Vulnerable Natural Infrastructure in Urban Coastal Zones

The natural infrastructure along the urban coastal zones around the world is deteriorating. This deterioration diminishes nature’s ability to reduce the impacts of hurricanes, tsunamis, and pollution, as it also negatively affects ecosystem services essential to livelihood. Over half the people in the world live within 120 miles off a coastline.[1] Hence, without appropriate mitigation, prevention, and management of the natural infrastructure within urban coastal zones, billions of people will be increasingly vulnerable to a range of disasters.
Global population is expected to grow by another 2 billion in 36 years. Nearly all of that growth will be in the developing world—with the vast majority of the growth in Asia and Africa. The IPCC states that:

Adaptation for the coasts of developing countries will be more challenging than for coasts of developed countries due to constraints on adaptive capacity.… Adaptation costs for vulnerable coasts are much less than the costs of inaction.… South, South-east and East Asia, Africa and small islands are most vulnerable.[2]

As a result, The Millennium Project welcomed the opportunity to conduct an initial two-month study for the Rockefeller Foundation on the issues and prospects for vulnerable natural infrastructures in urban coastal zones, with special attention to Asia and Africa. An online questionnaire, called a Real-Time Delphi,[3] was used for an international panel to rate options, make suggestions, and add comments. A total of 85 people from 26 countries logged on to the RTD. Of these, 65 provided 3,137 answers (which included 675 suggestions and comments).
The participants rated several dimensions of the degrading of the natural infrastructure along the urban coastal zones in order of their increasing seriousness. They were pollution (e.g., garbage, oil, hazardous wastes, nutrient runoff); rising sea levels; erosion and other consequences of climate change; increasing size, density, and incomes of coastal populations; overexploitation of coastal biodiversity; loss of coral reefs and mangrove forests; underinvestment in natural ecosystems; lack of early warning and resilience systems; and undervaluation of ecosystem services, as well as lack of market mechanisms, taxation, regulatory interventions, and other incentives to prevent and manage negative externalities of commerce.

The root causes, in order of importance as rated by the panel, were coastal urbanization (growing faster than average growth elsewhere), spurred by loss of rural livelihoods and migration to cities; pollution; inadequate human-made coastal infrastructure; expansion of slums in the most hazardous areas; lack of early-warning and resilience systems; and high fertility rates in most developing countries. One participant summarized by saying that weak governance and the lack of national and urban planning are underlying root causes of all the other causes. Another added that the sense of separation between humans and nature is a root cause for the lack of valuation of natural systems that would be necessary to protect coastal resources from impacts of a growing population. Another view expressed was that the prevention and management of large-scale social crises within urbanizing coastal zones in the global South can be curbed, but only in combination with transcending a petrochemical political economy that enables and encourages exponential growth that inherently damages ecosystems services while leaving coastal infrastructures increasingly vulnerable.

The international panel was asked to rate which dimensions of the problems are becoming more serious for coastal populations of Africa and Asia. In order of increasing seriousness, these are:

  • Loss of rural livelihoods and migration to cities
  • Rising sea levels, erosion, and other consequences of climate change
  • Pollution of coastal areas (e.g., garbage, oil, hazardous wastes)
  • Rapid coastal urbanization
  • Inadequate human-made coastal infrastructure
  • Expansion of slums
  • Lack of early warning and resilience systems
  • Public indifference
  • High fertility rates in most developing countries

The study found two broad categories of answers to these coastal issues: changing the human relationship with the coastal environment and attracting human growth further inland and away from the coastal zones. Since urbanization and migrations toward coasts are two of the strongest demographic trends in history, and since the responses from the international panel were predominately about changing the human-environmental relations in the coastal cities rather than attracting people to inland areas, this report focuses more on the former solution set, although it does include suggestions for the latter as well.

The panel gave many suggestions on how to reduce the complex, long-term, large-scale set of potential human-natural disasters along urban coastal zones. These can be grouped into five main categories: public policy, technology, business-oriented, public education and training, and education/schools.

Public Policy

  • Map current and future vulnerabilities (changes in environmental and human-related conditions to coastal ecosystems and the people who live there) at the local scale via continuous high-tech global monitoring of environmental systems and transparent distribution of data (publicly accessible early warning systems); use a global territorial classification system for improved land and ecosystem management, early warning systems for disasters, and post-disaster rehabilitation programs, using as many self-organizing groups as possible to lower costs and increase local change.
  • Make urban planning a top priority; make it long-term, interdisciplinary, and participatory—involving NGOs, ecologists, anthropologists, the business community, the urban vulnerable poor, and policymakers; take a comprehensive and systemic approach, including promotion of healthy growth in slum areas, and use benefit-cost tools that engage citizens to include evaluations of the existing conditions, use forecasts and projections, and consider zoning and natural reserves.
  • Foster public information interchange on websites via mobile phones about the situation of coastal infrastructure, from the impacts of tourism to port-related activities, and include potential actions and strategies with potential consequences.
  • Implement regional land zoning based on sound scientific environmental diagnosis to regulate land preservation and use.
  • Promote “local ownership” of regulations and preservation programs among local populations to increase the likelihood of success.
  • Use tools (e.g., COAST) that help communities’ and stakeholders’ cost-benefit understanding and engagement in issues such as sea level rise and storm surge.
  • Include climate change resilience in planning and training.
  • Create ISO standards for urban coastal environmental management with the International Organization for Standardization.
  • Encourage the implementation of safer infrastructure and building codes in coastal areas.
  • Ratify and enforce international regulations such as the Law of the Sea and the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal.
  • Use economic incentives and regulations to facilitate a shift from a petrochemical political economy to an economy based on preserving and enhancing ecosystem services and renewable forms of local energy and food production that value and protect natural coastal assets.
  • Establish resilience-oriented intelligent social networks enabling local and hyper-local integrative management and governance within coastal zone ecosystems and social ecologies to function as complex adaptive systems.


  • Invest in producing meat without growing animals, to reduce factory farming pollution, GHG emissions, freshwater demand, and energy requirements per pound of meat produced.
  • Invest in seawater agriculture on the urban coastal parameters to produce nutritious food for humans and animals, biofuels from algae, and pulp for paper; to adapt to rising salt water; to reduce water demand from freshwater agriculture; and to sequester CO2.
  • Reseed living coral tissue over reef substrate of dead coral skeletons with fragments that all come from the same genetic individual to form one large coral head in tens of years, which in nature would take hundreds if not thousands of years to achieve.

coral reef
Source: Reseeding and gene therapy to restore coral reefs

  • Change architecture to make the built environment more resistant to destructive natural forces without destroying natural ecosystem protections and services.
  • Seek more-agile biological and ecological solutions based on superior understanding of ecosystem science to replace built environment solutions that are more brittle and destructive to coastal ecosystems.
  • Build green floating cities and use better architecture with state-of-the-art materials and green technologies.
  • Use new materials employing leading-edge technology, like nano-materials.
  • Construct high-rise buildings or vertical expansions rather than horizontal expansions in coastal areas to provide buffer zones.
  • Promote solar, wind, and tidal energy systems.
  • Transfer technology to implement advanced recycling and treatment systems for protecting coastal ecosystem against urban pollution.
  • Take advantage of technological convergences to create low-cost options that reinforce urban coastal areas: 3D printing (frameworks to grow coral reefs), materials, science with nanotech applications (to make the frameworks very strong but flexible), synthetic biology for biotecture (accelerated growth on these frameworks) to absorb pollution and storm impacts, and eco-restoration/eco-engineering innovations.
  • Use renewable energy solutions that diminish the impact of chemical pollution contributing to climate change, sea level rise, more-frequent and severe storms, and coastal dead zones.
  • Establish resilience systems of online social networks that promote situational awareness, use anticipatory science data bases, and enable community-based solutions through online collaborations.
  • Plant sea grass to attract fish growth.


  • Establish incentives and require certifications for more socially, environmentally responsible companies, and punish investors who degrade the natural infrastructure.
  • Incubate eco-monitoring and management businesses to be responsible for coastal environmental conservation.
  • Use public-private partnerships to cover budget deficits in infrastructural design and development.
  • Establish direct economic benefits and incentives to preserve key coastal ecosystems and natural infrastructure.
  • Include the value of ecosystem services and rehabilitation costs in economic development programs and real estate valuation.
  • Create incentives for people who implement actions that improve care for biodiversity.
  • Increase wealth to raise populations above subsistence levels while maintaining sustainable ecological footprints: poor cities usually have poor environments insensitive to ecological vitality.
  • Establish compensation fees for enterprises and any production/ administration units that damage the eco-resource/eco-services, and use that income to support the eco-management markets.
  • Use big data assessments to understand which elements of the business environment are most destructive to the coastal infrastructure and where investments could be made to enhance more-sustainable business environments within fragile coastal zones.
  • Increase taxation and fines for human practices that pollute.

Public Education and Training

  • Use social media to work with community groups to increase environmental consciousness and public responsibility and to resolve environment vs. development conflicts.
  • Create an Urban Coastal Day to increase global attention and opportunities for public education.
  • Encourage top African and Asian music stars to make coastal urban management a popular new “cool” social cause, and sponsor contests to produce songs like Our Coast is Our Future, The Sea You and Me, Together We Save Our Coast, Urban Systems Ecology Rocks.
  • Create a “we” discussion instead of a series of “I” discussions.
  • Invite civil society to develop community projects to educate the public in the care of ecosystems, and draw on traditional indigenous knowledge systems.
  • Foster mindsets such that caring for the individual self includes caring for the greater self of environment and others. When shared consciousness emerges to include self as part of a relational whole with the environment, then consensual actions to repair/conserve ecological integrity become more possible.
  • Support extensive government programs to educate coastal populations on the hazards threatening their environment, and solicit and/or pressure them for support and participation in preventive and remedial measures.
  • Create and infuse memes for coastal zone ecosystem preservation.
  • Provide coastal asset management training for municipal officials.
  • Educate planners, architects, and city officials.
  • Spell out the dangers of not acting effectively.


  • Invite young people to develop campaigns to care for their environment.
  • Organize youth environmental groups.
  • Introduce “urban climate change resilience” into curricula.
  • Teach preventive measures in primary schools, as well as more advance training in scientific specialties to solve these problems in both the short and medium term.
  • Sponsor media (e.g., SimCoastal interactive simulation) and entertainment programs on urban coastal ecology.


  • Create an X-PRIZE[4] for turning around coastal degradation by some empirical measure.
  • Establish Youth Corps to train and hire unemployed youth to plant sea grass along coastal areas to bring back the fish populations and to seed coral reefs and mangroves.
  • Promote innovative thinking about what constitutes value, and diversify the means of achieving it.
  • Promote ecologically sound integrative management, using capacity building for involving local communities and include adaptation measures in urban planning.
  • Instead of reducing all values to a dollar figure, rethink the GDP-driven coastal development strategy and work on creating new models of understanding “value.”

floting cities
Artist’s conception of floating cities from the Shimizu Corporation suggested by one participant.

There were also some suggestions to reduce urban coastal population pressure by creating incentives to stimulate inland growth:

  • Invest in infrastructure and economic growth of inland urban areas to discourage coastal settlements.
  • Improve communications, transport, and services in rural areas to levels similar to coastal cities.
  • Improve opportunities in rural and small cities areas to reduce migration to coastal megacities.
  • Stimulate small production and service enterprises in rural inland areas, especially green entrepreneurship to help build more-resilient rural communities.
  • Rehabilitate livelihoods of rural population and make small farming more successful.
  • Define public planning strategies that include urban-rural development opportunities to diminish migration to urban areas.
  • Stop the practice of land-grabbing.[5]

Halfway into this one-month online study, the suggestions to address the coastal natural infrastructure problems were reviewed and distilled into a list of 12. In cooperation with Rockefeller Foundation staff, 4 of these were selected for additional review by the international panel. Participants were asked to return to the questionnaire and answer three questions about each of the suggestions:

  • How effective might it be to improve the situation?
  • How likely is it that foundation(s) support could help implement the suggestion?
  • What innovative strategies could help this happen or increase impact?

The suggestion receiving the highest combined rating was: Ecologically sound integrative management, using capacity building for involving local communities and including adaptation measures in urban planning.
General comments from the panel to keep in mind:

  • Super Storm Sandy in the U.S. changed a lot of people’s “outlook” and, hence, the outlook for vulnerable natural infrastructure in coastal zones.
  • Even if these measures are implemented today, it will take at least 10–15 years to have a significant overall impact—thus the imperative to act as soon as possible and communicate the dangers of not acting effectively or quickly.
  • Changing mindsets about values, living places, and the environment takes a long time, but once it is done, coastal infrastructure can be improved in the relatively short term.
  • Migration to coastal cities in developing countries will continue because these areas offer opportunities unmatched by rural areas and lifestyles, yet these migrants have little awareness of the importance of coastal ecosystem services and are unaware of migration’s consequences.
  • The multitude of global crises has overwhelmed many, leading to indifference because the problems seem too many and too large to cope with, either on an individual or a collaborative basis.
We need a U.S.–China 10-year Apollo-like environmental security goal with a NASA-like program to achieve it that others can join once under way.

Don Hinrichsen, “The Coastal Population Explosion,” at retiredsites/natdia_pdf/3hinrichsen.pdf.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Chapter 6. Coastal Systems and Low-lying Areas,” in Third Assessment Report, at

T. Gordon, ”Chapter 5. Real-Time Delphi,” in J. Glenn and T. Gordon, eds., Futures Research Methodology 3.0, The Millennium Project

Explanation of X-PRIZES to stimulate change is available at

Land-grabbing means the foreign purchase of agricultural land in lower-income countries to feed higher-income countries. For research on this, see Lorenzo Cotula et al., “Land Grab or Development Opportunity? Agricultural Investment and International Land Deals in Africa,” at pdf?sequence=1.