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Working With Nature

Apartment Building with trees on every balcony.

What does working with nature look like to help protect us from climate change impacts? You might as well as ask, how long is a piece of string? We can do everything from protecting and restoring natural ecosystems to integrating green and blue infrastructure in urban areas to applying ecosystem-based principles to agricultural systems. These different ways of working with nature are summed up by the term “nature-based solutions”.

Almost by definition, nature-based solutions are designed and implemented to varying degrees by local communities. It is this participatory community-based approach to climate adaption that sets these solutions apart from more traditional biodiversity conservation and management. So, what are some of the benefits and why are communities such an important part?

One obvious benefit is reducing our exposure to the immediate impacts of climate change. In rural areas for example, restoring and managing natural forests and wetlands in high catchment areas can help regulate water supplies, reduce flood risk to urban areas downstream and reduce soil erosion. In more urban areas, creating green roofs and walls, planting street trees and increasing green spaces can help improve local air quality, moderate localised higher temperatures and reduce surface water flow.

Another vital benefit is supporting biodiversity. Nature-based solutions that protect and regenerate a reservoir of wild species also help us adapt to change by, for example, enabling us to breed more resilient crop varieties or inspiring more effective technical innovations based on biomimicry. 

A profound benefit is contributing to how communities themselves adapt to climate change and become more resilient. Nature-based solutions can be implemented in ways that bring communities together to learn and experiment. Ongoing care and management can make sense of communities as the beneficiaries and as the protectors of these natural assets. They embed people both in their natural environment and in the lives of others. 

It’s a myth that this approach is not needed or relevant to support dense, urban areas. Our towns and cities draw on many vital ecosystem services that originate well beyond their municipal boundaries. The distal flows between urban centres and non-urban regions can be as widespread as they are intricate. For example, the area of productive land needed to support Londoners’ consumption habits and dispose of their waste is over 125 times the size of the city – equivalent to the U.K.’s entire productive land surface. Given such dependency, city dwellers should be concerned about implementing nature-based solutions out of immediate self-interest as much as enlightened interest in regenerating nature and biodiversity.

One of the biggest challenges is measuring the cost-effectiveness of working with nature. Ironically, not because the benefits are hard to identify but because they are so varied or broad or long lasting. For example, how should you measure the cost-benefit of an initiative implemented in a high catchment area that contributes to reduced flooding downstream? We need a range of localised metrics so we can measure true value.

This example illustrates a second potential challenge: successful management and governance. Nature-based solutions – such as improving storm-water drainage across watersheds – often involve actions that cross over local authority boundaries. These broader benefits require joint decision-making across different areas and between different organisations, and more collaboration between people on the ground.

Conventional approaches to managing natural resources that people hold in common involve either centralised governmental regulation or privatisation of the resource. However, according to political scientist Elinor Ostrom, an alternative approach is to set up durable co-operatives that are organised and governed by the local beneficiaries themselves. Depending on the nature-based solution, different communities take the initiative in setting up or participating in such co-ops. Thankfully, Ostrom was concerned with practice as well as theory and delineated eight design principles for formalising these self-governing communities.

Despite the bewildering breadth of nature-based solutions, a common thread in working with nature is the involvement of local communities – not only as beneficiaries but also as guardians.

Originally published on LinkedIn on June 10, 2020.

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