Nature-Based Approaches to Urban Shoreline Protection

BioHabitats:Over the last 70 years, the world’s urban population has increased nearly six-fold, and much of that urbanization has occurred along coastlines. Today, nearly 40% of the world’s population lives in coastal areas, and at least 600 million of those people live on land that is less than 10 meters above sea level. Meanwhile, global mean sea level continues to rise at an accelerating rate and hurricanes are becoming increasingly destructive.

Once the domain of “what if?” discussions, the risks associated with flooding, erosion, subsidence, and saltwater intrusion have become somber “when?” “how much?” and “how bad?” realities. The irony is that all of that coastal development, including the armoring of its edges, the draining of its wetlands, and the piping and channelization of its inland waterways, has further degraded the very ecosystems that might otherwise naturally protect it. These ecosystems, by their very nature, equitably provide benefits like habitat, water quality improvement, heat island mitigation, economic opportunity, and important forms of recreation and education.

As the world continues to awaken to the realities of a changing climate, many coastal communities, and even large government agencies, are beginning to rethink or eschew traditional, “hard engineered” coastal protection solutions and turn instead to approaches grounded in ecology and place. These approaches integrate the protection, restoration, or emulation of natural coastal ecosystems like dunes, mangroves, reefs, and wetlands in ways that lead to lasting resilience.

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