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Case Study: Integrating Natural Infrastructure

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Integrating natural infrastructure into urban coastal resilience

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New York City asked The Nature Conservancy to prepare a conceptual study on how a mix of natural and built defenses could be implemented in a dense urban area. Now, the results of that study, Integrating Natural Infrastructure into Urban Coastal Resilience, are in.

What is the Integrating Natural Infrastructure into Urban Coastal Resilience Case Study all about?

The Nature Conservancy prepared the report by request from the New York City Special Initiative for Rebuilding to evaluate the role of nature and natural infrastructure in protecting coastal communities in New York City from some of the impacts of climate change. The community of Howard Beach, Queens, an area that was hard hit during Hurricane Sandy, was selected as a representative neighborhood for conceptually addressing the use of natural systems as part of a resilience strategy in the face of a changing climate and future storm events.

Why was Howard Beach picked for the study?

Howard Beach is low-lying and very flat, leaving it vulnerable to storm events and flooding. The 10-foot storm surge that flooded Howard Beach during Sandy left it under water and caused significant damage. Given its profile and how badly it was impacted by Hurricane Sandy, Howard Beach was a good model of a vulnerable coastal community that could be applied to other New York City and national communities. Although Howard Beach was used in the analysis, the study methodology is applicable to coastal communities across the City and around the globe.

What did this study reveal?

The highlights of the study found:

  • Natural features can be successfully used in a dense urban setting, in combination with “built” defenses, to provide efficient and cost-effective protection from sea level rise, storm surges and coastal flooding, and;
  • Innovative financing options are available to bring these hybrid approaches to reality.
  • Also, in preparing this case study, one of the important conclusions reached was that community participation—which was outside the scope of this conceptual study—is a necessary ingredient for any future work aimed at developing solutions for particular communities.

Our analysis looked at natural defenses like re-vegetated shorelines, mussel beds and restored wetlands, and also at more traditional, built defenses like removable sea walls and sea gates at the entrance to some of Howard Beach’s canals. Our experts studied a variety of scenarios to determine what would be most effective, what costs and financing might look like, and how this might all look long-term.

The report found that the hybrid approaches, combining natural and built options, could work effectively in dense urban areas to provide climate protection as well as other benefits for communities. We found that once you start mixing natural and built defenses, you start seeing great returns on residential properties. Although it may seem like the only way to protect a dense urban area is with built infrastructure, our study demonstrates that there is a significant, cost-efficient role for nature to play.

What happens next?

The report provides us with a groundbreaking opportunity to talk about how nature’s role in preparing urban areas for future climate disasters is a critical piece of the puzzle. For the first time ever, we have developed a methodology and performed an analysis of how to find the right mix of natural and built solutions to protect us. There is strong evidence that for every $1 spent on infrastructure defense in general, we save as much as $4 in emergency response.

The Nature Conservancy is engaging with policy makers to ensure that natural defenses are as much a part of the conversation as built defenses, and we are doing the homework to ensure that these investments are realized. We need to work together with city, state and federal governments and partners to make commonsense changes that will reduce risk to communities in the future.

The Nature’s Conservancy’s report “Integrating Natural Infrastructure into Urban Coastal Resilience” was made possible with generous support from the JPB Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and TD Bank.

For more information, please contact Chief Conservation and External Affairs Officer Stuart Gruskin at sgruskin@TNC.ORG or (518) 690-7850.

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