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Local Alberta governments forging ahead in natural asset management

A September 2019 workshop in Alberta demonstrates how the practice of incorporating natural infrastructure into core decision-making and asset management processes is gaining interest amongst local governments.

The “Advancing Municipal Natural Infrastructure Management“ workshop was hosted by InnoTech Alberta, The City of Edmonton and The City of Calgary; and facilitated by MNAI. It drew more than 70 representatives from Alberta local governments, water stewardship groups, not-for-profits, profits, research institutes, and private sector stakeholders.

Alberta local governments, other Canadian cities with varied natural asset management approaches, and MNAI experts all shared their experiences and lessons over the 2-day event and related them to local contexts.  The group also developed an initial roadmap towards strong , consistent municipal natural infrastructure management approaches that communities across Alberta could easily adopt.

Why is interest in natural assets growing so quickly?

Many services that local governments provide – including drinking water, wastewater treatment, and stormwater management – depend on traditional engineered assets that are aging, need renewal, and are getting beaten down by severe weather events. But evidence to-date shows that natural asset management also reliably provide or enhance many of the same services while reducing infrastructure costs and vulnerabilities, and protecting and improving natural systems, too.

Leading up to the workshop

Similar to many other communities across the country, several factors in Alberta have contributed to their growing interest in natural asset management and to this workshop. These include:

  • More extreme weather events generally, and highly visible events such as the 2013 Southern Alberta Flood specifically
  • Building on related strategies such as biodiversity, watershed and riparian area management, resilience, climate adaptation and mitigation
  • Growing interest in land stewardship programs from private landowners

Building momentum

Many local governments in Alberta have already started natural asset management activities, and this provided a great starting point for the workshop. Just a few of these include:

  • The City of Calgary’s Riparian Action Program
  • The City of Edmonton’s ecological natural areas network
  • Cochrane’s ‘naturescaping’
  • The City of Airdrie’s data collection on assets
  • Existing GIS information, mapping and data in many of the participating local governments, in not-for-profits such as the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance, and in utilities such as EPCOR

Addressing barriers

Although most local governments want to adopt natural asset management, they also say they’re faced with a range of barriers and obstacles. The workshop was an excellent opportunity for the diverse group to compare notes and discuss ways to address the barriers, which participants identified as including:

  • Misalignment of regulatory frameworks that can contribute to natural area loss
  • Ownership and jurisdiction, e.g. many natural assets sit on private property or on land in neighbouring jurisdictions.
  • Lack of standard approaches for natural asset management, e.g. developing inventories, valuation, and financial reporting.
  • Capacity: some smaller Alberta local governments noted that they lack staff capacity to understand, measure and manage their natural assets more fully.
  • There are various mechanisms to manage natural areas, however challenges with education and enforcement can compromise their protection
  • Fostering collaboration amongst and across different disciplines that may have different priorities, training, metrics and terminology.

Next steps

The workshop concluded that, while there is no single solution or intervention to accelerate natural asset management, a solid first step for many local governments is to identify their natural assets, and develop a high level understanding of their condition, the services they provide, and the risks the natural assets face; and, incorporate this understanding into planning and reporting. These key steps provides the foundation for measuring, monitoring, protecting, managing, restoring or rehabilitating those natural assets.

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