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A general view of Woodberry Wetlands in the Borough of Hackney on April 28, 2016 in London, England. (Rob Stothard/Getty Images)
A general view of Woodberry Wetlands in the Borough of Hackney on April 28, 2016 in London, England. (Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

Roy Brooke

That wetland isn’t just pretty – it’s quantifiable infrastructure Add to ...

Roy Brooke is owner of Brooke & Associates, a multidisciplinary consulting firm based in Victoria. He is currently involved in an initiative to support municipalities in integrating natural assets into core business strategies.

Nature can be a handy thing for humans to have around. And, sometimes, when we simply get out of its way and let it do its job, the results can be astounding.

Take disaster risks, for example. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which claimed an estimated 230,000 lives, evidence accumulated that where coastal mangrove swamps were least degraded, disaster impacts were often less severe because healthy swamps absorbed the waves’ wrath. In hindsight, the findings are common sense: A wide swath of mangroves between a village and the ocean offers better protection than a narrow or non-existent shield.

Researchers made similar findings after Hurricane Sandy in 2012: Healthy marshes, beaches, dunes, oyster reefs and flood plains provide important natural barriers against storm surges and flooding risks. This makes them a complement to – or, in some cases, a replacement for – engineered infrastructure, with two bonuses: There is no capital cost to leaving nature alone, and it offers a multitude of benefits besides protecting coastal communities.

These findings are gaining attention and adherents. Last fall, the White House directed federal agencies to incorporate the value of natural infrastructure and ecosystem services into planning and decision making, citing flood protection, clean water supply and the ability to forgo expensive machinery to get the same benefit.

The private sector is also following the trend, as companies realize that their very existence can rely on healthy natural systems. A company that manufactures drinks is only as viable as its water source, and shareholders are at lower risk when supply chains are secure. Dow Chemical recently established the goal of creating $1-billion (U.S.) in value through cost savings or new cash flow using much the same approach as the White House – quantifying the value of services provided by nature and considering natural capital in large capital expenditures and investments. The practice is set to expand; an initiative was launched recently to provide all corporations a platform and framework to measure and manage natural capital in the same way that ISO standards and accounting principles guide other business processes.

Canadian municipalities also offer insights into changing perceptions of nature as infrastructure. Historically, engineering solutions have been the default option for providing required municipal services. Need clean drinking water? Build a purification plant. Need to avoid flooding? Build storm water pipes. Now, a growing number of municipalities are experimenting with approaches that let nature – forests, foreshores, wetlands, for example – do the same thing, often at a lower cost.

The town of Gibsons, B.C., has gone as far as to declare nature its most important asset, giving it the same infrastructure standing in municipal books as roads and bridges and deliberately using forests and foreshores as wallet-friendly alternatives to constructing assets that need to be maintained each year. Other Canadian municipalities are lining up to pilot similar approaches.

People do not build infrastructure for its own sake, but to provide the services they require. Across countries and sectors, there is a growing recognition that nature can provide vital services equivalent to those from engineered assets. Traditionally, the case for protecting and managing nature had to be made in terms of its intrinsic value or beauty, or through abstract notions that a tree or river is “worth” a certain amount. New tools to precisely measure the value of services from nature can also help to bring it into the heart of organizational decision making. In a few years, it will seem strange that things have not always been done this way.

Where nature provides equivalent services to engineered infrastructure, it should be accorded at least similar management and protection. Much can be done to support and accelerate the trends under way. The 2016 federal budget proposes to invest $2-billion to improve water distribution and treatment infrastructure. In the stroke of a pen, the federal government could make nature restoration and management projects eligible for funding. As another example, the Public Sector Accounting Board does not require public-sector bodies to consider nature as an asset – perhaps because when the rules were written, there was no basis for doing so. Now there is, and changes must be explored.

Nature is far more than something to look at. It provides us everything we need to live, if only we let it. We must act accordingly.

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