How Open Space is Saving the Central Puget Sound Economy Billions

Sailing on Lake Union. Photo Credit Matt Chadsey

By Matt Chadsey 

Anyone who lives in the Central Puget Sound Region can recognize that the open space around us has value.  The mountains -- even just the views of them -- rivers, parks, and working lands provide benefits. However, quantifying those benefits is hard.  What is the value of a rushing river, or the shade provided by a street tree on a sunny day, or a salt marsh, or wetland during a storm?

Earth Economics OPen Space Valuation for Central Puget Sound Report CoverTo answer these questions, the ROSS commissioned Earth Economics to crunch the numbers with funding from the Bullitt Foundation.  The result is Open Space Valuation for Central Puget Sound (PDF), the first comprehensive estimate of goods and services that the region’s open space contributes to the local economy.  The report finds that open space in the Central Puget Sound is a critical, multi-billion dollar economic asset contributing $11.4 to $25.2 billion per year to the local economy and with a total asset value (based on a 100 year time span) of between $328 billion and $825 billion.

These are necessarily wide ranges because of the challenges of valuing things that can't be bought and sold, but they are actually conservative estimates none-the-less. The report uses a methodology called benefit transfer to identify and apply values relevant to our local environment from published, peer-reviewed studies conducted throughout North America.  Much like a home or business appraisal, this approach produces a reasonable estimate that can be immediately applied in strategy development and benefit-cost analysis.

Open space goods and services are defined as the benefits people derive from nature and that nature provides for free. For example, a watershed made up of forests, wetlands, and rivers performs critical functions such as capturing, storing, conveying, and filtering rainfall destined for the drinking water supply that humans need to survive. We needn't look further than California, or Toledo, Ohio’s toxic algae bloom last summer to understand the value of clean, abundant water for drinking, irrigation and other human uses, not to mention as habitat for a multitude of species that make up a complex food web. 

And it's not just about water - open space provides many other benefits. From recreation to disaster mitigation, open space can slow down storm surges and flooding, clean the air, provide habitat for insects and animals – both resident and migratory.

In addition to these ecosystem-based benefits, open space provides communities with many less obvious benefits such as improved physical and mental health, cultural value, and a generally improved quality of life. Simply put, people like living in places that have access to open space.

Open space goods and services have several compelling characteristics:

  • Longevity: Healthy open space will continue to provide benefits indefinitely – a wetland, forest, or river does not need to be replaced in 25, 50 or 100 years as does a building, levee, or treatment plant.
  • Resilience: Healthy natural systems tend to be highly resilient to shocks like floods and earthquakes, and are typically able to recover quickly with minimal intervention compared to manmade structures where repair can be expensive in both material costs and time.   
  • Multiple Benefits: Whereas man-made infrastructure often provides a single benefit, like the flood protection offered by a levee, open space typically provides multiple benefits. A network of wetlands, forest, and grassland may offer excellent flood protection but also provides many co-benefits such as wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, groundwater infiltration, waste treatment and many more. 

The valuation arrived upon in Earth Economics’ report can be applied immediately to evaluate projects and develop sound land use strategy. When combined with traditional economic measures, these estimates generate a more holistic benefit-cost analysis than available in the past. Including open space values helps planners understand and highlight the synergy between the built environment (buildings, roads, levees, dams), open space, and our communities. Ultimately, these values inform more fiscally efficient and durable outcomes.

While open space provides tremendous value on an annual basis, it also requires investment and coordinated oversight commensurate with its value. An asset of this value deserves clear and accountable governance and robust financing to ensure that the region can continue to depend on the valuable benefits it provides into the future.

Proactive stewardship of open space is more critical than ever as the pressures of climate change and population growth become more intense in our region. Maintaining our healthy open spaces will not only save the economy billions of dollars in the long-run, but will prove to be an integral contribution to our region's resilience in the face of the predicted changes to come.  


Matt Chadsey is a project leader at Earth Economics and focuses on how open space and green infrastructure can build resilience, provide broad benefits, and reduce long-term costs.  Earth Economics is a nonpartisan economic research, education, and consulting organization located in Tacoma, Washington and working throughout the United States.


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