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Transformative adaptation of rivers in an urban context: An ecological infrastructure and socio-ecological toolkit

Ecological infrastructure plays an important role in the overall health of rivers. This toolkit supports users to design, plan, implement and finance ecological infrastructure.
Multiple Authors
Schematic drawing of a pocket park in the eThekwini Municipality


Ecological infrastructure plays an important role in the overall health of rivers. They are largely viewed as nature’s equivalent to built infrastructure and are functioning ecosystems such as catchments and rivers. It is so important in regulating and delivering ecosystem goods and services thatunderpin our economy and life as we know it. Yet little is known about how to design, plan, implement and finance ecological infrastructure elements that can support socio-economic development. The following article presents a toolkit detailing ecological infrastructure and socio-ecological intervention options that seek to improve the overall health of rivers. It addresses issues commonly faced in riverine and riparian areas – and in so doing improves ecosystem goods and services. It aims at guiding practitioners, decision-and policy-makers, and anyone interested in the topic. This toolkit has been developed in collaboration with eThekwini Municipality (Durban) as a result of the CFF’s ongoing cooperation since 2018. *Download the full report from the right-hand column. A short overview of the toolkit is provided below.


The toolkit has been designed to curate and provide insightful information on intervention options that address the risks and impacts of human-related activities that are common in Kwa Zulu Natal (the province in which Durban is based), South Africa. However, the ecological infrastructure interventions can be transferred/adapted to other contexts.

At the beginning of the toolkit development process, the focus was on ecological infrastructure. However, as a result of many interactions with municipal officials throughout the toolkit development process, it became clear that socio-ecological interventions are also important to consider alongside ecological infrastructure.

To inform the selection of ecological infrastructure and socio-ecological intervention options, a review of international best practice on how to address issues commonly faced in urban environments was undertaken. From this review, more than a hundred ecological and light touch grey infrastructure interventions were identified. In parallel, risks and impacts to the health of riverine systems specific to the KwaZulu Natal context were distilled from the eThekwini Municipality Integrated Development Report, and in consultation with experts and municipal authorities. Eleven main risks and impacts were identified.

All identified ecological and light-touch grey infrastructure interventions from the global review were compiled into a database and the relevant ones aggregated according to the above eleven risks and impacts prevalent in KwaZulu Natal. The database is available in the report.

The toolkit

The toolkit consists of three main parts. The first two unpack high-level contextual considerations, as well as the socio-ecological principles of transformative climate adaptation. The third part considers an in-depth suite of light-touch grey engineering and socio-ecological interventions that can be implemented at a localised scale and to address catchment issues.

Part I:High-level contextual considerations

Before any intervention can be selected, or project planned, or any programme conceived, a broad understanding of the catchment is most useful. In this section, the user is encouraged to identify and consider the context of the issues that they would like to address through the use of ecological infrastructure. The user is prompted to consider the issue at the local level and in relation to the broader catchment. These include elements such as the socio-economic characteristics of the catchment, the physical and ecological characteristics of the river and streams, and the upstream and downstream connectivity and users (see figure 1).

Part II:Socio-ecological principles of transformative climate adaptation

This part unpacks and considers the socio-ecological and transformative elements of the toolkit. The toolkit is underpinned by the principles of transformative adaptation, building on the work of the LIRA 2030 project ‘Transforming southern African cities in a changing climate’, with the addition of the seventh principle of sustainability:

  1. Fundamental changes in thinking and doing
  2. Inclusivity
  3. Challenges power asymmetries
  4. Demonstrable in practice
  5. Responsive and flexible
  6. Holistic, complex systems thinking
  7. Sustainability

They are designed to be a lens through which to view and then apply the river management interventions (projects, programmes, and specific interventions).

Part III: Specification sheets on the suite of interventions​

Once the user has established where they are located in the catchment, the nature of the challenge that needs to be addressed, the potential impacts (intended and unintended) of the interventions, the regulatory process that would apply, as well as the stakeholder engagement required, only then it is advised to start the planning process. This section presents a suite of ecological infrastructure and socio-ecological intervention options with the relevant information on selected interventions that can be implemented on a localised and catchment-wide scale.

The following steps are recommended when planning, designing, financing and implementing the interventions detailed in the toolkit:

Figure 2: Recommended steps when using this toolkit, from p.12 of the report. Click on the figure for a better display in a new tab .

Each of the interventions proposed in the toolkit, is accompanied by a specification sheet that provides a description of the intervention, the challenge addressed, the impacts, capital intensity, the level of skills and expertise required, etc. It would be prudent to discuss and agree on the selected intervention from the toolkit – challenge to be addressed, potential impact, socio-ecological characteristics, beneficiaries, stakeholder engagement, legal permits and authorisations, upfront and maintenance costs, etc – with a multidisciplinary team.

*See the full report to have access to the specification sheets and examples of socio-ecological interventions (such as pocket parks as represented in the schematic drawing at the top of this article).

Suggested citation

C40 Cities Finance Facility (2020). Transformative adaptation of rivers in an urban context: An ecological infrastructure and socio-ecological toolkit.

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