VP Harris Makes the Case for Nature-based Solutions

Vice President Kamala Harris at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science in Key Biscayne, FL / AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science in Key Biscayne, FL / AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

This Earth Day, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris highlighted the many benefits of nature-based solutions and recognized the important role of landscape architects in this work. At the University of Miami, she also announced $562 million in funding for coastal resilience projects, supporting 149 projects in 30 states, through the Climate-Ready Coasts Initiative of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Vice President Harris’ remarks build on the Biden-Harris administration’s support for planning and designing with ecological systems in an equitable way.

The administration led the passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which provided billions towards nature-based solutions and includes many of ASLA’s policy recommendations.

And last fall at COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, the administration released the “first national strategy on nature-based solutions,” a roadmap that offers “strategic recommendations” to “unlock the full potential” of these approaches to “address climate change, nature loss, and inequity.” In other words, the administration believes if planned and designed well, nature-based solutions can provide integrated carbon drawdown, resilience, biodiversity, and equity benefits.

Nature-based Solutions Roadmap / The White House
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Nature-based Solutions Roadmap / The White House

In Miami, Harris argued that “natural infrastructure reduces the impact of storm surges and hurricanes. And by the way, natural infrastructure is often more effective than concrete barriers and retaining walls.”

Earlier this year, Harris spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Miami, where landscape architect Kate Orff, FASLA, founder of SCAPE Landscape Architecture, also presented. Perhaps it was there that Harris and her team learned about Living Breakwaters in Staten Island, New York City, which leverages oyster reefs to reduce the impact of storm surges.

Living Breakwaters model, Staten Island, NYC / SCAPE Landscape Architecture and Urban Design
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Living Breakwaters model, Staten Island, NYC / SCAPE Landscape Architecture and Urban Design

Back in Miami for Earth Day, Harris said “we will restore oyster reefs. And that work will diminish the impact of tropical storms and hurricanes and clean our oceans by filtering out polluted runoff from our cities.”

Harris made clear that the benefits of nature-based solutions aren’t theoretical. “All of this makes sense. And it works! It is very doable; it is within our grasp. And that is why I am so optimistic about all of this.”

The Vice President also recognized the economic benefits of designing with nature to address climate change. “These investments will not only protect our environment but also strengthen our economy. For example, here in Florida, our work will create jobs for construction workers, environmental engineers, and landscape architects.”

Landscape architect Aida Curtis, ASLA, co-founder of Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, attended Harris’ speech in Miami. She was personally invited to attend by the Office of the Vice President because of her long-time leadership on nature-based solutions in Miami.

Curtis was central to a persuasive local advocacy and media campaign that convinced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a new, expanded study for a $6 billion project to protect Miami from future hurricanes, coastal flooding, and climate impacts. Her renderings, rooted in scientific analysis, showed a smart alternative to the Corps’ initial proposal, which was to line downtown Miami with concrete walls.

Response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Study / Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, courtesy of Miami Downtown Development Authority
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Response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Study / Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, courtesy of Miami Downtown Development Authority

Curtis’ team instead “envisioned vegetated shorelines with mangroves along with strategically-placed bermed islands in the Bay that would attenuate wave action during storm surges. This is a grey/green solution, not all nature-based, but it would be much better for the community and environment and increase park access.”

Response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Study / Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, courtesy of Miami Downtown Development Authority
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Response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Study / Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, courtesy of Miami Downtown Development Authority
Response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Study / Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, courtesy of Miami Downtown Development Authority
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Response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Study / Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, courtesy of Miami Downtown Development Authority

“Vice President Harris’ recognition that nature-based solutions can be more effective than concrete barriers and walls was enlightening. Her optimism and commitment to coastal communities gives me hope for Miami. It gives me a huge boost to continue our efforts to advocate for and design nature-based solutions,” Curtis told us.

And on a personal level, “it was amazing to hear the Vice President recognize the work that we — landscape architects — do on climate adaptation and resilience. The fact that nature-based solutions was at the heart of her message gives me great encouragement that we are on the right path.”

Harris announced that $562 million in IRA funds will go to a few key NOAA-managed programs. This is because “demand for funding focused on preparing for and adapting to climate change is high,” NOAA states. Funding requests made by communities to date have exceeded what is available.

Of the $526 million, $477 million will be dedicated to “high-impact projects” that provide multiple benefits at once:

  • “creating climate solutions by strengthening coastal communities’ ability to respond to extreme weather events, pollution and marine debris
  • restoring coastal habitats to help wildlife and humans thrive;
  • storing carbon;
  • building the capacity of underserved communities to address climate hazards and supporting community-driven restoration;
  • and creating jobs in local communities.”

$46 million will be distributed through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation National Coastal Resilience Fund to “help communities prepare for increasing coastal flooding, sea-level rise and more intense storms, while improving thousands of acres of coastal habitats.”

And $39.1 million in non-competitive funding will go to 34 state and territorial coastal management programs and 30 national estuarine research reserves.

According to NOAA, these programs provide “essential planning, policy development and implementation, research, education, and collaborative engagement with communities.” The goal is to “protect coastal and estuarine ecosystems important for the resilience of coastal economies and the health of coastal environments.”

Learn more about upcoming project opportunities for landscape architects across the country.

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