Wednesday 26th October 2016                 Change text size:

Garden cities: how ecosystem services valuation can enable visionary urban development

Photo: Michaela Kobyakov via freeimages

Giving a value to ecosystem services like food, fuel and pollination has the potential to fundamentally change the way ‘garden cities’ are designed and built, argues Claire Wansbury.

The advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination”. This vision of how a garden city might work was introduced by Ebenezer Howard, the originator of the idea, in 1898.

The latest Wolfson Economic Prize was launched in November 2013. When the challenge was issued, Simon Wolfson said, “The UK is suffering from chronic and socially divisive house price inflation, which is caused by shortages in the supply of new housing. And shortages in supply are often caused by resistance to poor quality development. We can and must do better, and garden cities are surely part of the answer.”

Entrants had to answer a superficially simple question: “How would you deliver a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable and popular?”

While admittedly tempted by the £250,000 prize on offer, I was intrigued primarily because of potential links with my work on the opportunities to use ecosystem services valuation to inform robust policy and project decision-making.

At first glance, the Wolfson Prize question seems to limit any thinking about ecosystem services valuation to the second aspect, economic viability. However, I found the question led on to a new one: could an ecosystem services valuation approach contribute to meeting not one but all three of Wolfson’s criteria?

The benefits that people gain from the natural environment are termed ecosystem services. Obvious examples include food and fuel, but less obvious benefits are provided by services such as pollination and the contribution natural habitats make to flood control.  Some of these services are effectively ‘free goods’, which people benefit from without paying for them overtly – the cost only becomes apparent when an ecosystem is degraded and the service declines.

Ecosystem services valuation attempts to take account of these services in cost-benefit analysis. Some services can be valued by direct pricing (e.g. food and fuel); others are valued by proxy, such as willingness to pay for recreational use or the increase in house prices in areas with green space. The valuation exercise can also involve in-depth consultation with stakeholders, allowing their priorities and concerns to influence the valuation exercise and therefore decision making.

Returning to the Wolfson Prize question, we are asked how to deliver a new garden city which is “visionary, economically viable and popular”. In my view, ecosystem services valuation would contribute to meeting all three of these criteria.

– The vision is provided by standing back and looking at the tangible and intangible benefits of the natural environment, truly combining urban development with the “beauty and delight of the country”, as Ebenezer Howard envisaged

Economic viability is enhanced if cost-benefit analysis can recognise and value the benefits from less obvious services such as pollination, soil protection and water resource management, some of which could be captured financially through actual ‘payment for ecosystem services’ systems

– A popular approach would need to secure and demonstrate local support. Public consultation undertaken at the start of ecosystem services valuation allows the priorities and concerns of local residents to be recorded. This means local people can be engaged in the process before any planner draws a line on a map or any designer puts pen to paper

Ecosystem services valuation is not sufficient in isolation to provide a final answer to questions such as the location and form of a new garden city. However, it has the potential to fundamentally change the way we think about the environment in economic and political decision making, helping deliver a low-risk, high-return future, and new garden cities that provide ecosystem services to their residents could surely be part of that future.

Claire Wansbury is an ecologist and associate director within the environmental planning team at Atkins. The opinions in this article are the author’s own.

Further reading:

Wolfson Prize: submissions close in £250,000 competition to create ‘garden city’

‘Garden city’ to provide 15,000 homes in Ebbsfleet, Kent

Why we can’t afford to lose ecosystem services

Consequences of ecosystem changes missing from economic forecasts

Report: green spaces ‘central’ to successful cities

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