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Why Do Coastal Communities Invest in Nature? It’s Not Science.

December 16, 2015

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The science is clear: natural habitat can help protect coastal communities against erosion, sea-level rise and storms. But what does it take for communities to invest in these natural solutions?

A recent paper in the journal Coastal and Ocean Management offers answers to that question.

For years, mitigating coastal hazards in the United States has meant building structures – sea walls, riprap and jetties – often referred to as gray infrastructure. Recently, there has been increased interest in restoring coastal habitats, or natural infrastructure, to protect coastal communities. Examples include dunes, wetlands, oyster reefs, coral reefs and mangroves.

Decades of evidence build a strong case for natural infrastructure – ecologically and economically. But, as conservationists often find out, research results alone are not enough to convince communities to invest in nature.

“Conservationists once believed that if we just offered enough evidence, that would convince people,” says Nature Conservancy behavioral economist Sheila M.W. Reddy, one of the paper’s coauthors. “We now know that just offering evidence does not sway opinions. People are complex, of course, and many factors play into the decisions that communities make. Our study aimed to understand how people made these decisions.”

The paper’s authors conducted semi-structured interviews with 16 individuals associated with three natural infrastructure cases: Ferry’s Point Living Shoreline in Maryland, Surfer’s Point Managed Retreat in California and Durant’s Point Living Shoreline in Maryland.

Five common themes influenced these decisions:

  1. Perceived benefits outweigh perceived costs.

This is probably no surprise: costs and benefits are important to communities. However, this doesn’t mean that community members carefully review economic analyses. Instead, they focused on perceived benefits rather than objective information or data.

Project GreenShores is a habitat restoration and creation project located in Downtown Pensacola, Florida. Restoring the Pensacola Bay estuary to its historic state stabilizes shorelines and provides essential habitat for wildlife propagation and conservation. Photo © Erika Nortemann/TNC
Project GreenShores is a habitat restoration and creation project located in Downtown Pensacola, Florida. Restoring the Pensacola Bay estuary to its historic state stabilizes shorelines and provides essential habitat for wildlife propagation and conservation. Photo © Erika Nortemann/TNC

“People in these communities had strong emotional connections with a sense of place and history,” says Reddy. “They expressed a desire to maintain or return to a more natural state.”

Scientists sometimes feel uncomfortable talking about the importance of emotions. But it was clear to the interviewers that strong, personal connections played a significant role in shaping perceptions of natural infrastructure.

  1. Innovators lead the way.

Tradition is strong in many coastal communities. That can lead to strong connections to place, but it also can create resistance to change.

Having innovators who see the potential in natural infrastructure and who can communicate that well is a key component in community adoption. Interviewees spoke with pride about a willingness to take a risk and try something new.

“Participants often mentioned the opportunity for their community to serve as a demonstration site and education tool for others,” says Reddy.

That’s not to say that being the first doesn’t have risks: some interviewees worried about perceptions if the project failed.

  1. Natural infrastructure needs a local champion.

A good message needs a good messenger. Anyone who works in conservation knows that an “outside expert” who comes to a community with all the answers risks alienating people, no matter how rigorous the science presented.

The Nature Conservancy's Mary Beth Charles (left) harvests grass that Judy Haner (right) carries as part of a shoreline restabilization project on the Fowl River in Alabama. Photo © Carlton Ward Jr.
The Nature Conservancy’s Mary Beth Charles (left) harvests grass that Judy Haner (right) carries as part of a shoreline restabilization project on the Fowl River in Alabama. Photo © Carlton Ward Jr.

“The reality is, the likeability of the messenger influences how much weight we give to information,” says Reddy. “That’s been found to be the case when communicating a variety of issues. And it holds true for natural infrastructure.”

A trusted local champion knows the community’s history, concerns and interests. Such advocates build political will for natural infrastructure projects.

  1. Natural infrastructure is contagious.

Ok, so it’s not literally contagious. But researchers found that when communities could see other communities engaging in these projects, they were more likely to be open to the idea. Participants repeatedly mentioned the importance of seeing other projects, referring to before-and-after photos. Such photos became a powerful tool to explain what can be a highly technical process.

Projects done in similar communities created a perception of natural infrastructure as a growing social norm.

“Participants made many references to visiting other sites, reading and hearing about similar projects, and seeing photos of other projects prior to implementing their own,” says Reddy.

  1. Changing the default is a simple way to promote natural infrastructure.

How do we go from a few success to stories to nature-based solutions becoming mainstream? Maryland had a simple solution. By passing the Living Shoreline Protection Act in 2008, the state changed the “default” option for shoreline erosion from gray infrastructure to natural infrastructure.

American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) at Coffee Island in Mobile Bay, Alabama. The site of oyster reef restoration led by The Nature Conservancy creates important habitat for shorebirds. Photo © Carlton Ward Jr.
American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) at Coffee Island in Mobile Bay, Alabama. The site of oyster reef restoration led by The Nature Conservancy creates important habitat for shorebirds. Photo © Carlton Ward Jr.

Maryland now has 250 natural infrastructure projects as compared to coastal states North Carolina and California, which have 30 and 10 projects, respectively.

In the above video, Reddy interviews residents about the benefits of coastal infrastructure. As a behavioral economist, she sees this work as building a strong case that natural infrastructure cannot just be about ecology and economics. It’s also about social norms, social networks and communications.

“We all like to believe that data will win the day,” says Reddy. “And certainly, data are important. But scientists increasingly recognize that emotions, local culture and community norms play vital roles in decision making. Natural infrastructure often resonates strongly with communities, but their decisions are often influenced by factors other than scientific evidence.”

Matt Miller

Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matt

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1 comment

  1. I fully agree that restoration of coastal communities is an important goal in lessening the impact of global warming, sea level rise and erosion of land and beaches. Salt water marshes hold 10 times the amount of carbon dioxide than our trees in forests. The marshes also provide an important barrier to erosion and provide a habitat for wildlife. Look at New Orleans or other coastal communities and see how their loss of marshes and barrier lands consisting of silt and sediment and plant life has made their cities more susceptible to erosion from waves and storms. All coastal towns, cities and wildlife preserves should protect and restore their natural coastal low lands from destruction. I publish a blog with pictures of Florida’s coastal environment. http://www.ourwetlandsfla.com