The City of Ottawa's floodplain restoration project along the Illinois River reduces the city's risk to flood loss and provides wildlife habitat © Todd Winters

Sometimes, solutions to big challenges start small.

That’s the idea behind Solution Search, a contest developed by environmental nonprofit Rare to uncover promising local solutions to pressing global challenges. This year’s contest focused on reducing risks from natural hazards.

The contest finalists demonstrated that nature can help communities prepare for weather-related disasters.

At this week’s award ceremony, the Judges’ Choice Award went to the City of Ottawa, Illinois, for an innovative floodplain project. After years of devastating floods, the city implemented a buyout program enabling people to move out of flood-prone areas. By allowing the Illinois River’s natural floodplain to flow freely, the city saved millions of dollars in flood losses after an all-time record flood in 2013.

Mike Sutfin, left, accepts the Judges' Choice Award from meteorologist Jim Cantore, one of this year's judges.
Mike Sutfin with the City of Ottawa, winner of the Judges’ Choice Award, with meteorologist and judge Jim Cantore © Devan King

Likewise, the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, is investing in forest restoration to reduce risks from wildfires and flooding. Post-fire floods, a result of charred, barren ground unable to absorb rainwater, can cause more damage than fires themselves.

Mark Brehl with the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project © Devan King
Mark Brehl with the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project © Devan King

The Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, which received the People’s Choice award, estimates that natural solutions to fire and flood risk management may help the city avoid a staggering $522 million to $1.2 billion in future damage.

Contest finalists also included initiatives to add 1 billion oysters to New York Harbor to protect against storm surges, create a living shoreline to protect people and nature in Florida and provide an online tool to assess coastal flood risk to improve decision-making

Projects like these demonstrate that protecting nature is one of the smartest investments communities can make. Healthy reefs, salt marshes, and other forms of green infrastructure often do as good of a job—and at a much lower cost—as traditional gray infrastructure to protect people and property from weather-related disasters. Green infrastructure also provides important co-benefits, from wildlife habitat, to recreational opportunities to open space.

The Nature Conservancy is pleased to partner with Rare on Solution Search and congratulates the communities, businesses and other organizations that participated in this year’s contest.

It’s encouraging to see these groups pressing forward with nature-based, replicable solutions to protect people and property from climate-related impacts.  Let’s hope that more cities, states and countries follow their lead.


Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy and author of Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTercek.

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  1. So great to see the Flagstaff project recognized! Investing in forest restoration is an important way to improve disaster resilience in many U.S. communities.

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