Open Voices Blog

News and conversations about the growing evidence of the healing power of nature and green development in cities

Do Greenspaces Equal Greenbacks? The Economic Case for Urban Parks

Posted on 07/16/12

When Lisa Wong first came to Fitchburg, Massachussets, it was as a consultant who was hired to help figure out what the town could do with some abandoned and under-utilized spaces. A few years previous, General Electric had shut down a huge facility there — one day before Christmas — and with the shuttering of that company and the lost jobs that occurred, many other small stores and retail spaces had closed down as well.

After Wong arrived in Fitchburg, she saw possibility where others saw blight — parks and gardens could be built in empty lots; beautiful greenspaces could dot the riverfront; empty buildings were opportunities, to her eyes, instead of eyesores. So she dusted off old park plans she found in the City Hall, contacted the state, and started working on Fitchburg’s very first downtown park.

Wong is now Mayor of Fitchburg, and during her tenure has set aside over 1,700 acres for permanent conservation and built parks and trails along the Nashua River, despite initial resistance from the community.

“People at the time said, ‘Parks don’t pay taxes. Parks cost money to maintain. Parks don’t create jobs,” Wong noted in a panel, Revitalizing Downtowns with Parks, Monday at the Greater & Greener International Urban Parks Conference.

So how did she do it?

The answer may have to do with an overarching theme emerging at the Greater & Greener conference: that more and more people are seeing the potential of urban greenspaces and parks to act as economic catalysts for cities.

There may be no better example of this than right here in New York City, with the ever-popular High Line park. Robert Hammond, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Friends of the High Line, spoke on the same panel as Mayor Wong and told the story of how he was able to get community buy-in to create the High Line, even though the mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani, had planned to have the elevated railroad track on which it now lives razed.

Hammond’s economic argument? They believed that over a 20 year time period, the High Line would make more in tax benefits to the city than it would cost to build. To prove this point, they hired a firm to conduct studies and do analysis, particularly on existing small parks around the city. One of the first things they realized: property around these parks had increased in value from 6-13% since the parks were built.

Hammond and his team also talked to real estate developers, who said that the best way forward, and where the real value lay for the High Line, was to create a whole district that people want to work and live in, anchored by the park.

The High Line group finalized their study, which said that the park would cost $100 million to build, but create $250 million in tax revenues.

“Both those numbers were wrong,” Hammond said. “It cost us $150 million to build the High Line. But in the past two years, we’ve already created $2 billion in new development — and a new study says eventually the High Line will generate $900 million in tax revenues.”

As for Wong and her town of Fitchburg? Park space and events there are thriving.

“I fought the resistance and was able to make the economic argument,” she said.

  • Mike_edwards4

    Agreed. Just look at the economic activity associated with the reconstruction of Market Square.

  • Parks & Rec: The High Line’s Outsized Influence |

    [...] on an investment of roughly $150 million. A study commissioned by the Friends of the High Line found that real estate values in areas around other small New York parks rose 6%-13% after their [...]

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We are a private nonprofit that funds publicly accessible urban green space. We believe that everyone needs to “be in nature” as nature both heals and unifies us. The Foundation partners with organizations to create Open Spaces Sacred Places, which increase a sense of community and contribute to a deepening of human connections. These sacred places reawaken and reaffirm the powerful connection between nature, spirit and human wellbeing.

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