you're reading...

Coastal Management

Fig leaf or laurel wreath – When does “green” development help or hurt the ocean?

Firth, L. B., Airoldi, L., Bulleri, F., Challinor, S., Chee, S. Y., Evans, A. J., … & Hawkins, S. J. (2020). Greening of grey infrastructure should not be used as a Trojan horse to facilitate coastal development. Journal of Applied Ecology.

A diver in an artificial reef, which is also an old, sunken car. Photo by Dr. James P. McVey from the NOAA Sea Grant Program.

The fig leaf can be used to cover a multitude of sins – or so medieval art censors would have you believe. When nudity in art became passé, it was a common practice to cover the genitals of sculptures with a small, curly fig leaf.  In the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve discover they are naked, they cover themselves in leaves, leading Saint Bede the Venerable to declare the fig leaf as a symbol of the tendency to sin. Now a group of marine scientists have pointed out the most recent iteration of the fig leaf, but this time it represents a tendency to sin against the environment. They warn that the practice of “greening” new coastal developments, or changing new projects so they look more environmentally friendly, is nothing but a fig leaf if it is simply used as a fast pass to continue exploiting the environment. Just as a fig leaf doesn’t really stop Michelangelo’s David from looking naked, greening gray infrastructure may do little to actually stop environmental harm.

Michelangelo’s David with a fig leaf covering his nudity. Photo from “The Life of Michael Angelo” by Romain Rolland, published in 1912.

How can infrastructure be green?

As the human population continues to grow, so do our impacts on the environment. We build more and more, especially along coveted coastlines that are valuable for business, leisure, and beauty. However the structures we build in and around the water are understandably a hard surface (think seawalls). While these may be essential for continued development and protection of our buildings, these hard surfaces are usually a poor replacement for the roles played by natural coastal ecosystems.

To try to lessen the environmental impact of coastal developments, some have tried integrated greening of gray infrastructure, or IGGI for short. The principle behind it is that if a green solution, or one that is more environmentally friendly, cannot be found, then the harm of the development is minimized by building in such a way that the development should still help promote biodiversity. A common example is an artificial reef, where hard surfaces underwater offer a place for coral to grow. The idea has quickly gained momentum, but the study of greening gray infrastructure is still a very young science, and we still have a lot to learn.

The tragedy of the mitigation hierarchy

The phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” is unavoidable in a world struggling with the polluting effects of plastic. This is a form of mitigation hierarchy, in which steps are outlined in terms of effectiveness. Reducing plastic use is best, reusing our materials is good, and if all else fails, recycle. Still, guess which one of those steps gained the most traction in American culture.

Sustainable development has its own hierarchy: avoid, minimize, restore/rehab, and compensate. However just as recycling plastic has become infinitely more popular than reducing plastic use, compensating for development, or greening gray infrastructure, is gaining momentum and could quickly surpass the first three more effective steps in the hierarchy.

While making infrastructure greener is a good thing, the ecological benefit often falls short of the goal. Furthermore, we still don’t know how these new structures might spread pathogens or invasive species. For example, some scientists have hypothesized that large blooms of jellyfish are worsened by increased human development since part of the jellyfish life cycle relies on hard substrate. More seawalls and artificial surfaces may mean more places for baby jellyfish which will lead to more stinging creatures in the water.

The reproductive cycle of jellyfish. Notice that stages 3, 4, and 5 are reliant on there being a hard surface, which is why some scientists believe that increased human development along the coasts can exacerbate jellyfish blooms. Diagram by Zina Deretsky of the National Science Foundation.

Fig, laurel, or Trojan horse

The scientists proposed three potential categories of green infrastructure. The first is a laurel wreath, or a win-win situation. When used right, greening infrastructure can retrospectively improve buildings and seawalls that have already been constructed, making them more ecologically valuable while also maintaining the same level of benefits we’ve had for years. For example, the Billion Oyster Project is using hard structures as a place to grow oysters in New York.

Different forms of coastal development around the globe. Panel A is densely packed buildings in Hon Kong, B is a treadmill that is part of an artificial reef in Malaysia, and C is an industrialized area in the UK. Figure 1 from Firth et al, 2020.

The second category is the fig leaf, in which a greening proposal for a new development is used to cover over the ecological damage that is about to be done. For example, breakwaters serve as a home to a wide variety of species, but they are not the same plants and animals that would live in soft sediment, for example. While a breakwater can support its own kind of ecosystem, it would behave very differently than the habitat that it replaced.

The third category is the most nefarious. The scientists noted a number of times where developers would weakly “green” their proposals as a deliberate method to “expedite, facilitate, and reduce costs of regulatory processes.” In their words, a number of constructed artificial reefs are “merely disguised ocean dumping grounds” (see the picture of the treadmill underwater). The intent behind this kind of decision is not to protect the sea but to avoid regulations, and is thus a “Trojan horse.” 

Going forward

In the future, we need to be on the lookout for these Trojan horses and fig leaves. In the past, scientists have studied the success of greening infrastructure by measuring biodiversity, but Firth and her colleagues challenged scientists to come up with more accurate ways to compare two different ecosystems, like an artificial reef and a sea grass bed. They also warned that we need to pay more attention to failure. Scientists like to talk about what worked, but journals also prefer to publish successful studies. This can leave us unaware when we do something that is useless or even potentially harmful. If we fail to recognize fig leaves in our coastal development, years later we will see them as we now see fig leaves on sculptures – an ugly, symbolic gesture that ultimately did nothing.


No comments yet.

Post a Comment


  • by oceanbites 2 months ago
    Happy Earth Day! Take some time today to do something for the planet and appreciate the ocean, which covers 71% of the Earth’s surface.  #EarthDay   #OceanAppreciation   #Oceanbites   #CoastalVibes   #CoastalRI 
  • by oceanbites 3 months ago
    Not all outdoor science is fieldwork. Some of the best days in the lab can be setting up experiments, especially when you get to do it outdoors. It’s an exciting mix of problem solving, precision, preparation, and teamwork. Here is
  • by oceanbites 4 months ago
    Being on a research cruise is a unique experience with the open water, 12-hour working shifts, and close quarters, but there are some familiar practices too. Here Diana is filtering seawater to gather chlorophyll for analysis, the same process on
  • by oceanbites 5 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #oceanbites  we are featuring Hannah Collins  @hannahh_irene  Hannah works with marine suspension feeding bivalves and microplastics, investigating whether ingesting microplastics causes changes to the gut microbial community or gut tissues. She hopes to keep working
  • by oceanbites 5 months ago
    Leveling up - did you know that crabs have a larval phase? These are both porcelain crabs, but the one on the right is the earlier stage. It’s massive spine makes it both difficult to eat and quite conspicuous in
  • by oceanbites 5 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Cierra Braga. Cierra works ultraviolet c (UVC) to discover how this light can be used to combat biofouling, or the growth of living things, on the hulls of ships. Here, you
  • by oceanbites 5 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Elena Gadoutsis  @haysailor  These photos feature her “favorite marine research so far: From surveying tropical coral reefs, photographing dolphins and whales, and growing my own algae to expose it to different
  • by oceanbites 6 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on Oceanbites we are featuring Eliza Oldach. According to Ellie, “I study coastal communities, and try to understand the policies and decisions and interactions and adaptations that communities use to navigate an ever-changing world. Most of
  • by oceanbites 6 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Jiwoon Park with a little photographic help from Ryan Tabata at the University of Hawaii. When asked about her research, Jiwoon wrote “Just like we need vitamins and minerals to stay
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #Oceanbites  we are featuring  @riley_henning  According to Riley, ”I am interested in studying small things that make a big impact in the ocean. Right now for my master's research at the University of San Diego,
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Gabby Stedman. Gabby is interested in interested in understanding how many species of small-bodied animals there are in the deep-sea and where they live so we can better protect them from
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Shawn Wang! Shawn is “an oceanographer that studies ocean conditions of the past. I use everything from microfossils to complex computer models to understand how climate has changed in the past
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    Today we are highlighting some of our awesome new authors for  #WriterWednesday  Today we have Daniel Speer! He says, “I am driven to investigate the interface of biology, chemistry, and physics, asking questions about how organisms or biological systems respond
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    Here at Oceanbites we love long-term datasets. So much happens in the ocean that sometimes it can be hard to tell if a trend is a part of a natural cycle or actually an anomaly, but as we gather more
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    Have you ever seen a lobster molt? Because lobsters have exoskeletons, every time they grow they have to climb out of their old shell, leaving them soft and vulnerable for a few days until their new shell hardens. Young, small
  • by oceanbites 9 months ago
    A lot of zooplankton are translucent, making it much easier to hide from predators. This juvenile mantis shrimp was almost impossible to spot floating in the water, but under a dissecting scope it’s features really come into view. See the
  • by oceanbites 9 months ago
    This is a clump of Dead Man’s Fingers, scientific name Codium fragile. It’s native to the Pacific Ocean and is invasive where I found it on the east coast of the US. It’s a bit velvety, and the coolest thing
  • by oceanbites 10 months ago
    You’ve probably heard of jellyfish, but have you heard of salps? These gelatinous sea creatures band together to form long chains, but they can also fall apart and will wash up onshore like tiny gemstones that squish. Have you seen
  • by oceanbites 11 months ago
    Check out what’s happening on a cool summer research cruise! On the  #neslter  summer transect cruise, we deployed a tow sled called the In Situ Icthyoplankton Imaging System. This can take pictures of gelatinous zooplankton (like jellyfish) that would be
  • by oceanbites 11 months ago
    Did you know horseshoe crabs have more than just two eyes? In these juveniles you can see another set in the middle of the shell. Check out our website to learn about some awesome horseshoe crab research.  #oceanbites   #plankton   #horseshoecrabs 
WP2Social Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com