Regenerating our Ecosystems through Urban-Rural Partnerships

A Future of Resilient and Regenerative Ecosystems through Urban-Rural Symbiotic Relationships

Insights from Craig Applegath, DIALOG Toronto and Jeff Schnurr, Community Forests International

 By: Meirav Even-Har,

With the SBE16Toronto Green Building Festival fast approaching, the conference’s theme is worth a pause and consideration: what do designers, planners and other professionals mean by regenerative and resilient urban environments? For Craig Applegath, Architect and Founding Principal of DIALOG Toronto, the resiliency of towns and cities is dependent on a healthy relationship with nearby rural areas. “Materials, energy, people, capital, and ecosystems services flow back and forth between urban and rural environments,” explains Applegath. He adds, “Repair and regeneration of rural ecosystems is supported by urban flows of capital from urban centres, which in turn help support the reduction of atmospheric pollutants such as CO2, NOx and SOx flowing from urban centres.” Thus, thinking and designing beyond a building structure or even neighbourhood is essential to our understanding of what makes urban environments either resilient or fragile.

From Urban-Rural Divide to Connectivity

For years the urban-rural divide has described two separate and different environments that exist in silos. Applegath and Jeff Schnurr, Executive Director of Community Forests International, challenge us to rethink this concept and instead embrace a symbiosis that exists between the two: “Sustainable strategies are often developed without exploring the relationship between the rural and urban environments despite their interconnectivity,” says Schnurr. “We all breathe air, drink water, eat food and depend on a stable climate and atmospheric balance. If our actions have an adverse impact on any of these essential ecosystem services all life is affected no matter where it’s located.”

Both Applegath and Schnurr stress that a collective drive to regenerate our biosphere will require an urban-rural cooperation that involves all levels of government policy making, as well as cooperation between the public and private sectors. Schnurr indicates that “provincial policymakers must be made aware of the ways that urban and rural policy decisions impact the region as a whole.” He adds, “Incentives can build strong relationships across a region, improving food security, bolstering local economies and restoring degraded natural systems.” The concept of urban-rural relationship seems so clear and simple; an opportunity to expand on policies such as Ontario’s Greenbelt policy, as an example.

Carbon Offsets as a Regenerative Tool

Understanding the rural and urban connection, DIALOG has used carbon offsetting as a regenerative tool so that what is created by one activity can be managed by another: “Offsets are in essence a way to rebalance natural systems by accounting for our emissions and offsetting them by supporting projects that store and sequester an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide,” notes Schnurr. DIALOG is working with Community Forests International to invest in the conservation and management of a sustainable forest that ensures that the carbon will never be released by clear-cutting, as well as increasing the uptake of carbon by the forest through selectively harvesting to increase forest ecosystem health and locking up carbon in FSC timber.  “Existing clear cuts are also replanted with mixed deciduous and coniferous trees to regenerate former forest ecosystems. Thus, carbon offsets not only pay for reducing carbon in the atmosphere, but also regenerate forest ecosystems, which in turn produce many other ecosystem services, as well as support local communities,” says Applegath. Forests are especially ideal as carbon storage because they provide essential ecosystem services. While carbon-offset investment in clean energy is important, supporting forest ecosystem restoration attempts to compensate the ecological harm done by growing urban development on a more equal footing.

What the Future Holds

The first step toward a future with regenerative and resilient environments is to acknowledge the symbiotic relationships between all living things wherever they live, including humans. “As we move forward,” explains Applegath, “if we are going to make any headway in repairing and regenerating environmental systems that are now under so much stress by our species, we will have to develop policies and action strategies that understand our environmental problems at all scales and much more effectively integrate urban and rural environmental challenges and opportunities.” By valuing nature as a thriving ecosystem – not solely as an end product – an important shift may begin in the people and ecosystem relationship.

Applegath concludes: “As part of this shift we will need to significantly reduce the environmental harm we are causing, learn how to adapt to the new climate we are creating, and most importantly, find effective ways to repair and regenerate the natural systems that are now being so extensively damaged around the planet.” While Applegath’s ideal scenario of a shift from antagonistic to one of mutual symbiosis has yet to arrive, the dialogue has started and with it an alternative approach to urban design. The more we understand connections, the greater the opportunity for resilient and thriving urban and rural ecosystems.


Be part of the conversation.

To learn more, attend Craig Applegath and Jeff Schnurr’s presentation titled “Strengthening Symbiotic Flows: Valuing Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital” at, taking place Tuesday Sept 20, 3:30 – 5:30 PM.
To register: