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The 4 pillars of ecosystem restoration work together to create better communities

April 21, 2022

By Virginia King and Josh Running

Ecosystem restoration benefits communities through improvements in water and land, with an emphasis on resiliency and people

As we approach Earth Day, let’s imagine a clear, cobblestone creek winding through a forest. There are cold water-loving trout living in it and bees visiting bright-blossomed shrubs along the shore.

Now imagine the same creek straightened and turned into a ditch. The water is brown with stormwater runoff. The trout are gone. The flowering shrubs are replaced with concrete and invasive species, displacing the pollinators.

Unfortunately, this example of ecosystem destruction has been commonplace across North America. We’ve paved our natural areas and sent polluted water into our waterways. As a result, we’ve seen an increase in flooding and erosion, a decline in biodiversity and pollinators, and less stable ecosystems.

It’s important to preserve space for native species like pollinators to thrive, whether we’re talking about prairie grasslands, mountain ranges, wetlands, or forests.

Degraded ecosystems have costs, too. Floods increase the costs of repairing infrastructure and depreciate real estate values. It costs us more every day to restore our water resources.

Four pillars of restoration

Fortunately, Earth Day has raised our awareness of the value of a healthy environment. We know today that communities thrive when ecosystems are healthy. Healthy ecosystems contribute to cleaner water, more habitat for aquatic species, and more pollinators supporting our food supply. We know healthy ecosystems help protect infrastructure from flooding and erosion. They raise real estate values and sustain our quality of life.

Last year, the United Nations (UN) declared a “Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.” It made ecosystem restoration a global priority. The UN announced a 10-year goal of “preventing, halting, and reversing the degradation of ecosystems worldwide.” From forests and wetlands to mountains and coastlines, and even within our cities, we have many opportunities to restore ecosystems. In addition, ecosystem restoration contributes to several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—like life on land, life under water, climate action, and enhancing the resiliency of cities, all contributing to the sustainable communities of tomorrow. 

As scientists and engineers, we need to cover all the bases. At Stantec, we break down ecosystem restoration into four pillars: water, land, climate change resilience, and communities.

Let’s examine how these pillars work together and benefit from ecosystem restoration. 

Water is responsible for sustaining every species on the planet. It’s critical that we look to water for ecosystem restoration.

1. Restoring our water resources

Humans cannot live without water, and it is essential to vibrant ecosystems. For that reason, our oceans, rivers, aquifers, and other inland water resources top our priority list for restoration. . Investing in targeted ecosystem restoration that enhances water resources directly contributes to sustaining local communities.  This also results in sustaining the aquatic resources that live within those environments, equating to SDG #14 (Life Below Water). The same is true for restoring associated shorelines, estuaries, and reefs.

If we can restore and maintain our water resources, we can improve water quality and increase water supplies. This is especially important as we combat our current global water crisis. The UN estimates more than 2 billion people worldwide live without access to safe drinking waterand therefore, investing in the restoration of our water resources supports sustainment of water supplies and achieves SDG #6 (Clean Water and Sanitation). 

But we also need to address the impacts of severe weather and high intensity storms. When we restore ecosystems, we increase resiliency against stormwater runoff and flash flooding. It reduces riverine and coastal damage and impact to wildlife habitats. A good example is when we worked with residents to restore the Big Thompson River in Colorado , which equates to achieving SDG #13 (Climate Action).

These are reasons why water tops our priority list of ecosystem restoration. Water is the lifeblood of our global community. It connects and nourishes all of us.

Ecosystem restoration, such as what occurred on the Big Thompson River, increases resiliency against flash flooding in riverine and coastal systems.

2. Restoring our land

Land is another key priority for ecosystem restoration. Our future depends on less land degradation and more biodiversity. We need to emphasize the preservation of native species in our grasslands, mountain ranges, wetlands, and forests and when we invest in ecosystem restoration that reduces land degradation, we also achieve SDG #15 (Life on Land).

People benefit from biodiversity. We benefit from more fertile soils, more abundant timber yields, and larger stores of greenhouse gases. Biodiversity provides recreational and commercial opportunities and increases the aesthetics of the natural world around us.

Healthy ecosystems on our landscapes can provide a buffer between natural and built environments and reduce erosion and runoff.

Restoring landscapes lead to improved quality of life for animals and people. Our restoration of 185 acres of oak ecosystems, streams, wetlands, and prairies at Deer Grove Forest Preserve in Cook County, Illinois, is an excellent example of a healthy and diverse landscape. 

There’s a reason that water resources top the list of ecosystem restoration: It’s the lifeblood of our global community and it connects and nourishes all of us.

3. It is all about resiliency

Ecosystem restoration also lessens the risks and impacts of climate change. When our restoration efforts are made with climate change in mind, they boost resiliency to floods, droughts, fires, and buffer the effects of other catastrophic weather events.

Ecosystems also sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Healthy ecosystems directly contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions—which have the potential to reduce the effects of global warming.  These dual benefits—natural protection and carbon sequestration—simultaneously achieve SDG #13. 

Restoration of certain ecosystems can assist with the removal of additional pollutants from our water and our air. Acting like a powerful, giant filter for the earth, a healthy ecosystem organically recycles pollutants. The healthier the ecosystem, the greater the resiliency and productivity of our world.

Healthy ecosystems with rich biodiversity provide greater benefits to people.

4. Healthier communities

Our ecosystems are the underpinning of quality of life, no matter where we find ourselves living on this planet. Our minds and bodies benefit from a healthy environment, achieving SDG #11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities).

Access to clean drinking water, healthy soils for farming, and mitigating the effects of climate change are all key to sustaining the human population.

As urban areas expand, our communities need natural areas where we can hike, bike, swim, and enjoy nature’s beauty around us. Our parks provide a refuge from the hustle and bustle of urban life. We can think of no better examples than the restoration work we did with the Robinson Preserve Expansion in Bradenton, Florida, and the 5th Avenue Dam Removal in Columbus, Ohio.

What it means to be a good steward

As we celebrate Earth Day, let’s remember we all need to be good stewards. We owe it to the planet and the people who will live here after us. We can prioritize working with others and spreading awareness.

Through ecosystem restoration, we can achieve a more sustainable and resilient future for all. It’s an investment that will pay forward for generations to come.

  • Virginia King

    Virginia is a senior consultant on environmental liability, natural resource damage assessments, and natural capital projects. She’s an expert in global statues and regulations, and she designs and leads innovative strategies.

    Contact Virginia
  • Josh Running

    With more than two decades of experience, Josh knows exactly how to restore a heavily degraded ecosystem back to a stable and highly functioning community.

    Contact Josh
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