How England’s Environment Agency is Boldly “Mainstreaming” NBS Innovation

Length: 52 minutes, Air Date: September 21, 2022

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At least one in six people in England are at risk from flooding from rivers and the sea. Climate change means that sea levels will continue to rise, and the frequency and severity of floods and storm surges will only get worse. In Episode 9, hosts Sarah Thorne and Todd Bridges, Senior Research Scientist for Environmental Science with the US Army Corps of Engineers and the National Lead of the Engineering With Nature® Program, are talking with two guests from England’s Environment Agency (EA) in the United Kingdom (UK). Julie Foley is Director of Food Risk Strategy and National Adaptation; and her colleague, Jon Hollis, is the Nature-Based Solutions Senior Advisor. They are leading a comprehensive effort to create a nation that’s ready for and resilient to flooding and coastal change now and in the future.

Julie has a 20-year career living and working with flooding and has seen firsthand the impacts of coastal flooding on communities. She has managed the operational teams responsible for the Thames’ flood barrier and other associated flood defenses along the Thames estuary. About 3 years ago, she became the director of flood risk strategy where she has applied to the national scene her personal experience working with communities.

Jon, who grew up in the Fens, a low-lying part of the UK protected by sea defenses, studied remote sensing and cartography to better understand the natural environment. When he joined the Environment Agency, he worked on flood risk maps and programs to reduce flood risk. He led the £15 million natural flood management program and is mainstreaming natural flood management by acting on the learning of that program. Julie and Jon’s focus is on improving the environment through flood and coastal risk management and strengthening resilience to climate extremes by using nature-based solutions (NBS).

Todd recently visited Julie and Jon and their EA colleagues and had the opportunity to visit several of their projects featuring Engineering With Nature or nature-based solutions: “Seeing the natural flood management projects across the islands is very impressive—the substance of the work that they’re doing and how they are integrating nature with flood risk management engineering.”

Climate change is affecting sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and flood risk. England’s Environment Agency is taking action, and as Julie notes, the focus on nature-based solutions is shaping policy: “Our Chief Executive has this wonderful saying, ‘Our thinking needs to change faster than the climate.’ That means we need to think really fast and really differently. That has meant a significant transformation in some of our thinking around what flood and coastal risk management means in this country—putting climate adaptation right at the heart of that.” Julie describes how this has shifted the Environment Agency’s thinking from flood protection to flood resilience and embracing a much broader set of solutions: “We are looking at nature-based solutions and not just thinking, ‘How do we build higher and higher walls,’ and things that our communities don’t largely want to see anymore. They’re actually asking us to think differently and offer solutions that are better for their local places and the kind of things that their communities actually want to see.”

Todd visiting nature-based solution sites in UK. This bridge in Coalbrookdale on the Loamholebrook, was replaced after flooding a few years ago and has a gauge on it to monitor water level. Photo Credit: Jon Hollis

Jon adds, “One of the great things about natural flood management, nature-based solutions, working with natural processes, or Engineering With Nature, is that a lot of people can have a role in this now, whether it’s in their local community or within the boundary of their own property. They can understand it and can make a real difference. And it’s not just a theory; it’s practice.” He describes one project undertaken in primary schools in London, where planters were built into the playgrounds next to the school buildings to capture water from the roofs: “They’ve got plants in them, they look beautiful and hold water. The planters save the water going into the river network. But the real benefit isn’t just the flood risk side of things and the environmental outcomes, it’s the fact that young students and teachers got involved. I’m passionate about this because it is bringing people together with what’s going on in their environment, which is so important now.”

Rainwater harvesting system with planter. Photo Credit: South East Rivers Trust

Having visited more than a dozen projects in England, Todd comments, “Using an American phrase, what I see happening in England is they’re just ‘getting after it.’ The level of substance of the work that’s underway in terms of nature-based solutions is impressive. The deliberate way the Environment Agency is undertaking these projects and the level of engagement with communities and partner organizations really exemplifies how a government organization undertakes innovation and solutions that are different than maybe what have been used in the past.”

Left: Todd during the “Love Your River Telford” visit. Urban NBS delivery at Dothill Nature Reserve, which has used NFM to improve water quality and reduce flood risk. Photo Credit: Jon Hollis; Right: Todd looking over the River Soar NFM project at Narborough, just south of Leicester. Photo Credit: Jon Hollis

Julie and Todd talk about the importance of using the right language to mobilize people, giving them a vision that feels bold. The vision Ensuring progress towards a nation ready for, and resilient to, flooding and coastal changes—today, tomorrow and to the year 2100 does just that. Julies adds that it is critical to follow through with action noting that NBS projects need to be “mainstreamed” and not just second-best solutions. Todd notes how being intentional and clear in a strategy about the desire to innovate isn’t always easy for organizations, particularly for government, but he has seen many examples in England, including the Ellis Meadows project, which is a great example of innovation that is very meaningful to the community.

The primary objective of the project was providing flood water storage for the city of Leicester but also included a hard path used as a walkway and cycleway that connects different parts of the city. As Jon notes, “This project starts from a natural perspective of wanting to reduce flood risk but then delivers these other wider benefits too. Bringing all the different people together, engaging with the community to find out how they would use the space, giving them a voice in helping to shape design, has made a ‘good’ project, an ‘excellent’ project.”

Ellis Meadows Project showing a cycle path and green space that is flood storage. Source: Jon Hollis

Julie agrees, emphasizing that people and communities need to be given a license to be more innovative and fund projects that perhaps wouldn’t conform to traditional cost benefit rules: “We’ve also been able to try and better estimate the wider multifunctional benefits that come with projects like this. The environmental movement calls it ‘stacking.’ It’s just a bit of a jargon, but the more benefits you can stack, the more funding you can get from lots of different sources.”

One of Julie’s motivations for taking on her current role was the opportunity to produce a national strategy for flood and coastal erosion risk management. It was a 2-year collaborative process involving local authorities, infrastructure providers responsible for the road and rail networks, water companies, farmers, land managers, the insurance sector responsible for flood insurance, professional organizations, and environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs). “We had them all involved in having a role in shaping what we wanted to do with our future flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy. They all called for us to think differently because we have this climate emergency that needs to be central to that strategy.” She describes the challenge as “really scary,” noting that the UK has a huge coastline and some of the fastest eroding shorelines across Europe.

The intention was to do things differently on politically difficult coastal challenges, with a strategy that involves planning, adapting, and potentially transitioning people away from places in which they’d been living for a very long time. As Julie says, “It’s so important when you do these kinds of things to have a really high level of political support, particularly for something that is very bold and transformational. You need the political support, and you also need a huge number of partners, friends, and allies.”

[Editor’s note: In the episode, Julie mentions George Eustice as the current Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Since the recording, the UK has selected a new Prime Minister, leading to a new Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Ranil Jayawardena.]

Illustration from the Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy Roadmap to 2026. Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/flood-and-coastal-erosion-risk-management-strategy-roadmap-to-2026

The strategy focuses on 3 ambitions: climate resilient places, growth and infrastructure, and a nation ready to respond and adapt to flooding and coastal change. “When you look at the three ambitions,” Julie notes, “the word ‘flood’ isn’t there. That was super intentional because, yes, it’s a flood and coast erosion risk management strategy, of course, but we wanted ambitions that were all about climate, multiple outcomes, and putting the context of our work within a much wider setting.”

The Environment Agency, Todd adds, has responsibilities that in the US are handled by USACE, FEMA, the EPA, and other agencies: “The Agency’s efforts are quite impressive. They are ‘calling their shots’ at a level of specificity and detail that’s admirable. They’re moving in a particular direction and being bold and saying specifically what they wish to achieve by what year. That’s real strategy work at its best from what I have observed.”

As we wrap up the episode, Jon comments that “it’s been inspirational working with Todd and his team on the NNBF Guidelines and the EWN Atlases—both are beautiful publications. I think we get a lot out of the relationship both ways and realize how many of the barriers, challenges, and issues are very similar in quite different places. Determining how we can help people overcome the challenges they have—some of our solutions have come from the example set by the US Army Corps of Engineers.”

“It’s been so enriching to what we’re doing in Engineering With Nature to have the Environment Agency and Julie and Jon and their colleagues engaged with us,” Todd says. “I’m looking forward—as they call out in their Roadmap—to the Agency’s further engagement with the Army Corps of Engineers in the future. I just think we can do fabulous things together that are beneficial to our communities.”

Guests

Todd Bridges, PhD
Senior Research Scientist (ST), Environmental Science
National Lead, Engineering With Nature®
Engineer Research and Development Center
US Army Corps of Engineers

Julie Foley
Director of Flood Risk Strategy and National Adaptation
Environment Agency, UK

Jon Hollis
Nature-Based Solutions Senior Advisor
Environment Agency, UK

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