As Seas Rise, Nature Can Protect Our Cities

This week's news that Antarctic ice sheets are melting more quickly than predicted and sea levels around the world could rise by 5-6 feet by this century's end - doubling some previous estimates.

This week's news, and similar predictions in recent months, have been met with concerns of 45 million displaced in coastal Chinese cities and major Australian population centers "slipping under the waves."

Can these dire predictions motivate the urgent changes to our cities and societies that we need to thrive in a warming world?

In the United States, huge swaths of Miami and Manhattan lie just 6 feet above sea level, and New Orleans barely peeks above the sea. In fact, most East Coast cities would feel an impact in low-lying neighborhoods. And too often, these neighborhoods that face the highest risk of flooding are traditionally lower-income communities where the residents cannot bear the cost of flood insurance and investing in wholesale renovation. Cities must lead in protecting their people.

Immediate action to stem the release of greenhouse gases and slow climate change remains important, and the commitments made by nations and by cities at the COP 21 meeting in Paris last winter offer significant progress in that direction.

But regardless of what we do from today on, this latest news just reinforces that our climate is transforming in unprecedented ways, and we must learn to adapt. Cities must learn to utilize nature to protect our homes and businesses. Floodplains, mangrove forests, coral reefs, salt marshes, oysters - all can help reduce the impacts of rising seas and storm surge.

In Miami, my colleagues at The Nature Conservancy just announced a partnership with an engineering firm to develop new strategies for employing nature to help protect people from rising waters. Nature reduces risk, and nature protects people.

As my colleague, Kathy McLeod, The Nature Conservancy's Director for Coastal Risk and Investment says; "Miami-Dade is one of the most economically vulnerable locations on the planet. With over $345 billion in assets and 2.6 million people at risk due to flooding and sea level rise, powerful solutions are needed in order to keep the county safe."

And in New York, world-renown architect Bjarke Ingalls is working with city leaders and federal funding to design a project known as the "Dryline" - a frill of parks and bike paths and berms that hugs the edge of Lower Manhattan, protecting it from the sort of inundation that cost the city nearly $20 billion during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 as well as creating green spaces for New Yorkers.

It's not about New York "turning its back on the water, but [rather], embracing it and encouraging access," Ingalls told The Guardian.

I believe that the world can answer the challenge of rising seas, building sustainable districts in New York, in Shanghai, in Brisbane - communities that not only integrate nature to mitigate flooding but also provide natural areas for people. This is the city of the future - a place where all residents have safe, green neighborhoods in which to raise their families and live their lives. I aspire to a world where we can adapt to and manage a changing world by working with nature and not against it. Are we, as a society, up to the task of realizing it?

Pascal Mittermaier is the Global Managing Director for Global Cities at The Nature Conservancy. You can follow Pascal on Twitter @PascalMitter and learn more about his work at