January 19, 2022

Nature-based Solutions should be the obvious choice

There is a growing demand for sustainable solutions to tackle the impacts of climate change. To reach the Sustainable Development Goals and fulfil the EU Taxonomy Regulation, NbS should be embraced as the preferred development paradigm, according to Alvaro Fonseca from Ramboll.

Although there is no unified definition of Nature-based Solutions, there is a shared understanding of the NbS concept to encompass the use of nature to target environmental, social, and economic challenges. The EU Research and Innovation policy agenda on Nature-based Solutions and Re-naturing Cities defines NbS to societal challenges as “solutions that are inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build resilience. Such solutions bring more, and more diverse, nature and natural features and processes into cities, landscapes and seascapes, through locally adapted, resource-efficient and systemic interventions”. NbS is therefore a collective term for innovative solutions to solve different types of societal and environmental challenges, based on natural processes and ecosystems. They include an array of different technologies or approaches, all of which function as alternatives to traditional, grey infrastructure. This includes BGI (Blue Green Infrastructure), SuDS (Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems), WSUD (Water-sensitive Urban Design) or Low Impact Development (LID). NbS integrate natural elements so they easily transfer to the natural surroundings without compromising service levels delivered by other infrastructure. The integration of NbS can and should cover all project phases, from idea development, planning, feasibility, design, construction, monitoring, evaluation, and learning. The concept of NbS really started gaining momentum already during the 2000’s, but the foundational ideas go back at least 20 years before that. As a development paradigm, it is born from the recognition that we cannot keep on building bigger and larger infrastructure to cope with increasing climate-related risks and must therefore embrace another way of thinking and designing urban and non-urban environments, incorporating sustainability elements. The concept also has similarities with the field of ecology and its holistic view on resources. Likewise, NbS build on a holistic way of thinking, meaning that nature, environment, and people are taken into consideration when planning and designing the communities of the future.
Implementing NbS in large-scale projects
The implementation of NbS has primarily focused on urban environments, with cities leading the way in rethinking urban spaces. However, there is also a growing focus in developing large-scale NbS; that is, NbS that cover larger areas combining urban and non-urban spaces. An example of this can be a river basin including several (and often concurrent) users of several services affected by implementation of NbS. With the change in scale comes also a change in complexity, as the number of elements to work with, technical and non-technical, becomes significantly larger and more intertwined than, for example, a scale related to a street. Hence, design and implementation of large-scale NbS is at the EU level receiving significant attention as there is an untapped potential in addressing historical challenges related to, for example, transboundary basins. In this regard, the European Commission is investing in research and development projects targeting the development of regulations and standardizations. These can help in mainstreaming large-scale NbS as a catalyser for change driven by the need for climate adaptation and resilience. One example at EU level is the research and innovation project called Reconect. It is a huge project with 35 partners coming from research and academia, municipal authorities, river management authorities, state representatives and private companies. The overall focus in Reconect is, to put it simple, to make the case for large-scale NbS in Europe and beyond. This implies increasing the knowledge base for the application of NbS, and generating knowledge products, frameworks, tools and specific technologies within the NbS landscape– monitoring frameworks, design guidelines, business cases, etc. The overarching goal is to produce and communicate knowledge that will help reduce hydrometeorological risks, with a strong focus on flooding. Alvaro Fonseca, Chief Project Manager in Ramboll Water’s international team, explains about the project: ‘One of Ramboll’s primary tasks in Reconect is to lay out the groundwork for what will become the future EU standard for large-scale NbS projects. We are there to set the overall direction and develop standardized approaches to planning, design, implementation, and operation of large-scale NbS. Likewise, Ramboll is deeply involved in developing the overall business case for NbS that will shape future NbS-projects within the EU. It is a huge opportunity and responsibility for us to actually do the necessary practical research and decide how it should be used and made applicable in real life. This requires significative coordination and cooperation with all partners in the consortium. Flooding is the most dominating phenomenon in Reconect, but we also look at droughts and landslides. The project is quite heavy on hydraulics with a lot of hydrological analysis and technologies, but the success of the project is also dependent on being able to further develop the knowledge base for NbS, and to a large degree also make sure that NbS is upscaled and assimilated in the EU market. We also have a big role in making sure all these technical aspects get properly communicated to decision-makers and policymakers, capturing all key lessons learned for all ca. 60 reports to be produced in the project. We’ve made sure to put together a well-balanced multidisciplinary team of technical experts, geographers, economists, biologists and not the least, communicators.’
What to keep in mind when doing NbS projects
According to Alvaro Fonseca, one of the most important things to keep in mind when doing NbS-projects is the ability to create a thought-out long-term vision for the project. ‘A couple of years back in the Reconect project, we did a visioning workshop in Nice, France. We facilitated a process in which four of the partners had to build up or entirely reconsider their NbS vision, and specify exactly what they wanted to obtain, why they wanted it, and how they were designing the system and the process to achieve it. Although it sounds simple, once you add the scale and complexity of the projects, it became evident to several of our partners that the NbS vision and definition of key elements needed a fresh perspective and a more defined direction. With short term goals, you complicate the process for yourself in the long run and risk losing out on a lot of great wins. It doesn’t help either when trying to obtain buy-in from the local community or even obtaining support from decision-makers that the vision is not clear, and the long-term goals have not been properly defined. Having a clear long-term vision and direction for your project increases your chances for financial support and a stable project process. Another important thing is to be aware of governance and making sure to have worked through all layers of the institutional tissue. Who is the owner, who is paying, who are the different stakeholders and how do they influence each other? Is there a governance structure in place that can support the design and implementation of NbS? And do the project solutions fit the level of maturity of the area? You need a complete helicopter-view to make sure that your project can actually be finalised and implemented. Lastly, when doing NbS-projects, you need to consider your wording and how you communicate the project. You need to do this always of course, but in my experience, it is even more important when dealing with NbS projects, as they affect how we use our physical spaces, like for instance landscapes and parking lots. It’s important that we as designers and engineers speak about NbS in a way that will eradicate any doubt that these solutions are infrastructure, and that they as infrastructure can provide us with much more than their obvious, important functions. NbS projects are not just lovely, green areas for recreational purposes. They are also infrastructure at the same level as any other kind of infrastructure. When you frame NbS as infrastructure from the very beginning, the questions you receive will be the same as with any other infrastructure-project – How big is it? What’s the price? – and you will spend less time having to convince people.’
Why NbS should be the obvious choice
‘First of all, city authorities and other stakeholders need to consider NbS because they work, and they fulfil a societal need. It’s infrastructure that can bring a wide range of co-benefits which enhances quality of life for people and harmonizes development with nature. Secondly, NbS are much cheaper, especially in up front investments. Lastly, NbS are what people want, even if they don’t phrase it like that. Globally, there is a huge wave towards holistic, green solutions, and city planners or river basin authorities will eventually ride that wave. NbS bring nature closer to our cities and make the cities more attractive, while solving critical problems. In short, NbS are multi-beneficial.’, Alvaro explains. With NbS as the preferred development paradigm, cities will experience much more holistic and visionary solutions that will consider and accommodate their needs now as well as in the future.