09.26.16 | By Jessica Hanson

As worldwide temperatures soar and disasters intensify, urban planners and political leaders are spending more and more time trying to understand and build local resilience to help their communities withstand shocks like floods and wildfires as well as address long-term stresses like social inequality. The Rockefeller Foundation has emerged as a global leader in this effort, most notably by pioneering the 100 Resilient Cities initiative (100 RC).

In support of the 100 participating cities, Earth Economics has joined a network of subject matter experts (Platform Partners) in disciplines ranging from urban planning to risk management. Upon request, Earth Economics provides cities with expert valuation of their natural capital and helps develop funding strategies. Over the past year, we’ve leveraged our expertise in water, disaster mitigation, and open space to support multiple cities’ projects.

Most recently, we collaborated with the City of El Paso, Texas, to conduct an ecosystem services valuation of the city’s open space. El Paso faces big challenges from drought, flooding, poor health infrastructure, and social inequity. In the coming years, the city will design solutions with the help of local stakeholders and 100RC partners.

This initial study was the first ever to estimate the dollar value of El Paso’s critical ecosystem services. Focused on public lands, the study aimed to inform effective preservation and development decisions by estimating El Paso’s natural capital and ecosystem service values and providing a conceptual model that connects El Paso’s open space and its economy.

Though its value is often overlooked, El Paso’s open space is a valuable part of the economy and a critical part of the regional ecosystem. In the El Paso area, the shrublands surrounding the Franklin Mountains support rich biodiversity, capture water for the Hueco Bolson aquifer (which supplies 1/3 of El Paso’s water), and provide numerous other ecosystem benefits, from erosion control and flood protection to increased property values and improved health via recreation.

El Paso’s natural capital is worth between $3.4 million and $6.7 million in ecosystem service benefits to the local economy each year, and its total asset value is between $107 million and $211 million (with a 100-year lifespan and a 3% discount rate). As long as the city maintains the area’s health, this value can continue indefinitely.

Across the country, planners and policy makers are starting to account for natural capital assets like these, and it’s critical that this trend continues. Natural capital has too long been undervalued or ignored entirely, yet the shift towards valuing nature ultimately supports better decision making and fosters more practical, cost-effective outcomes in restoration and stewardship efforts. Nationwide, communities are seeking to restore balance and save tax dollars. By incorporating natural capital into assessments and seeking ways to return to fully functional natural systems, cities will find, in many cases, the most cost-effective, resilient, and durable solutions to today’s most critical problems.

Photo Credit: Allen Sheffield via Flickr