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The Multiple Benefits of Natural Infrastructure

The Government of Canada slated billions of dollars in its 2016 budget to water, wastewater and green infrastructure funding in an effort to ramp up its commitment to environmental protection.

The government’s Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund (DMAF) also pledged to "support large-scale infrastructure projects, including natural infrastructure, to help communities better manage risks of disasters triggered by natural hazards."

This is all encouraging news, as it signals an increasing effort to mainstream a critical piece of infrastructure that can provide multiple advantages—natural infrastructure.

What is natural infrastructure?

What does this term mean, and how can humans and the environment gain from it? Natural infrastructure is an area or system that is either naturally occurring or naturalized and then intentionally managed to provide multiple benefits for the environment and human well-being.

Natural infrastructure can be considered an active form of nature likely focused on the most important of these benefits. Natural infrastructure comprises an active management component aimed at providing (or conserving) the key advantages—such as climate resilience, clean water and biodiversity.

It differs from traditional "grey" infrastructure, such as pipes, tunnels and factories, which are completely constructed by humans. Natural infrastructure is a form of "green" infrastructure, a term that also includes systems with positive environmental outcomes, such as renewable energy or electric vehicles.

For a system to count as "natural infrastructure," it needs to tick three boxes:

  • It is natural or naturalized. For example, naturally occurring wetlands are included as well as constructed wetlands or even floating treatment wetlands that emulate the functions of natural ones.
  • It is targeted at and/or managed by humans. Natural systems or processes that occur without human management don’t count. This active management means natural infrastructure provides higher benefits than comparable natural systems in neighbouring areas and similar contexts.
  • It provides enhanced gains, including, for example, climate resilience to communities, enhanced water quality, floodwater retention, etc.
Natural infrastructure is an area or system that is intentionally managed to provide multiple benefits for the environment and human well-being.

In addition to naturally occurring and constructed wetlands, other examples of natural infrastructure include riparian buffers, urban forests and woodlots, meadows and pastures, and community gardens. Green roofs, treatment lagoons and urban stormwater drains can be naturalized with human intervention and therefore also count as natural infrastructure.

What’s the difference between natural infrastructure and just plain old nature?

Nature provides us with a range of benefits—many of which are quantifiable and valuable in real economic terms.

Natural infrastructure can be considered an active form of nature likely focused on the most important of these benefits. Natural infrastructure comprises an active management component aimed at providing (or conserving) the key advantages—such as climate resilience, clean water and biodiversity.

Consider a ditch or low-lying area that collects water when it rains. Left to its own devices, it might provide some positive effects, including water filtration and a habitat for insects and birds. This is defined as "nature." If not actively managed, over time some benefits might decrease and others might increase.

A managed wetland might involve manipulating the water levels at specific times, cleaning out the plant growth and enhancing the ability of the wetland to provide cleaner water, carbon storage and habitats for a range of species. Wetland management might also enhance some flood damage mitigation effects or provide water in times of drought. This is defined as "natural infrastructure."

One way to think of natural infrastructure is “nature at its best.”

What kind of value can natural infrastructure bring to humans?

Many of the benefits provided by nature and natural systems are not valued in real economic terms.

These benefits, or "ecosystem services," are gaining in popularity as a means to improved well-being and sustainable development. While we need clean water and pay millions to build or upgrade water treatment facilities, there isn’t a dollar value on clean water provided by natural systems, such as wetlands. As a result, it’s harder to value natural infrastructure.

Making the business case is the next challenge. Questions of cost, value depreciation and returns on investment will abound, and proponents of natural infrastructure need to be ready with answers.

Even so, natural infrastructure is emerging as a useful means to acquire these benefits on a larger scale. Moreover, policies and markets are starting to emerge to deliver some ecosystem benefits, such as carbon sequestration. Other systems are being prioritized because they deliver multiple gains (for example, soil health that improves carbon storage, agricultural productivity and water management) or are increasingly important in a time of global growth and deteriorating natural systems (such as cleaner water).

How does natural infrastructure compare to traditional grey infrastructure?

In many instances, natural infrastructure can be more cost efficient and sustainable.

At lower costs than those associated with building and materials, and often at lower operational costs to manage compared to ongoing built infrastructure costs, we can offset millions in spending on a grey infrastructure system that may provide only one key benefit. For example, while a wastewater treatment plant’s sole function is to pump out clean water, well-managed wetlands can perform that function while also providing habitats for key flora and fauna, recreational capacity and removal of greenhouse gases.

In June, Canada announced CAD 1.8 million to restore 75 hectares of salt marshes to combat rising sea levels in Eastern Canada’s Bay of Fundy.

In addition, while built infrastructure like dams and pipelines perform one function but can be damaging to the environment and people in other ways, natural infrastructure generally enhances natural systems, often more efficiently and in longer-lasting ways.

Where is natural infrastructure already having an impact?

Perhaps the best-known example of natural infrastructure is in New York City. As part of a larger effort to protect the city’s drinking water sources, Boreas Lake, upstream of the city’s drinking water supplies, is maintained within the protected areas of the Adirondack Park by The Nature Conservancy to provide clean waters, as well as to maintain habitats, tourism and recreation. Thanks to its strategic investment in natural infrastructure, New York City continues to enjoy inexpensive clean drinking water and other valuable benefits.

Where do we go from here?

We should start to envision a future where combined natural and built infrastructure systems meet our not only our water needs but also enhance air quality, biodiversity and provide other benefits.

Making the business case is the next challenge. Questions of cost, value depreciation and returns on investment will abound, and proponents of natural infrastructure need to be ready with answers.

Despite the barriers, we are on the move! In June, Canada announced CAD 1.8 million in funding to restore 75 hectares of salt marshes to combat rising sea levels in Eastern Canada's Bay of Fundy.

Seizing that momentum through more strategic investments in natural infrastructure will help us ensure that we harness the best of what nature has to offer without putting more strain on an already stressed planet.

 

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