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Infrastructure blog

How policy can unlock the potential of nature-positive infrastructure

04 March 2024

Governments play an essential role in how we plan and deliver infrastructure, writes Dr Kerry Bobbins.

How policy can unlock the potential of nature-positive infrastructure
Nature-positive infrastructure, like roof gardens, can improve mental and physical health. Image credit: Shutterstock

Today is World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development – a chance to celebrate the contributions of engineers to create a better world for people and the planet.

The day also marks a moment to reflect on governments' role in boosting the engineering capacity the world needs to deliver on infrastructure and social needs.

Today, we're taking a look at how policy can enable engineers to work in harmony with nature – the theme of ICE President Anusha Shah’s year.

What is nature-positive infrastructure?

Nature-positive infrastructure is a catch-all term for infrastructure that’s designed and implemented with nature in mind.

Nature is the untouched land, individual trees, planted landscapes, or purposefully designed solutions to deliver on specific service needs.

There’s a wide breadth of engineering solutions that help nature thrive. These include:

  • no-build – leasing or sharing infrastructure, blue-green infrastructure, and repurposing infrastructure
  • low-build – green infrastructure or nature-based solutions, and circular economy
  • built interventions – green infrastructure and smart infrastructure

Designing and delivering with nature in mind provides supporting benefits to help people and the planet thrive. Supporting outcomes include well-being, sustainability, and climate mitigation and adaptation.

Nature-based solutions vs a nature-positive approach

Nature-based solutions are interventions that harness benefits of the environment to help deliver infrastructure services.

Nature-positive infrastructure is the wider approach followed by governments and other stakeholders to prioritise services provided by the environment.

The implications of infrastructure on people and nature are considered in greater detail.

That said, there’s no silver bullet when implementing any one engineering solution to support nature-positive infrastructure.

Rather, the infrastructure needs and context will determine which approach is best to follow.

How does nature-positive challenge traditional approaches to infrastructure?

Infrastructure networks are typically planned and managed at national and regional levels of government.

Following a nature-positive approach encourages governments and other stakeholders to think and do things differently.

This can present a barrier to its use for three reasons:

1. Infrastructure is grey

Infrastructure is typically considered to be constructed, engineered, and human-made.

Using a wider range of engineering solutions, such as no or low build, can challenge how governments and other stakeholders work.

For example, implementing a re-naturalised stream instead of a concrete-lined channel requires different skills, materials, and maintenance requirements.

2. Increased risk has real implications

Engineering solutions are selected based on their infrastructural, financial, and societal risks.

Risk is an effective measure for ensuring infrastructure is delivered safely and sustainably.

It also ensures it continues to provide services over an asset’s workable lifetime.

Selecting a different engineering solution introduces risk due to the solution’s approach, materials, and functionality.

Solutions must be tried and tested in the short and long term to ensure they can deliver a reliable service.

3. Green skills are key

Supporting nature requires a wider skillset to ensure infrastructure is designed and implemented to deliver a reliable service supporting people and the planet.

Incorporating inputs from environmental scientists, landscape architects, conservation experts, and hydrologists, among others, at the start of the planning or design process is critical for ensuring nature thrives.

Overcoming these barriers requires new guidelines, evidence, supporting strategic frameworks, and skillsets.

Policy and its role in supporting nature-positive infrastructure

The ICE has already established the role of policy in delivering nature-positive infrastructure at the programme or project scale, outlining how it can create influential change.

Applying a nature-positive approach will need a joint policy effort to set up robust structures and processes for creating new guidelines, gathering evidence, creating supporting strategic frameworks and procuring skillsets.

Wales’s long-term road strategy is an example of a policy intervention that unlocks a nature-positive approach. New roads can only be developed if they’re sustainable and climate-friendly.

Wales' transport strategy prioritises active travel and other sustainable means of transport. Image credit: Shutterstock
Wales' transport strategy prioritises active travel and other sustainable means of transport. Image credit: Shutterstock

Australia has developed an assessment framework for infrastructure projects outlining the need to have multiple options for delivering on infrastructure services, including a ‘do minimum’ approach.

The need to set out a range of options encourages the use of different engineering solutions.

Applying a nature-positive approach also involves considering all the technical, financial, and implementation requirements upfront.

In Singapore, policy has been used to scale up nature-positive infrastructure effectively using planning frameworks and policy initiatives such as the Green Towns Program started by the Housing and Development Board (HDB).

It’s ensured that the necessary technical knowledge, tools, and skills are procured to support changes in policy and practice.

All these examples showcase how policy can mainstream nature-positive infrastructure using strategic frameworks.

How can government and industry use policy to unlock nature-positive infrastructure?

Effectively delivering a nature-positive approach starts with identifying it as a core national, regional, or city objective.

Pairing this with a robust picture of needs is essential in creating a strategic framework to help deliver a wider set of engineering solutions.

The ICE-led Enabling Better Infrastructure (EBI) programme outlines eight principles for helping government and industry set up robust policies to support a nature-positive objective.

EBI also sets out three steps to build a strategic framework:

  • Step 1 – set objectives and guidelines supporting nature-positive outcomes.
  • Step 2 – assess infrastructure service needs and a wider range of no- or low-build options to deliver on them.
  • Step 3 – develop a strategic plan setting which processes need to be put in place, how risk will be managed, and how the skills gap will be overcome.

Learn more about the EBI programme and how it helps government and industry meet people's needs.

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  • Dr Kerry Bobbins, head of Enabling Better Infrastructure programme at ICE