Nature-Based Solutions in the Portofino Natural Park

Interview with Alberto Girani, Director of the Ente Parco di Portofino, and Guido Paliaga (PhD), CNR-IRPI temporary research fellow. Both are partners and demonstrators in the RECONECT project.

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The landscape surrounding Portofino, along the North-West coast of Italy is characterized by steep valleys and mountain slopes extending to the shoreline. These slopes are a biodiversity hotspot and also include cultural heritage sites, which together attract a vast number of tourists. The surrounding landscape has been intensively modified since the medieval period with many changes superimposed on each other. The latest expansion of tourism infrastructure further increased the level of urbanisation, extending even further into the back-country. Thunderstorms and rainfall events in this region often have a duration of only one or two hours, but their intensity is very strong. Over the last 15–20 years an increase of storms and flash flood events has been observed, severely affecting the stability of slopes in several small catchments in the area. During heavy rainfall events, debris such as dead trees and sediment are flushed down the catchment in fast accumulating mud flows. In October 2011, thirteen people died during such a flood in the Cinque Terre- Val di Vara area, a very important touristic area close to Portofino. Economic damage was estimated to accumulate into millions of Euros. Collapsed and unmaintained terraces, together with insufficient space for flood infrastructure and poor forestry management are among the main factors causing these severe impacts of floods and landslides. These impacts drive the need for solving problems in a holistic way, through small interventions like e.g. maintenance of streams, wooded areas, and wall terraces.

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The EU Flood Directive is a much welcomed framework for environmental management, but there are some short-comings. This directive is an important tool for large flooded areas, like large rivers, but in Portofino there are small catchments and small streams. The problems faced resemble those in an Alpine context rather than a floodplain. Through the RECONECT project, guidelines for flood mitigation using Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) are defined in response to the contextual setting of Portofino, but which can be found in several other European countries like Spain, Greece or Croatia.

In the words of Alberto Girani:

“Our objective is to restore the natural mechanisms necessary for coping with the large amounts of rainfall that the region experiences. The landscape needs to be transformed and maintained in a way that the natural hydro-geomorphic properties can be restored. We need to connect back to the environment for decentralized solutions”.

These solutions must take into account and improve natural processes in the environment of the catchments.

Interventions are carried out through natural and NBS, aimed at exploiting and regenerating ecosystem services and natural functions of the area. Guiding objectives for these measures are to reduce the velocity of accumulating rainwater, and to minimize the amount of debris washed into waterways during heavy rainfall events.

Starting from 1000AD the territory was modified with stone walls to be able to cultivate crops, olives and vineyards. Construction and repair of these dry-stone walls and restoration of abandoned terraces are one solution necessary to prevent soil erosion. In addition to these restoration works, key NBS are targeted forestry interventions in the catchments. Dead wood and trees with shallow roots are potential sources of dangerous debris. Trees in the region used to be cut down after ten years of age. In the recent past, trees were allowed to grow bigger, but many fall over easily during rainstorms because their roots are shallow. Special clearing efforts are carried out by the Park Authority to support the growth of strong trees that can consolidate the ground. These re-forestation efforts aim to accelerate the natural selection process, which naturally happens over 100–200 years, to arrive faster at the desired forest cover. Further NBS include the improvement of hydraulic properties of riverbeds and tributary streams, as well as natural engineering interventions along hiking paths.

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Activities around implementation in the project area fall under three categories:

1. Physical work — While stonewalls are restored with the help of another EU project (TRIG-Eau), the Regional Park Authority has started managing the woods that are not in good condition. Clearing efforts are accompanied by reforestation and erosion control measures.

2. Monitoring — Monitoring of the Regional Park and neighbouring catchment areas is important in order to both determine where interventions are needed, but also to evaluate the effect of already implemented measures. Using available data and the analysis of active geomorphic processes, the most important areas for intervention are identified.

3. Stakeholder engagement — Participation of affected stakeholders in NBS efforts is a challenge in the region. In order to raise awareness and to better understand the perspectives of local stakeholders, together with the Bologna University a social-dynamic study was started, interviewing residents about the value of changing the landscape. A winter school to understand risks in urban areas related to floods is another activity that was carried out in November with 50 participants.

“While some administrators in the region understand very well the environmental situation and challenges, to others we have to explain why what we have to do is important for the future of the region.”

Another drawback is the lack of prestige associated with small and decentralised measures that unfold their benefits over time. Small NBS do not have the visible impact of structural interventions, and for this reason are less suited to show actions by politicians. This is one reason for limited political support for the widespread implementation of NBS. These challenges are addressed with above mentioned stakeholder engagement efforts, which are further advanced through the RECONECT project.

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What is specifically RECONECT bringing to the area?

Catchment management is a real challenge for the governance system in the Portofino region. Although the EU Floods Directive gave a strong impulse in Italy for holistic approaches building on catchment master plans, very small catchments are not necessarily addressed in the governing structures. The authority responsible for Ligurian catchments management is located in Florence, over 200 kilometres away from Portofino. For the authority it is hard to manage all the 500 catchments in the Liguria region particularly due to the large number of small ones. Responsibility for catchment management also resides with mayors. A mayor of a municipality of 200 people can have four small catchments within his/her jurisdiction, whereas another mayor in a different region can have over one million people in his/her municipality, while he only has part of one catchment to govern. There cannot be an even mandate and ability for the governing institution of a mayor to fulfil this responsibility.

RECONECT provides a network for exchange of knowledge and experiences, with the means for collective advocating for the successful approaches found throughout Europe. Through RECONECT, experiences of regions that face similar problems are gathered, such as regions with small municipalities but large demand for catchment restoration.

“We need to understand how to build new and better governance in these areas. We can together translate the experience from smaller catchments into policy. “

Ownership for environmental issues is a big problem in this part of Italy. It is not so easy to find the authority responsible for aspects of environmental governance in a specific place. It is easy to find the nature park authority, but not the connected political institutions. Involvement of the downstream private sector is especially challenging. Unfortunately, private stakeholders are hesitant to participate in the restoration of the area. Many restaurant owners for example do not want to contribute to catchment protection works, although they are heavily dependent on tourism and affected by floods. In one instance a restaurant had put concrete over a riverbed in order to have more space for chairs, which had negative effects during a flood in 2016. Still, the responsibility for improving the situation is commonly shifted to other institutions or authorities. A challenge for working together is also to bring stakeholders together in the first place. People who do not want to contribute or disagree with the approach proposed, do not join meetings in the first place.

The Park receives money for the municipality and one private association to implement projects, but the park alone does not have enough means and political power to manage the situation. The support of the mayor is crucial in that sense to initiate action. As previously mentioned, there is little prestige in our small, inexpensive and decentral measures, therefore a lack of political by-in.

“The political process needs to change to improve the situation, however politicians do not like to change processes. That’s why we face the situation that technicians are trying to move the process.”

Therefore one objective of the park’s engagement in RECONECT is to show achievements to the larger catchment authority in Florence, as well as to local politicians and community members in order to adopt a policy of small interventions spread in the catchments.

The NBS that are applied in the Portofino Natural Park, in conjunction with the accompanying approach for stakeholder engagement, have massive potential and demand for upscale. Since we talk here about small and decentral interventions that together reduce the hydro-meteorological risk of a catchment, large-scale expansion of pilot solutions is an implicit necessity for effectiveness. There is a high replication potential in all areas having similar geomorphological features. In Italy those areas are found locally in and around the Portofino park and the greater Liguria region, but also in regions like e.g. Sardinia, Campania, Sicily, or Calabria. Other European countries with similar settings are e.g. Greece, Canaries Islands, Croatia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands.

“We need to promote a new culture for land planning and climate change adaptation by integrating Nature-Based Solutions into guiding strategies and policies.”

· We must learn from nature and magnify the processes through flexible solutions which can adapt to changing situations, not hard ones.

· Adopt a holistic approach for spreading maintenance interventions at catchment scale.

· Find local solutions but look globally.

The RECONECT project demonstrates the effectiveness of Nature-Based Solutions for hydro-meteorological risk reduction in rural and natural areas

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