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Principles for just and equitable nature-based solutions

Explore the issues that must be addressed to help ensure that the design, governance and implementation of nature-based solutions (NbS) are just and equitable in the second of the SEI NbS briefs. The authors outline five principles to incorporate in NbS to achieve these goals, and present a case study from a semi-informal settlement in Kenya.
Multiple Authors
A brown coloured river surrounded by green trees and rocks
The River Ndarugu, which runs through the semi-informal settlement of Kaptembwa, in Nakuru, Kenya (Photo: SEI)


Nature-based solutions (NbS) are a hot topic in climate, environment and development circles. As they rise in popularity, it is increasingly important to scrutinize the narratives around the concept, its framing in policy and agenda setting, as well as its operationalization or practical implementation (Barquet et al., 2021).

This brief is one in an SEI series critically exploring key issues on the topic. Here, we focus on the social equity and justice dimensions and implications of NbS-related design, governance and implementation, particularly in the context of climate change adaptation, resilience building, and disaster risk reduction – three interconnected domains in which NbS are gaining significant traction. In this brief, we:

  • Highlight prevalent blind spots and pitfalls in terms of social equity and justice objectives and outcomes, and propose principles for just and equitable NbS planning and implementation.
  • Respond to the call to make NbS and their underpinning processes more equitable and just, by exploring different frameworks and approaches aimed at prioritizing equity and justice in NbS and other, similar approaches, such as ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) and payment for ecosystem services (PES).
  • From this, we derive a set of principles for just and equitable NbS.
  • We then illustrate the discussion through a case study from Nakuru, Kenya, that examines ongoing efforts to come up with NbS that can address socio-economic and environmental issues faced by an urban informal settlement, and can integrate principles of equity and justice into underpinning processes from the start.

This weADAPT article is an abridged version of the original text, which can be downloaded from the right-hand column. Please access the original text for more detail, research purposes, full references, or to quote text. Other briefs in the SEI series introduce NbS; assess finance for NbS; and address how they can be implemented at scale.

Conceptual approaches to equity and justice in NbS

In this section we discuss existing frameworks to illustrate the different ways in which equity and justice have been approached in conceptualizing NbS. These frameworks emerge from different disciplines, and, as a result, they are quite distinct from one another. Nevertheless, they have high degrees of convergence in terms of considering equity and justice in NbS:

  1. A framework of elements for successful NbS Nesshöver et al. (2017) put forward a framework of five key elements that, if addressed, can enable sustainable, effective and equitable development and implementation.
  2. A framework to make “justness” a focal point of NbS – Using expanded notions of justice, Cousins (2021) seeks to put justice and inequality at the core of urban NbS through three focus areas: i) race and class, ii) transformative co-production, iii) value articulations.
  3. Frameworks to generate multidimensional social equity through NbS – The framework proposed by McDermott et al. (2013) consists of four dimensions underpinning justice approaches in practice and implementation, such as the seven social principles for ecosystem-based adaptation as proposed and explored through urban contexts in the Global South.
Five elements for delivering sustainable, effective and equitable NbS, based on Nesshöver et al. (2017) (see p.3)

To explore the frameworks in more detail and associated tables highlighting their key focus areas please refer to the full brief.

Principles for just and equitable NbS

Building on these frameworks, we put forward five principles for ensuring just and equitable NbS. They are derived from the position that it is an inherently good approach to seek to develop solutions to address climate and disaster risk and, at the same time, to harmonize relationships within society and with nature:

  1. Ensure that design, governance and implementation processes are inclusive and transparent. These processes should promote solutions based on shared social values and collective actions.
  2. Tackle root causes of marginalization, inequality and injustice at all stages. Design, govern and implement NbS in ways that directly address the political and socio-economic relationships and power dynamics that can produce and reproduce marginalization, inequality and injustice.
  3. Limit the creation of economic and non-economic losses, and avoid the unjust redistribution of risks and costs. Recognize that redistribution can take many forms: it may be geographic; jurisdictional; social; or temporal and generational.
  4. Prioritize interventions for the most at-risk places and communities. These include marginalized, informal urban populations and rural populations with strong connections to nature that stand to suffer significant climate and disaster losses, both economic and non-economic.
  5. Devise and use valuation and measurement tools that assess social and political change and consequences. Counterbalance the traditionally strong economic focus on valuation and measurement in NbS design, governance and implementation with measures and evaluation of shifts in social vulnerability, equality, knowledge, power, empowerment and political capabilities.

Case study: Fostering equity and justice in Nakuru, Kenya

This case study provides an example of ongoing efforts to integrate principles that foster equity and justice into nascent efforts to generate concepts and designs for measures premised on nature-based solutions (NbS) to address environmental and societal concerns in Kaptembwa, a growing, semi-informal settlement in Nakuru, Kenya.

Residents in the area face many challenges: flooding; air, water and noise pollution; poor water quality; insufficient water quantity; a lack of adequate sanitation, sewerage and waste management services; and the absence of nearby green spaces for residents – all of which are likely to be intensified by the growth that is forecast for the area.

SEI’s work in the area has focused on the theme of common outdoor spaces, using participatory work involving Kaptembwa residents, Nakuru city authorities and other stakeholders. The results from the workshop put the environmental and health risks that residents face into the broader development context. Workshop participants created a vision statement for the community to offer residents “clean, safe, and accessible outdoor spaces situated within a community with infrastructure and services…to improve and sustain their wellbeing”.

Resident workshop, Kaptembwa © SEI

Learn more about the potential for just and equitable NbS options in Nakuru, Kenya by reading the full brief (see p.5).


Policymakers and researchers need not wait to adhere to the principles put forward in this brief to make NbS more just and equitable. Key elements are making NbS design, governance and implementation inclusive and transparent; tackling marginalization, inequality and injustice; seeking to limit losses and to avoid the re-distribution of risks and negative impacts on the most at-risk people and communities; prioritizing the most at-risk places and communities; and generating ways to value and measure social and political changes.

Ultimately, without just and equitable NbS, broader goals of adaptation, resilience and sustainable development risk being undermined by the unrealistic view of NbS as silver-bullet solutions.

Suggested Citation:

Boyland, M., Tuhkanen, H., Green, J. and Barquet, K. (2022).Principles for just and equitable nature-based solutions. SEI discussion brief. Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm.

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