An example of a a nature-based shoreline. Credit: NYSDEC

For decades, coastal communities across New York State, like many elsewhere, have looked to sea walls and other hardened barriers to protect themselves from floods. In recent years, there’s been a growing interest across the state to use more “green” infrastructure – often referred to as living shorelines – to absorb storm surges. These living shorelines are seen as a way to protect coastal communities from flood risk, while potentially generating other benefits – from preserving critical habitat and contributing to improved water quality to increasing local stewardship. As the interest in and use of these natural and nature-based features (NNBF) has grown, so too has the need for a reliable way to assess and compare how these features perform across a wide range of property types and coastlines. CBI Senior Mediator Bennett Brooks teamed with the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay (SRI), state environmental officials, researchers, practitioners, and others on a two-year, New York State-funded effort to develop and pilot a draft statewide monitoring framework to assess the potential for nature-based features to help coastal communities in the face of rising sea levels.

Helping Communities be More Resilient

Often, the work we do at CBI requires bringing together people who are sharply at odds over controversial policies – think endangered species or water wars in California – where tensions are high, and trust is low. But sometimes our work is less about mediating active disputes and more about helping people with shared interests find effective ways to tackle, understand, and advance solutions on complex issues. In these cases, the challenge isn’t about managing tensions. Rather, it’s about keeping people engaged, contributing, and finding shared ways forward.

Nearly three years ago, CBI joined a team headed by SRI to help develop and pilot a statewide monitoring framework to better assess the potential for NNBFs, such as shellfish reefs, constructed dunes, and wetlands, to help coastal communities be more resilient in the face of rising seas and more frequent and intense storms. While many throughout the state increasingly advocate for these features, important questions regarding effectiveness limit adoption and permitting: How effective are they in reducing hazards? What impacts might they have on the ecosystem or socioeconomics of communities (e.g., local jobs, economic resilience, access to and use of the shoreline) compared to more traditional hardened barriers? And, is there a reasonably straightforward and cost-effective way to measure and compare these outcomes across a state with very diverse coastlines – from the Great Lakes and Hudson River to the New York Harbor and Long Island?

Assessing the Performance of Natural and Nature-Based Features

To tackle this challenge, we developed a common set of goals and indicators to assess the performance of these features, as well as the more traditional hardened structures, across a wide range of shoreline and property types. Our team’s approach centered on the following:

  • Pulling together expert working groups to suggest parameters for measuring the extent of each features’ resilience benefits – from holding back flood waters to improving species diversity in coastal waters to enhancing quality of life for local coastal communities.
  • Holding stakeholder workshops in each of the state’s four distinct coastal regions to obtain local input on (1) what they most want and need to know about these features’ abilities to improve resilience, and (2) which parameters identified by the expert working groups would be most relevant to measure and track.
  • Convening local and state permitters to better understand the information they need to know to make it more likely these features can be compared and permitted.
  • Identifying and working with local partners willing to pilot a draft statewide monitoring framework on local projects already moving forward with natural and nature-based features.

Stitching all this together was a project team and advisory body that guided the two-year-long process, translated technically dense materials into straightforward and relevant language, and adapted approaches every step of the way.

Structuring a Successful Process – Lessons Learned

Over the two years, we worked with researcher, practitioner, and stakeholder communities to develop and pilot a test framework in each of the four regions, measuring such factors as structural integrity, human health and safety, biodiversity, and habitat connectivity.

Many factors supported the project’s success. Much is, without a doubt, tied to the strength of the team: strong and thoughtful leadership by SRI, and a uniquely dedicated and committed team of expert researchers and practitioners. But there are other factors that have relevance beyond the unique set of players who worked on this effort.

  • Partner with local liaisons. In each region, our team partnered with a regional working group lead who had deep connections to and credibility with local stakeholders. These working group leads (from New York Sea Grant, the NY-NJ Harbor and Estuary Program, and SRI) were instrumental in recruiting to regional workshops a diverse set of folks – from shoreline property managers and permitting agencies to eNGOs – who could give us local insights into what factors would be important to measure to compare NNBF with more traditional structures in their area.
  • Make materials useable and relevant. In such a technically dense effort, the potential for everyday citizens to lose interest or feel ignored is high. Bring folks together with too little background and the conversation gets bogged down in abstract details that hold little relevance. Bring folks together with a work product that is too far along or too well defined and you risk alienating participants who may well feel like their input isn’t going to have an impact. Our team took pains to find the sweet spot – seeding the discussions with just enough detail to engage stakeholders. Pre-briefings also provided important background and context to make it possible for folks to feel sufficiently equipped to participate.
  • Keep engagement interesting, relevant, and even fun. Day-long workshops are tough. Day-long workshops on technically complex materials are even tougher. Recognizing the challenge, we structured the discussions to be highly interactive, minimizing the time folks sat passively and instead used small breakout groups, ranking exercises where folks actively shared and explained their preferences around poster-sized tear sheets, and even small dance breaks to keep people alert, engaged, and contributing. Sure, the dancing generated a few eye rolls but – bottom line – at the end of the day, most people were surprised about how much was accomplished, and our team and effort benefited from their insights.

These lessons may not be groundbreaking. But it is worth reminding ourselves that the basics – strong local involvement, careful preparation, easy-to-understand materials and engaging discussions when coupled with nimble, skilled, and committed participants – are often the difference between projects that languish and those that soar.

Moving forward, New York State is now advancing a new effort to further refine and expand the monitoring protocols.


You can read more about CBI’s work related to Climate here.