An excellent briefing paper ‘Urban Green Infrastructure and Ecosystem Services’ has just been released – this is a responsive policy briefings developed by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology based on mini literature reviews and peer review.
Ecosystem services are the benefits provided to humans by natural systems that range from food and water to recreation and climate regulation and elements of the natural environment that provide benefits to humans are referred to as ‘natural capital’ . The best outcome for ecosystem service provision is optimal human health and subjective well-being.
The EU defines green infrastructure strategy as: ‘a strategically planned network of natural and semi-natural areas with other environmental features designed and managed to deliver a wide range of ecosystem services – incorporating green spaces and blue if aquatic ecosystems are concerned plus other physical features in terrestrial and marine areas’. However, existing urban green infrastructure in the UK has not been strategically planned to deliver ecosystem services.
Research points to the benefits of exposure and frequency of exposure to green infrastructure for well-being – although the specific elements of the natural environment need further research to demonstrate clear correlation. In addition, there is growing evidence that green infrastructure can provide other ecosystem services in urban areas such as reducing the risk of flooding and cooling high urban temperatures. The demand for this will increase in relation to climate change.
The report goes on to define what constitutes an urban area plus the effects of increased urbanisation on the environment such as excessive air pollution form increased traffic in cities such as London and Birmingham and the statistically significant relationships between soil metal content and respiratory illness reported in Glasgow.
Natural capital – elements of the natural environment that provide benefits for humans -is discussed. The report states that the value of green infrastructure may be enhanced through appropriate management of its natural capital and that the Natural Capital Committee’s 4th Report recommends that local authorities and major infrastructure providers ensure that natural capital is protected and improved.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has funded an Ordinance Survey open data initiative to map green spaces throughout Great Britain. The data collected, along with property information, will be used to value natural capital in urban environments. [Ordnance Survey releases open dataset and free map of Britain’s Greenspaces + OS MasterMap Greenspace Layer ] This will allow you to identify the variety of different greenspaces in any location plus provide information on their extent, function and accessibility, and the provision of ecosystem services.
The report identifies the following key services provided by ecosystem services with accompanying up-to-date references for links to research, reports and policy documents:
- Urban temperature regulation
- Provision of community food
- Improving air quality
- Reducing surface water flooding
- Noise Reduction
- Carbon Storage
- Environmental Settings and Biodiversity
The report discusses how levels of service provision can be assessed and rcognises that further research in relation to how biodiversity generates ecosystem services benefits in different urban habitats and at different scales may be required to be able to effectively assess ecosystem condition. The EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 requires member states to map and assess ecosystems with guidance for mapping and assessing urban ecosystems provided by the European Commission. [Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services, Urban ecosystem, 4th Report, Technical Report 102]
The report also recognises that not all contributions from ecosystem services are positive – these may be actual or perceived – such as the negative effects on human health from pests and diseases. Cultural perceptions in relation to green infrastructure is mentioned and these may vary between individuals depending on factors such as age, gender and socioeconomic status. The importance of public consultation is recognised when green infrastructure strategies are being developed to overcome such cultural perceptions.
Planning Green Infrastructure
Strategically designed and planned, green infrastructure can deliver multiple benefits for human well-being with Birmingham, Manchester and London already developing green infrastructure plans to address this. [ Green Infrastructure Task Force Report, 2015, Natural Capital: Investing in a Green Infrastructure for a Future London] England’s National Planning Policy Framework requires that Local Plans should take account of climate change over the longer term, including factors such as flood risk, coastal change, water supply and changes to biodiversity and landscape. Two variables are the combination of low density urban areas of built land interspersed with green spaces and compact urban areas alongside separate, large, contiguous green space, such as city greenbelts with the proviso that some interspersion of accessible green infrastructure may be necessary to ensure that people continue to gain benefits. The report notes that despite the development of new ‘garden’ cities and towns in the UK and proposals for legislation for New Towns Development Corporations there are no planning rules based on available evidence for ecosystem service provision from garden cities and new town developments.
The development of urban green space strategies
The House of Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee has recommended that local authorities work collaboratively with Health and Wellbeing Boards, and relevant bodies, to develop and publish joint park and green space strategies. The UK’s National Planning Policy Framework requires planning to be based on robust and up-to-date assessments of the needs for open space, sports and recreation facilities and opportunities for new provision. The assessments should identify specific needs and deficits or surpluses of open space, sports and recreational facilities in the local area. However, in the UK, local authorities directly manage only a small proportion of the green space in urban areas, creating challenges for strategic management of urban green space.
How best then to optimise urban green infrastructure? At present the emphasis on green space provision is its amenity outcomes rather than the benefits derived from ecosystem service. Lack of evidence in relation to the economic benefits is commonly sited as the most significant gap in the case for investing in green infrastructure.
- Natural capital is a term used to describe those elements of the natural environment that provide benefits for humans.
- In 2015, the Natural Capital Committee, a Government advisory group, made nine recommendations on how to account for natural capital. These included the creating of a 25-year plan for the environment.
- Valuing natural capital in this way can help to manage environmental risks and to inform a wide range of decisions.
- There are a number of challenges to accounting for natural capital including a lack of financial, environmental and social data and the UK’s use of other countries’ natural capital.
It has been estimated that the UK’s population will rise by nearly 10 million in the next 25 years, increasing demands on natural resources. Evidence suggests that degradation of ecosystems will negatively affect human wellbeing. Reports such as the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and The Economics of Ecosystem and Biodiversity (TEEB) global reports have highlighted the importance of incorporating the natural environment into national accounting frameworks. One way to achieve this is through natural capital (NC) valuation.
What is Natural Capital?
NC is defined as ‘elements of nature that directly or indirectly produce value to people, including ecosystems, species, freshwater, land, minerals, the air and oceans’. The UK’s national accounts do not consider the depreciation of natural assets and many of the benefits of NC are not included in GDP. The failure to account properly for NC has led to a situation where benefits derived from natural assets are over-exploited for short term gains rather than maintained for their long term benefits. For example, the destruction of woodland to make way for a new railway would yield financial benefits from reduced transport time, but also incur costs from reductions in carbon sequestration, water filtration and recreational use. By assigning a value to these less obvious benefits of NC, advocates argue that they can be more easily incorporated into decision-making processes and that this would lead to better management of our natural assets. Many national and international NC groups exist, including the UK’s Natural Capital Committee (NCC). The NCC was initially set up for three years (2012 to 2015). Its final report made nine recommendations for improving the UK’s NC. The Government response broadly accepted five of these, including to establish a 25-year plan for the environment -recommendations 1, 2, 4, 6 and 9 – see below for details:
Natural Capital Committee Recommendations
The NCC was re-established this year (2016-2020) to provide advice on the development and implementation of the 25-year plan for the environment. The NCC has emphasised the importance of four unfunded ‘pioneer projects’ to Defra to identify good practice and innovative solutions for the plan. These 3-5 year projects include: a ‘Catchment’ Pioneer in Cumbria; an ‘Urban’ Pioneer in the Greater Manchester area; a ‘Landscape’ Pioneer in North Devon; and a ‘Marine’ Pioneer across two sites, one in East Anglia and an additional component in Devon to complement the Landscape Pioneer.
Renewable and Non-Renewable Natural Capital
Natural capital assets are divided into two classes: nonrenewable and renewable.
- Non-renewable assets cannot regenerate within human timescales and so can only be used once. These assets are traded and therefore have a market price, they include fossil fuels (oil and gas) and minerals such as lithium and phosphorous.
- Renewable assets such as forests, fish and peat bogs can provide benefits indefinitely so long as they are exploited sustainably. However, renewable assets are frequently degraded through the unsustainable management practices such as deforestation, over-fishing and drainage.
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Public parks and green spaces provide benefits worth over a billion pounds and are not the liability they appear in conventional public accounts, a new study reveals. Research published by the National Trust shows parks provide benefits worth £1.2bn, through the contribution they make to residents’ physical and mental wellbeing. This goes against the conventional wisdom—derived from how they appear in public accounts—that they are a £16m liability.
Heritage Lottery Fund research has shown many councils face cuts to their parks budgets of up to 20%, with some facing cuts of 50-100% by 2020. The House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee has begun hearing evidence for their inquiry into the funding crisis facing public parks.Vivid Economic’s Director Robin Smale urged MPs to consider the wider public benefits that are derived from parks and green spaces rather than their immediate financial cost.
‘Parks generate a large surplus for society in contrast to the financial liability that they appear to be in local authority financial statements,’ he said. ‘It’s essential that decisions about our parks are based on comprehensive and balanced financial accounts, which incorporate the full value of public services. Reliance on the very partial expenditure and revenue records available to local authorities will be against the public interest.’ Robin Smale, Director Vivid Economics.
The ‘Natural capital accounting in urban parks’ a report by Vivid Economics for The National Trust, highlights the public benefits of parks, most importantly for the physical and mental health of local residents. The briefing, detailed below, takes the simple but powerful step of combining evidence on health and other benefits of urban parks and green space and presenting it in a financial reporting statement: a natural capital account. The City of Sheffield’s parks, for example, offer £1.2 billion of benefits, a figure 34 times greater than expenditure on service provision. Work on other cities and rural areas will follow:
Introduction – For the first time it is possible to reveal the economic role parks play in Sheffield city life. Today’s citizens of Sheffield enjoy an extensive public parks and green space portfolio of around 4,100 hectares, created in the past and maintained by contributions from residents over decades. These parks enhance the wellbeing of citizens in a number of ways. Information, examined and presented here, on the contribution of the parks to the quality life in the city can be used to raise awareness of the value of the asset which the people of Sheffield use, pay for and which the City Council looks after. This knowledge will empower citizens and their representatives to make decisions around future strategy, spending, funding and institutions, and to monitor performance more confidently.
- The approach uses natural capital accounting, designed to capture the overall economic, social and environmental value of the public parks and greenspace asset and the services that benefit society as a whole. The estimates are ideal for the purpose of illustrating relative and absolute magnitudes of value. The assessment presented below has been put together with great care. It employs an accounting framework which is consistent in its form and principles with financial reporting so that it can be read alongside the City Council’s financial statements. It differs from financial statements in some of the valuation methods used, to suit the nature of the services addressed. The figures have been prepared in a transparent manner, using the latest published multidisciplinary evidence and have been tested in discussion with national technical experts. Furthermore, they have been estimated in a deliberately cautious manner, choosing assumptions that are likely to under- rather than over-state a valuation, wherever assumptions are needed because of the absence of empirical evidence. The evidence base is not complete and certain, so there remain uncertainties over the impact the park has on wellbeing. Yet the figures are valid in revealing the orders of magnitude of value and relative levels of value of the parks and their services.
- Findings – The parks make a substantial contribution to the health and wellbeing of the people of Sheffield. Around 60 per cent of the benefits of the parks arise from their contribution to physical and mental wellness. The health benefits come through reduced circulatory diseases such as stroke, heart attack, diabetes, cardiovascular dementia and reduced burden of depression. The parks are also enjoyed for recreation, which is capitalised in the value of neighbouring properties, and there are further benefits to air quality, climate change and crime. Thus they contribute to some of the things which people care most about: quality of life including family life, health, recreational enjoyment, safety of themselves and their property, and overall a good place to live. There are also benefits to employers; a healthier workforce results in raised productivity levels. With health benefits as the most important outputs from the parks, the delivery of health outcomes ought to be a strategic focus from parks and this means close working with health service providers to target groups who would benefit the most.
- Health service providers are major beneficiaries and can invest to save. Parks services offer attractive investment returns to health service providers. For example, if a health service provider 2 were to make an investment in an endowment yielding 3.5 per cent, the income from which was used to sustain parks services, they would receive returns of around 18 per cent in real terms, which is much higher than the return they could expect to receive from alternative conventional investments. Conventional commercial property investments have historically yielded around 9 per cent real terms in the UK and current UK government debt yields a negative real return. It is beyond all doubt that expenditure on Sheffield’s parks services are excellent value for money. For every pound spent currently by the Council, on average £42 of services are supplied. Misleadingly, parks appear as a net cost in the Council’s financial statements. Despite the appearance from the Council’s financial statements, there are few better ways to spend money than this. This is not a comment on whether spending could be made more efficient: it may or may not be so. It is a finding that spending should not be reduced if it leads to reduced services. It also suggests that increases in spending might be excellent value for money. In comparison with spending on other infrastructure, such as road building and enhancement, parks spending performs much better. For example, Department for Transport guidance stats that value for money is ‘very high’ if benefits outweigh costs by a ratio greater than 4:1, which coincidentally is the mean ratio for all major highways schemes between 2002 and 2010, calculated by the Highways Agency. In contrast, parks spending achieves a ratio of 42:1. Residents receive much more in wellbeing than they pay in contributions, so they will not want to see services reduced. Some of the value is capitalised in the value of their homes and for those that own their own homes, a reduction in parks expenditure would erode personal wealth.
- Sheffield’s parks have a combined asset value of around £1.4 billion. The parks asset value is around 5 per cent of the asset value of residential property in Sheffield, which is around £27 billion. Meanwhile, the present value of future expenditure to maintain parks is around £0.036 billion. Parks are thus an important asset to the city, but by no means as important as the housing stock, nor probably commercial and industrial assets, transport, health and education infrastructure. Nevertheless, they are a much more important component of the Sheffield’s economy than is indicated by the expenditure on them.
- In conclusion, the combination of financial and natural accounting data reveals the true value of the parks to the people of Sheffield. By showing how much of the parks asset value lies outside the financial statements, the accounts emphasise how important it is to account completely for the value of services. Through the use of comprehensive accounts, stakeholders can form well-evidenced views and more effectively participate in decisions. Those decisions can direct resources towards the most valuable outputs and can ensure that valuable services are adequately supported. This would be impossible if decisions rely on financial statements alone. These accounts may now be used to inform the parks management strategy, health services providers’ engagement with the future of parks services, funding arrangements and institutional arrangements for the future of the parks service.
Source – Author contact details: Jason Eis E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Globally, 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. Climate change is set to increase the probability of flooding and put pressure on water availability in the UK. Periods of too much or too little rainfall are both likely symptoms of increasing global temperatures. These could happen back to back, as was the case in the first six months of 2012, the so-called “wettest drought on record”.
The Committee on Climate Change’s Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC) new independent report to Government, ‘UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Evidence Report’ sets out the most urgent risks and opportunities arising for the UK from climate change.
Changes to the UK climate are likely to include periods of too much or too little water, increasing average and extreme temperatures, and sea level rise. The report concludes that the most urgent risks for the UK resulting from these changes are:
- Flooding and coastal change risks to communities, businesses and infrastructure.
- Risks to health, wellbeing and productivity from high temperatures
- Risk of shortages in the public water supply, and water for agriculture, energy generation and industry, with impacts on freshwater ecology.
- Risks to natural capital, including terrestrial, coastal, marine and freshwater ecosystems, soils and biodiversity.
- Risks to domestic and international food production and trade.
- Risks of new and emerging pests and diseases, and invasive non-native species, affecting people, plants and animals.
The opportunities for the UK from climate change include:
- UK agriculture and forestry may be able to increase productionwith warmer weather and longer growing seasons, if constraints such as water availability and soil fertility are managed.
- There may be economic opportunities for UK businesses from an increase in global demand for adaptation-related goods and services, such as engineering and insurance.
The impact of the recent vote to leave the European Union does not change the overall conclusions of the risk assessment. However, some individual risks may change if EU-derived policies and legislation are withdrawn and not replaced by equivalent or better UK measures. The Adaptation Sub-Committee will assess the implications of the EU referendum in its next statutory report to Parliament on the UK National Adaptation Programme, due to be published in June 2017.
Lord Krebs, Chairman of the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change, said: “The impacts of climate change are becoming ever clearer, both in the United Kingdom and around the world. We must take action now to prepare for the further, inevitable changes we can expect. Our independent assessment today, supported by the work of hundreds of scientists and other experts, identifies the most urgent climate change risks and opportunities which need to be addressed. Delaying or failing to take appropriate steps will increase the costs and risks for all UK nations arising from the changing climate.”