Natural Solutions Initiative

Putting Nature back into Nature-based Solutions

The Natural Solutions Initiative (NSI) out of ACT - Action on Climate Team, will research how to apply nature-based solutions (NbS) to advance five key areas (climate action, biodiversity, Indigenous knowledges and leadership, sustainable service delivery, and health, equity & justice) across four scales of action (watershed, community, neighbourhood, and parcel). The NSI will accelerate best available knowledge around the multiple roles that natural systems play in transitioning our regions and communities towards community low carbon resilience (LCR) and sustainability under rapidly changing conditions. 

Read the Natural Solutions Initiative Summary for more detail

Our Mission

The goal of the NSI is to co-create and advance a cohesive and systemic framework-for-action that optimizes the benefits of NbS for both people and nature under a rapidly changing climate. The NSI aims to advance and recognize diverse knowledges, approaches and metrics to optimize NbS across five key areas and four scales of action. Our goal is to coordinate a more systemic understanding of the value, uses and trade-offs associated with NbS, resulting in comprehensive implementation across scales and sectors (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Cohesive NbS need to be considered across four scales of action (y-axis), evaluated over time (x-axis), and designed to optimize benefits and minimize trade-offs across four key areas (z-axis). We recognize that this diagram is based on mechanistic settler concepts for the sake of synthesizing and operationalizing NbS. Indigenous knowledges are needed to inform broader, more holistic understandings of people and community relations with the natural world.

Download our snapshot for a quick overview of the NSI

What are Nature-Based Solutions?

In 2021, the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA), comprised of 193 Member States, defined NbS as “actions to protect, conserve, restore, sustainably use and manage natural or modified terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems, which address social, economic and environmental challenges effectively and adaptively, while simultaneously providing human well-being, ecosystem services and resilience and biodiversity benefits (UNEP, 2022).

The NSI Opportunity: Co-Creating a Cohesive and Systemic Framework for NbS Action

Building Coherence Using Three Nested Approaches 

NbS come in many forms. It is unsurprising that there is a corresponding variety of approaches and terms used to describe them. These include: natural infrastructure; green infrastructure; conservation, protection, and restoration of ecosystems; nature-positive approaches; green design; low impact development; nature-based climate solutions; natural asset management; parks; green spaces; green resilience; hybrid and/or enhanced engineering or biomimicry solutions.

The goal of the NSI framework is to bring coherence to these terms and approaches to facilitate the cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral work that is required in order to advance systemic and cohesive NbS. The NSI organizes these various NbS approaches around three interdependent approaches that have caused confusions across disciplines and sectors: ecosystem-based management (emphasizes ecosystem health), natural asset management (emphasizes protection and restoration of natural areas to enhance services), and blue-green infrastructure (emphasizes green design and engineering). 

Figure 2 below depicts how natural asset and blue-green infrastructure approaches reside on a spectrum, from natural and restored assets, to hybrid and engineered assets, and the interdependencies between them when they are guided by ecosystem-based management approaches. Shifting attentions at first from political jurisdictional boundaries to watersheds provides a crucial opportunity to prepare for the impacts of climate change in a more coordinated, holistic manner (GIO, n.d.). It also catalyzes the need to explore innovative forms of watershed scale co-governance with Indigenous partners.

Figure 2: Three nested NbS approaches for adaptively managing watershed health & resilience. Ecosystem-based management approaches at the watershed scale provide foundational ecosystem baselines and thresholds that natural asset and blue-green infrastructure approaches need to integrate to ensure coherence.

Promoting Cohesion Across Four Scales of NbS Action

Across the globe, NbS projects are being implemented at different scales. While some NbS practices are based on multi-lateral arrangements (e.g., Québec and California’s Linked Cap-and-Trade program) or national policies (e.g., Canadian federal conservation programs), the NSI is focused on NbS at regional and local scales that have direct ecosystem and community benefits. Specifically, the NSI investigates NbS that are being implemented at the watershed, neighbourhood, community and parcel scales, and how to bring cohesion to NbS projects and plans both within communities and across watersheds. 

Figure 3 below depicts the diverse NbS activities being applied across four scales. It is an abbreviated depiction of a broad review of scholarship and practice, and showcases the interdependencies between scales and the need for more cohesive NbS planning to support and enhance ecological processes and ecosystem services across scales. Ensuring that baseline ecological data and key indicators of health and resilience at the watershed scale are the foundation of NbS planning and practice helps to ensure that NbS are being applied across scales in a way that supports nature and, by proxy, the communities that benefit from a functioning and healthy ecosystem.

Figure 3: NbS opportunities across four scales. NbS projects are being applied across four scales of action. Ensuring these applications support ecological processes and diverse ecosystem services within the watershed helps to promote coherence across scales.

Advancing Systemic NbS Across Five Key Areas

Natural systems and NbS cross many disciplines (e.g., ecology, conservation biology, natural resource management, community and social planning, engineering) and are impacted by diverse issues (e.g., development and encroachment, climate changes, Indigenous territorial rights, etc.). While the pace of NbS implementation has been accelerating, projects are being designed to achieve specific, often singular objectives, minimizing the multi-solving potential of NbS to address numerous societal challenges.

An extensive review of scholarship and practice demonstrates how NbS are being applied to advance five key areas: 1) climate action (both adaptation and mitigation); 2) biodiversity; 3) Indigenous knowledges and leadership; 4) sustainable service delivery; and 5) health, equity, and justice.

The NSI assumption is that NbS planning is a crucial climate action strategy, with a suite of approaches and tools, that can be used to address key societal challenges simultaneously. Viewing NbS in this way encourages collaboration across disciplines and sectors to consider synergies and expand opportunities to optimize NbS values and valuations, and to document trade-offs and barriers in a more transparent manner. This more systemic approach to NbS planning could be used to streamline metrics and monitoring protocols in practice, and lead to innovative governance and financing. The NSI aims to support the development of more systemic planning in practice, that accounts for and addresses synergies and trade-offs across NbS goals and objectives.

NSI Research-to-Action Phases

With the goals of the NSI in mind, ACT’s work will proceed in three phases:

Phase 1 (2021-2023): Co-develop a Framework-for- Action with leading researchers and practitioners across scales to multi-solve diverse key areas, build upon best practices and identify trade-offs.

Phase 2 (2023-Ongoing): Partner with Indigenous, local government, and public and private sector actors and organizations to tailor, co-create, and evaluate NbS across four scales of action. 

Phase 3 (2023-Ongoing): Mobilize learning throughout the research process, identifying important values, metrics, and indicators, best practice approaches, and key opportunities to advance and scale NbS.

ACT invites collaboration and partnership from national, regional and local organizations to build a community of practice aimed at applying the NSI Framework-for-Action. The goal is to promote cohesive and systemic NbS to address the multiple challenges that ecosystems and communities are facing now and into future, and to advance knowledge that builds resilience and sustainability for people and nature. By working collaboratively, we can catalyze learning and innovation, and advance best practices. We encourage interested parties to contact us below.



UNEP (2022). Nature-based Solutions: Opportunities and Challenges for Scaling Up. United Nations Environmental Programme.

GIO (n.d.). What is Green Infrastructure? Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition. and Matsler, M. A. (2019). Making ‘green’ fit in a ‘grey’ accounting system: The institutional knowledge system challenges of valuing urban nature as infrastructural assets. Environmental Science & Policy, 99, 160–168.