Most Americans have personally experienced a federally declared, weather-related disaster in the last decade. In fact, the number is 96 percent of the population. Both science and personal testimonies indicate that extreme weather events are increasing in severity and frequency. Naturally Resilient Communities is an interactive website that allows users to explore successful examples of nature-based solutions to reduce risks and re-imagine a resilient and connected future for their own communities.

The guide, launched in 2017, provides case studies and funding suggestions for urban planners interested in learning how to implement specific ecosystem-based strategies that address pervasive challenges such as flooding, sea level rise and coastal erosion.

Naturally Resilient Communities is a partnership between the American Planning Association, the American Society of Civil Engineers, Association of State Floodplain Managers, the Environmental and Water Resources Institute, the National Association of Counties, The Nature Conservancy and Sasaki Associates, with funding from the Kresge Foundation.

river floodplain in a forest

What are nature-based solutions?

Nature-based solutions, according to the site, are strategies that “use natural systems, mimic natural processes or work in tandem with traditional approaches to address specific hazards.” Ideally less expensive and destructive than “over-engineered” infrastructure, such as concrete sea walls, natural solutions protect and restore ecosystems that effectively filter and redirect storm water while providing additional benefits to nearby communities.

For example, a healthy coastal marsh can reduce storm waves by up to 50 percent, and therefore provides a protective buffer for homes, businesses and infrastructure along the coast. In addition, marshes are an important habitat for birds, fish and other wildlife and can be used for recreational biking and walking trails. In turn, access to urban parks increases property values. It’s a win-win-win for the community, nature and the economy.

“Investing in nature is both a viable way to adapt to climate change and a good way for the community to create the kind of future they want to live in,” Nate Woiwode of The Nature Conservancy told Inhabitat in an interview. “It is smart investing across the board.”

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Naturally Resilient Communities provides more than 20 suggestions of natural solutions and 30 case studies from cities and towns that successfully use them. The target audience is urban and rural planners or decision makers and the teams that support them. The guide has been utilized throughout North America and the world to engage residents and visualize smart climate action that takes nature and communities’ needs into account.

Other examples of solutions include preserving floodplains and upstream watersheds, rather than paving and developing within feet of a river. Healthy river ecosystems allow space for natural, upstream flooding in times of heavy rain and reduce catastrophic flooding in urban areas downstream.

The online tool allows users to specify and filter their searches based on hazard, region, type of community (eg. rural or urban) and implementation price range. Users can click on various solutions displayed on a visual coastal landscape graphic to learn more about the benefits.

Nature-based solutions include:

  • Parks and preserves
  • Restoration of marsh, reef, sea grass, beach or mangroves
  • Relocation of homes and businesses in flood-prone areas
  • Flood bypass
  • Horizontal levees
  • Flood water detention basins
  • Trees and vegetation throughout streets, parking lots or roofs
  • Bioswales
  • Rain gardens

Horizontal levees, for example, integrate marsh land with a below-ground concrete wall. This alternate approach to a traditional concrete wall provides a natural buffer zone, reduces the size, cost and maintenance of the hard structure and provides natural habitat with recreational opportunities, such as birding trails.

grassy park with view of Brooklyn Bridge

The partnership behind the online tool hopes that by making the benefits clear and accessible, municipalities will feel empowered and motivated to integrate nature into their adaptation and development plans. Green spaces build a sense of community, slow down and redirect storm water, improve water and air quality, sequester carbon and reduce heat radiating from concrete during hot summers. Natural habitats provide shelter for a variety of species, increasing biodiversity, ecotourism and commercially important fisheries.

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Numerous studies also indicate a profoundly positive psychological impact of nature and access to green spaces, including increased physical activity and health. One study from California indicated that 90 percent of minor crimes occurred in places where residents had no access to vegetated areas.

Facing both rising urgency and increasing public support, cities and towns are interested in implementing sustainability measures but almost always lack information and funding. In addition to case studies and links for more resources, the online tool also provides suggestions for different funding strategies.

“Counties are on the front lines of emergency response and preparedness,” said Sally Clark, president of the National Association of Counties, in a press release. “And we’re pursuing forward-thinking measures to mitigate risk and foster local resiliency. The Naturally Resilient Communities project helps us leverage natural and other resources to make our neighborhoods safer and more secure.”

+ Naturally Resilient Communities

Images via Robert Jones, Lubos Houska and Free Photos