment plants are available; one engineer stated that their consultant gave them no indication that these standards were available when discussing the project’s design. Another attendee suggested that the Investing in Canada Plan application process could be amended to include information about these standards and that their purchase could be an eligible expense.

A panel involving organizations capable of supporting local governments in their quest to become more climate-resilient rounded out each event. Participants included Engineers and Geoscientists BC, FireSmart, the Prairie Regional Adaptation Collaborative, Public Sector Digest and Memorial University, among others. A leading question presented to these panelists asked what the number one item on their adaptation wish-list would be. Additional funding, changes to floodplain regulations and a crystal ball were all cited, but a common answer was more frequent venues to connect and share solutions.

The recommendation for knowledge sharing resonated. Pre-event surveys suggested that most of the series’ attendees were somewhat familiar with climate adaptation and largely familiar with municipal asset management. Institutions like communities of practice, further enabled by funding through FCM’s Municipal Asset Management Program (MAMP), have done an excellent job of building awareness and appetite for the benefits of structured asset management.

While the rapidity with which adaptation funding through the Municipalities for Climate Innovation Program and the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund demonstrates that appetite likewise exists for climate resilience, the familiarity with the processes involved has not yet reached the same level.

About the Federation of Canadian Municipalities

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities is committed to supporting local governments as they work to adapt their asset management systems to improve the climate resilience of their infrastructure, services and communities. Learn what other municipalities have done in the Climate Resilience and Asset Management Video Series, consisting of interviews filmed during the workshop series. In 2021, FCM plans to roll out an online course drawing on best practices from across the country that will enable local governments to identify, assess, prioritize and manage climate risks and response strategies. and the Municipal Climate Action Hub offer a wealth of resources to help chart your next steps.

DUSTIN CAREY is a Capacity Building Officer with FCM’s Municipalities for Climate Innovation program. After receiving his Master of Climate Change degree, he applied his understanding of climate science to the fields of climate adaptation and natural disaster resilience at the municipal scale. Specializing in flood mitigation and municipal asset management, Dustin has led national training programs to enable local governments to better respond to climate risk. He wrote the Climate-Resilient Asset Management chapter of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Asset Management Handbook for Local Governments and is the Secretariat co-lead of the Municipal Climate Services Collaborative.

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