Robert Newell named new Canada Research Chair in climate change
Officials at most levels of government in Canada are vocally in favour of climate action and sustainability. But those at the level closest to the voter — local government — don’t always have the knowledge or tools they need to walk the talk.
Dr. Robert Newell hopes his work as a newly appointed Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) will help provide some of those needed tools.
An assistant professor in Royal Roads University’s School of Environment and Sustainability, Newell was recently named Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainability, with funding of $600,000 over five years. His research will explore “the intersectionality, challenges and opportunities associated with integrating climate action and biodiversity conservation with broader local and regional development priorities and objectives.”
He will work with municipal and regional governments across the country to examine how their land-use and other planning processes and objectives can incorporate considerations around climate action, biodiversity conservation and broader sustainability.
The idea of looking at this regional approach is to figure out how can you get coherence between policies and strategies that happen at the local level and also at the higher levels where you will see ecological connections across jurisdictional borders.
“I’m looking at this through an integrated planning lens,” says Newell, who is the past associate director of University of the Fraser Valley’s Food and Agriculture Institute. “It is a lens for being able to understand how climate action, biodiversity conservation, how these critical sustainability objectives align or conflict within a whole constellation of social, environmental and economic factors.”
For example, he says one approach to climate action calls for mixed-used densification to improve energy and transportation efficiencies, as well as local walkability. Looking at that through his research lens means considering potential co-benefits, such as enhanced health because residents walk more, or trade-offs and challenges, such as providing adequate urban vegetation or connecting greenspaces.
In addition, his participatory action research — research that includes working side-by-side with governments, the communities they serve and other stakeholders to learn and develop solutions because “people should have a say in how places of value to them are developed” — aims to look at how local decision making can take into account regional objectives.
“The idea of looking at this regional approach is to figure out how can you get coherence between policies and strategies that happen at the local level and also at the higher levels where you will see ecological connections across jurisdictional borders,” he says.
Watersheds or food systems transcend civic boundaries, says Newell, and that reinforces the importance of decision makers not operating in isolation.
“A lot of local governments are already thinking about how to do integrated planning, he explains. “They like the idea of bridging across silos. But many are not exactly sure how to do it.”
The planned outcomes of Newell’s research include frameworks local officials can use to make planning decisions and a variety of steps to get to what he calls “practical planning tools,” including:
- engagement — understanding the local context, municipal and regional governments, key actors, and climate action and biodiversity conservation issues and needs;
- scenario analysis — looking at the implications of enacting different strategies; and
- creating tools — building resources for clearly communicating complex information to a community, possibly including video game software and/or virtual reality.
Of the latter, Newell says, “They connect with people’s sense of place and allow people to respond to different scenarios from a place-based standpoint.”
Newell says he has already connected with governments in Revelstoke, in BC’s Interior, and in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, and is aiming to partner with municipalities across Canada for his CRC work. In BC, he says, there’s already a head-start since the vast majority of civic governments are signatories to the BC Climate Action Charter, launched in 2007.
Newell is committed to research that has practical value, and he hopes in the next five years, his work will help communities as they attempt to navigate the complex challenges of integrated planning and sustainable development.
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