How much is open space worth? In the Northeast, it’s worth quite a lot…

July 31, 2014

Written By: Daniel Horner, UNHSI Fellow

In 2011, The Atlantic Cities (now CityLab) covered newly elected Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s declared “War on Sprawl;” in explaining his push for smarter growth within the Old Line State, O’Malley spoke to the magazine regarding the state’s pivot from encouraging low-density development towards a smarter growth model:

Regional Development Patterns

“We’ve seen our population increase by 30 percent over the last 40 years, but the amount of land we’ve consumed has increased by 100 percent. When you look at the map and do the math you see pretty clearly that pace of land consumption isn’t compatible with the notion of restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay, let alone the health of our cities. It took three centuries to develop the first 650,000 acres of land in Maryland, and it only took 37 years to develop the next million acres of land.”Development patterns that disregard the value of open space and ecosystem services are a nation-wide issue, though they are especially noteworthy in the densely populated Northeastern Corridor of the United States, a stretch of land which accounts for 2% of the country’s area, but 17% of its population (John Rennie Short, Liquid City: Megalopolis and the Contemporary Northeast, (Washington, DC, Resources for the Future, 2007), p. 23).  Open space provides valuable services that support society, from cleaning the air and water to handling stormwater runoff, to providing irreplaceable sites for recreation and tourism.  But the development patterns of the last 40 years, which accelerated in the late 90’s and early noughties, threaten to replace a great deal of the country’s remaining open space with low-density, car-centric development.

The science behind valuing open space and ecosystem services is rapidly evolving, and planning agencies are starting to understand just how valuable undeveloped land can actually be.  For decades, the general rule of thumb has been that unless land is developed, it is inherently worthless to society.  Even in areas sympathetic to ecosystem services valuation, land is considered without value absent a thorough valuation.But almost all land has some worth, and it turns out, land in the Northeast is actually quite valuable when left undisturbed.  According to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), in the Delaware Valley alone, open space “adds $16.3 billion to the value of southeastern Pennsylvania’s housing stock, and generates $240 million annually in property tax revenues.” The same analysis found that Southeastern PA saves nearly $61 million annually in water treatment via its open spaces, which naturally filter water, and “trees on protected open space are estimated to provide $17 million in annual air pollution removal and carbon sequestration services.” This is in addition to the $37 million in savings that protected open space in the region provides in the way of flood mitigation.


Two tools created by the DVRPC addressing Smart Growth in Southeastern Pennslyvania

Two tools created by the DVRPC addressing Smart Growth in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

The population of the United States is projected to grow significantly through 2050; all those new Americans will need places to live.  However, Smart Growth is a good alternative to recent development patterns.  Smart Growth America defines this as “a better way to build and maintain our towns and cities. Smart growth means building urban, suburban and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools. This approach supports local economies and protects the environment.”  The DVRPC has highlighted opportunities for the region to grow in a way the balances the need to house a bigger population with the need to preserve the area’s natural wealth.

As an urban planning / public policy graduate student, I was already aware of smart growth, and gravitated towards the concept more out of interest in living in a world where I can get more places on foot or by bicycle or public transit.  The biggest surprise over the course of my research this summer has been to understand the massive economic value of the natural environment.  Famously, New York state limited development in the Catskills to protect access to clean, unfiltered drinking water; it’s been estimated that to perform the task nature provides for New York City’s water supply, an investment of up to $10 billion (with ongoing maintenance of hundreds of millions of dollars annually) in gray infrastructure would be required, all to replace a service that nature provides for free.Additionally, even in areas which are already developed, it is possible to borrow from our understanding of nature to help adapt to climate change.  Green infrastructure projects, such as Philadelphia’s Green City Clean Waters program, are proving that utilizing natural systems can be the most efficient and cost effective way of helping cities both improve quality of life now and prepare for climate change later.Understanding the value of open space will go a long way towards protecting it from over development.  There is no single antidote to “sprawl,” but improvements in ecosystem services valuation and regional emphasis on smart growth will certainly help.  Where we’ve already developed, upgrading our gray infrastructure to green adds value.   There’s a lot of work to do, but there are unequivocal advantages to “greener” development and redevelopment in American cities.

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