The Need to Add Nature-Based Solutions to the Menu of Flood-Risk Reduction Options

By Valerie Leung

I had a turkey sandwich for lunch yesterday, although I didn’t really want one. I’d been dreaming of a tuna melt for days. But when lunch came around, it wasn’t on the menu, so I chose a turkey sandwich instead.

While my sharing this experience may seem odd, it actually reminded me of the importance of the new “Procurement Guide to Nature-Based Solutions” recently developed by The Nature Conservancy’s North America Urban and Freshwater teams. As leaders across the country think about how to invest in their communities—from improved infrastructure and increased economic development to flood management and more livable spaces—they should seriously consider investments in nature—often referred to as “natural infrastructure” or “nature-based solutions.”

Nature-based solutions use nature or natural processes to help address a wide variety of challenges, including flood risk management. Today, these solutions provide a growing array of options for communities across the nation. From living shorelines (e.g. oyster reefs and marshes) and restored, reconnected floodplains to culverts that allow for fish passage or flood-tolerant parks, these solutions are designed to help address the challenges that communities face. At the same time, these solutions can also provide other important benefits, such as improved water quality, enhanced recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat, and increased protection for transportation and other “grey” infrastructure, along with all the social and fiscal benefits associated with these things.

Unfortunately, these solutions aren’t often on the menu for communities, because traditional requests for proposals (RFPs)—the primary tool that communities have for soliciting management solutions from experts—are often narrow in their language and implementation, potentially limiting the responses and options available. Simply put, consultants and engineers usually do not respond with innovative, nature-based solutions to problems when communities don’t ask for them.

This is where the Procurement Guide to Nature-Based Solutions comes in. The guide is designed to provide communities with guidance, recommendations and best practices for drafting RFPs that empower consultants to identify creative, nature-based approaches for a myriad of challenges, particularly flood and stormwater management.

Outlined below are a few simple steps that are among those outlined in the new guide. These are steps that can elicit more resourceful responses, better options and unrestricted expert advice.

  1. Ask the right questions; leave the solutions to the experts. Establish an effective problem statement for your RFP that summarizes the desired outcome of the project, rather than a desired product. Giving experts the guidance to understand where you want to go without telling them exactly how you want to get there will help unlock their creativity and unleash their experience to your community’s biggest benefit.
  2. Develop specific selection criteria and concise deliverables for your RFP. While you want to give lots of latitude for experts to provide their ideas, it becomes increasingly important to have clear and consistent criteria and deliverables to help choose amongst the various options you’ll receive. The more creative the solution set you get, the more difficult it can be to decide which one may be best for your community, so setting out a clear process for how a project will be selected and what the ultimate goals of that project are can help make the decision process a bit easier.
  3. Think outside the box. Nature-based solutions can reveal a variety of resources that may otherwise be unavailable to traditional “grey” infrastructure projects, including funding, potential partners and maintenance options. Do not waste an opportunity to match innovative solutions with innovative governance.
  4. Be transparent. Involve the public and stakeholders as early in the process as possible. While growing in popularity, nature-based solutions are still a relatively new phenomenon and it may take some members of the public a little longer to understand the benefits they provide. Don’t hesitate to take the time to invest in education and outreach efforts—an excited, engaged and informed community base make the best supporters and advocates.

For more information and tips, check out (or download) the “Procurement Guide to Nature-Based Solutions” now. Hopefully it can help you find the perfect nature-based solution.

And now, if you will, please excuse me. It’s nearing lunchtime, and I think I’ve found a restaurant with a tuna melt on its menu.

Valerie, a paralegal, co-wrote the Procurement Guide to Nature-Based Solutions. She serves on The Nature Conservancy’s Freshwater Legal Practice Team and also specializes in land protection strategies. The guide, she says, resulted after asking consultants and engineers why weren’t nature-based solutions yet considered “mainstream” approaches for flood risk reduction. A important reason, she was told, was that current RFPs from communities usually don’t allow for innovate suggestions.


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