New guide helps ensure infrastructure works for people—and the planet

Aerial view of a bridge filled with vegetation over a multi-lane highway

A Playbook for Nature-Positive Infrastructure Development

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Infrastructure is core to sustainable growth and development, underpinning modern society and serving as a key contributor to reducing poverty. While there is significant global demand for access to high-quality, safe, and resilient infrastructure to connect people, transport goods, and enhance business services, poorly planned and designed infrastructure can significantly contribute to biodiversity loss and global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, a global agreement to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030, has mobilized both governments and businesses to conserve and restore natural ecosystems around the world. The infrastructure sector needs to play its part in this mission, and putting nature at the heart of the design offers a great way to help reach our goals.

Recognizing this challenge, WWF, the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC), and AECOM—one of the world's largest consulting engineering firms—have developed a strategic guide that provides engineers and conservationists with tools and examples needed to better integrate environmental considerations and sustainability into infrastructure projects.

A Playbook for Nature-Positive Infrastructure Development will help put us on the path to a brighter future for people and the planet.

What to know about the Playbook

What is nature-positive infrastructure?

The concept of "nature-positive" is still evolving so there is no universally accepted definition of a nature-positive approach to infrastructure development. Many infrastructure projects focus on reducing the environmental impact of the project and making it more sustainable by adding green elements, rather than exploring the potential of putting nature and natural ecosystems at the heart of the design. Building with nature, instead of around it, is the key tenet of nature-positive infrastructure.

This means that nature-positive infrastructure is not limited to nature-based solutions—natural systems or processes used to help achieve societal goals. We can design other types of infrastructure, including green infrastructure, and a mix of green and grey infrastructure—structures such as dams, roads, and seawalls—as nature-positive. There are a variety of other solutions beyond those identified in this Playbook that engineers and other experts could explore to move the infrastructure sector toward being truly nature-positive.

What are the key findings of the Playbook?

The Playbook aims to help engineering and conservation practitioners better understand the opportunities and constraints associated with nature-positive infrastructure design and is meant to contribute to the important and growing broader dialogue around the concept of nature-positive. Drawn from an analysis of over 200 projects and supported by a selection of case studies, the Playbook includes a few key findings:

First, while nature-positive approaches for infrastructure development may be "high on the agenda," there are still few examples of implemented projects. While there is considerable interest in using nature-based solutions to replace or complement certain functions of traditional (grey) infrastructure, there is still an implementation bias towards well-established approaches such as reforestation, wetland restoration, urban drainage systems, and more. We can and should continue to use these approaches while also exploring additional, less understood approaches that could have a positive impact on nature.

Second, there is a limited understanding of the full range of benefits of nature-based solutions. The inability to quantify the benefits, for example, may undermine or limit infrastructure practitioners’ willingness to deliver nature-positive projects.

And finally, and most importantly, there is a need to more frequently demonstrate the benefits of nature-based solutions. As noted in the Playbook, there is an urgent need to move beyond nature-related commitments and advocacy and firmly place considerations of nature and climate at the forefront of the process of planning, implementing, maintaining, and decommissioning infrastructure.

How can we use the playbook to better manage freshwater resources?

Today, nearly 2 billion people live in areas at risk of severe water scarcity, and water crises are one of the greatest risks to the global economy. We've lost 83% of freshwater species populations since 1970 and a third of our remaining wetlands. And the climate crisis's immediate and acute impact on freshwater will only make the situation worse. The need to meet global demand for water and wastewater services puts substantial pressure on biodiversity and natural resources.

The Playbook demonstrates that nature-based solutions and nature-positive approaches— when designed and implemented appropriately—offer far greater benefits than traditional or grey infrastructure approaches. It highlights numerous benefits for the water sector, including flood mitigation, enhanced drainage, and improvements to water quality, and demonstrates positive impacts across the transport, energy, water and wastewater, buildings and public spaces, and coastal protection sectors.

Where do we go from here?

The Playbook is meant to serve as a practical guide to incorporating nature-positive approaches to infrastructure development. We hope the engineering and conservation communities will gain a better appreciation for and understanding of the potential of this approach across a range of sectors and landscapes and feel inspired to explore creative approaches.

By design, the Playbook is meant to be a living document that we will update and enhance over time. We intend to include additional chapters and case studies as new opportunities and techniques are developed.

Envisioning a future in which infrastructure meets the needs of people and nature

Smart infrastructure can—and should—allow nature to flourish and sustain biodiversity. We can also tackle challenges such as providing millions of people with electricity, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities and services, and good roads. Enhancing reliable, sustainable infrastructure is crucial worldwide, including in the US. Working with local communities, experts, companies, financial institutions, and governments to change the way infrastructure is planned, built, and operated ensures that new projects have a limited impact on nature, maintain and properly manage natural infrastructure, conserve or restore nature, increase resilience, and mitigate climate change.

Read the full Playbook.

Learn more about WWF's work on infrastructure.