The Nature Conservancy Releases Innovative Urban Coastal Resilience Report

New analysis shows mixing nature-based and gray solutions will protect vulnerable, coastal communities from climate change

New York, NY

The Nature Conservancy released to the public today, at the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, a groundbreaking case study that provides a preliminary, comprehensive evaluation of how nature-based defenses, in conjunction with gray solutions, can effectively be used to protect communities in New York City and around the globe from the impacts of climate change.

The highlights of the Urban Coastal Resilience Report, the first-ever analysis of its kind, are that:

  • Nature-based features (such as mussel beds and restored marsh) can be successfully used in a dense, urban setting in combination with “gray” defenses (like sea walls and flood gates) to provide efficient and cost-effective protection from sea level rise, storm surge and coastal flooding, and;
  • There are rigorous and valid ways to value the contributions of nature.

“Hurricane Sandy left a wake of destruction when it struck New York in October 2012. The storm revealed just how vulnerable we are to climate change, how much is at stake, as well as how nature can play a critical role in helping to protect us,” said Bill Ulfelder, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in New York.

“Man-made infrastructure used to be the default for most discussions about protecting at-risk communities. Now, science is showing us that natural defenses like dunes, wetlands, mussel beds, forests and oyster reefs can help to keep us safe from future disasters by absorbing floodwaters, reducing wave energy and helping defend against storm surges, with the added benefits of increasing wildlife habitat, absorbing carbon pollution that is the cause of climate change, and making our city more aesthetically pleasing and livable.”

The New York City Special Initiative for Rebuilding requested that The Nature Conservancy undertake a project evaluating the role of nature and nature-based infrastructure in protecting communities from some of the impacts of climate change, which was the inception of the Urban Coastal Resilience Report The community of Howard Beach, Queens, was selected as a case study for the project because this neighborhood, hit hard during Sandy, is low-lying and densely populated. Although Howard Beach was used in the analysis, the study methodology is applicable to coastal communities across the City and around the globe.

“Protecting New York City from the risks of climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time. We’ve learned that the best infrastructure solutions are often hybrids that complement the geomorphology and land use of a specific neighborhood,” said Daniel Zarrilli, Director of the NYC Mayor's Office of Recovery and Resiliency. “The type of analysis in the Urban Coastal Resilience report complements the work done in OneNYC, New York City’s strategic plan, and is a great example of how the public, private, and non-profit sectors can be ready to withstand and emerge stronger from the impacts of climate change and other 21st century threats.”

For the report, experts analyzed several infrastructure alternatives, ranging from purely nature-based solutions to one consisting of only gray defenses. The study found that combining natural and gray defenses holds the most benefits. Analysis shows that a hybrid alternative could result in avoided losses in this one neighborhood of up to $244 million from the current 1-in-100 year storm event. Demonstrating the benefits of a hybrid approach in terms of future cost-avoidance provides a strong basis for making investments that use both nature-based and gray systems in community resiliency that are critically needed today.

The best conceptual alternative and most cost-effective, according to the study, utilizes restored marsh habitat on the coast, hard toe mussel beds along the shoreline, floodgates and sea walls to protect against storm surge and rising sea levels and rock groins on the shoreline to help prevent erosion. 

“CH2M is very excited to have contributed to this project through our engineering of alternatives, our detailed coastal and flooding analyses, and the cutting edge economic analysis (assisted by TetraTech) that goes beyond merely looking at the cost of protecting assets from flooding but also considers the economic value of the goods and services that nature provides to society,” said Jonathan Goldstick, Vice President at CH2M. “These economic benefits range from protecting coastal and floodplain assets from storms and flooding to providing nursery habitat for fish and wildlife, recreation opportunities for people, and improved open space aesthetics.”

Funding for this report was provided by The JPB Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and TD Bank.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 79 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit or follow @nature_press on Twitter.