Taking Building with Nature from science to implementation

Over many years, the Building with Nature (BwN) project has built up a major collection of data, research results and publications on the use of Nature Based Solutions for climate resilience. In some cases, a specific NBS has repeatedly proven its success. But gaining recognition of the evidence base for NBS is still more challenging than for proven concrete structures. We brought two senior scientists together for an informal discussion on what it takes to transition BwN and NBS from the phase of “research project” to “standard practice”.

Long before the EU InterReg NSR Building with Nature project started, the Netherlands was already working with nature to confront the threat and impact of coastal and river flood events. River Management expert at Rijkswaterstaat, and teacher and researcher at TU Delft, Ralph Schielen has spent some 20 years studying and teaching the behaviour of rivers and flood management in the Netherlands.

His discussion partner, University of Dundee Professor and Senior Research Fellow Chris Spray, has had a long career studying river catchment ecosystems, and he is a firm advocate of Natural Flood Management (NFM). In collaboration with the Tweed Forum, he has recently worked on NFM measures for the Eddleston Water, which is a major catchment case study in the InterReg NSR BwN project.

Some way to go

“Room for the River, or RftR, is already widely accepted,” says Ralph Schielen. “The research and pilot projects are long behind us, and the concept has been proven during flood events. RftR is today generally accepted as an effective flood control measure in the Rhine delta landscape, with significant cultural, ecosystem and biodiversity benefits between high water events. The final RftR project was completed in March 2019, bringing the total spend to EUR 2.3 billion.”

So, the business case is clear for such projects? Ralph: “Not as clear as it should be. Initially we missed the ‘big picture’- we reserved no budget for baseline and post-intervention environmental monitoring, nor did we consider the value of the generated ecosystem services. We therefore lack a detailed model for comparing the full impact of an NBS with more traditional interventions. We know empirically that the NBS is better – everyone agrees – but we can’t yet quantify this.”

Chris Spray echoes this view. “We are still building the evidence that an NBS really works against the tangible threat, and that there are quantifiable benefits from ecosystem services to be accounted for in the business case. Flood risk appraisal in Scotland is still weighted toward traditional, and often inflexible control measures designed to withstand events with a probability of recurring within up to 200 years. Perhaps we need to take a more flexible approach incorporating NBS measures and designing for more frequent, say 80-year events, whilst also recognising a host of other ecosystem benefits that we need to quantify. Of course, this means changing the assessment processes and culture, so we still have some way to go.”

The big picture

Both agree that an NBS has a greater chance of stakeholder and decision-maker acceptance when it is assessed within the ‘big picture’ – not simply the local or immediate physical response to a threat, but also the effect and benefits at regional, national and even international level.

Ralph Schielen points out that every country has signed up for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations. “In the Netherlands, the SDG contribution from BwN coastal defence measures is already quantified. To achieve the same with our fluvial flood defence measures, we need to identify acceptable indicators.”

In Scotland, Chris Spray says they are taking a pragmatic approach. “We are in a process of ‘Learning by Doing’. However, with the complex governance, financial and stakeholder situation in Scotland, learning by doing can be highly effective, but it presents its own challenges – something that we see both within a country and across the Building with Nature partnership.”

Ralph Schielen: “That’s the nature of InterReg BwN projects. Authority, funding, users, communities and science are all different groups, and they also vary from country to country. We have also had to learn by doing. Early on, in a field visit to a smaller Swedish catchment, we realised how uniquely complex every situation is. These projects are better implemented within an integrated view of the entire catchment.”

Chris Spray: “One interesting indicator for assessment of NBS is its potential contribution to the ‘Natural Capital’ of the catchment. Together with consultants Mott McDonald we are reviewing potential assessment tools, and how to create a link between evidence and process for potential interventions. This way we can assign values to the many ecosystem services resulting from an NBS, such as gain in biodiversity, which should be considered when appraising options for flood schemes.”

Technical Readiness Level

Are we dealing with the EU-identified gap between innovators and end users regarding solutions for climate adaptation?

Within the EU BRIGAID project, Technical Readiness Level (TRL) is an assessment framework intended to certify climate resilience innovations for market uptake. Just three Nature Based Solutions are presently listed for river floods, and none has yet gone beyond the ‘valley of death’ (see figure).

BwN Valley of death

Chris Spray: “I tested the BRIGAID tool using the combined NFM measures of Eddleston but found that the binary choices did not work well with this case. Perhaps it is better suited to certification of individual NBSs, such as flood storage ponds or leaky log structures, rather than complete ecosystem service evaluation. However, it’s an interesting tool that may in future help with building a comprehensive business case for an NBS.”

Ralph Schielen adds: “The BRIGAID site visualises the TRL concept and process well, and I find it a very promising tool indeed. I also tested the tool using an RftR scenario. Like Chris, I found it difficult to make answers fit the questions, and yet our TRL for RftR must already be high, because we already use it extensively. So, would a TRL certification be any help to making RftR ‘mainstream’? I’m not sure, but I do see potential in coupling assessment frameworks, SDGs and TRLs. Although we never discussed TRL during the InterReg BwN project, I like the idea, however I think it needs to mature.”

Positive public climate for BwN

NBS is a hot topic in the UK today, according to Chris Spray. “Interest in the country’s post-2019 ‘Green Recovery’ has taken off in the last six months. There’s lots of publicity, and Eddleston is seen as a landmark case study. I’m optimistic about the future of BwN in the UK.”

Ralph Schielen is equally positive. “Even smaller interventions are now being undertaken with NBS. This reflects the increasing public appreciation of Building with Nature. Hopefully, the European Green Deal will also help accelerate the adoption of NBS across Europe.”

air photo Milkiston meander looking n to lake wood
Milkiston meander