Question: What do a constructed wetland for wastewater treatment at an ecological housing estate in Flintenbreite, Germany, the restoration of mangroves along coastlines, and planting trees, shrubs and natural grasses alongside a river all have in common?

Answer: They are all examples of Nature-based solutions.

But what are Nature-based Solutions?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines nature-based solutions (NBS) as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”.

In other words, ‘nature-based solutions, or NBS’ is a term used to describe alternative and non-traditional approaches to environmental issues, like flooding, water scarcity, or soil erosion, by harnessing natural capital. It includes strategies and technologies that utilise ecological engineering principles for the management of natural and created ecosystems for the benefit of both humans and the environment. Whereas traditional methods of infrastructural development is ‘gray’ – involving constructed and artificial structures – while NBS combines natural, green, and integrated infrastructures.

For example, NBS can be part of a fundamental re-imagining of treatment systems, both large and small-scale, where they are not just tools to protect the environment and human health from degradation, but they can also potentially provide a wealth of resources and even enhance their local context through amenity benefits.

Creating a multisector NBS network

Cranfield University has significant expertise across the themes of Water and Environment on researching, enhancing and helping to implement NBS on the ground.

Recently, Dr Gabriela Dotro from the Cranfield Water Science Institute convened a workshop with key stakeholders from environmental agencies, consultancies, water utilities, technology providers, professional associations, and environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs), both regional and international. During this workshop stakeholders co-developed strategies for NBS implementation in the UK, with the day focusing on two separate initiatives: a) the development of a suite of online courses to upskill professionals that are entering the world of NBS, and b) the development of a multisector network on NBS.

The multisector network on NBS aims to start in July 2020 and will work in partnership with the IWA Task Group on Nature Based Solutions, the IWA Cluster on Green Walls, the International Ecological Engineering Society, the Constructed Wetland Association, and the Circular Cities COST action, among others. Together they will work on key topics, as shown below:

  • Effective engagement with regulators and manufacturers
  • Access to the best people in the world
  • Future proofing
  • Advocacy
  • Accelerating innovation
  • Shared evidence base
  • Knowledge dissemination
  • Translating science into practice
  • Shared experience
  • Safe space
  • Identifying research required
  • Accelerating implementation
  • Broad picture thinking
  • Joint funding
  • Training needs
  • Building partnerships
  • Internationalisation
  • New markets
  • De-risking schemes

NBS at Cranfield

Cranfield has always been at the forefront of research into NBS. Here are some of the ways we are driving forward research and innovationin NBS for water and land management:

  • Professor Bruce Jefferson and Dr Gaby Dotro are leading on the development of wetland technology for sewage and leachate treatment applications. Current ongoing projects have been funded through the Global Challenges Research Fund, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, plus six water utilities. There are also some exciting projects in the pipeline, including a collaboration with the Rivers Trust and the Wetland and Wildfowl Trust among others, to continue to develop NBS technologies.
  • Professor Jefferson’s and Dr Dotro’s work is published in academic journals as well as trade articles, including a recent feature in “The Source”, the International Water Association’s monthly printed magazine. Dr Dotro has also successfully negotiated the publication of two books she co-authored on treatment wetlands to be Open Access, meaning the information is accessible to anyone with an interest in the technology anywhere in the world.
  • Dr Bob Grabowski works at the interface of aquatic ecology, river hydromorphology and integrated land and water management, where they are investigating NBS to water quality problems, ecological conservation, flood risk management, and resilient water supply. For example, students are conducting new research on the impacts of airport de-icers on the growth of sewage fungus, which is a common problem in winter for rivers near airports.They are also investigating more generally how rivers can be made more resilient to organic pollution through physical habitat restoration.
  • Recently with Affinity Water and the Environment Agency, Dr Bob Grabowski and his team conducted a 3-year study into the impact of abstraction reduction and physical habitat restoration on the fish community of chalk rivers to develop transferable guidance for water companies.
  • Dr Heather Smith works on aspects of social engagement and governance structures in the realm of water and wastewater systems. Recently in AquaNES, Dr Smith explored a range of perceptions towards nature-based treatment systems (constructed wetlands, soil aquifer treatment, and river bank filtration) and the potential impact of such systems on overall ecosystem services, including cultural ecosystem services.
  • Understanding socio-political factors is key to NBS becoming mainstream, so Dr Smith’s project also examined different governance-related influences on such systems, and how current policy and regulatory frameworks could enable or constrain their wider adoption.

What about the future?

At Cranfield we’ll be focusing future areas of research on:

  • Exploring the underpinning science behind how NBS transform pollutants in a treatment application including pharmaceuticals and personal care products
  • A science-based approach to potentially include treatment wetlands as part of natural capital accounting practices
  • Creating an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions and abatement potentially involved in the implementation of NBS instead of grey infrastructure.
  • Managing the land-river interface for sustainable development.

You can find out more about these areas of research by getting in touch with Dr Gaby Dotro.

Want to learn more about NBS?

Cranfield has recently launched an interactive and fully online professional development course on NBS, starting in May 2020. The course brings together over 15 experts from around the world to cover topics ranging from natural capital accounting, to natural flood management strategies and quantification of ecosystem services, to specific technologies like green walls, green roofs and treatment wetlands.

Cranfield alumni have access to an exclusive 10% alumni discount on registration fees. More details on the course can be found here.