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Why and how to apply BwN? Philosophy and Principles

With 80% of the world's population living in lowland urban areas by 2050, climate changing, sea level rising and societal demands increasing, surface water infrastructure development in those areas is facing new challenges. These challenges are also described in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, such as 'Clear water and sanitation' (6), 'Sustainable cities and communities' (11) and 'Climate action' (13). A paradigm shift from building in nature to building with nature is necessary to ensure a sustainable future.

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Developments in infrastructure projects

The past decades have shown that the realisation process of infrastructural works is characterised by the following developments:

  • We want more (multifunctional designs, including environmental aspects);
  • We know more (knowledge of natural systems has increased enormously); and
  • We can do more (increased technological capabilities enable new approaches)


whereas at the same time:

  • We have to operate more carefully (legal restrictions have increased);
  • We have more difficulty getting things done (complexity of decision making has increased); and
  • We have to meet increasingly complex functional requirements (modern society has high demands).


These developments bring challenges as well as opportunities. Building with Nature aims to meet these challenges by taking advantage of the opportunities offered by nature. An integrated approach and stakeholder involvement from the early stages of project development onwards are essential features.


Ecosystem services

In recent literature, the links between nature and the economy are often described using the concept of ecosystem services, or flows of value to human societies as a result of the state and quantity of natural capital. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005), and more recently 'The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity' (TEEB) studies, provide guidelines for the application of the concept of ecosystem services in planning and design.

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A paradigm shift: from 'building in', via 'building of' to 'building with nature'.

The essence of the BwN-approach is that surface water infrastructure development works with nature rather than against it. This requires a change in thinking, a paradigm shift in all aspects of project development. The relationship between surface water infrastructure development and the environment is shifting from minimizing negative environmental impacts, via neutrality by compensation, to optimizing on a positive balance. In other words: from doing not too bad, via doing no wrong, to doing good. This leads to the generic strategic objective for Building with Nature projects, in which two objectives are combined:


"To deliver engineering services while delivering and/or utilising ecosystem services."



 Building With Nature approach: wider and greener scope

The ecosystem-based Building with Nature Design approach boils down to:


  1. Understand system functioning
  2. Identify the system’s envisaged functions and plan a project or activity accordingly
  3. Determine how natural processes can be used and stimulated to achieve the project goals and others
  4. Determine how governance processes can be used and stimulated to achieve the project goals
  5. Monitor the environment during execution and - if necessary - adapt the monitoring program and/or the project execution
  6. Monitor the environment after completion, to assess the project's performance, adapt its management, and to learn for the future

    Sand motor



Traditional approach: sectoral, narrow scope

The usual approach to large hydraulic projects, once the general objective has been identified and the direction of solution has been chosen, basically follows the steps:


  1. Plan a project or activity
  2. Describe the effects on the ecosystem
  3. Optimize the design to minimize or mitigate detrimental effects
  4. Compensate by building of nature
  5. Execute the project in strict adherence to preset norms and regulations

    Dredging ships



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Differently working towards BwN


Shifting the development paradigm for surface water infrastructure towards Building with Nature Design requires not only a redefinition of what to do and what to aim at, but also of how to do it: a change in thinking, acting and interacting.


Think differently

Man-made projects are an inherent part of the environment. They provide a unique opportunity to induce positive change!

The Building with Nature Design approach requires all parties involved to think differently and take a new perspective on the project at hand. Evaluation of a number of successful Building with Nature cases has revealed that this new perspective can be characterized extending the problem solving  approach of traditional engineering with an ecology-inspired and governance-sensitive  opportunity seizing  attitude.

From a project development perspective this means starting with the system in mind, not with the intervention.

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Act differently

Natural processes can be used and stimulated to achieve an optimal and sustainable fit of a man-made project in its environment!

Most hydraulic infrastructure is regarded as a static element with a predetermined lifespan, designed to withstand a number of predetermined environmental design conditions. The design process is aimed at finding the most cost-effective solution that provides the required functionality. The envisaged win-win solutions that were addressed in the previous section require more than that: they commonly involve catering for more than one function and extending traditional and proven design approaches with the utilization of dynamic environmental processes.

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Interact differently

Realisation of Building with Nature projects cannot be achieved without interdisciplinary collaboration and early and active stakeholder involvement!

In every project development phase adjustments can be made. The earlier the BwN Design Principles are incorporated in a project, the more can be achieved. Nonetheless, it is never too late to start. Experience has shown that ecological optimizations can still be made during construction or even maintenance phases. The Rich Revetment concept, which has been introduced during large scale dike maintenance works, serves as an example. Yet, building with nature cannot be achieved without early and active stakeholder involvement.

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