03.02.17 | By Rowan Schmidt, Matt Chadsey, Jessica Hanson

The evolution and expansion of cities has significantly impacted their biodiversity. The river valleys, harbors, and natural resources that once gave them life have mostly receded as part of the urban landscape. The loss of their critical benefits has, in turn, led to an even greater reliance on man-made infrastructure for replacements, such as expensive sea walls to protect communities from storm surges that natural systems like mangroves used to manage.

Understanding the value of our natural assets is critical to advancing overall resilience. As cities invest in their future, the resilience dividends from biodiversity and green infrastructure should be clear and central in their decision-making processes. With rapid urbanization, billions of dollars of infrastructure will have to be built in the near future to accommodate burgeoning populations. It is therefore critical to recast the concept of development to include both gray and green infrastructure and ensure that these investments are made to achieve overall resilience and a sustainable future.

City leaders can communicate the value and urgency of cultivating our natural environment by:

1. Raising Awareness and Making the Business Case. Stakeholders must gain awareness about the critical role of nature in the economy and in building resilient communities, and understand that nature provides real infrastructure services, from capturing and filtering storm-water to mitigating storm surges. This can be accomplished several ways, including:

  • Santa Clara County, California, United States. In 2014, Earth Economics published a study that measured the value of open space and green infrastructure in Santa Clara County, California, the home of Silicon Valley. The study was used to communicate to the public and business community the resilience dividends associated with open space and green infrastructure, such as groundwater recharge and recreational opportunities. The results were also leveraged to secure broad support, including unprecedented support from the business community, for an upcoming bond measure. Measure Q will now generate approximately $120 million over 15 years in support of open space conservation and maintenance.
  • City of Tacoma, Washington, United States. Metro Parks Tacoma used ecosystem service values provided by Earth Economics to earn support for and pass a $198 million bond for local parks in a city of just 200,000 people. The bond will finance the establishment and maintenance of parks in underserved communities, supporting local residents’ health and other resilience dividends such as stormwater retention, air quality, and higher property values.

2. Communicating the Facts and Figures that Determine Project Selection and Design. Ecosystem service metrics can be used to demonstrate the value of local green infrastructure projects and their connections to the neighboring community, the economy, and built infrastructure. Examples include:

  • City of Seattle, Washington, United States. During the planning phase of the $6.4 million Thornton Creek confluence project, an urban stream daylighting and floodplain expansion project, Seattle Public Utilities produced a benefit-cost analysis that included not only flood risk reduction and infrastructure O&M cost reduction outcomes, but also habitat improvement benefits. These economic benefits, calculated by Earth Economics, helped demonstrate that the project would have a positive net return, and the project was approved and completed. Recently, a heavy rainfall that previously would have flooded homes did not cause flooding, further highlighting the value of this green infrastructure project.

3. Encouraging Systemic Policy Change. Local projects can provide an effective way to achieve more systemic change.  Demonstrating their processes and positive outcomes can inform broader policy, strengthen governance, and establish funding mechanisms to support an integrated approach to build resilience and maximize the resilience dividend. For example:

  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): In 2013, FEMA became the first federal agency to adopt ecosystem services valuation in formal policy. This policy was approved using values and concepts provided by Earth Economics and informed by precedents set at the local level, such as the Seattle example cited above. Faced with rising natural disaster costs and climate uncertainty, FEMA approved Mitigation Policy FP-108-024-01, which allows the inclusion of ecosystem services in benefit-cost analysis for flood-related acquisition projects. In 2016, FEMA adopted additional values provided by Earth Economics that added ecosystem service values for drought and wildfire mitigation. Today, leaders are able to make more informed decisions, leading to stronger, more cost-effective projects that take nature into account and save taxpayer dollars.

Green infrastructure can help solve critical resilience challenges in a sustainable, cost-effective, and equitable way. Before this can happen, stakeholders need to understand the enormous benefit that nature contributes to cities every day and should start to view nature as a powerful tool for building resilience and equity.

Valuating nature’s services in monetary terms can help inform stakeholders and orient investment toward cost-effective, sustainable projects. These investments can support an economy that is less damaging to critical natural systems, and that will make cities and their natural resources more resilient and productive across time.

Blog posting originally published by 100 Resilient Cities.