Municipal Natural Area Designation

What is it?

Municipal Natural Areas are designated to maintain and protect native plants and wildlife, and to preserve natural features and processes. They are managed differently than municipal parks (e.g., manicured parks, playing fields, etc.). Though recreation opportunities are available in Municipal Natural Areas, there may be restrictions on off-trail use and dogs. Municipal Natural Areas also help to provide connectivity throughout the natural infrastructure system, and provide community members a sense of place and connection to nature.

How can municipalities use it?

Municipalities can create Natural Areas through the Environmental Reserve process as set out in the Municipal Government Act, or through direct purchase on an opportunistic basis. The Municipal Development Plan and other council-approved policies can guide the acquisition of natural areas. To do so, the management and maintenance of Natural Areas must be differentiated from that of a manicured park or sports facility.


An open space plan and/or natural area management plan can guide the appropriate management of Natural Areas, with which individual management plans, Area Redevelopment Plans, and Area Structure Plans must align. As well, land use amendments can shape Natural Area locations, and development permits and agreements can shape policy surrounding natural areas at a site-specific location.

What are the advantages?

Natural area designations have many advantages:

  • Protects important natural features, such as urban forests, wetlands, and grasslands

  • Provides wildlife habitat and habitat connectivity

  • Provides opportunities for low-impact recreation

  • Fosters a sense of place, connection to nature, and quality of life

  • Allows multiple uses on public open space

What should you watch out for?

Natural area designations are not without their challenges. The following should e considered:

  • Conflicting or competing demands for use of parks

  • Public misunderstanding of natural areas versus recreation-oriented municipal parks

  • Limited options for municipalities to obtain and protect park land on developable lands

  • Municipal natural areas are different from provincially-designated natural areas, which are regulated under the Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves, Natural Areas and Heritage Rangelands Act.

How can it help maintain natural infrastructure?

Natural area designations can help to maintain the natural infrastructure system through protecting assets like forests and wetlands from development. Natural areas connect the natural infrastructure system, ensuring functions such as habitat linkage and stormwater storage, and benefits such as flood mitigation and sense of place are maintained.

Resources

Edmonton’s Natural Area Parks – Website contains descriptions and locations of Edmonton’s many natural area parks. The City's of  Municipal Development Plan Bylaw 15100 defines a natural area as “an area of land or water that are dominated by native vegetation in naturally occurring patterns…Areas such as groomed parks, sports fields and schoolyards are not natural areas.”


Cootes to Escarpment Park System: Land Securement Strategy – Several land securement tools are described for their contribution to protection of the important natural region known as ‘Cootes to Escarpment’ in southern Ontario. This document includes the natural area designations as a tool for protection.


Ottawa Greenspace Master Plan: Strategies for Ottawa’s Urban Greenspaces - The purpose of this document is to express Council’s vision for greenspace in the urban area and set policies for how this vision can be pursued. Natural areas play a key role in this Greenspace Master Plan.


City of Calgary Natural Area Management – This web site shows the various plans and policies Calgary uses to maintain natural areas.


Sherwood Park Natural Area – Strathcona County holds a recreational lease on the Sherwood Park Natural Area from the Government of Alberta, and organizes ‘volunteer stewards’ to assist the with site monitoring and maintenance.


City of Airdrie Parks Bylaw – This Bylaw creates definitions for ‘natural areas’ and ‘naturalized landscape areas’, and prohibits mowing and other incompatible activities.


City of Medicine Hat Management of Natural Areas Policy – This policy expands on Medicine Hat’s commitment to “managing natural areas as close as possible to their natural state” by laying out principles, and relating natural areas to envl reserve.


Town of Okotoks Natural Areas – This web site explains Okotoks approach to their natural areas, including their policy that “when recreational use and the long-term survival of significant habitats conflict, protection of the resource must take precedence.”


City of St. Albert Natural Areas Conservation and Management Plan – A comprehensive approach to natural area planning including direction and options for conservation, a natural area land use district, and management direction.

Did we miss something?

If you know of a resource that should be on this list - or your municipality has a sample or case that should be here, please let us know!