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Why Green Development Means Economic Development for Urban Cores

Written by Amanda Maher

Here at ICIC, we often talk about industrial assets and the ways in which they can be repurposed for the benefit of urban economic development. In NYC, an elevated industrial railroad track built in the 1930s was all but abandoned by the 1980s. For years, residents lobbied for the demolition of the structure. Policymakers were slow to move, and perhaps to the ultimate benefit of the community. A group of community activists pulled together in the late 1990s, and the “Friends of the High Line” advocated for transforming the industrial structure into an elevated park system that would not just add open space, but would also prove economically beneficial for the surrounding neighborhoods.

The NYC High Line broke ground in 2006, with the first phase coming to completion in 2009 and the second in 2011. In total, the City has invested $115 million, and expects that there has been more than $2 billion in private investment surrounding the park since. More than 8,000 new construction jobs were added to the project, as well as 12,000 indirect jobs in the redevelopment area. As the third phase of the High Line prepares to open this month, we’re reminded of the benefits of green space. Beyond aesthetic and quality of life benefits, there are significant economic reasons to advocate for green space.

Most obviously, real estate property values are positively affected. More than a century ago, Frederick Law Olmsted conducted a study intended to justify the $13 million spent on creating NYC’s Central Park. What he found was that from 1856 to 1873, there was a $209 million increase in the value of property immediately surrounding the park. Several studies conducted since confirm these findings. For instance, in Atlanta, after Centennial Olympic Park was built, condos around the park experienced an uptick in value from $115/s.f. to $250/s.f. For Atlanta, a city whose residents continued to move to neighborhoods on the outskirts of downtown, investment in the park helped draw residents back to the urban core.

The increase in property values result in a corresponding increase in taxes and municipal revenues. In the early 1980s, Chattanooga, TN was facing rising unemployment, crime and pollution. In an attempt to lure the middle class, the City teamed up with local businesses and community groups to enhance quality of life by acquiring open space, creating a system of public parks and trails. New parks and vegetation led to a cleaner, healthier Chattanooga, and slowly people began moving back downtown. Between 1988 and 1996, the City’s property tax revenues increased nearly 100 percent. Shopping districts in or around public parks also boost municipal revenue. In Oakland, CA, the East Bay Regional Park District is estimated to stimulate more than $74 million annually into the local economy.

Public parks also tend to attract a diverse population, from young professionals to families and retirees. In drawing such a unique mix of people, parks help to strengthen the local economy. There’s a reason companies are moving from suburban office parks back to downtown: employees want access to spaces they can live, work and play all within walking distance to their work places.

Just last month, the City of Boston opened “Lawn on D” in its Innovation District. This outdoor park was designed specifically with young professionals in mind: there are spaces to play rounds of bocce, stages for local musicians, a rotating display of local artwork, and an outdoor bar. “Within the community there’s been a longstanding request for some outdoor open space. We were mindful of that, and we made a commitment we would try to address that,” said Jim Rooney of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which abuts and oversees operations of the Lawn on D. “On top of that, having this outdoor space is a good marketing tool for us.”

Green space provides a range of economic benefits that should not be undervalued by public officials and private developers. As cities consider redevelopment efforts, it’s important to remember that green spaces help to improve property values, and by extension, increase the municipal tax base. Businesses framed by trees and vegetation are more attractive to customers and can actually produce an uptick in sales as a result of this more appealing environment. And finally, for the top-tier talent pool that many businesses seek to attract, public green space proves a vital amenity to young professionals looking for a live-work-play downtown experience. Green space is perhaps one of the most underrated economic tools that is, time and again, proving a catalyst for economic growth within the urban core.

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