Ecological economics and urban sustainability: my internship at TRCA (Natália Britto dos Santos)

An artistic map of Toronto at the Evergreen Brick Works. The plants represent the main river valleys in the city.

Last summer, I did an internship at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA). This internship was part of the Sustainability Network Environment and Economy Fellowship (SNEEF) Program, a partnership between the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) at York University and the Sustainability Network. The goal of SNEEF is connecting environmental non-profits (ENGOs) with students from FES that had taken courses on ecological economics.

My work with TRCA was associated with The Living City Report Card, a regional environmental sustainability report for the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) that tracks six theme areas (carbon, air quality, water, waste, land use, and biodiversity). Two reports have been produced by TRCA and partners so far, in 2011 and 2016, with a reporting framework that focuses on ongoing monitoring and analysis of data related to the theme areas, using mostly biophysical indicators. After concluding the 2016 report, TRCA and partners intended to update the report card framework, potentially integrating ecological economics analysis into the update. Therefore, the overall goal of my internship was to explore how ecological economics frameworks and methods could be used in an urban context to support sustainability monitoring and planning.

My first step was to do a literature review and annotated bibliography about ecological economics methods that have been used in urban areas. It was a bit hard to find papers that included practical case studies in urban areas, and not only theoretical discussions, but I could find some interesting examples in North America, Europe, Australia and Israel. However, I could not find any information on whether these case studies were actually used to inform decision making or planning, which would be great to better understand the practical use of the studies.

Next, based on the literature review, I produced a summary bulletin about ecological economics applications in urban areas. TRCA intends to circulate this document among municipalities as an introduction to the topic. I used this opportunity to share the idea of value pluralism, since different value languages and dimensions should be considered to assess the value of urban ecosystems in a more comprehensive way. I also included an “ecological economics 101” section in the bulletin, to present the basic understanding of the economy as embedded in society, and both within the biophysical system. TRCA really appreciated this idea, because many urban planners and decision-makers want to use ecological economic methods without really understanding the ecological economics framework.

Finally, I wrote a recommendations memo on how TRCA and its partners could integrate ecological economic analysis into future versions of The Living City Report. An important challenge I found was to reflect on the feasibility of the methods suggested in the literature, considering TRCA’s time and resources constraints. Besides this, I could provide some recommendations that seem feasible. First, I focused on the importance of considering different values (such as ecological/biophysical, economic and socio-cultural), and integrated valuation methods and/or composite indices could be included in The Living City Report to support this goal. Moreover, I suggested using spatial-analysis integrated with biophysical, economic and/or socio-cultural indicators to understand spatial variation among the GTA, which is relevant to adequate planning and environmental management to local needs.

Overall, this was a great experience to apply topics that I have been studying during my PhD in a real-world challenge. I’m really interested in nature’s benefits to humans, how humans perceive and value nature, and this internship helped me to explore and reflect on how different values can be applied to urban settings, especially in urban planning and environmental management processes. I hope my work will be helpful for TRCA as they discuss possibilities for future versions of The Living City Report Card.

In addition to my work at TRCA I participated on monthly SNEEF meetings with the graduate students/interns, ENGOs’ mentors, and SNEEF coordinators Paul Bubelis (Executive Director, Sustainability Network) and Ravi de Costa (Interim Dean, FES/York University). These meetings included a visit to the Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto, a panel with ENGOs professionals to discuss opportunities and challenges when working on the environmental non-profit sector, and visits to two funding organizations that work with the environmental sector: the Ivey Foundation and InvestEco.

I would like to thank my mentors at TRCA, Michelle Sawka, Angela Wallace and Meaghan Eastwood, for helping me navigate the challenges during the internship. Also, I’m thankful to Paul Bubelis, from the Sustainability Network, for the opportunity of participating on the SNEEF program, and to fellow SNEEF interns for sharing their knowledge and experience. I had a great time and learned a lot from all of you!

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