Open Space Investments Pay Big Returns—Land&People

In the early 1980s, Chattanooga, Tennessee, was suffering a deep economic recession. Eighteen thousand manufacturing jobs had been lost due to factory closures and relocations. Surviving factories, burdened with outdated equipment, pumped out a smog so thick that residents drove with their lights on in the middle of the day. Faced with rising unemployment and crime, polluted air, and a deteriorating quality of life, middle-class residents began to move to the suburbs, taking away the tax base that had supported municipal services.

But that was before community leaders decided to reinvent Chattanooga by cleaning the air, acquiring open space, and constructing parks and trails. Today, downtown buzzes with economic activity. Rusting factories have given way to green open spaces surrounded by a bustling commercial and residential district. Where the Tennessee River sweeps through the city, abandoned warehouses have been cleared for an eight-mile greenway, the centerpiece of a planned, 75-mile network of greenways and trails. A former automobile bridge has gone pedestrian, sparking economic revival on both sides of the river. New attractions–an IMAX theater, the Tennessee Aquarium–now cater to residents and tourists. The aquarium alone has injected an estimated $500 million into the local economy since opening in 1992.

Chattanooga's $355 million makeover has generated 1,280 full-time jobs and 555 part-time jobs. Property values are up more than $30 million (124 percent); tax revenues are up $592,000 (99 percent); and the number of businesses is up by 117 (150 percent).

"We certainly have had a revival," says David Crockett, chairman of the Chattanooga City Council and a distant relative of the famous frontiersman. "We are on the right path–and 'path' is a good word for it, since our progress is closely linked to paths. People may rightly point to some celebrated projects, like the aquarium or the IMAX theater, but making the city more pedestrian-friendly is really what's bringing it back to life."

Chattanooga's experience is not unique. "Too often, we hear that communities cannot afford to grow smart by conserving open space," says Will Rogers, president of the Trust for Public Land. "But evidence is accumulating that open space conservation is not an expense but an investment that repays communities over and over again."

A new report published by the Trust for Public Land, The Economic Benefits of Parks and Open Space: How Land Conservation Helps Communities Grow Smart and Protect the Bottom Line, details the many advantages communities gain by investing in parks and open space. Parks and open space:

  • attract taxpaying businesses and residents;
  • help communities "grow smart" and avoid high costs of unplanned growth;
  • stimulate urban revitalization;
  • support important industries, such as tourism, recreation, and agriculture;
  • help reduce expensive flood damages;
  • perform valuable environmental services, such as safeguarding public drinking water.

Attracting business and rebuilding cities

The economic importance of open space is evident in fast-growing communities like Austin, Texas, where a 1998 chamber of commerce report cited the city's environment as a key economic asset. Attracted by oak-covered hillsides and a relaxed, almost small-town atmosphere, more than 800 high-tech companies have moved to Austin in recent years, swelling the local tax base. Newsweek recently dubbed Austin "the utopian workplace of the future," and Fortune has designated it the nation's new number-one business city.

Now, in the face of growth that has seen the population swell from 400,000 to 600,000 in the last decade, Austin is scrambling to save the open space that underlies its economic competitiveness. "As businesspeople, the dumbest thing we could do would be to kill the golden goose," says real-estate developer and Austin City Councilmember Beverly Griffith.

Over the last decade, Austin voters have approved more than $130 million in local bonds to help create parks and greenways and protect critical watershed lands. Some of this money is going to purchase open space that will shape growth by attracting new residents to a 5,000-acre "desired development zone." "We're identifying and setting aside the most sensitive, the most beautiful, the most threatened lands," says Griffith. The desired development zone will have a spine of natural beauty down the middle of it."

Other communities are promoting economic renewal by developing or restoring downtown parks. One of these is New York City, where long-neglected Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library, recently underwent a five-year, $9 million renovation. Today, Bryant Park offers lawns, flower gardens, news and coffee kiosks, pagodas, a thriving restaurant, and hundreds of movable chairs under a canopy of trees. On some days, more than 4,000 office workers and tourists visit the park, and more than 10,000 people gather for special events.

Supported in part by fees on local commercial property, the park has spurred impressive economic activity along Sixth Avenue bordering the park. Rents in the area are climbing, and office space is hard to come by. Dan Biederman, an organizer of the project, estimates that in the next five to seven years, revenues from park concessions will permit repayment of the construction debt and make the park economically self-sufficient. At that point, the park will no longer need city funds, although it will continue to feed the neighborhood's economy.

A similar story comes from Boston. In the early 1980s, businesses surrounding a 500,000-square-foot concrete parking garage in the heart of Boston's financial district joined a unique public-private partnership to demolish the structure and create a privately funded underground garage covered by a graceful two-acre park. Today, the Park at Post Office Square features a spreading lawn, polished granite walls, teak benches, a 143-foot formal garden, a walk-through sculpture fountain, and a cafe. Each day as many as 2,000 people stream up the escalators from the garage to jobs in the surrounding high-rises.

This rare open space in Boston's crowded financial district has boosted the value of surrounding properties, while providing an elegant green focus to a crowded commercial district. "It's as if the buildings were pulling up to the park like campers around a bonfire," wrote Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell. The city receives $1 million a year for its ownership interest in the garage and $1 million in annual taxes. After the construction debt is paid, ownership of the garage and park will revert to the city.

"The garage that filled that block was a real negative," says architect and city planner Alex Garvin, who has written extensively on the role of open space in urban economies. "It simply wasn't attractive for a business to be located opposite a multistory parking structure. Now that people want to be in the park, businesses want to be across the street from it, and the value of that property goes up."

Protecting vital industries

Far from the bustling streets of Boston, the communities of Nicholas County, West Virginia, enjoy the bankable benefits from open space in the Gauley River National Recreation Area. Each fall, the river's whitewater rafting industry pumps $20 million into the local economy. Rafting provides 1,000 seasonal jobs in nearby Fayette County and contributes $50 million to the regional economy.

Across the nation, parks, protected rivers, scenic lands, wildlife habitat, and recreational open space help support a $502 billion tourism industry and 7 million jobs. Outdoor recreation–much of it on parks and public land–generated at least $40 billion in 1996, accounting for 768,000 full-time jobs and $13 billion in annual wages.

Much of this recreation takes place on federal lands such as national parks, which are estimated to contribute more than $10 billion annually to local economies. Each year, 100,000 people come to ride the famous Slickrock Mountain Bike Trail on federal Bureau of Land Management land near Moab, Utah. The trail generates $1.3 million in annual receipts for Moab, part of $86 million spent by visitors to nearby federal land attractions, including Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Recreation is the second-largest producer of direct revenue from U.S. Forest Service lands–bringing in more than grazing, power generation, and mining combined.

Because of the value of tourism, many rural communities are working to protect the lands that attract tourists. "Surveys tell us that [tourists] place a very high value on open space," says Will Shafroth, executive director of Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), a funding agency that has channeled more than $35 million in state lottery funds to help protect more than 60,000 acres of Colorado's open space. One place that money is being invested is in Gunnison County, home of Mount Crested Butte ski resort, where GOCO is helping to protect ranchlands threatened with development. "[Tourists] leave the airport and they don't have to drive through subdivision after subdivision to get to the ski area," Shafroth says.

Of course, tourist dollars are not the only economic benefit of ranch- and farmlands. The nation's $202 billion agricultural industry generates approximately $50 billion in annual farm income that is cycled through local communities. Unfortunately, some of the best American farmland is rapidly disappearing. The American Farmland Trust estimates that 4.2 million acres of prime or unique farmland were converted to urban uses between 1982 and 1992–a loss of nearly 50 acres every hour.

In Fresno County, California, the nation's most productive agricultural county, farmers and business groups have formed the Growth Alternatives Alliance (GAA) to try to protect the farmland that generates $3.3 billion in annual agricultural revenues. "Each acre of irrigated agricultural land should be considered a factory that produces between $6,000 to $12,000 per year for the local economy," a GAA report contends. "The loss of even 1,000 acres of agricultural land can remove as much as $15 million from our local domestic product."

Many people fail to appreciate the stability of farm economies, says Ralph Grossi, president of the American Farmland Trust (AFT), which works to preserve the nation's farmland. "Farms are passed down for generations and tend to stay put rather than move around as other businesses do. Agriculture lends economic stability to a community, providing a net inflow of dollars–year in, year out–from the sale of agricultural products."

To preserve farmland and farmland economies, 15 states and dozens of counties and municipalities have launched purchase-of-development-rights (PDR) programs to keep land in agriculture. State PDR programs alone have protected more than 470,000 acres.

Meeting environmental goals

Napa County, California, is another community where land conservation has been seen not as a cost but as an investment. In 1998, voters approved funding to help purchase 500 acres of floodplain along the Napa River, where seasonal flooding has wreaked havoc on lives and property–despite levees, dredging, and riverbanks fortified by concrete. The county will purchase and demolish 17 homes in the floodplain, as well as several businesses and a trailer park. The estimated cost in federal and county funds: $160 million over 20 years to "fix" a river where flood damage averages more than $10 million each year.

A similar calculation helped spur a recent land protection effort along the New York-New Jersey border–not to prevent flood damage but to protect drinking water for 2 million people. New Jersey officials calculated that pollution from the development of 16,000-acre Sterling Forest would require construction of a $160 million water filtration plant. Instead, New Jersey contributed $10 million toward a land protection effort spearheaded by the Trust for Public Land and the Open Space Institute. To date, 90 percent of Sterling Forest has been acquired for $55 million–a third of the cost of a water treatment plant.

But controlling flood damage and protecting water quality are only the most obvious ways open space can help communities meet environmental goals in a cost-effective manner. Open land provides space for nature to perform a multitude of life-sustaining services that otherwise would have to be provided technologically at great expense. How much are nature's services worth? According to one study, approximately $33 trillion a year worldwide.

Forests help clean the air of pollution and mitigate global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Forests, wetlands, and riparian buffers serve as wildlife habitat, absorb storm- and floodwater, and reduce pollutant and sediment loads in watershed runoff.

Agencies are focusing particularly on protecting wooded buffers, which filter sedimentation and agricultural pollutants from streams and coastal waters that support commercial fisheries. In the Pacific Northwest, the U.S Forest Service, with TPL's help, is acquiring stream buffers to help protect a fishing industry that accounts for 60,000 jobs and $1 billion in annual income. Another program pays farmers to retire flood-prone or eroding cropland on rivers and streams leading into the Chesapeake Bay, where agricultural runoff threatens the $90 million blue crab fishery.


Across the nation, the rush is on to invest in the lands that support community economies and quality of life. In November 1998, voters approved more than 100 ballot measures that will trigger, directly or indirectly, more than $7.5 billion in new state and local funding for land acquisition, easement purchase, park improvements, and protection of historic resources.

Communities are learning that they do not have to choose between economic well-being and open space protection. Parks and open space are good for the health, stability, and quality of life of American communities. They are also good for the bottom line.

This article is drawn from a new TPL report, The Economic Benefits of Parks and Open Space: How Land Conservation Helps Communities Grow Smart and Protect the Bottom Line. For a copy, call 800-714-LAND or send e-mail to The report will also be posted at


Land & People, Spring, 1999


Steve Lerner is research director at Commonweal, a nonprofit that focuses on health and environmental issues, and the author of Eco-Pioneers: Practical Visionaries Solving Today's Environmental Problems (MIT Press, 1997).

William Poole is a contributing editor to Land & People magazine.


Open Space Benefits Index

Fraction of Denver residents who in 1980 said they would pay more to live near a greenbelt or park:
16 percent

Fraction of Denver residents who said this in 1990:
48 percent

Estimated amount a three-mile greenbelt near the center of Oakland, California, adds to the value of surrounding properties:
$41 million

Estimated value of economic activity supported by open space in New Hampshire:
$8 billion

Contribution of sport fishing to the economy of California in 1996:
$7.1 billion

Rank of recreation among all economic activities on U.S. Forest Service lands:

Annual reduction in water treatment costs after the city of Gastonia, North Carolina, relocated its drinking water intake to a lake without surrounding development:

Estimated annual value of urban trees to improving the air quality of Atlanta, Georgia:
$15 million

Estimated annual value of water storage and aquifer recharge in a single 557,000-acre Florida swamp:
$25 million

Amount generated for California's economy by people watching wildlife in 1996, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
$1.5 billion