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Landscape Performance Research: Monetizing the Value of Green Infrastructure

By Kalle Butler Waterhouse, Associate ASLA

In an era of shrinking coffers and aging infrastructure, the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) and American Rivers joined forces to outline a method for more accurately valuing the benefits of green infrastructure. The resulting guide, The Value of Green Infrastructure: A Guide to Recognizing Its Economic, Social and Environmental Benefits, establishes a framework that gives planners, builders, and city officials the ability to choose infrastructure investments that are effective, efficient, and long-lived.

cnt-valueofgiThe guide fills an information gap that has until this point hampered widespread deployment of green infrastructure, defined here as a network of decentralized stormwater management practices such as green roofs, trees, rain gardens and permeable pavement. The Value of Green Infrastructure brings together current research on green infrastructure performance and presents methods for calculating related benefits in water management, energy, air quality, climate, and community livability.

This work extends initial research conducted in support of CNT’s Green Values Calculator, a web-based tool that quickly compares the performance, costs, and benefits of green infrastructure to conventional stormwater practices.

Working through the complex nature of green infrastructure and its benefits can be overwhelming, and a methodology can quickly become murky at best. To begin, CNT’s research team conducted an extensive literature review, much of which is in the reference section of the guide. The team then produced a report, Integrating Valuation Methods to Recognize Green Infrastructure’s Multiple Benefits, and presented it at the 2010 international Low Impact Development conference.

Working with an advisory group of outside experts in the field of green infrastructure and economic benefits of ecosystem services, the team created diagrams to represent the complex relationships of potential benefits for the five practices included in the guide: green roofs, tree planting, bioretention and infiltration, permeable pavement, and water harvesting.

gi-benefits-call-out2The research team then organized a workshop around these complex ideas. National experts brainstormed over the challenges and considerations required when working through an economic valuation of this nature. The ideas that the workshop elicited helped shape the robust layout and framework now represented by the guide, including the eight benefit sections (water, energy, air quality, climate change, urban heat island, community livability, habitat improvement, and public education) and the two-step valuation and quantification process.

CNT believes the guide is very effective in compiling the various benefits of green infrastructure and establishing a logical framework for valuation. The Value of Green Infrastructure is intended to help decision-makers begin informed conversations about the true costs and benefits of green infrastructure solutions. While the economic values it presents are based on current research, many of the estimates likely undervalue the true worth of green infrastructure. More research is needed to put more accurate dollar figures on the full range of environmental, economic and social benefits.

Download the guide at:
See the CNT Tools in LAF’s Landscape Performance Series Benefits Toolkit.

The Value of Green Infrastructure: A Guide to Recognizing Its Economic, Social and Environmental Benefits was published in January 2011. Kalle Butler Waterhouse, Associate ASLA is a Design Associate with CNT’s Water program. Founded in 1978, the Center for Neighborhood Technology is a Chicago-based think-and-do tank that works nationally to advance urban sustainability by researching, inventing and testing strategies that use resources more efficiently and equitably.

Researching the Benefits of Open Spaces Sacred Places

Over the past 15 years, the TKF Foundation has provided grants to support the design and construction of over 130 public greenspaces that foster peace and encourage reflection. The users and creators of these “sacred places” have noted significant positive responses when people spend time at these sites — some even describe transformational experiences. To verify such anecdotes and provide a better understanding of how these spaces contribute to human health and well-being, TKF’s latest award program includes a research component. 

tkf-umdIn 2012, the TKF Foundation will begin the Open Spaces Sacred Places National Awards Initiative. This new program will fund the creation of sacred spaces designed with the intent to study and communicate the impact this type of urban public greenspace has on users.

“While we know intuitively and anecdotally that nature heals, unifies and uplifts the human spirit, TKF believes there is a growing need to complement these insights with empirical evidence in order to gain wider acceptance, advance understanding, influence policy, and effect systems change.”

The research aspect of the grant program will engage a community of social scientists to apply high quality, rigorous research approaches to generate more complete knowledge about the benefits and impacts that result from user experiences. The findings, including economic valuations of benefits, can become the basis of messages about why it is important to invest in greenspace close to where people live, work, and learn.

From a total funding pool of $5 million, grants will be awarded  to cross-disciplinary teams that conceptualize, plan, design and implement a physical space, conduct associated research study(s) and disseminate findings. More details can be found at

With this unique research initiative, TKF demonstrates thought leadership and will directly contribute to our collective body of knowlege on landscape performance.

Landscape Performance Research: Generating Quadruple Net Value in the Landscape

By Dennis Jerke, ASLA

At Texas A&M University in College Station, a diverse group of graduate and undergraduate students is undertaking a unique research project to measure the value generated by holistic urban design on six Texas projects.

The research project is being led by Geoffrey John Booth, the Youngblood Endowed Professor of Land Development in the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University. The research is being conducted by students in his fall Master of Science in Land Development class, a group that includes 40 graduate students and 26 undergraduates from architecture, business, agriculture, landscape architecture, planning, construction science and real estate disciplines.

univstthomasUniversity of St. Thomas Campus Life Mall

The research is rooted in metrics associated with the “quadruple net bottom line” as articulated in my book, Urban Design and the Bottom Line: Optimizing the Return on Perception, which examines a variety of projects, such as Chicago’s Millennium Park and the San Antonio River Walk, to demonstrate impact on their communities and the landscape. The basis for measuring this added value is a four-category matrix that evaluates factors such as safety and security, public access, transportation choices and context sensitivity (social/cultural value); taxable value, adjacent property values and occupancy rates (economic value); permeable surfaces, storm water management and rainwater harvesting, carbon
footprint (environmental value); and green space, public art and water features (sensory or visual value).

marketstreetMarket Street at the Woodlands

The students are studying four projects designed by TBG Partners, a Texas-based landscape architecture and planning firm for which I serve as a principal, as well as the restoration of two historic Texas courthouses. The students are using Urban Design and the Bottom Line as their textbook to study the quadruple net value generated by these projects. They are measuring the economic, social/cultural, environmental and sensory value that the design of these projects has created — what we call “the design dividend.”

The projects include Town Lake Park, a large urban park in downtown Austin; Market Street at The Woodlands, a mixed-use town center north of Houston; the Dallas Design District, an area encompassing more than 160 acres of city blocks, open space and Trinity River frontage in north Texas; and the University of St. Thomas campus life mall, a university commons in the heart of this Houston-based campus.

whartoncountycourthouseWharton County Courthouse

In addition, the students are studying restorations of the 1884-built Lampasas County Courthouse and 1889-built Wharton County Courthouse. They are gathering data/metrics from a variety of sources in each category to identify the measurable quadruple net impact of each design on the landscape and larger community. The Texas Historical Commission will use the data to evaluate the impact of investments in courthouse renovations on the downtown districts in these county seats.

This research is a pilot program to develop a database of projects and value metrics that demonstrate project performance and real estate value uplift. We plan to share our findings with the Landscape Architecture Foundation to add case studies and methods for quantifying landscape performance benefits to the Landscape Performance Series.

Urban Design and the Bottom Line: Optimizing the Return on Perception was published by the Urban Land Institute in December 2008. Dennis Jerke’s background as a landscape architect includes managing the design of more than 300 significant projects across the Southwest. The book combines his passion for communicating the value that landscape architecture generates in Urban America with his 32 years of experience in adding design value in the urban built environment.

Two New Blog Features Coming Soon

Starting in mid-October, the LAF Blog will include two new regular features. 

The first highlights our 2010 Olmsted Scholars and the exciting things that these young leaders are doing. Every Monday, our blog will feature a guest post from an Olmsted Scholar discussing his/her research and activities. This month we’ll hear about National Olmsted Scholar Emily Vogler’s research on infrastructural regionalism, Lauren Lesch’s experience with the Presidential Management Fellows Program, and Finalist Amanda Jeter’s efforts as founder and editor of Root, an annual publication for landscape architecture students and professionals.

The second regular blog feature will highlight innovative research and initiatives related to landscape performance and quantifying the benefits of landscape. We’ll start with a guest post from Texas A&M Adjunct Professor Dennis Jerke, who is leading a new multi-disciplinary Land Development class, in which teams of students visit projects and gather data to assess social/cultural, economic, environmental, and visual value. We hope to make this a monthly or bimonthly feature, so if you know of other initiatives that are advancing our knowledge related to landscape performance or would like to contribute a post, please let us know.

Landscape Performance Tools

On Sept 11, LAF presented one of the ASLA Annual Meeting’s Education Sessions. Landscape Performance Tools: Metrics for Culture and Environment attracted a standing-room-only-crowd as LAF’s Barbara Deutsch introduced and moderated a discussion of landscape performance and metrics with presentations from Heather Whitlow of LAF, Susan Olmsted of Mithun, and Beth Meyers of the University of Virginia.aslaedsession

Heather Whitlow stressed the value of having quantified benefits and outlined methods for quantifying landscape performance, using examples from case studies in LAF’s Landscape Performance Series database.
Download Presentation

Susan Olmsted discussed how metrics and aesthetic are incorporated into Mithun’s 7 Design Principles and offered insights on how metrics can be used throughout the life of a project, citing examples from Seattle University, High Point, the Lloyd District, Epler Hall, and the Olympia, WA Capitol Landscape Master Plan.
Download Presentation

Beth Meyer challenged the frequent assumption that aesthetics and beauty are synonomous and offered examples of the different ways that aesthetics perform. After presenting recent landscape assessment typologies, she cautioned that aesthetic performance is in danger of being overlooked because it is not as readily quantified as ecosystem services. She closed by challenging the profession to continue to seek ways to measure this essential component of landscape performance.

Feedback on the presentations was extremely positive, and the Education Session received coverage in ASLA’s Blog The Dirt.