Nature-positive thinking: An introduction

  • Opinion

    28 May 2024

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An article series exploring the concept of nature-positive infrastructure and how it could transform Aotearoa New Zealand by MinterEllisonRuddWatts and Arup.

Recent changes in global discourse, particularly the adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework at COP15 in December 2022, have put a spotlight on the biodiversity crisis and the need to reverse the loss of nature. 

While both infrastructure and nature are linked to quality of life, infrastructure development and construction can lead to a reduction in nature in urban environments. Addressing nature in construction and infrastructure projects can span from seeking to reduce environmental impacts through to ‘nature-positive infrastructure’ – enhancing the environment through a biodiversity net gain – a concept presently being developed across the globe. 

For infrastructure to enhance the quality of life for communities and our environment, it must consider nature and natural ecosystems at the heart of design and combine the needs of humans with those of the planet. 

This is the first in a series of articles that examines the different degrees to which nature can be incorporated into infrastructure projects, including the concept of nature-positive infrastructure, its associated benefits, its global presence, the regulatory and social mandates to unlock it, and the opportunities nature-positive infrastructure presents in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

To deliver this series, MinterEllisonRuddWatts has partnered with Arup, a collective of designers, consultants and experts dedicated to sustainable development. Arup brings its experience and expertise in delivering large-scale infrastructure solutions across the globe. MinterEllisonRuddWatts draws on its own experience and expertise helping clients navigate complex regulations and contracts to deliver world class infrastructure projects. 

Nature terminology 

‘Nature-positive’ and ‘Nature-based Solutions’ (NbS) are emerging concepts and universally accepted definitions are still evolving. Publications such as the Federation of Consulting Engineers’ (FIDIC) nature-positive Playbook [1], the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Global Standard for Nature-based Solutions [2], and the Nature Positive Initiative [3] provide some more commonly accepted meanings.

The table below explains and elaborates on some of the terminology used in the context of nature-positive infrastructure.

Term  Explanation 
Sustainable-infrastructure / green-infrastructure Projects that seek to reduce the environmental impact of the infrastructure through integration of “green” elements for the asset itself (e.g., green roofs) or during construction to reduce emissions, water consumption and waste. This is less comprehensive than nature-positive infrastructure and is the focus of many current infrastructure projects. 
Nature-based solutions (NbS)

IUCN defines NbS as ‘actions to protect, sustainably use, manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems, which address societal challenges, effectively and adaptively, providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits.’

This definition was used to inform the creation of the IUCN’s Global Standard for NbS which was formally adopted in 2020 following a highly collaborative process involving 800 practitioners and experts from more than 100 countries.

The Global Standard for NbS sets out to define clear parameters for what qualifies as an NbS and sets out a common framework that aims to increase the scale and impact of the NbS approach, prevent unanticipated negative outcomes or misuse, and help funding agencies, policy makers and other stakeholders assess the effectiveness of interventions.

The term ”nature-based solutions” is also used as an umbrella term to refer to a broad range of nature related actions that may not meet the IUCN definition and Global Standard. This has resulted in a significant variation in how NbS is defined and what it signifies.

Te Mana o te Taiao Aotearoa New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy 2020 defines NbS as ‘solutions that are inspired and supported by nature, cost-effective, and simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build resilience’ [4]. This definition has subsequently been referred to in other plans such as Aotearoa New Zealand’s First Emissions Reduction Plan and the National Adaptation Plan.


There are multiple definitions for the term ‘nature-positive’:

  • New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment defines it as ‘activities that lead to nature being restored and regenerated instead of declining’ [5]. 

  • The Nature-positive Initiative [6] frames it as a global societal goal that aims to ‘halt and reverse nature loss by 2030 on a 2020 baseline, and achieve full recovery by 2050.’

Nature-positive infrastructure

The FIDIC Playbook identifies several common principles for the term ‘nature-positive infrastructure’: [7]

  • A nature-positive approach should ‘put nature and biodiversity gain at the heart of decision-making and design’.

  • It needs to go ‘beyond reducing and mitigating negative impacts on nature as it is a proactive and restorative approach focused on conservation, regeneration and growth’.

  • In effect, nature-positive infrastructure would either incorporate nature and biodiversity considerations as part of the project design or be accompanied with substantial ecological restoration and enhancement.

  • Nature-positive infrastructure should thoroughly consider climate change as well.

The FIDIC Playbook aligns with the UK Council for Sustainable Business’ definition of nature-positive infrastructure.

Benefits of designing for nature-positive infrastructure 

The benefits of designing for nature-positive infrastructure identified in the FIDIC Playbook [8] include: 

  • Biodiversity: for example, living seawalls provide defence against sea level rise and/or coastal erosion while simultaneously encouraging biodiversity through microhabitats. 
  • Carbon: green roofs can save energy (operational carbon) through reducing demand on climate control systems. 
  • Resilience: natural flood management schemes that implement interventions such as retention ponds, wetland establishment, and contour and riparian planting can deliver benefits including flood risk reduction and improved water quality while reducing the need for traditional drainage infrastructure. 
  • Environmental: wetland restoration and/or water-sensitive urban design can improve soil quality and water quality. 
  • Economic: the incorporation of nature into design can create jobs, improve livelihoods and food, generate cost savings, decrease maintenance costs, provide direct return on investment, as well as uplift land value. 
  • Social: creation of open green spaces (pocket parks) increases cultural services, health and well-being, recreation, and amenity. 

In a world facing dual climate and biodiversity crises, coupled with strong population and urbanisation growth, there is an obvious need to secure these benefits from our infrastructure. Increasingly, countries are implementing policies and regulations requiring stronger disclosures on climate and biodiversity impacts of business. We expect this will drive more stringent requirements to protect and enhance natural ecosystems during infrastructure development.

Examples of projects where nature has been incorporated in infrastructure design  

Some examples of projects where nature and natural ecosystems are increasingly being put at the heart of design include: the Stroud Valleys Natural Flood Management Project, UK the Strengthening Coastal Resilience Project in Benin, the Houtril Dike Pilot Project, Netherlands, the Green Lungs of the City – Forest and Wetlands Park, Yiwu, China, and Living Breakwaters in New York, US. In New Zealand, we have seen an increasing focus on nature being a key consideration in the design of stormwater infrastructure. Te Auaunga Awa / Oakley Creek is one such example, where the landscaping and planting was designed to support the rehabilitation and restoration of native ecosystems in the area.  

For infrastructure to be truly nature-positive, it must achieve a biodiversity net gain - an outcome which arguably is not met very frequently, if at all. Keyn Glas is one of the few examples where a project has aimed to go beyond essential mitigation for negative impacts to enhance biodiversity. Working with Highways England, Arup designed a landscape scheme alongside the A30 in Cornwall, UK that takes a regenerative land management approach to restore habitats and historic landscapes, sequester carbon, deliver biodiversity net gain, and reduce risks of climate change impacts such as flooding.

What are the opportunities in Aotearoa New Zealand? 

According to the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission, Aotearoa New Zealand is in a significant infrastructure deficit of $244 billion [9].  In recent years, increasingly frequent and significant weather events have exacerbated this infrastructure deficit, jeopardised planned projects as resources are redeployed, and highlighted the need for building for resilience. The Government has made clear its intention to address the infrastructure deficit, including accelerating the delivery of significant infrastructure and development projects via fast-track consenting. Now is an opportune time to consider how nature should be considered in such projects.

To date there are few documented examples of infrastructure projects designed with the IUCN’s 2020 Global Standard in mind. However, interest is growing and there is an opportunity for future infrastructure projects to embed the principles and criteria of the Global Standard into all facets of design to ensure the development of equitable nature-positive infrastructure. A tenet of the IUCN’s Global Standard is the requirement of genuine engagement with indigenous people and to be informed and directed by indigenous knowledge systems. 

In Aotearoa New Zealand there is rich opportunity to showcase leadership in utilising the IUCN’s Global Standard as a tool to challenge how infrastructure is perceived, planned, designed, and constructed which could deliver nature-positive outcomes in alignment with te ao Māori. 

There are widespread benefits to considering nature at the heart of infrastructure design. Our series will examine how to unlock these benefits. Please reach out to one of our experts at MinterEllisonRuddWatts or
Arup if you would like to know more. 


[1] From page 14 of the Playbook, for sources and different definitions of ‘nature-positive’ approaches, see: Sophus, O.S.E. zu Ermgassen, et al. 2022. Are Corporate Biodiversity Commitments Consistent With Delivering ‘Nature-Positive’ Outcomes? A Review of ‘Nature-Positive’ Definitions, Company Progress and Challenges. Journal of Cleaner Production 379. Available at:
[4] As defined on page 62 of Te Mana o te Taiao Aotearoa New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy 2020. Found here.
[5] Ministry for the Environment. 2023. Helping nature and people thrive: Exploring a biodiversity credit system for Aotearoa New Zealand – Discussion document. Wellington: Ministry for the Environment, p.8 
[7] Playbook page 14. 
[8] For more examples and detail see the FIDIC playbook. Found here