Today, half of the world’s people live in cities. By 2050, three out of four people will be urban citizens. This reality makes smart urban development one of our biggest opportunities for a more resilient, sustainable future — a future where people and nature are connected and thriving together.

To be successful, we have to do a significantly better job of investing in innovative solutions in our natural environment. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for engineers, urban planners, community leaders, ecologists and investors.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity lies in our growing coastal cities. Consider that in 2011, of the 23 “megacities” worldwide (metropolitan areas with populations exceeding 10 million people), 16 were already in coastal areas. And, this trend is only increasing. Just this month, scientists from Texas A&M released a new study that estimates a more than 200 percent increase in the amount of urban land within coastal zones by 2030, and a doubling of urban exposure to coastal flooding.

So, what does this mean? It simply reinforces the fact that public and private sector leaders need to be able to make extremely wise development choices starting now, as hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent globally on coastal infrastructure. This challenge creates an opportunity to demonstrate the cost-effective and flexible role that nature can play alongside – or, in some cases as an alternative to – the menu of traditional infrastructure choices, such as breakwaters, seawalls, and levees.

Natural, or “green” infrastructure – such as coral and oyster reefs, mangroves, sand dunes and marshes – provides benefits that many engineered solutions can’t provide, including recreation, tourism, food, sustainable jobs and an improved quality of life for city residents. After all, no one snorkels at a seawall.

However, this is not to suggest that natural infrastructure could replace all engineered solutions. The key is that when we integrate these two approaches, we increase our resilience, reduce our risk and enjoy other important benefits.

An example: In the weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit in October of 2012, Governor Cuomo called on The Nature Conservancy to tap into our latest science and guidance on better ways to help protect New York City and the Eastern seaboard from future storms.  Just last year, Governor Cuomo and Vice President Joe Biden announced billions of dollars of funding for storm recovery projects, which will in part include investments in nature to strengthen overall infrastructure performance.

This breakthrough is still an outlier, but it offers a glimpse of the path. And, we are already on our way.  The Conservancy and our partners are conducting first-of-its-kind mapping of the ocean’s full value to people. We are taking a fresh look at mangroves, reefs, sea grasses, and salt marshes in terms of jobs, food security, risk reduction, recreational revenue and other quantifiable functions. We are examining these values at local levels and in key coastal population centers around the world, where this information is needed to inform development decisions.

But, once this information is shared, we still need investment solutions to make these opportunities viable. Some innovative approaches are already coming into focus.

We are working with insurers to incorporate the quantifiable protective values of natural infrastructure into their risk models. This could reduce premiums for assets protected by nature – for example, healthy coral reefs can stop 97 percent of a wave’s energy before it hits coasts – and incentivize better protection of these systems.

Offset payments, meanwhile, can mitigate a portion of the negative impact of increasing offshore development activities, such as drilling and mining. This approach could also leverage the high-value potential of “blue carbon” – such as the carbon stored in mangroves – as a powerful strategy to reduce climate impacts.

Blue bonds may offer another investable solution. These bonds are similar to a standard debt obligation, but the proceeds are invested in activities that support protection and restoration of natural and constructed infrastructure. They are modeled on the over $8 billion in “green bonds” that have financed World Bank projects since 2008. Blue bonds can be repaid to investors through contributions from national and bilateral climate adaptation funds, as well as revenue from tourism and fishery industries.

This is just a taste of the opportunity before us — the opportunity to transform how we protect, restore and invest in the ocean habitats that will sustain the vast majority of people and cities on Earth.

Maria Damanaki is Global Managing Director for Oceans at The Nature Conservancy. She leads a global team focused on transforming how the world manages its oceans, including sustainable fisheries management, large-scale protection and restoration of coral reefs and other ecosystems, coastal resilience, and a first-of-its-kind mapping and quantification of the full value of the world’s oceans to people.