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Natural Environment

Regenerative landscapes – part 2: Three case studies

Agricultural and industrial practices are causing profound harm to ecosystems across the developed and developing world. Regenerating affected landscapes can have manifold environmental, economic and social benefits. Here, we spotlight three successful case studies.

Dr Mark Everard, UWE
18 May 2021

Restoring the socio-ecological viability of the Loess Plateau, China

Severe erosion resulting from intensive farming on sloping lands had formerly threatened the ecological integrity and socio-economic viability of the Loess Plateau in China’s north-west, home to 50 million people. Centuries of over-use and over-grazing had created one of the highest erosion rates in the world and a consequent negative spiral of socio-ecological decline and poverty.

To halt and reverse the loss of the powdery soil that gives the Loess Plateau its name, the World Bank co-sponsored two major targeted restoration projects: the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project and the Second Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project[1]. This ambitious, landscape-scale restoration sought to regenerate functional ecosystems, supporting sustainable agricultural production and viable livelihoods. The introduction of zoned grazing, terraced agriculture on slopes to protect soil, water and nutrients, controlled fuel wood gathering, and other forms of locally adapted sustainable farming practices have doubled the coverage of perennial vegetation.

These measures have doubled farmer incomes, enabling diversified employment, the production of a wider range of high-value products and greater productivity through the creation of conditions supporting sustainable soil and water conservation. By securing food supplies, this work has cut the need for government to respond with emergency food aid. This has increased the prosperity of more than 2.5 million of the poorest people in four of China’s poorest provinces – Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Further ‘downstream’ benefits include dramatic reductions in the sedimentation of waterways and the associated infilling of dams, reducing inputs to the Yellow River by more than 100 million tons each year.

In Loess Plateau, China, action on regenerative landscapes has doubled farmer incomes. By securing food supplies, the work has cut the need for emergency food aid. This has increased the prosperity of more than 2.5 million of the poorest people in four of China’s poorest provinces.

The total projected costs for the first Loess Plateau project were US $252 million. Over half of this, US $149 million, was contributed by the International Development Association (part of the World Bank). The Second Loess Plateau project cost US$239 million, with an IDA contribution of US$50 million[1]. These sums are sizeable, but the physical and economic transformation of the Loess Plateau demonstrates the scale of linked socio-environmental benefits that can be achieved if appropriate ecosystem-based restoration is undertaken in degrading areas. This can lead to sustainable outcomes and there have been multiple wider co-benefits arising from close partnerships with government, good policies, technical support and active consultation with and participation of the people.

The projects’ approach has since been widely adopted and replicated throughout China. The World Bank has stated that as many as 20 million people[1] have benefited from uptake of the approach.

Integrated constructed wetlands in County Waterford, Ireland

The extensive installation of integrated constructed wetlands (ICWs) in the Anne Valley, County Waterford, Ireland, is evidence of a ‘systemic solution’ using natural processes to achieve multiple ecosystem service benefits. Up until the early 1980s, Waterford was naturally water rich. Wetlands characterised the landscape, performing a range of hydrological, chemical and biological functions. However, in the 1980s, agriculture improvement subsidies from both the Irish government and the EU drove the drainage of substantial areas of bog and other wetlands across Ireland. Although land drainage has boosted some facets of agricultural production, drainage of these wetlands produced a number of unintended negative effects on the local ecosystem’s services, including:

  • reducing water storage and floodwater buffering capacity;
  • substantially diminishing rivers and wetlands; and
  • altering chemical cycling and biodiversity.

Up until the early 1980s, Waterford was naturally water rich. However, in the 1980s, agriculture improvement subsidies drove the drainage of substantial areas of bog and other wetlands, producing a number of unintended negative effects on the local ecosystem.

The ICW concept addresses multiple ecosystem service outcomes associated with wetland processes. It takes a ‘landscape fit’ approach, reinstating cascades of shallow, vegetated wetland cells within natural, aesthetic and working landscapes. Linked benefits include wastewater processing, hydrological buffering, regeneration of flows in watercourses, public access to attractive regenerated wetland landscapes, silt and nutrient interception, and the recovery of lost landscapes and populations of aquatic species such as otters, brown trout, salmon, sea trout and eels. Networks of ICWs in the Anne Valley now support farm profitability, manage sewage from the household or the industrial unit and up to the village scale and provide leisure opportunities and regenerate the ecology, recreational and aesthetic value of a formerly much degraded catchment ecosystem. Widespread uptake of ICWs has reanimated the Anne Valley, ecologically, socially and economically, with extensive scientific verification of ecosystem service outcomes[2].

ICWs have been adopted elsewhere in Ireland for a variety of reasons. These include the treatment of landfill leachate, hotel wastewater and diffuse inputs in a city centre context, with many ecosystem service co-benefits[3]. Regulatory agencies, particularly the Irish EPA, have resisted granting consents for the installation of ICWs, due largely to the narrow terms under which these licences are issued and the exclusion from consideration of inputs to their operation and the wider suite of benefits that they deliver. However, ICW design has become incorporated into Irish Government guidance under the Water Services Investment Programme 2010-2012[4] which recognises the potential for ICWs to reverse former declines in the ecosystem services of lost natural wetlands. ICWs represent a low-input, multi-service output ‘systemic solutions’ approach contributing to sustainable development by optimising benefits across a range of ecosystem services and beneficiaries, increasing their net economic value.

New York City’s water supply

New York City derives its water supply from the Cat/Del (Catskills and Delaware) catchments. A contract was negotiated between urban water users and farming and other rural communities in the Cat/Del catchments, in order to undertake measures to maintain high quality water. This has become one of the largest global ‘payment for ecosystem service’ (PES) schemes. This arrangement was formalised as a comprehensive Memorandum of Agreement in 1997. Under the terms of the MOA, the city committed funds of approximately $US350 million (£190 million) with additional investment in a watershed protection programme costing approximately $US1.3 billion (£700 million)[5].

Though substantial, these figures represent only a small fraction of the financial costs and environmental impacts of alternative conventional engineered solutions to treat more contaminated raw water abstracted downstream. This partnership approach, linking rural and urban stakeholders, is key to maintaining New York City’s pristine water quality and the viability of farming for the foreseeable future.


This piece is an excerpt from Regenerative Landscapes, a report funded by the RICS Research Trust and published by RICS. The RICS Research Trust became fully independent of RICS in January 2021 and has been rebranded as the Property Research Trust.