The case for choosing nature-based solutions to infrastructure

Tom Wild is an ecologist with a background in environmental planning. Based in the Department of Landscape Architecture, Tom’s current work focuses on water management and the benefits of nature-based solutions in infrastructure.

Tom Wild on the Don river in Sheffield

Tom Wild is an ecologist with a background in environmental planning. Based in the Department of Landscape Architecture, Tom’s current work focuses on water management and the benefits of nature-based solutions in infrastructure. We spoke to Tom about what nature-based solutions might look like, why they’re so beneficial and how we can encourage more people to choose the more eco-friendly option. 

What are nature-based solutions?

Nature-based solutions can be defined as being interventions which are ‘inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build resilience’. They bring more diverse nature and natural features and processes into cities, landscapes and seascapes, through locally adapted, resource-efficient and systemic interventions. 

Nature-based solutions in urban environments can deliver cost savings, for instance in improving water management systems due to reduced stormwater flows and spills from combined sewer overflows (CSOs). I recently undertook a piece of work with a team of researchers for the European Commission, which explored whether and how nature-based solutions might outperform conventional or ‘hard’ infrastructure on cost grounds. Many cases give clear evidence of cost savings whilst delivering the same core outcomes as conventional systems, in both rural and urban settings. But the real beauty and opportunity with these green interventions is in how they can provide valuable co-benefits, including improved environmental quality, better health and wellbeing outcomes, and inclusive socio-economic regeneration results. 

A nature-based solution might be a rain garden, which looks like a small plot of urban greenery, maybe on a main street or in a town square. Inspiring examples include the re-greening measures, retrospectively-fitted on the University Campus, delivered in partnership with Prof Nigel Dunnett and the City Council. These designs look aesthetically pleasing and often come with benches and seating to enjoy. But in terms of a solution, they perform other important functions in collecting run-off from hard surfaces (like rain) and helping to create habitat for pollinators. The rain can run off into the garden and is soaked up by the plants naturally, rather than flowing into the drains and potentially causing flooding.

A green wall on a house

Why are nature-based solutions beneficial? 

If you look at infrastructure solutions in a simplistic way, it’s usually cheaper in the short-term at least, to put water in a concrete pipe. But if you look at the wider benefits, issues like aesthetics, climate change and biodiversity, then nature-based solutions are much more cost effective. But it means their delivery requires a bit more thought, to realise these advantages. Perhaps more importantly, in the long-term, the costs of hard infrastructure like culverts can be far greater than restoring rivers to their natural state, due to the ongoing maintenance costs and issues like blockages causing flooding.

I’m also really interested in the reductions in greenhouse gases (GHGs) that investing in nature-based solutions might deliver when created retrospectively (retrofitted) in urban landscapes or used to restore degraded ecosystems. This is an area where I hope that we can undertake more research with colleagues across the Faculty and the wider institution. 

At a time when urban nature and green spaces in particular are in such demand, the case for investment should be stronger than ever. One thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has created is a more acute, global awareness of the importance of being connected with nature. Our Head of Department Prof Anna Jorgensen, together with my colleague Dr Ross Cameron, recently gave an excellent podcast broadcast on this very topic, through the University’s Covid Examined series.

Improved research and innovation in nature-based solutions needs to be interdisciplinary, and to engage with multiple sectors of society. The issues that demand a greener approach to infrastructure design and management are becoming increasingly urgent, demanding creative approaches and multiple perspectives. I’m delighted to be working on this topic with colleagues throughout the University, including  Prof Anna Jorgensen (Landscape), Drs Karl Evans (Animal & Plant Sciences), Miguel Kanai (Geography), Andy Inch and Stephen Hincks (Urban Studies and Planning), and also many staff in Professional Services. 

The increasing pace of biodiversity loss, climate change and other issues like pollution are global problems, and we need international solutions. A particularly worrying issue for me as we leave the EU is that very recently, water pollution has worsened significantly, and very rapidly. We need to look into what the Water Framework Directive has delivered and what might change.

Why it’s challenging, and therefore interesting, is that these things don’t just automatically happen because the systems, companies and planning measures that have created the existing infrastructure networks are very resilient and embedded. As a result, even when a novel scheme attracts plaudits and investment, the ‘mainstream’ often reverts back to fairly standard and conventional systems. This may be one reason that’s why you don’t see nature-based solutions everywhere; some professions have strict, restrained methods or traditions that tend to persist. 

What can we do to encourage nature-based solutions?

Often with nature-based solutions, their creation requires a bit of inventiveness, and passion on behalf of the designers or ‘champions’. In some inspiring cases like the cities of Zurich or Melbourne, water-sensitive urban designs really do break through and become more mainstream solutions, so I’m looking at the conditions that allow those innovative approaches to become more embedded. That’s one social science element that’s particularly interesting. There’s the financial element too. A key gap in the literature has been around the broader economic arguments for and against these approaches. For instance, understanding the wider set of costs and benefits or ‘values’. We need to better understand who pays and who receives those benefits, as well as what are the governance mechanisms that we can put in place to optimise the conditions so they can flourish.

Tom Wild in nature, Sheffield

How does your role fit into these ideas?

Well, on behalf of the University I’ve just finished some work for the European Commission, to try to understand the state of the art with nature-based solutions, together with some great colleagues working across a range of disciplines. I’m also Principal Investigator for a Horizon 2020 project called CONEXUS which brings together over 30 partners in Latin American and Europe to explore nature-based solutions across a number of topics like climate change adaptation, public health and wellbeing, water management and biodiversity. Many of the colleagues I mentioned above are co-investigators, and we also have several other live projects on nature-based solutions. 

We’re delighted that our University is leading such a high-profile, globally connected and relevant project like CONEXUS, particularly with the forthcoming COP26 conference being held in the UK, and several vital dialogues taking place around the world on biodiversity loss. 

The CONEXUS project aims to improve the shared contextualised knowledge needed to support cities and communities to co-create nature-based solutions, and to restore urban ecosystems. Our ultimate goal is to help drive a step-change in urban policy and practice in Europe and Latin America, to ensure the wider uptake of these novel approaches, and to achieve faster progress by working together on shared challenges.

The project, with a value of €5m, will last four years and its ‘kick-off’ event took place (online) on 21-23rd September, attracting around one-hundred delegates from around the world. The project is a collaboration across the public, private, not-for profit and research sectors. It includes local authorities and regional governments in Bogotá (Colombia), São Paulo (Brazil), Santiago (Chile), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Lisbon (Portugal), Barcelona (Spain), Turin (Italy).


Find out more about Tom’s work and the CONEXUS project >

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