Climate change is increasing the threat of erosion and flooding along coastlines globally. Engineering solutions (e.g. seawalls and breakwaters) in response to protecting coastal communities and associated infrastructure are increasingly becoming economically and ecologically unsustainable. This has led to recommendations to create or restore natural habitats, such as sand dunes, saltmarsh, mangroves, seagrass and kelp beds, and coral and shellfish reefs, to provide coastal protection in place of (or to complement) artificial structures. Coastal managers are frequently faced with the problem of an eroding coastline, which requires a decision on what mitigation options are most appropriate to implement. A barrier to uptake of nature-based coastal defence is stringent evaluation of the effectiveness in comparison to artificial protection structures. Here, we assess the current evidence for the efficacy of nature-based versus artificial coastal protection and discuss future research needs. Future projects should evaluate habitats created or restored for coastal defence for cost-effectiveness in comparison to an artificial structure under the same environmental conditions. Cost-benefit analyses should take into consideration all ecosystem services provided by nature-based or artificial structures in addition to coastal protection. Interdisciplinary research among scientists, coastal managers and engineers are required to facilitate the experimental trials needed to test the value of these shoreline protection schemes, in order to support their use as alternatives to artificial structures. This research needs to happen now as our rapidly changing climate requires new and innovative solutions to reduce the vulnerability of coastal communities to an increasingly uncertain future.