What is natural infrastructure?
Infrastructure is more than roads and pipes; it is also everything from forests, which purify our drinking water, to river floodplains, which reduce damage to homes downstream during floods, to marshes, which protect coastlines from storms.
Natural infrastructure uses natural processes and ecosystem services to support engineering objectives, such as reducing flood damages or securing safe and ample water supplies. Examples of natural infrastructure include marshes and dunes that protect coastal property and infrastructure against storms and erosion, as well as forests and wetlands that reduce river flooding and purify water for downstream communities.
Natural infrastructure can play a critical role in enhancing the resilience of human and ecological systems in a changing world (e.g., natural hazards and climate change). Evidence suggests that natural infrastructure approaches can be equally or more cost-effective than conventional structural approaches for flood risk reduction in some situations. Unlike conventional infrastructure, natural infrastructure often has the capacity to recover from extreme weather- and climate-related hazards and self-adjust to ongoing environmental changes.
Examples of natural infrastructure include:
Levee setbacks combine the strength of traditional infrastructure with the genius of natural infrastructure. While traditional levees are placed directly next to a river, levee setbacks are placed further from the river, with space for a natural flood plain to form between the river and levee. They reduce flooding in towns and cities both upstream and downstream by allowing the water to spread out over a greater area.
When placed alongside bodies of water, such as lakes and oceans, dunes provide numerous co-benefits. They absorb “wave action” or the force of the waves that could otherwise cause erosion and damage to property, and naturally reduce flooding and storm surges. They also provide habitat for animals, including sea birds and turtles.
Natural shorelines are rocky stretches of shore that are installed to mimic a natural shoreline. They reduce wave action, prevent storm surges, and serve as habitat and convenient spots for recreation.