By Bryce Gunson and Brenda Murphy

Rural communities are able to draw on strong social networks, histories of doing more with less, and intimate relationships with their natural environments to achieve economic innovation, positive social capacity development and environmental sustainability (Pearson and Burton, 2009). Yet, rural spaces face extra challenges in preparing for the impacts of climate change. Ontario communities are already feeling these impacts, which have led to millions of dollars of damage to the province’s infrastructure (Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, 2015). Exacerbated by aging infrastructure built according to outdated assumptions, vulnerability to climate change is increasing, with the built-in coping range inadequate to handle future climate extremes (see Table 1) (Pearson and Burton, 2009; Canadian Council of Professional Engineers, 2008).

Table 1: Municipal-controlled infrastructure and services impacted by climate change (Adapted from: Canadian Council of Professional Engineers, 2008)

Municipal-Controlled Infrastructure ImpactedCC Hazard Vulnerability Service Interrupted
Public Works
DamsFlood, ice jam, droughtWater management, potable water
Reservoirs, potable water intake and delivery structuresDrought (low water levels), heat waves, flood, ice jam, intense cold, algae bloomsDrinking water quantity/quality, industrial water supply
Sanitary and storm water systems Intense rain events, windSewage management, water drainage
Bridges, roads and sidewalksFreeze-thaw cycle, ice accretion, wind, heat wave, flood, winter stormTransportation
Emergency Management
Fire, emergency medical services, police, search and rescue, emergency social servicesAll extreme weather events where inadequate mitigation and preparedness leads to increased costs of response and recovery Could impact multiple services Could lead to cascading impacts across services

The purpose of this study was to 1) assess the potential of inter-community service collaboration (ICSC) as a tool for addressing the impacts of climate change in small (500-7500 pop.) Ontario rural communities south of the Sudbury region; and 2) understand the extent to which such collaboration and the impacts of climate change are—or could be—embedded within the community’s infrastructure asset management processes (AMP).

ICSC is defined as the provision, sharing, or procurement of infrastructure and services between two or more communities. An ICSC response to threats from extreme weather events could include upgrading water management systems, rerouting transportation, harmonizing building codes and coordinating emergency services and response (Black, Bruce, and Egener, 2010). Although ICSC holds great potential (see Table 2), a research gap currently exists about how ICSC can boost preparedness in rural Ontario communities facing both climate change threats and scarce resources.

Table 2: Strengths and challenges of municipal inter-community service cooperation for climate change preparedness.

Strengths Challenges
- Economic savings (e.g. on bridge construction or road maintenance contracts) heighten economies of scale - Bolsters pre-existing relations with neighbouring communities, with potential to create new relationships - Potential to reduce regional vulnerability to climate change (e.g. by coordinating emergency services and response) - Increased funding available to build climate resiliency into infrastructure projects - Capacity (financial and personnel) - Political support required to form and maintain partnerships - Set-up time requirements - Fears of loss of control, authority or identity - Concerns about amalgamation - Limited knowledge of climate change impacts and/or of viable solutions - Labour relations issues - Service quality losses (e.g. winter road maintenance) - Distances between rural communities inhibits sharing of fixed infrastructures (e.g. water systems)

Key Informant Interview Findings

We interviewed 10 key informants drawn from Canadian universities, industry, government and local communities. Respondents emphasized that most municipalities in Ontario are small and that many of them face AMP challenges, including geographic impediments (large areas, rivers, etc.), limited tax bases (due to farmland, Crown land, etc.), high infrastructure needs to tax-base ratios, limited full-time staff constraining capacity to work independently and with consultants, and inadequate analytical capacity.

Another prominent theme was the importance of community capacity for undertaking AMP’s, with the size and location of communities influencing what services are shared. Respondents noted that municipalities sometimes do not want to work together to share services, due to interpersonal conflicts and old feuds.

Several respondents additionally observed widespread uncertainty about how to adapt to climate change, with much infrastructure (e.g. storm water systems) already in the ground. Even when new infrastructure is built, information is lacking on how to address likely climate change impacts. Respondents also expressed concern about potential liabilities, such as people suing municipalities after flash floods.

Provincial Survey Results

In June 2018, an online survey on the impacts of climate change was distributed to Ontario public works and community emergency management coordinator staff in 163 communities. Results indicated that rural communities are experiencing impacts on their infrastructure from extreme weather events including flooding, wind events, freeze-thaw cycles and ice damage to dams. Additional impacts included damage to buildings by flooding and high winds, damage to ditches and culverts from washouts, reduced tourism, and a general strain on all levels of municipal government (staff, public works employees, fire/emergency services and general administration).

Comments indicated that although rural communities normally experience extreme weather, impacts from singular events (e.g. culvert washouts) as well as regional impacts (such as reduced winter tourism due to erratic freeze-thaw cycles) appear to be growing. Extreme weather in the past 10 years had an impact on municipal roads and bridges in 99% of responding communities, and 94% of communities expect moderate to extensive impact in the next 10 years. Survey feedback was summed-up by one respondent’s statement that “the problem is in the day to day management. Climate change is not an item that is in the forefront”.

Notably, 70% of communities indicated they undertake some form of ICSC, with 68% relating to fire or emergency services. This was expected, as much work has been done to promote sharing of emergency services in rural Ontario. It was interesting to note that 56% of communities consider ICSC as a potential solution to address impacts of extreme weather or climate change on infrastructure. 73% of AMP’s had been in place for more than one year, with only one community indicating they had not completed an AMP.

The three main reasons communities cited for not engaging in ICSC were lack of personnel capacity, lack of political support and distance between communities. Lack of financial capacity was the most-cited reason for communities not currently planning to engage in further ICSC. Several other respondents noted that although their municipalities do have plans, they lack capacity to fund them. They noted that needs identified in the AMP were considered loose guidelines to what had to be done that unfortunately got pushed back after each extreme weather event. Communities also noted that planning and other expertise were not readily available to them, making it hard to incorporate climate change impacts and plan expenditures for future extreme weather events.

Going Forward

The research suggests that rural communities in Ontario are facing increasing impacts from climate change and do not typically have the resources to cope effectively. While current ICSC and AMP strategies have been somewhat effective, there is a need to identify and showcase innovative strategies that align with communities’ goals and activities, to address challenges and to capitalize on strengths. Accordingly, in phase three of this project, we will be highlighting ten case studies that outline potential best practices.

Acknowledgements: This project is generously funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and Wilfrid Laurier University. For an overview of the project and to read our blog, please see


Black, R. A., Bruce, J. P., & Egener, I.D.M. (2010) Adapting to Climate Change: A Risk-Based Guide for Local Governments. Ottawa, National Resources Canada.

Canadian Council of Professional Engineers. (2008) Adapting to Climate Change: Canada’s First national Engineering Vulnerability Assessment of Public Infrastructure. Available Online:

Government of Ontario. (2017) Building Better Lives: Ontario’s Long-Term Infrastructure Plan 2017. Available Online:

Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change. (2015) Ontario’s Climate Change Discussion Paper 2015. Available Online:

Pearson, D., & Burton, I. (2009) Adapting to Climate change in Ontario: Report of the Expert Panel on Climate Change Adaptation. Available Online:

Smit, B., & Wandel, J. (2006). Adaptation, adaptive capacity and vulnerability. Global Environmental Change, 16(3), 282–292.


Bryce Gunson is a project manager for the Resilient Communities Research Collaborative (led by Dr. Brenda Murphy) and a Ph.D. student and lecturer in geography at Wilfrid Laurier University. Specific research foci have included nuclear fuel waste management, maple syrup and non-timber forest products, community well-being and rural and municipal-scale climate change adaptation.