The economic value of wetlands and open spaces

Is it ignorance or greed that allows the destruction of these valuable assets?

by William Daugherty

alifornia has lost over 90 percent of its historic wetlands and other critical habitats. As if this were not enough, our remaining wetlands, open spaces, greenways and riparian communities are under unprecedented attack to further reduce these natural assets.

I believe that these attacks are based upon personal greed and a failure to recognize that these natural features are of great economic value to our communities. There have been several studies conducted which prove that our country cannot afford to lose any more wetlands, greenways and riparian woodlands. Two of the best studies are the National Park Service's Economic Impacts of Protecting Rivers, Trails and Greenway Corridors, and The Value of California Wetlands, published by the Campaign to Save California Wetlands.

North County has three lagoons, two rivers, numerous streams, many scenic hills, considerable remaining open space and the Pacific Ocean shore lands. In addition to the incalculable value of these habitats to species preservation and biodiversity, there are very real and very large dollar values which can be realized, but not often recognized, by the preservation, creation and effective use of these natural habitats and in the development of our communities. These include: 1) increased property values and tax revenues; 2) public services cost reduction; 3) corporate retention and attraction; 5) commercial returns; 6) public mental and physical health; and, 7) tourism.

Property values

Property values can increase in proximity to parks, greenways and streams. Depending upon the quality of the asset, adjacent property values can be as much as 32 percent higher than property located 3,200 feet away. As indicated in the graph, a highly used, night lighted, sports complex type of park will adversely impact adjacent residential property values. Similarly, a stagnant, debris-filled waterway will also decrease the value of all types of adjacent properties.

The Secretary of California's Resources Agency anticipated that $100 million would be returned to local economies each year from an initial park bond investment of $300 million. The returns were to be in the form of increased value of nearby properties and stimulated business.

Building row upon row of residential units without adequate parklike greenway separations presents not only an obnoxious visual image, but is not cost effective for builders or municipalities. Considering the increase in property value and the resultant increase in tax revenues due to esthetic location of greenways, municipalities should actively discourage row housing developments.

Public services cost reduction

By preserving greenway corridors and agricultural reserves rather than permitting sprawling development, cities can reduce comparative costs for public services such as roads, sewage treatment, school facilities, fire and police protection, and waste collection and disposal.

In fact, according to studies conducted by the American Farmland Trust and the Bank of America, "over a wide range of development densities ... the ongoing public costs of new residential development will exceed the public revenues from such development." The greatest predicted shortfall was for the lowest density units, termed "rural spread." Even though some municipalities try to recover all the construction costs for the development of public facilities through fees levied upon the developer or from the formation of Mello-Roos districts, the ongoing costs of maintenance, repair, replacement and operation can only be recovered through taxes, which never seem to be sufficient.

It may appear to be contradictory that open space is less costly to the public to maintain than residential property. Consider that open space requires little public services other than fire protection; no roads, no schools, no sewage and no water.

Farmland is also very cost effective. Taxes are generated from the profits of the sale of farm products, but public service needs are minimal. Why some cities have eliminated "Agricultural and Agricultural Reserve" from their zoning categories should be questioned.

The use of environmentally and geologically sensitive areas for open space or passive recreation purposes can not only enhance the quality of life, but can also improve water quality, reduce property damage costs and loss of life. Flooding, slope instability and erosion, structural fire damage, and urban runoff pollution can be mitigated through conservation of open space. Probably one of the most destructive, costly and environmentally unsound of government programs is Federal Flood Insurance. This program subsidizes the cost of procuring flood insurance in flood prone areas; such that owners can receive damage payments each time they are flooded out. It would be less costly to buy the property and use the flood plain as habitat to contain the excess water.

Some residential development or redevelopment is, of course, essential to a city's health. However, the opinion often voiced by Chambers of Commerce and city officials that cities must "grow or die" is ridiculous. A city can have a vibrant economy without a continuous increase in population. A slow but continuous revitalization of the industrial and commercial base will provide the type of growth that improves the economic outlook. The income of residents, commercial and industrial interests will increase, and the city will experience slow, manageable population growth.

Rural spread, the demon of city planners and elected officials, is a reality. Few North County residents desire to live in the high density apartment complexes prevalent in eastern and mid-western cities.

This need for space has been the cause of the explosion in suburban life throughout the country. The suburban and rural characteristics of most North County cities is highly desirable to most residents and the general plans should reflect these quality of life attributes.

When selecting candidates for our city councils and county board of supervisors, we should determine if they support these concepts.

Corporate retention and attraction

Studies have shown that communities with adequate greenways, passive and active parks, and waterways appeal to both employee and employer.

What kind of impression do the small wooded lagoons and parklike surroundings have upon you? Studies have shown that such surroundings result in higher productivity and lower error and rejection rates, high employee retention, lower health care (mental and physical) costs, lower absenteeism and higher job satisfaction. These attributes have a marked dollar value to employers and to the economy.

Officials who wish to attract new industrial firms to their city should require developers and architects to utilize waterways and passive, parklike settings in their specific plans.

As pointed out in the previous section, though night lighted active sport complex parks are intrusive in residential areas, they can benefit from and be a benefit to, an industrial park. Residents participating in weekend and evening recreational activities can benefit from the under-utilized parking facilities.

Commercial returns

Expenditures by residents and regional visitors that can be directly related to greenways and waterways help to support the economy. The more attractive and accessible the physical and visual environment available for recreation, the greater the length and frequency of use.

Leisure time is free time where participants select and control their activities. Outdoor recreation is a major component of leisure activity and leisure and recreation expenditures account for a substantial amount of our discretionary spending. One study estimated that $620 million is spent annually by California residents for urban recreation activities (playing sports, visiting parks, jogging and walking, bike riding, etc.). This generates an estimated $400 million in personal income and 22,800 jobs.

When one looks at the broad spectrum of recreational opportunities in North County, and the start-up costs required to participate in one or more of these activities, the commercial benefits that can be derived by local merchants and manufacturers are staggering. Consider the start-up costs just to watch birds ("birding" to enthusiasts). Binoculars and a bird guide run about $60. The mid-range cost to upgrade to a spotting scope, camera and lenses amounts to $1,200. If you want to expand your range, add in hiking boots, socks, backpack, canteen and better binoculars which will run another $500. Bicycling can cost $380 just for a bike, helmet and lock. If you want to really get into the sport, $1,400 is an average cost.

When you consider all the different types of water, trail, and traditional park recreational pursuits available to us and the equipment and clothing required to participate in the activity you can begin to understand how valuable our parks, open space, golf courses, greenways and waterways are to our economy and the tax revenues they generate. Equipment rental also contributes to the overall economic picture.

Although every city is required to generate a General Plan for its development, none have found a way to assess the value of open space, greenways and waterways in developing the plan. Usually, these assets are included only on the basis of environmental law requirements and local ordinances, not on their contribution to the economic and tax base.

Public mental and physical health

Studies conducted in Norway and Sweden showed that, on average, the population in cities with numerous large greenway and waterway parks dispersed within the city limits had fewer physical and mental health problems than populations where the parks were located on the outside periphery of the city. This was true even when the parks could be reached easily using public or private transportation. Visual access as well as physical proximity are both factors which contribute to the feeling of well-being and to frequent use.

This view is supported by the California Parks and Recreation study of recreation preferences of California residents. The study revealed that people support and give higher priority to parks supporting passive recreation than they do to sports complex parks. This is a direct contradiction to policies of many of our local city councils which have advocated and developed major sports oriented complexes within residential communities, to the exclusion of more passive, unstructured, recreational facilities.

A few park benches adjacent to a playground or a ball field do not provide sufficient passive recreation for the local community. From a cost standpoint, active sports complexes cost far more to build and operate than passive greenways, trails and waterways. It appears that sports activists are more vocal and demanding of city officials than the majority of the population.


The travel and tourism industry is a leading employer in San Diego. It is predicted to be the leading industry in the United States by the year 2000. Expenditures for travel and tourism impact the local economy in areas such as transportation, lodging, food, retail and service industries. These expenditures support jobs, personal income, and tax revenues.

Natural and cultural resources attract visitors from outside of the local area, stimulating the economy in a variety of ways, both directly and indirectly. The President's Commission on Americans Outdoors found that natural beauty was the single most important criterion for tourists in selecting a site for outdoor recreation. Open space was the key element in the "quality of life," which was recognized as providing the foundation for rapid growth in the tourist industry.

Outdoor recreation, natural, historic and cultural resources are increasingly important attractions to visitors. Greenways can be designed to link cultural and natural resources and support the expansion of eco-tourism, where the attraction is nature and conservation. Since San Diego County has more species of birds than any other county in the continental United States, the importance of greenways, waterways, wetlands, seashore and ecological reserves should not be underestimated by city and county officials. Natural and cultural resources can be a destination in themselves and can encourage visitors to extend their stay in the area, enhance pleasure and business visits and assure return visits.

Protecting, expanding and enhancing our open space, greenway, riparian and wetland resources is not only compatible with the multiple habitat conservation planning programs being implemented in North County, they play a vital role in retaining our quality of life, improving our economic base and enhancing our tourism industry.

We can change the attitudes of our elected representatives. Make sure you let them know how you feel about these concepts. Together we can make a difference.

Bill Daugherty is President of the Buena Vista Audubon Society. Reprinted with permission from the BVA "Lagoon Flyer.