John Cabayao is a 26-year-old biodiversity revolutionary, calling for a transformation in the way Calgary uses its green space. As a member of the city’s biodiversity advisory committee, he works alongside a group of consultants, engineers and experts to restore Indigenous plant life to one-fifth of Calgary’s green space, replacing large swathes of manicured grass with native wildflowers and plants. The committee is challenging city administration, private landholders and residents to change Calgary’s approach to urban development — an effort made all the more important by the impending effects of climate change.

Biodiversity is critical for a resilient environment. Grasses and wildflowers native to Alberta use less water than traditional lawns and create the conditions for wildlife to thrive, lessening the effects of invasive species on the environment. The city of Calgary declared a climate emergency in 2021, but Cabayao says it isn’t doing enough to tackle the issue, which threatens biodiversity. “As a young person, I really wish there was more teeth to that.”

Resistance from the private sector is a major challenge to the city’s biodiversity initiatives. A little more than eight per cent of Calgary is covered by trees. When it comes to doubling that number, “you think it'd be easy but it's not,” Cabayao said. “A lot of the land in the City of Calgary is owned by private industry.”

There is a limited amount of space the committee is able to act upon without encountering some form of regulation.

As they shepherd a 10-year strategic plan for biodiversity that began in 2015, committee members must wrangle buy-in from private corporations and residential landowners to plant native plants and trees. They sometimes even find themselves trying to change highway policies in order to make progress, Cabayao said. In addition to increasing biodiversity, the 10-year plan also seeks to improve management of invasive species and identify areas for conservation.

With only two years remaining, the city has reached 42 per cent of its goal to restore native plants to one-fifth of its green space. In 2019 and 2020 alone, 260 hectares categorized as “environmentally sensitive” were lost to urban sprawl, while only 83 hectares were restored by returning native plants and wildlife to natural levels. The sprawl is a response to population growth. In 2022, city council approved the expansion of five new communities on the outskirts of the city, which destroyed a diverse collection of native grasslands, wetlands, and valleys for suburban development.

“We have kind of a complex issue of wanting to restore natural spaces, but at the same time, the city continues to expand,” said Sarah Jordan-McLachlan, a zoologist on the board of the committee. “So it makes it kind of hard to have an overall net benefit.”

Alex and Janna Choiniere walk alongside Calgary's Bow River on July 23rd, 2023. Photo by Clayton Keim

But perhaps the most daunting challenge facing the committee is changing the public perception of what makes acceptable green space. The single species of grass that covers vast portions of the city isn’t native to Alberta’s environment and uses higher rates of water than native grasses.

Calgary's biodiversity advisory committee works to restore indigenous plant life to green space, challenging city administration, private landholders and residents to change urban development in an effort to increase resilience to climate change.

“The culture of the way that we see green spaces is a very romantic thing that we've inherited from a European manicured lawn,” said Cabayao.

“I think Calgary has the conception that greenspace is a manicured lawn.” Due to stereotypes around the aesthetics of suburbia, homeowners favour a species of grass native to Scotland, which would be unable to thrive in Alberta’s environment without the high degree of maintenance it demands.

Trading that manicured grass for a garden of native plants is not always the easiest sell to council or landholders. There are even laws on the books that impede progress. Dianne Allen, the chair of the committee, said: “I think that what people can do in their backyards is really important, even though there’s some restraints.” Rewilding a lawn, for example, comes with challenges — under one Calgary bylaw, residents can be fined $400 for having property with grass longer than six inches.

Biodiversity initiatives also touch on broader issues of equity: the majority of green spaces are located in higher-income communities in the northwest and southwest of the city.

“Neighbourhoods in the northeast and east Calgary are largely without green spaces,” said Cabayao. “Largely ethnic, largely diverse populations [have] very little green spaces, very little parks to actually enjoy nature.”

High-density housing, such as condos or highrises, often gets forgotten in discussions about biodiversity, says Allen. “There's a lot of condo owners who are jointly responsible for the grounds of the condos, and sometimes the city forgets to encourage them to make some decisions about how they can naturalize their landscapes.”

According to Jordan-McLachlan, once people see the possibilities, they can adjust to and embrace the different look and feel of sustainably planted areas. “When a biodiversity initiative comes into a neighborhood, it's almost like an awakening for a lot of people that they realized this is possible in their space.”

For individuals looking to promote biodiversity at home, there are a wide variety of options available. Cultivating native plants, reducing pesticide use and placing markers on windows to prevent birds from hitting them are small ways to make a big difference.

Fostering a healthier city can start at home, said Jordan-McLachlan. “[Take] note of what is around you and [work] to help provide what that life needs in order to to thrive in the urban environments.”

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