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Armed with the right knowledge, Canadians can take action to reduce their homes’ vulnerability to extreme heat, wildfires and flooding by using natural tools to adapt to climate change.

Waterloo University’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation is distilling the research of hundreds of scientists into bite-sized actions Canadians can take to protect themselves from the growing impacts of climate change.

“Having practical actions that people can actually do around their home … actually makes them feel slightly less powerless in the face of climate risk,” said Joanna Eyquem, managing director of climate resilient infrastructure with Intact Centre.

While reducing the amount of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions (largely from burning fossil fuels) that enter the atmosphere is key, many impacts of climate change are already here and worsening so we need to adapt.

2023 has been the most severe wildfire season in Canada’s history, an extreme heat wave killed more than 600 people in B.C. in 2021, and that same year, an atmospheric river rocked the province and caused billions in damages.

A new infographic from Intact released Wednesday is the latest in a series highlighting a variety of actions — ranging from free to low-cost to more costly — to protect homes and homeowners against climate impacts using nature-based solutions. Intact Centre is encouraging governments and businesses to distribute, use or repurpose this educational material to raise awareness of how Canadians can try to adapt to extreme weather conditions.

The key message is “start today, do something,” Eyquem told Canada’s National Observer in a phone interview. “Because there’s something that everyone can do.”

Plant-powered protection from heat and floods

When it comes to weathering extreme heat and flooding, one of the simplest ways to get started is adding plants to your property and taking care of existing, shade-providing trees.

“Having practical actions that people can actually do around their home … actually makes them feel slightly less powerless in the face of climate risk,” said Joanna Eyquem of @ICCA_Canada. There are some basic actions homeowners can take to adapt.

Trees and vegetation absorb water through their roots, which helps manage runoff from big rain storms. On sweltering hot days, trees and plants help cool the air by providing shade and transpiring water from their leaves.

Urban areas without tree cover experience higher temperatures than surrounding areas, and planting trees can help cool these areas.

Along with maintaining trees on your property, low-cost heat and flood prevention actions include adding more potted or hanging plants to your deck or balcony or adding climbing plants to creep up the sides of your house, spreading their natural cooling properties as they go.

If your property is wanting for trees, Intact Centre’s infographic recommends planting some along the south-, east- and west-facing walls to offer shade. The right type of trees and plants depends on where you live; there’s no one-size-fits-all instruction, so Intact Centre recommends seeking local advice on appropriate native species that will tolerate future climate conditions.

“Local ecological groups are probably the best place to start,” she said. “Here in Montreal, we have these regional councils of the environment, and they are very knowledgeable.”

As a general rule, converting any artificial surface — like a driveway, for instance — to vegetation will help with both drainage and cooling. Driveway conversion and installing a living roof of vegetation or creating a garden designed to collect stormwater runoff are more complex upgrades that require a contractor. These are more costly, but Eyquem, who led development of the new infographic, said the point of the infographic is to show people there are low- and no-cost things they can do to start protecting their home.

Canadians who live in rented apartment buildings and have little to no control over landscaping or renovations, using potted plants placed on balconies or in windows to block the sun's rays is a low-cost option. People can also get involved in community initiatives that add more greenery to urban areas, like Depave Paradise, which helps volunteers replace pavement with native plants or the David Suzuki Foundation’s citizen-led program that creates pollinator gardens. Vancouver’s rain city strategy is another example of an initiative bringing more greenery into urban areas.

Reduce your home's wildfire risk

The strategy for people living in wildfire-prone areas is very different from those focused on beating the heat or keeping their basement dry.

“Wildfire protection is all about reducing potential fuels around your home and things that are combustible,” said Eyquem. You should not put vegetation near or on your home because it “poses additional risk,” she warned.

Instead, remove anything that could catch fire (like mulch, plants and leaves) from within 1.5 metres of the house and keep the lawn mowed so it's shorter than 10 centimetres. Keeping other trees pruned so there's about two metres of empty space between the ground and the first branches and trimming them back as needed is another easy place to start.

Households can reduce wildfire risk further by removing conifer trees that are within 10 metres of the house.

“A lot of it is about choosing fire-resistant plants or keeping things short and trimmed back from the house and kind of spacing between trees and things like that,” said Eyquem.

In order for individuals to choose the right approach for their home, they first need to know what risks they are actually facing, she added.

‘It's no good knowing what to do if no one's doing it’

The federal government’s national adaptation strategy has targets to increase awareness of how we adjust to a hotter planet. By 2025, the goal is for 60 per cent of Canadians, including northerners and Indigenous Peoples, to be aware of the disaster risks facing their household. The national adaptation strategy also wants to see 50 per cent of Canadians take concrete actions to better prepare for climate change risks facing their household by that year.

“But that is not going to happen on its own,” said Eyquem. “We actually need a communications effort to inform people about what they can do. And that's what these infographics are all about.” Intact Centre wants to see governments at all levels come together and run a co-ordinated communications drive so “this information becomes every day (and) people are thinking about climate when they're doing their DIY jobs around the home,” said Eyquem.

“It's no good knowing what to do if no one's doing it.”

She said some governments and groups are making use of the infographics, but it's “kind of piecemeal.” For example, the City of Calgary is using rebranded versions of the heat, fire and flood protection infographics to communicate directly to citizens, and the Canadian Red Cross has used the fire and flood resources.

“These actions are fairly basic. They're not going to save you from a massive river flood, they're going to make it easier to get the water out and reduce the damage that's caused,” said Eyquem.

“There's a limit to how far property-level resilience can get you; you also need community-level resilience measures as well.”

Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Keep reading

One thing not mentioned is that trees near waste-water conduits can result in poop backing up into your basement ...
Another is that siting a tree an appropriate distance only adds risk to your neighbours, if you don't ensure they aren't too close to that tree.
Second is that a garden too shaded for food plants to produce blossoms results in a lot of wasted work for nothing. Trees and shrubs can also provide a buffer between auto exhaust and noxious chemicals in the form of people's scented cleaning and personal care products, not to mention the dirt from streets that Toronto no longer cleans frequently enough. Good-bye to cross ventilation from open windows: the dirt accumulates on everything.
When I first came to Toronto (early '70s), one could cycle from Eglinton Avenue to work at Bay and Queen, and have to wash hair only once a week. Now you can't go downtown even once without returning coated in filth. Downtown streets were washed every night. It made for healthier air.