Small is Mighty
Women from the Jamestown community plant native flowers in an outdoor children's learning centre in Toronto. Credit: Park People

The destruction and fragmentation of habitat from urbanization is one of the most pressing challenges facing urban biodiversity. In this context, it becomes increasingly important to find every nook and cranny we can to support habitat creation.

While large natural areas are critical, research shows that small-scale urban biodiversity projects—like pollinator gardens—are important pieces of the puzzle.

According to Carly Ziter, Assistant Professor in Concordia University’s Biology Department, small-scale initiatives are key: at the ecological level they diversify habitat and improve connectivity, and at the social level they facilitate access to nature and opportunities for stewardship.

A bee visits the WEXpops pop-up parking lot pollinator garden. Credit: Brendan Stewart
A bee visits the WEXpops pop-up parking lot pollinator garden. Credit: Brendan Stewart

Even small spaces can support a large number of local species with the right kind of native plants, as one 2019 study showed. For example, a citizen science survey in Vancouver observed the second highest number of pollinator species within a small community-planted pollinator garden compared to nearby green spaces.

As the Cougar Creek Streamkeepers have shown, local projects can have big impacts over time. This group of industrious volunteers works in Surrey and Delta with city staff and local schools to create rain gardens that support the health of local streams to bring back salmon to the area. Their annual counts of salmon populations have tracked an increase of 50% since 2017.

Find toeholds to create connections

Connecting larger green spaces through native plant gardens along streets and parks can help restore lost habitat networks—a key focus of many city biodiversity strategies.

However, with park space at a premium, naturalization projects could create tension between different users. As Jode Roberts from the David Suzuki Foundation pointed out, you can’t play soccer on a meadow.

Roberts said he looks for smaller toeholds in underused spots in parks. “Urban landscapes are so fragmented that even adding little patches here and there is great for continuity for species, especially wild bees,” he said. That’s part of the drive behind David Suzuki Foundation’s Butterflyway Project, which encourages resident-led native plant gardens in Toronto, Richmond Hill, Victoria, Vancouver, and Montreal.

To increase naturalized areas, Sarah Winterton, formerly Director of Nature Connected Communities at World Wildlife Fund-Canada, argued that cities could consider designating a percentage of every park as a naturalized habitat.

Some cities are taking the lead on this. For example, Ottawa’s park development manual establishes targets for naturalization in new parks. Halifax is planning to naturalize underused park areas with the help of local stewards, and Victoria has already naturalized 62 locations within their park system. Meanwhile, Fredericton is turning infrastructure into living habitat by building living retaining walls in three parks.

Small pollinator garden in raised bed. Credit: Park People
Small pollinator garden in raised bed. Credit: Park People
Cultivate the plants of the future

As the climate changes, so too will the plants that can thrive. As part of its climate resiliency planning, Victoria developed a plant selection list for parks that includes climate adaptive native plants that are drought-tolerant, pest/disease resistant, and pollinator-friendly, but also low allergen and low maintenance. One third of its annual plant inventory is now transitioned to naturalized plantings.

Guelph also devotes space in its greenhouses to growing native plants through a pilot that it expanded in 2020, with plants made available for city parks and other naturalized planting programs. Over 75% of the seed for the 2020 program was collected from within the city itself.

Similarly, Winnipeg is protecting genetic diversity by harvesting seeds from native plants in restoration projects and propagating them in the city’s nursery.

Coneflowers in College Park in Toronto. Credit: Park People
Coneflowers in College Park in Toronto. Credit: Park People
Update maintenance practices

Good maintenance and design are critical to the success of smaller projects as they are often in areas that are heavily used and may be under stress.

This includes ensuring enough sunlight, keeping dogs and people out of sensitive areas through low fencing, and leaving fallen leaves and sticks to assist in natural nutrient cycles and habitat for nesting insects. For example, Montreal has begun leaving dead/dying trees in parks (when safe to do so) to promote biodiversity, as several species rely on woody debris.

Conservationists were even encouraging people to let their lawns grow wild as the COVID-19 pandemic kept people inside, allowing native flowering plants to take over and provide more habitat for pollinators. Since lawns—whether in parks or on private property—often represent the largest vegetative areas of cities, these practices can result in large impacts.

Think beyond the park

Finding space for habitat in an urban landscape necessitates creative thinking. Concordia University’s Carly Ziter noted that opportunities for local biodiversity projects can be found in urban agriculture, laneways, abandoned spaces and vacant lots, sidewalks, and private yards.

Montreal’s network of green alleys, managed by community members, provides small-scale habitat and social space in the city’s boroughs. Other community-led projects championed by the boroughs include the initiative “Faites comme chez vous”, which helps residents create small habitat patches on their own property.

Toronto’s community-led WexPOPS took a different approach. A six-week long summer 2019 pop-up plaza, WexPOPS provided a green oasis in a strip mall parking lot in Scarborough’s Wexford Heights. Its numerous native plantings attracted pollinators, creating a hotspot where residents could interact with local wildlife in what was previously just a parking lot.

“It’s been quite dramatic to watch the monarch’s progress from larva to adult butterflies, and to see how much milkweed they eat in the process,” Brendan Stewart, one of the project team members said. “The garden is constantly buzzing and visitors tend to be surprised and delighted to experience this much life in the middle of a huge parking lot.”

It’s a striking example of how small pin-pricks of nature in an otherwise sea of pavement—even in temporary spaces—can help support biodiversity and threatened species.

WexPOPS. Credit: Park People
WexPOPS. Credit: Park People
Make it local to make an impact

Sarah Winterton argued that working on local initiatives may trigger people to be more aware of biodiversity’s importance, creating support for other environmental issues.

That’s why WWF-Canada launched the In the Zone program with Carolinian Canada, which, like the Butterflyway Project, encourages resident-led native plant gardens. The program includes a “zone tracker” where gardeners can track the impact of their garden and see how it contributes to wider change.

The program aims to build awareness amongst people who “are not people who are already doing it,” WWF-Canada’s Lead Specialist in Species Conservation Pete Ewins said, adding that one of the biggest ways cities can boost urban biodiversity is to transition people to use native plants in their own gardens.

“Part of the problem [is] that environmental groups have for 50 years thought that a bunch of numbers and statistics under a powerful brand will change people’s priorities,” Ewins said. “But it’s got to have the emotional factor plugged in.”

Ryerson University Associate Professor Nina-Marie Lister agreed. “If you’ve got a pollinator garden on your property, you are more likely to be the person who will support your government for investing in very large scale initiatives,” she said. People can be “messengers of goodness” in their community, spreading ideas at the same time as they contribute to local habitat.

Community pollinator garden. Credit: Dallington Pollinators
Community pollinator garden. Credit: Dallington Pollinators
Create a place for plants—but also people

Local projects provide “an opportunity for people to come together to reduce social isolation and disconnection,” argued David Suzuki Foundation’s Jode Roberts. Residents meet other gardeners, chat with community members walking by, or swap plant advice.

Mahnaz Ghalib, founder of Toronto’s Dallington Pollinators Community Garden, said that while the garden is a place for the community to address issues like climate change and declining biodiversity, one of the key drivers was bringing people in the neighbourhood together. To do that, the group hosts programming like youth garden clubs and speaks to people living in the neighbourhood’s high-rise buildings about how they can bring a little piece of garden to their own balconies.

Local projects can also be a way to reach across generations—something Marie-Pierre Beauvais found from her involvement in Les Amis du Champ des Possibles, a vacant lot turned naturalized landscape in Montreal.

Getting involved in setting up a project like a garden or naturalized area can help strengthen social ties in the neighbourhood, both young and old, she said. The group hosts programming like seasonal clean-ups, botanical drawing lessons, and discovery walks to reach different people.

Dallington Pollinators community mural by Nick Sweetman. Credit: Dallington Pollinators
Dallington Pollinators community mural by Nick Sweetman. Credit: Dallington Pollinators
Offer a helping hand

When Ghalib started the pollinator garden she said she “had no idea about environmental stewardship. I jumped into it. And as I worked there was a lot of joy.”

Ghalib said that assistance from the city is crucial for gardens like hers, which are tended by volunteers who have their own busy lives. In addition to grants offered to help initially set up a garden, Ghalib said that helping to engage local residents and communicating the benefits of urban biodiversity and garden projects would be helpful. Additionally, assistance with site and plant selection and guidance through the permitting process would help ease the burden on volunteers.

Beauvais agreed that cities need to step up for people to get involved, perhaps by creating management funds to support projects. Cities can also help by supporting the creation of resident-led committees and groups that have delegated responsibility for these spaces. For example, Beauvais’s group consists of a board of volunteers that liaised with the city, residents, and experts they hired, such as biologists, to help out with the project.

We found a range of supportive programs and grants for community-led urban biodiversity projects, including: