Houston is once again a boom town.  The city’s robust economic recovery and strong jobs market led The Atlantic to proclaim in May 2013 that “Houston is Unstoppable,” one of many accolades of late that has drawn attention to our nation’s fourth largest city.  But unlike in years past, the attention paid to Houston is not just about its economy.

Photo Courtesy of Houston Parks Board
Photo Courtesy of Houston Parks Board

Houston is in the midst of a biophilia boom. Houston is going green.

In November 2012, voters approved a $166 million Parks Bond that will create 150 miles of all-weather hike and bike trails completely separated from traffic along the city’s bayous with roughly 1,500 acres of connected linear parkland by the year 2020, thus tripling the existing 75 mile system of shared use paths.  Future phases of what is called the Bayou Greenways Initiative (BGI) will add a total of 300 miles of continuous paths and 4,000 acres of parkland along Houston’s ten mostly east-west bayous at a cost of $490 million.  Further, a bill recently signed by Governor Rick Perry will open the possibility for adding 100 more miles of mostly north-south hike and bike trails along Houston’s utility easements, thus creating a dense network of greenways and bikeways to rival the city’s coveted highways and tollways.

Houston’s planned greenway projects, especially when placed in context with other dramatic urban parks projects like Discovery Green, the makeover of Hermann and Memorial Parks, and the initiatives led by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, could literally transform Houston into an urban biophilic showpiece at a scale without rival in the US. These developments – and others – led the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board in May 2013 to declare a very different kind of boom when it ran the headline “Houston’s bike boom.”

Map courtesy of Houston Parks Board
Map courtesy of Houston Parks Board

It’s hard to imagine that this is the same 650-square mile car-crazed polluted megalopolis of big business, countless strip malls, seas of asphalt, burning water, and overweight urban cowboys, and yet, it’s happening. Houston is, if nothing else, a very pragmatic city. Thus, a key to understanding Houston’s embrace of greenways and bike paths can be found in the subtitle of the Chronicle’s editorial, “Bike lanes can help business.”

When we were hired by the Houston Parks Board in 2011, we were asked to calculate an economic “payback” for the wide range of benefits that the $490 million BGI could provide – whether those benefits were fiscal, environmental, public health, or transportation-related – so that the Parks Board could make a business case to leaders in government, business, and civic organizations and ultimately to the voters that this was an investment worth making.  We called this challenge “calculating the ROI of cool.”

 

Photo courtesy of Houston Parks Board
Photo courtesy of Houston Parks Board

But do parks and trails and other projects that bring nature back into our cities have an ROI?  We felt almost as an instinctual response that they must, but our challenge was to prove it.

Ultimately, we developed an approach that aggregated and monetized a series of benefits into a single comprehensive model, by leveraging the research of academics, professionals, government, and non-profits. Research has demonstrated that parks and trails have both active and passive benefits… benefits that are attributable to the park’s users, and those that are attributable to the land itself.

So, we had three challenges: identify the active benefits (recreation, public health, transportation, etc.); identify the passive benefits (ecosystem services, carbon sequestration, clean water, property value, etc.); and develop a method to annualize and monetize each.  Some categories, such as ecosystems services, required that we apply very general global-level estimates of value to different categories of ecosystem acreages.  Others, such as increased residential property values, used commonly accepted valuation increases for homes within a set distance from the greenways.  Still others, like health benefits, were built upon a methodology for estimating total users, and then linking research for estimating the health benefits of regular exercise to those users.

Photo courtesy of Houston Parks Board
Photo courtesy of Houston Parks Board

By quantifying these and other benefits, we calculated a payback for the BGI of approximately four years.  Said another way, the benefits flowing from the BGI are expected to approach $125 million annually. Of course some of these benefits are realized only by individuals, others by the community at large.

The take-away, for us, was that once the benefits had been defined and then quantified, we had been able to reframe the conversation, and moved the project forward in a way that arguments like “it will appeal to the creative class” or “it’s the right thing to do” could not.  In fact, appeals to the creative class might have been the wrong argument for a pragmatic city like Houston.

While the BGI will no doubt be enjoyed by Houston’s hipster class, the fact of the matter is that nearly 50% of the City lives within a 1.5 mile buffer of the BGI, and that it’s geographically distributed in an equitable manner across the city without regard to race or economic class.  It’s a compelling example of a socially sustainable project.   It’s biophilia for the masses.

Our experience shows that modeling and quantifying a large bundle of benefits of biophilic design will help to make such projects possible even, and perhaps especially, in such non-obvious locations as Houston. Houston is going green, because it pays.

About the authors:

John Havenstrite calculates the “ROI of Cool” in his role as the Vice President of Marsh Darcy Partners, and relishes opportunities to apply his urban modeling skills to a broad array of complex questions.

Richard R. Johnson leads Rice University’s Administrative Center for Sustainability and Energy Management, and to this day regards his years as a graduate student in the Urban and Environmental Planning program at the University of Virginia as his most transformative professional experience.

The authors share a love of vibrant cities, green infrastructure, and fantasy baseball, and have sought opportunities to partner on all of these passions for over a decade.