THE BLOG
11/06/2012 05:27 pm ET | Updated Jan 06, 2013

Natural Solutions Are Part of the Solution to Sandy's Challenges

There has been much discussion of Sandy, both of the storm's causes and its devastating impacts on people's lives, our communities, and the economy.

If there is a silver lining to the storm, it is the discussion it has sparked around the vulnerability of our infrastructure and the need to re-build it better. Nature is changing the game. Will we build smartly or fail to seize the opportunities that more resilient "natural" infrastructure present?

Governments, environmental organizations, businesses and investors are collaborating to ensure that natural infrastructure is incorporated into development plans around the globe. These collaborations -- between unlikely bedfellows at times -- are based on the emerging awareness that nature's technology can outperform traditional man-made solutions.

Take protecting coastlines against storm surges. Our default response to a storm like Sandy might be to build bigger sea-walls and lay more underground pipes. In some cases, and in some places, these structures may be necessary. However, natural systems, such as wetlands, sea-grass beds, and oyster reefs should also play an important role. Such ecosystems soak up floodwaters, reduce erosion, and minimize the intensity of waves. And unlike permanent, concrete solutions, nature can adapt to changing conditions.

Better still, natural infrastructure can be cheaper and more effective than man-made solutions and provide numerous co-benefits: cleaner water, habitat for birds and fish, areas for recreation, reduced carbon emissions and the possibility to grow more local food.

Philadelphia is one city taking this message to heart. Like many cities, Philadelphia has been battling a problem with stormwater management. During heavy storms, water running off rooftops and roads overwhelms the city's aging sewer systems, dumping unsanitary water into local waterways and basements, and -- as we saw in New York City -- overwhelming power sub-stations and other critical infrastructure. Stormwater problems and the resulting sewer overflows are a major source of river pollution around Philadelphia, and elsewhere around the world.

Philadelphia's "Green City, Clean Waters" program tackles this problem by replacing impervious grey infrastructure with natural alternatives: green roofs; blue roofs that hold large quantities of water for long periods of time; tree-lined streets and side walk planters; new and restored wetlands; rain gardens; porous pavement; and creek-side restoration. These green areas either absorb water or help it to flow at a more manageable rate rather than water hitting concrete and racing to the sewage system.

Such green infrastructure also provides many co-benefits, from nicer streets and cooler buildings, to parks for recreation. More importantly, this movement from grey to green is projected to save Philadelphia billions in sewer upgrade costs through its Green City, Clean Waters plan. Officials estimate that $2 billion of green infrastructure will achieve the same storm-water management outcomes as many times that amount of money in gray infrastructure. With the leadership of Philadelphia's Mayor Michael Nutter and Water Commissioner Howard Neukrug, the implementation of the Green City Clean Waters will lead to a world-class example of the many benefits of natural infrastructure in an urban setting.

So how do we pay for this smarter infrastructure? The Natural Infrastructure Innovative Financing Lab, a partnership among The Nature Conservancy, EKO Asset Management Partners, and the Natural Resources Defense Council funded by the Rockefeller Foundation working to enable both public and private financing of natural storm-water solutions. We anticipate that private investors will be eager to fund these opportunities as they pursue stable, long-term financial returns together with meaningful environmental and social benefits.

Many other cities have also begun to experiment with the use of green versus gray infrastructure to solve their sewage, stormwater, and other infrastructure challenges. In fact, New York City is a leader in green infrastructure planning. The city plans to spend some $1.5-2 billion over the next 20 years to maintain ecosystems in its watershed. These natural solutions could save an estimated $5-10 billion of construction and maintenance costs to build a new drinking water treatment plant.

The reconstruction required by Sandy presents the opportunity right now to implement natural infrastructure solutions at scale. Multi-stakeholder partnerships are poised to accelerate the deployment of better green infrastructure as part of, and in partnership with, government action. Our work with Philadelphia demonstrates that private capital is interested in helping to finance more adaptive, resilient and efficient infrastructure. Let's bring a portfolio of natural solutions to the table with government, non-profits and investors to build a better future for our communities.