Designing better projects for a changing climate

May 13, 2016 | News & Views, What's New

Designing better projects for a changing climate

Vegetated dunes provide protection
from storm waves and high tides
is one example of a building
with nature project. (S.Cunniff)
Worldwide, densely populated and economically-productive, low-lying coastal areas are experiencing the effects of accelerated sea level rise, erosion and flooding caused by more severe and frequent storms. They face existential threats and we must do more to incorporate climate adaptation into projects affecting these coastal areas and inland floodplains. The good news is that innovative approaches exist to align economic development and security, disaster resilience and environmental sustainability. Embracing three exemplars-all compatible with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and similar state planning requirements-would improve problem-solving and climate adaptation decision making. These include building with nature, crowd co-design and decision making under deep uncertainty.
The “Building with Nature” design philosophy was created by the EcoShape Consortium, specifically for hydraulic engineering ecologists, engineers, planners and designers to integrate “infrastructure, nature and society in new or alternative forms of engineering that meet the global need for intelligent and sustainable solutions.” By using natural elements such as wind, currents, flora and fauna in the design of hydraulic engineering solutions, Building with Nature designs incorporate benefits for nature, recreation and the economy.
Crowd co-design supports planning and decision making by bringing in citizens to equitably participate in the creation of their own futures. Key attributes include involving a wider scale of stakeholders in more opportunities to help identify environmental, social and institutional constraints; determine the objectives and actions for project planning; and help explore viable solutions. The concept is to tap into large, diverse crowds multiple times throughout the planning process to gather independent opinions, provide more insights and information, and generate better ideas than would be created solely by experts. This approach is especially important for capturing input from disadvantaged communities, who often live in the most flood prone areas. The end results are often multi-objective projects that enjoy greater support, more resources and faster project implementation.

Restoring coastal wetlands to absorb
flood waters and attenuate medium-
sized waves can be a building
with nature solution. (S.Cunniff)
Decision-making under deep uncertainty helps to address the fundamental problem of how, what and when to consider climate change’s impacts, when those impacts are not fully knowable. Instead of using probability analyses based on past conditions, this approach relies on developing and considering multiple, plausible future scenarios. It requires disclosure of expected performance under each scenario, description of uncertainties, and identification of adaptive strategies.Each of these methods embodies the concepts established by NEPA “to use all practicable means and measures… in a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.” (Emphasis added).
Our nation’s floodplains, whether they are coastal or riparian, are subject to decisions made by property owners, developers, public land managers, regulators and elected officials. Using these three approaches will help bring together perspectives to unify our approach to managing risk, environmental resources and economic development.
In a world that needs to get serious about coping with the impacts of a changing climate, these approaches will help ensure better projects are realized faster.

Written by Shannon E. Cunniff, Deputy Director, Water Program, Environmental Defense Fund