The Benefits of Open Space: Chapter 7

The Economic Benefits of Open Space

Stephen Miller
Executive Director, Isleboro Islands Trust

Waters, you are the ones who bring us the life force.
Help us find nourishment so that we may look upon great joy.
Let us share in the most delicious sap that you have, as if you were loving mothers.
Let us go straight to the house of the one for whom your waters give us life and give us birth.
For our well-being, let the goddesses be an aid to us; the waters be for us to drink.
Let them cause well-being and health to flow over us.

-- Hindu Prayer

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The evening sun was on our backs as my two sons and I dragged their homemade skiff to the water and packed the tent, their sleeping bags, and backpacks into the crowded space. I sat on a beached log to watch them paddle the few thousand feet over to Hutchin's Island. Two osprey circled the glass-like water of the marsh behind the sand bar. The boys making camp across the cove were bathed in a clear orange light that made the moment priceless and timeless.

We find ourselves, in this late twentieth century, facing limits to and changes in many of the concepts and aspirations we were taught to believe life would always offer: that our standard of living would always improve, that having more gadgets would make us happier, that there would always be frontiers to conquer and opportunities to seize, that science and technology could solve any and every problem, that economic prosperity would follow growth, that life was healthy and safe and secure. My sons that evening were a bridge to the past when all young boys went on their first overnight adventure, very probably in a small boat they had made themselves. I was in contact with the ancient neighbors of this place who came by canoe to harvest soft-shell clams and camp on the banks of Hutchin's Island all summer long. Yet the fish hawks, the light, and the glistening grasses of the marsh were powerful in their presence, grounding the experience to this time, this place, this special niche. And then, my mind moved toward the uncertain future. Will my sons have the pleasure of watching their children set sail into adulthood with this same kind of contentment? Will there be places like Hutchin's Island for my grandchildren and their grandchildren and their grandchildren beyond them into the future to explore and add to their own individual stores of knowledge and experience? Even more troubling, will the future hold clean water, wild fish, fertile soil, pure air to breathe? Sitting on the weather-worn trunk of that long ago fallen tree, I was sobered by the thought that we humans have overshot the globe's ability to support life as we presently know it. At the same time, I felt strangely empowered as the importance of preserving this kind of experience was focused in a new light.

We are at the absolutely unique moment in time when natural capital has replaced man-made capital as life's limiting factor. Gone are the days when there was always some other place on the globe to go to for resource extraction when the present site was depleted. The life-sustaining products of nature and open space are not simply limited but are actually declining. Human material demand now exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth. There are fewer and fewer places capable of supporting agriculture each day, drinking water is becoming increasingly difficult to find, fisheries are collapsing. We have moved from a world relatively full of natural capital and empty of man-made capital (and people) to a world relatively full of the latter and empty of the former (Daly, 1994).

Natural capital can be described as the sum of the values of the functions and products of the ecosystem. Natural capital consists of three major components:

Natural capital is rapidly becoming more and more scarce as open space is increasingly converted to or degraded by man-made capital. Yet the value of what is being lost often goes unnoticed or unmeasured.

The list of benefits of open space is long and deep, beginning with the most elemental functions that support life to provision of the spiritually invigorating experiences that renew our will to carry on. These benefits can be described in equally myriad ways, from prose and poetry to dollars and cents. Yet one thing is clear: the inherent uncertainty and risk associated with continued reduction in these benefits of open space highlights the common sense need to maximize the present productivity of nature and work toward increasing its future supply. In the face of uncertainty and irreversibility associated with the loss of natural capital, conserving what is left of natural capital is a sound strategy. In fact, preserving a variety of habitats having somewhat differing attributes as sites for the continued production of natural capital is analogous to the economic concept of risk diversification in an investment portfolio (Ehrlich, 1994).

Conserving and investing in life support ecosystems and interrelated socioeconomic systems provides some resilience to change and maintains the basis on which successful economic activity can continue. Nature's real producers are found in open space. Human production draws energy, materials, even inspiration from these real producers. Humans create possessions (and ideas); natural systems are the basis of that creation (oxygen, chlorophyll, water, soil, etc.). The economic system is a subsystem of the global ecosystem and local economies are subsets of local ecosystems. Open space provides functions that are essential to our economic well being. These open space economic benefits, then, provide the basis for satisfying human needs and are the ground on which human actions play out their life long drama. Finding the language, the measures, the means of charting the economic and ecologic relationship is not easy or always clear. New methods and improvements in old methods are available, and a brief survey follows.

Our lives are embedded within a vast network of natural systems. We live within the confines of natural processes and components, the sum of which are the earth's ecosystem. As illustrated in the accompanying figure, natural processes and components provide goods and services for human use (such as soil for agriculture, water for drinking, wetlands for waste absorption) but also represent hazards and risks in various forms (such as hurricanes, floods, system complexity, irreversibility). Human actions, on the other hand, can impact the natural system negatively (through species eradication, soil erosion, acid rain, degraded water quality) or positively (through increased soil fertility using organic amenities, forest improvement through species diversification), although it is often difficult to make positive contributions to the ecosystem that improve on pre-industrial levels of ecosystem function.

The economic benefits of open space are natural capital. Most of these benefits, such as aquifer recharge or scenic vistas, are public. All members of the community benefit equally. Development and many other human activities preclude or threaten these open space environmental services. Implied is a shift in perspective away from seeing natural resources and environmental services as free or incapable of being measured (and therefore of no empirical economic value) toward seeing open space values as integral to long-term economic well-being. A true accounting of these benefits will list all attributes and functions of the open space, estimate the value of each or find some comparative means of expressing that value, then discount for any costs. Such analysis and assessment is a practical decision-making aid. Will this subdivision be economically better for the community than the open field upon which it will be sited? Are the dangers of siltation from the commercial proposal along the creek worth the jobs likely to be generated? Are tax policies which compel owners of open space to sell or subdivide in the best long-term interests of the municipality? These and similar questions need careful, accurate answers. Cost-benefit analysis procedures can play a role in finding these answers.

Preserving open space guarantees that current social benefits from the environment will be continued. A residential or commercial development may sacrifice some or all of those particular social values in return for other, either social or (more likely) individual, rewards. This kind of trading has created an environmental deficit in the world because the "other rewards" have not compensated for the costs. Put differently, such an environmental deficit exists "because the longer-term ecological, social, and economic costs to human welfare are greater than the shorter-term benefits flowing from the collective and mostly unanticipated impact of humankind's alterations of the earth's atmosphere, water, soil, biota, ecological systems, and landscapes" (Bormann, 1991).

Cost-benefit analysis of open space begins with a thorough listing of the functions and attributes threatened by the problem at hand or otherwise under consideration. The range of benefits provided by open space and its ecological functions can be quite extensive so a concise and orderly methodology is essential in order to include all relevant characteristics. Agricultural opportunity; forest management; surface and groundwater; wetlands; wildlife habitat; traditional fishing, fowling, clamming access over and above rights protected by law; recreation land; historic land; scenic views; special natural features; traditional rural character; lifestyle amenities like cross-country skiing, hiking, or implicit access to the shore; contributions to "quality of life" and neighborhood value and therefore to second home development and relocation attractiveness; contributions to ambient healthful living conditions; aesthetics; environmental diversity; archaeological, biological, botanical, and scientific opportunity; clean air; and strong sense of community are all possible considerations.

Rudolf S. de Groot (de Groot, 1994) recommends creating a matrix using the ecological functions of the space under discussion, grouped by kind, as a way to organize the relevant information. It may instructive to view his list:

Regulation Functions provide the capacity of natural systems to regulate essential ecological processes and, thereby, provide clean air, water, soil, etc. These include:

1. protection against harmful cosmic influences;

2. regulation of the local and global energy balance;

3. regulation of the chemical composition of the atmosphere;

4. regulation of the chemical composition of the oceans;

5. regulation of local and global climate;

6. regulation of runoff and flooding;

7. water catchment and groundwater recharge;

8. prevention of soil erosion and sediment control;

9. formation of topsoil and maintenance of soil fertility;

10. fixation of solar energy and biomass production;

11. storage and recycling of organic matter;

12. storage and recycling of human waste,;

13. storage and recycling of human waste;

14. regulation of biological control mechanisms;

15. maintenance of migration and nursery habitats; and

16. maintenance of biological and genetic diversity.

Carrier Functions provide the setting, the space, the medium , and the suitable habitat for human activities. These include:

1. human habitation and indigenous settlements;

2. cultivation of crops, animals, aquaculture;

3. energy conversion to human ends;

4. recreation and tourism; and

5. nature protection.

Production Functions convert the resources from food and raw materials into energy sources and genetic material. These include:

1. oxygen;

2. water;

3. food and nutritious drinks;

4. genetic resources;

5. medicinal resources;

6. raw materials for clothing;

7. raw materials for building, construction, and industrial use;

8. biochemicals (other than fuel and medicines);

9. fuel and energy; and

10. fodder and fertilizer.

Information Functions include:

1. aesthetic information;

2. spiritual and religious enrichment;

3. historic information (heritage value);

4. cultural and artistic inspiration; and

5. scientific and educational information Pimentel (1991) estimates these benefits to be worth more than $1 trillion annually to the U.S. economy.

Ecological values Social values Economic values
Environmental Functions: Conservation value Existence value Health Option value Consumptive use value Productive use value Employment
TOTAL for natural area

The de Groot matrix further organizes the major benefits of open space into three categories: ecological values (including conservation and existence value), social values (including health and option values), and economic values (including consumptive use, productive use, and employment values) as illustrated in the accompanying table.

Not all functions can be given a monetary value. The ecological value of environmental functions may need to be measured in numbers of species, amount of runoff prevented or other relative terms or by using qualitative terms that attempt to describe a degree of value. Social values might be measured by minimum standards or requirements such as minimum air quality standards or maximum fisheries harvest regulations. What de Groot calls the economic values of environmental functions may be expressed as quantities harvested or similar numbers, the sale price of harvested resources, or by numbers of people employed with that function. Otherwise, various more traditional cost-benefit analysis techniques like travel cost computations may be used to estimate values. The total value of a given natural area or ecosystem is the total of the various benefits of the individual functions. Although filling values into the matrix is challenging, developing a complete picture of the issues at stake by organizing the functions and attributes of the natural area in question can, in itself, provide useful information for all concerned.

Some of the tried or emerging techniques used to estimate the value of these environmental services, when seeking a monetary price for relevant categories, are market and surrogate-market price valuations, mitigation costs, property value techniques, the travel-cost approach, and survey-based techniques. Each method seeks to establish the value of an environmental service or groups of services relative to other valuations in common daily commerce.

Existing studies of this type have produced dramatic results. For instance, a 1981 cost-benefit study in Massachusetts found annual wetlands values as high as $170,000 per acre. A survey-based cost-benefit analysis measuring the value of a scenic view and clean air threatened by a coal-fired power plant found those open space benefits to be in the range of $400,000 to $700,000 per year. Recreation values coming from unpaid use of a private swimming area were, in one instance, $685,000 annually.

Costs of Development

Many studies have pointed to the costs of development. A DuPage County, IL report conducted by the regional planning commission found commercial development, in particular, cost municipalities in the region far more than it paid in property tax revenues. The Guldner study in New Hampshire concluded that all but the most expensive residential development also costs more than it pays. These results prompt one authority to say, "The traditional view of the matter, which prevailed into the 1970's, was that most development 'pays its way.' The emerging view today is that virtually no development does..." (Altshuler, 1991).

The costs of development are so large that, in some places, municipalities have considered purchasing land rather than absorb the losses due to development. For example, in Wayland, MA, a professional analysis found that development of 1250 acres of open space would cost taxpayers $328,350 a year more than the development added in new tax revenues. This represented a $7.75 increase in the tax rate. On the other hand, to purchase the property would only add $4.25 to the tax rate (Bryan).

If a scenic view is lost, or a wilderness experience, or a hunting ground, or fishing capability, or any other amenity flowing from open space, and this loss is due to development, then the value of what has been lost must be considered. It is, in such instances, a cost of development. Retained, the environmental amenity is a public benefit contributed by the open space property. Therefore, one indirect benefit of open space is that it helps a municipality avoid the costs of development.

Some development projects so alter the natural ecosystem of the site as to render it essentially destroyed. In such cases, since the two alternatives (preservation and development) are mutually exclusive, the economically efficient choice is the one that maximizes the value of benefits. The value of the benefits from the natural system continue for an indefinite time into the future. It is tempting to say that the benefits of preservation of the ecosystem in such a situation would approach infinity since future generations would be allowed enjoyment of the environmental services forever.

Although few developments are that destructive, the affects of losses on local biodiversity have yet to be fully understood, let alone measured, and new evidence puts the costs ever higher. The inter-woven connections between components of a particular ecosystem challenge the advisability of virtually any significant alteration. Our new humankind ability to eradicate species of plants, animals, and microbes forever may well have sobering economic effects on future generations. Biological wealth, or biodiversity, "is much more potent for long-term human welfare than is generally appreciated" (Wilson, 1991). Ecologists have known at least since MacArthur in 1955 that "diversity begets stability," meaning that systems having more species diversity are more stable and long lasting than those having less diversity (Daly, 1994). This, in turn, corresponds to less stress in the community since the system is able to respond to fluctuations in conditions more readily.

Principles of Cost-Benefit Analysis

In general, the total social benefit of a well defined environmental service or group of services is a reflection of the number of individuals who actually enjoy the particular open space benefits under analysis. Individual demands together equal total social demand.

This can be visualized graphically. If we let a vertical axis represent willingness to pay for one or more environmental services and a horizontal axis represent the quantity of that environmental service supplied, then individual demand curves can be plotted. Lines A, B, and C in the chart below show different examples of willingness to pay and optimum quantity of environmental service desired. Person A is willing to pay three times as much for "three units" of the environmental service as C is willing to pay for just "two units" of the same resource. Person B is willing to pay more for less of the environmental service than C. Line D is the total social demand curve and equals the added total of individual demand curves A, B, and C.

The shaded area underlying D equals the total social benefit (Hufschmidt, 1983).

This total benefit can be expected to increase over time since the supply remains constant or may even be diminishing as demand increases. Increase in demand for preserved open space and other environmental services is well documented. Visitation rates at state parks have increased dramatically as have other indicators of public interest in natural resources and corresponding amenities.

Increasing public demand for the social benefits of open space represents an annual appreciation rate. If the value of swimming at a popular private beach was determined to be $15,500 in 1987 by using the travel-cost technique, the value of that same amenity will increase into the future. The appreciation rate can be estimated by reviewing appreciation rates for similar amenities in the past. For example, the increase in demand for recreational services in Oregon from 1946 to 1960 was about 14% per year, for Idaho about 12%, and in the Colorado River area about 45% per year (Hufschmidt, 1983).

Using the most conservative of these figures (12%), the example above would have a net annual social value of $38,377 today (1995 dollars) without capital investment. We might say that the owners of such a private beach used by the public will contribute $38,377 worth of recreational value to the local community this year by preserving the area as open space.

However, since the beach could provide that benefit forever if carefully protected and managed, the $38,377 value is like interest paid out to the public on the natural capital principal sum. When thought of in this way, the value of the beach as principal, using an interest rate of 6%, would be $639,616.

Enhancement Value

Open space and the environmental services flowing from it enhance property values for neighboring land. In Boulder, CO, a study of enhanced property values near open space showed an annual increase in property tax revenue of approximately $500,000. In Salem, OR the land adjacent to open space was worth approximately $1,200 more per acre than urban land 1,000 feet away from the green belt (Park Service, 1990).

Proximity to parks in urban areas has been shown to account for up to 15 - 20% of a property's value, according to the National Association of Homebuilders (Caputo). In California, it was estimated than $100 million annually in the form of increased property values was the result of a park bond one-time investment of $330 million (Park Service, 1990). Enhancement values appear to more than compensate for any losses due to adjusted taxation for the open space.

Option Value

Once lost to development, open space is impossible or difficult to retrieve and the long-term costs can be immense. Open space can be described as a "non-depreciating, non-reproducible asset with increasing benefits over time." (Krutilla, 1975).

Open space also conveys value because of the potential for future land use choices. Retaining choices is a public welfare benefit. Expansion of choices or options represents a welfare gain, reduction of options, a welfare loss. Although not traded on Wall Street, environmental options are of measurable value just as stock market options convey value. Option value from open space is the gain from being able to learn about future benefits which would be lost because of development. The option retained is the option to preserve or develop (in a manner which would not preclude the environmental benefits) in the future.

Not only is there an option value at the point in time when a decision is made to preserve a property's open space rather than develop it. That value will increase over time either forever or until the preservation technique dissolves (as in current use tax restrictions) or until all other property is either built-out or protected as open space, thereby essentially closing "trading" on that commodity.

Loss of open space and its environmental functions and components, especially biodiversity, means a reduction in that community's range of assets. This in turn suggests that there is also a reduction in the community's opportunities, as is the case in the loss or reduction in any group of assets. A necessary condition for human welfare is a stable range of choices.

The option value of preserving open space is significant. Even in instances of some uncertainty over exact measures of the social benefits of preserving the open space, if there is a prospect of better information coming later about the open space benefits which a development project would preclude, social welfare is maximized by waiting (Krutilla, 1985).

Market And Surrogate-Market Price Valuation Methods

The market or surrogate market pricing technique uses direct market values of goods or services affected by changes in environmental quality to measure the relative benefits of such change. If a commercial development were to preclude forest management, then the real value of the forest products and related businesses could be compared to expected values from the commercial venture, subtracting costs of each. This would provide a monetary value for one segment of the environmental functions matrix for that particular natural area. Other functions would need to be considered and an estimated minimum total value found. If a swimming beach were to be closed to public use, the cost of building a municipal swimming pool might be used as a surrogate pricing mechanism to measure, again, at least that function of the matrix of values for the beach area.

An analysis by Gupta and Foster (Hufschmidt, 1983) used market prices to determine the net social benefits of preserving wetlands. The study needed to determine the economic desirability of either preserving the wetlands in their natural state or allowing development to proceed. Market prices were obtained for wetlands sold for development in Massachusetts in 1970-1971. The economic benefits of the development of the wetlands varied from $16 to $3,762 per acre.

Wetland benefits were identified and divided into four groups:

Using purchases made by public agencies during the same period for properties having wildlife and open space characteristics, differences in cost between individual wells and municipal supply, and costs avoided by flood control measures, the following values were obtained:
Annual Value Per Acre of Wetlands

Type of Benefit

Annual Value Per Acre Based on Productivity 

(In Dollars)

High Medium Low
Wildlife 70 35 10
Visual/Cultural 270 135 20
Water Supply 2800 1400 400
Flood Control 80 40 10
Totals 3220 1610 440

Net social benefits of low productivity wetlands are higher than low-end returns from development. Highly productive wetlands, valued at $3,220 per acre in 1974, were actually quite competitive with the high-end benefits of development. Considering the appreciation of values associated with the wetlands in their natural state and the analyst's acknowledgment that the environmental valuations are minimum, the bottom-line conclusion favors preservation of the wetlands.

A similar study done in 1981 found an acre of wetland in the Charles River Basin to be worth $170,000 annually; the National Wildlife Federation in 1987 reported values for "bottom land forests and tidal estuaries" to average $30,000/acre; and Ducks Unlimited set wetland values at $50,000/acre (Greenbaum, 1987).

Travel-Cost Approach

The travel-cost approach to valuing environmental characteristics of open space properties has been used to derive a demand curve and value for recreational opportunities in which public access has been allowed free of charge. Since demand for the otherwise "free good" is not infinite because there is a cost involved in getting to and from the site, travel expenditures to and from a recreational resource can be used as a measure of the recreational benefits of the open space.

As travel costs rise, usage decreases. In the chart below, total public visits at no cost are represented by A. Point B represents a theoretical smaller number of visits when travel costs equal $1.00. As costs rise, eventually no more visitors will arrive (point M at zero). Line AM is the demand curve for use of the site and the area under AM estimates the value of the recreational benefit to those users.

Green Tourism and Sportsmen

Travel and tourism is the leading employer in several states and has been predicted to be the leading industry in the United States and the world by 2000. A poll commissioned by the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors found that natural beauty was the single most important criterion for tourists.

Purchases associated with water-related outdoor recreation in Minnesota during 1985 totaled nearly $1.2 billion. A survey of expenditures associated with recreational use of the St. Croix River here in Maine found that anglers spent six times as much per person, per day, as canoeists and over four times as much as general vacationers. Total estimated recreation-related expenditures in the area were $2.3 million annually (Miles, 1987).


We have never before faced the natural limits to growth that now confront the world. Just as a twelve-year-old challenges all limits to exploration, so we, too, just youngsters as measured by the age of the earth, want to challenge these material limits defined by nature. Often, as, for instance, in many property rights "takings" proposals, we lash out at the idea of limits, hoping to throw them away in the interest of growth and prosperity. The great irony, of course, is that we actually increase the degree of limitation by ignoring the physical limits of life and decreasing the natural capital our ancestors left in our care.

Learning to live within the limits of the earth, using human ingenuity as the source of unlimited development opportunity while, at the same time maximizing the life-sustaining benefits of open space and natural areas, is a clear choice:

We have before us two paths, one that ignores the true benefits of open space and leads to ever greater instability, poorer economic opportunity, and possibly system destruction. The other path honors the human role within the greater ecological scheme of the earth and in so doing offers a brighter promise for the human experiment.

Returning home along the fir-shrouded path, I knew my sons' Hutchin's' Island adventure was healthy and safe and secure, informed by the past, nurtured by the present, itself the seed of the future.


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