Natural assets. A natural alternative

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    By: David Jenkins

    Sustainability is one of the key priorities for asset managers today and in the drive for sustainability natural assets can often be a better alternative to engineered solutions and hard assets.

    The goal of an infrastructure project, for example, may be to reduce the risk of flooding. Instead of using hard assets to build a dam or a levee from concrete and materials trucked in to the site, natural assets such as wetlands and vegetation could be considered as an alternative.

    In many cases, these natural solutions come with lower capital and operating costs, and might be more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

    This makes them a potentially attractive alternative to engineered solutions which come with service delivery risks and maintenance issues as they age.

    Natural assets also bring other benefits. They can enhance recreation, clean air, soil quality and biodiversity and ultimately have a positive environment impact because – unlike engineered assets – they will also provide an additional ecological solution.

    Canada and in particular the state of British Columbia have become leaders in this emerging area of asset management practice.

    The change in thinking around this goes back as far as 2008, with the Living Water Smart plan for British Columbia’s water asset management. This set the the tone for more careful consideration of natural assets, emphasising their important role in flood protection and climate change adaptation.

    The plan highlighted the importance of considering the full economic, environmental, and social benefits of green infrastructure on community development. The principles of the plan were then included in British Columbia’s Water Sustainability Act, which came into effect in 2016.

    A recent publication from the state’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing included the case study of the restoration of Brooklyn Creek in the coastal town of Comox as one example.

    There, a study concluded that decades of engineering drainage infrastructure to collect and divert rainfall had caused the creek to lose its ability to spread, retain and infiltrate water.

    This was partly responsible for incidents of flooding, which then prompted the town to construct a diversion facility.

    This was ultimately superseded with an integrated investment in natural assets and ecological services which addressed not only the flooding and the water flow as part of municipal drainage systems but improved fish habitats, portions or urban woodlands, as well as natural areas which enhanced parks and trails.

    In New South Wales, the issue of natural assets was addressed by Local Government NSW in a 2018 whitepaper which noted that while councils are looking for direction on refining their existing management systems approaches to natural assets were inconsistent, with some comprehensive projects while others were immature.

    The whitepaper identified opportunities for improving the integration of natural assets beginning with their integration into management systems through high level strategic planning.

    The whitepaper recommended that a rigorous framework was also needed to address issues of monitoring and inspection, maintenance and renewal, and also funding allocations to fully understand the impact and the return on investment of choosing to invest in natural assets rather than hard solutions.

    In the years since the whitepaper was published in 2018 it has become clearer that the goals of asset management are increasingly aligned with sustainability.

    In pursuing this goal, natural assets are part of the solution but they need not be the whole solution.

    Rather, they can be considered as part of an integrated mix which also includes traditional engineered solution designed and then maintained as a system which succeeds against both engineering and environmental criteria. Natural assets is a growing area of interest and as such we will be looking to provide further thought leadership and guidance to our members and the profession.

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