- Date: February 24, 2020
- Author: Alison Henry
In the face of a changing climate and the decline of the diversity of life on Earth, we need to rethink the way we plan and build our infrastructure—the roads that connect us; the energy grids that power our homes and businesses; and all of the other facilities we construct around the world to meet our daily needs.
In the 1800s and 1900s in Europe and the US, plans for building new infrastructure rarely took the full complexities—and benefits—of nature into account. In fact, that approach is still seen in much of the new infrastructure investment today in many countries around the world. Vast swaths of intact natural habitat and the highly valuable resources and services provided by those wild places fell to the wayside in favor of economic gain and development. And that disregard for the environment contributed to the climate crisis we’re now facing.
But with more than 75% of the infrastructure that we’ll need by 2050 still not yet built, we can and must rethink our approach to development—what it looks like, what it’s delivering, and how it’s giving us what we need. So, what should a new, more sustainable and climate-resilient approach look like?
For starters, it’s much easier to design for both people and nature from the beginning rather than to step in later when it’s only possible to make small changes with moderate to little impact. We need to account for the benefits provided by nature across an entire landscape before we spend a single dollar building large infrastructure.
Let’s say there’s a need for a new road by a river that provides water for people downstream. Confirming the route that the road will follow is just one step. Conditions in the larger surrounding area matter, too. What if there’s deforestation upstream? Erosion and a flash flood could damage the road, making the project financially unviable. What if the road design cuts through the main route for moose to access increasingly scarce water, endangering both drivers and the animals? Accounting for the whole environment and the many ways it supports people from the start would allow planners to identify and avoid costly impacts like this from the start rather than spend time and money repairing a new road.
By having a better understanding at the landscape scale of how natural habitat functions and what benefits it provides people and wildlife, we can influence policy and planning for a better design. This will make the big investments we make in large-scale infrastructure much more durable to increasingly extreme weather patterns, more useful for people, and less harmful to wildlife.
WWF works with governments and developers in the planning phase of projects to help understand the current state of their natural spaces—things like how a habitat functions now and will need to function in a future of growing climate change; where wildlife lives and what it needs; where forests can help supply clean water; and where carbon is stored. That information helps planners and decision-makers make better decisions that not only benefit people but nature, too.