Amid the high dudgeon of the U.S. presidential election season, it is hard to keep my rosy-colored glasses affixed. But, there it is, in front of me—a ray of hope. And it shines on infrastructure.
Yes, infrastructure—perhaps the least emotionally inspiring public issue imaginable. Maybe that is precisely why it has gotten a “thumbs up” across the political spectrum as a “must” for congressional action without triggering passionate rhetoric and ideological chasms.
This is good news for conservation. Beyond the obvious benefits of roads without potholes and water pipes without leaks, investing in infrastructure can benefit both people and nature.
Both Democrats and Republicans talk about the need for infrastructure investment. The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. 16th globally in overall infrastructure quality. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives U.S. infrastructure failing grades—a D minus for levees, a D for water and wastewater systems, a D for dams. Infrastructure for parks and recreation fares barely any better—with a C-minus at a time when burgeoning amounts of research show strong linkages between nature and health. And the estimated price tag to fix all this comes to over $3.3 trillion by 2020. In short, we face an infrastructure crisis.
But, as the Chinese proverb reminds us, in crisis lies opportunity.
In the case of infrastructure, seizing this opportunity means thinking beyond the price tag. It means thinking about the future—not just replicating the past. It means, even, rethinking just what kind of infrastructure to invest in. It means, in part, thinking about nature’s solutions.
So what is the Holy Grail of improvement? We seek better, smarter cost-effective solutions that benefit the economy, environment and communities. And that means looking at how nature can help.
Natural systems can provide basic services like water storage, storm buffering, or water filtration to communities, businesses and residences. The benefits are not hypothetical.
In two Nature Conservancy projects to restore oyster reefs along the Alabama coastline, we found these reefs could provide over a 50 percent reduction in wave height—meaning lower risks to coastal communities from extreme storms.
Or consider our cities. City infrastructure to manage stormwater is aging and inadequate. The systems are so bad that 772 cities face legal action by the Environmental Protection Agency to fix the problems. But fixing the problems could cost $100 billion or more. And here’s where nature can help. A paved city block results in five times more stormwater runoff than a forest. We cannot turn cities into forests—but we can put trees and natural landscaping back into cities to help manage stormwater—at lower costs and bringing other benefits like habitat for birds or open spaces for outdoor recreation.