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How nature-based infrastructure builds transportation resilience to climate change

How nature-based infrastructure builds transportation resilience to climate change
Nov 14, 2023

This article was originally published August 2021.

To help achieve U.S. climate goals, President Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) of 2021, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022. Both provide historic investments in infrastructure and climate action, including nature-based solutions to address critical challenges.

In order to maximize their eligibility for available funding opportunities, transportation agencies and departments can integrate nature-based resilience solutions into their transportation planning. For example, the Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-saving Transportation (PROTECT) program offers substantial support for resilience projects, including those that leverage nature-based solutions.

What are nature-based solutions and how do you get started?

Nature-based solutions utilize plants, soils, and other natural features to shield communities and ecosystems from extreme weather. Barrier islands, for instance, are not just tourist attractions but also serve as natural buffers, with the coastal natural infrastructure absorbing storm surges to protect coastal communities.

Some agencies may be new to nature-based solutions, or they may not know how to create a resilience plan that evaluates these along with other more traditional infrastructure projects. Resources exist to help you get started including our overview of key steps for state departments of transportation to begin to incorporate climate risk into their work.

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) published a Resilience Plan in 2022 as a framework for how the agency will integrate resilience into its decision-making processes. This includes exploring the use of nature-based solutions as an option for achieving transportation resilience. To support this effort, ICF is working with VDOT to identify effective nature-based solutions and understand how these solutions can support VDOT’s resilience goals through a literature review and a pilot nature-based solution project.

Additionally, resources like the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) "Nature-Based Solutions for Coastal Highway Resilience: An Implementation Guide" prepared for FHWA by ICF, is another good example of how transportation leaders can turn visions of resilience into well-designed plans of action. ICF is also currently supporting FHWA with the development of a companion implementation guide for the riverine environment. These guides, alongside practical experience from pilot projects, create a robust foundation for agencies to confidently incorporate nature-based solutions into their planning and implementation processes.

Why nature-based solutions?

Nature-based solutions are effective at protecting the environment, but they also offer a variety of other benefits, from reduced risk of infrastructure damage in flood events to beautiful recreation spaces or higher water quality that can improve public health.

In addition to reducing climate risk, nature-based solutions offer a host of other mitigation and adaptation benefits, such as carbon removal through forest management, forest restoration and conservation, urban tree planting, coastal habitat restoration, and climate-smart agriculture.

Nature-based solutions often cost less than other mitigation and adaptation strategies, particularly if they reduce maintenance or replacement costs of infrastructure over time.

As Michael Regan, Administrator of the EPA, told NPR, “I think when you look at those billions of dollars for climate resilience, not only is it focused on bridges and roads, it's also focused on natural, resilient measures that we can put in place with our lakes, our streams, our rivers to prevent erosion and to have these water bodies better protected from what we know to be the extreme impacts of climate change.”

How can the Nature-Based Solutions Implementation Guide help?

Resources like the FHWA Implementation Guide serve to equip transportation practitioners with the information they need to make the case for exploring investment in nature-based solutions, whether to protect native fish or their bottom line.

Once practitioners are ready to explore options, the guide meets them where they are—it mirrors the steps of the project development and delivery process.

Organized in the order these questions typically arise, the guide helps practitioners:

  • Consider nature-based solutions in the planning process.
  • Conduct a site assessment to determine whether nature-based solutions are appropriate.
  • Incorporate key engineering and ecological design considerations, permitting approaches, construction considerations, and monitoring and maintenance strategies.

In addition, detailed in the appendices are tools that practitioners can use for site characterization, to decide between different nature-based solutions, and to measure performance. It also includes links to additional resources and tools.

Learning from examples

Nature-based solutions aren’t new—which means there are many case studies of these measures in practice.

  • Not sure how to assess your stretch of highway to determine which solutions might be a fit? The guide will walk you through it, from characterizing your site to performing that assessment, to building a team with engineers and scientists to hammer out project design, to monitoring and managing performance once construction is done.
  • Interested in the idea of using a beautiful marsh to naturally improve water quality under a bridge? Look at the case study about a $25,000 Teaching Marsh in Gloucester Point, VA.
  • Don’t know where to start, and lost among the “nature-based” and “resilience” jargon? Definitions and design schematics will clear it up.

Now is the time to review the projects in your transportation improvement program to determine where there are opportunities to bolster resilience. Start planning for new resilience projects you have been putting off due to lack of funding. Embark on a vulnerability analysis and adaptation and resilience plan so you can map out the steps you will need to take in the near- and long-term to protect your communities. Throughout your climate resilience planning efforts, consider how nature-based solutions can be used to improve your resilience.

As extreme weather fueled by climate change increases in the coming decades, it’s important to invest in resilience before the worst impacts of climate change occur. If you’re trying to figure out how to weave resilience throughout the infrastructure planning of your organization, guides like these are prepared to get you started and carry you across the finish line. Now is the time to take advantage of existing funding opportunities to turn your community’s resilience vision into a reality.

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Meet the authors
  1. Susan Asam, Vice President, Climate Planning + ICF Climate Center Senior Fellow

    Susan Asam has over 20 years of experience evaluating the physical impacts of climate change on infrastructure, water resources, and sensitive ecosystems; developing adaptation strategies; planning and facilitating meetings; and developing technical documents and outreach products to translate climate information for use by a wide variety of audiences. View bio

  2. Brenda Dix, Director, Climate Resilience

    Brenda evaluates the physical impacts of climate change and extreme weather on infrastructure systems and develops comprehensive adaptation plans to address identified risks. View bio

  3. Tessa Artruc

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