The Undeniable and Enduring Value of Nature

For some staffers at the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) in Ashburn, Va., the results of a 2015 study were a yawn.

But for Kevin Roth, the organization’s vice president of professional development, research and technology, they were truly remarkable.

Romare Bearden Park in Charlotte, N.C.

Photo courtesy of LandDesign

The study was a repeat of one conducted by Penn State researchers 25 years earlier measuring public support for parks and open space. The NRPA again commissioned Penn State and asked similar questions in an effort to compile an updated, comprehensive analysis of Americans’ views.

“What’s stunning is that the numbers didn’t really change at all,” says Roth. “Support remained the same and was very strong.”

Specifically, 83 percent said they personally benefit from their local park, and 92 percent said their community benefits from their local park.

Romare Bearden Park in Charlotte, N.C.

Photo courtesy of LandDesign

“Even those who don’t use parks definitely agree that they benefit from them,” Roth adds. “If you don’t go walk on that trail, but you have a nice green space across from where you live, knowing it’s there is providing utility to those residents.”

Unchanged opinions may sound like a nonevent, but Roth believes they’re a big deal considering the times in which we live. “When we got the research, some of my colleagues were bored by the results,” he says. “But the world has changed a lot in those 25 years. The population is older, and it’s more diverse. We have technology in our hands that we never conceived of, and that has changed how we interact with each other. We know how technology has disrupted so many other things, but open spaces, parks, and trails — you can’t really replace those things. I thought that was awfully stunning.”

National Harbor, MD, featuring people watching a movie on a big outdoor screen

Photo courtesy of LandDesign

That may be why there’s increased recognition of the need for parks, trails and open spaces in development. “I think there’s a growing understanding of this, especially as more and more of the cities we live in densify, and we move more and more past the World War II tradition of single-family homes with a yard toward multifamily housing,” states Charlie McCabe, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust for Public Land in Boston.
“The need to have parks and public spaces grows.”

Americans want nature near their homes and workplaces — that’s settled. But the question for developers has been whether nature’s bounty translates into value when integrated into or near development. That’s becoming settled, too.

The Closer Nature Is, the Higher the Value

One scholar who has studied the effect of nature on property values is Greg Lindsey, a professor who specializes in environmental planning, policy and management at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. An area of his focus has been the relationship between trails and property values.

A park walkway surrounded by apartment buildings

Photo courtesy of LandDesign

Lindsey’s early efforts came at the request of the former head of the greenways department for the city of Indianapolis, which at the time was planning a trail network. That network later became the 26-mile Monon Rail Trail.

The research sorted out statistically how much home prices depended on the attributes consumers prefer when they’re determining which home to purchase. “Basically, we looked at how much of the sales price was explained by square footage, the tax rate, the number of bedrooms, the presence of air conditioning, the distance to downtown as a proxy for closeness to a job, and other factors,” he explains. “One variable we might put into that analysis is whether the home is within walking distance of a trail; then we can isolate that variable.”

Lindsey did that for several thousand property sales and found that homes closest to the Monon trail commanded a price premium. “A lot of people were afraid the trail would attract crime and have adverse effects,” he recalls. “Those are common questions when this issue comes up in planning. What we found was that, generally, the most common effect is that there’s no effect, but in other cases, it’s a positive effect.”

Kids playing in a city park with the city's skyline featured in the background

Photo courtesy of LandDesign

What causes differences in the effect? Lindsey says his research points to preferences and demand. “Development of the Monon occurred when there was lots of redevelopment interest, and its effects there were synergistic rather than causal,” he states. “There was more density and more mixed-use development, and it was a package of amenities that attributed to the overall effectiveness of the area. By itself, the trail might not have caused much of an effect.”

Researchers at DePaul University in Chicago found similar results when studying the effect on property values of the 2.7-mile 606 Trail in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, which opened in 2015. In the east part of the neighborhood, which already had high demand and prices, the trail had only a limited effect on housing values. The west side, however, had a less-strong market before the trail was added and saw a big increase in value; buyers were willing to pay a 22.3 percent premium to live within one-fifth of a mile of the trail.

Other researchers have also found that parks, trails and open spaces can increase property values. For example, a 2001 review of 30 research studies found that homes that abutted or fronted a park brought an increased value of 20 percent “as a reasonable starting point.”

A woman standing next to a girl having fun in a water fountain

Photo courtesy of LandDesign

It’s About the Bigger Picture

What researchers are beginning to understand is that these amenities add the most value when they’re not only nearby but also programmed and connective.

Being programmed means that parks have activities local residents want to participate in. “Parks need to be programmed based on an understanding of who lives in the area and what their needs and desire are,” explains Roth. “Even before you turn the shovel the first time, one of the first things needed is engagement with the community.

If you’re building a park in a partly or fully established community, what are residents seeking, and what have they been missing?”

Connectivity means that these green features perform better when connecting users to other activities in the area, such as a path that leads to a cluster of small-business destinations nearby. “It has a greater value if it’s connected to a network,” says Lindsey. “If you have a mix of trails and they connect to an outside grid, some studies suggest you’ll get greater levels of walking.”

That’s been the experience of Beth Poovey, a landscape architect at LandDesign in Charlotte, N.C. “One of the projects we’ve worked on here was the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, and that has had a lot of impact on the community in ways that aren’t typically measured,” she explains. “This was a greenway project that will eventually be 25 miles long; it’s now about 8 miles long. The waterway was so polluted, the county was in danger of losing federal funding. The project included a stream restoration and the creation of a natural habitat within an urban environment.”

A segment that’s completed is a mile-long corridor through an area of town that was in decline. Its economic effects have been transformative. “We’ve looked at the economic impact of this project,” explains Poovey. “How many folks are using it? That’s increasing every day. How does that impact the health of the community? We can measure it in funny ways, like how many calories burned per year.

The Gateway at Willowbrook in Los Angeles, apartment complex

Photo by Lesly Hall Photography

“But another measure we’ve found is that commercial properties have seen an increase in value of 50 percent, and residential properties have increased 30 percent in value,” Poovey explains. “It was an approximately $10-million public investment, and it has attracted 10 times that much value. We’ve spoken to developers who’ve built along this corridor, and they say this amenity is as valuable as light rail transportation or being located in a downtown center, if not more so. They can command higher rental rates as well, by as much as 25 percent higher, because of the adjacency to this project.”

Within developments, green spaces can be just as valuable. Cassy Aoyagi, president of FormLA Landscaping, says a senior housing facility she worked on in Los Angeles has a waiting list, and that’s in part because of the inclusion of nature in the project.

The just-completed Gateway at Willowbrook sits on an inner-city property and is atypical of the area’s development, contends Aoyagi. It’s a subsidized rental facility, and it has set aside units for formerly homeless people, though it now has 30 percent more formerly homeless residents than originally slotted.

The facade of the Willowbrook Library

Photo by Lesly Hall Photography

“The developers built far within the setbacks and left ample space for trees, not just on the exterior of the building but by prioritizing the inclusion of courtyards with ample tree coverage,” she explains. “That makes a huge difference because you can create courtyards in developments, but if there’s no foliage or tree canopy, especially in a senior development with people who are sensitive to heat, people won’t use them. Facilitating a place that’s cool and shady and that brings people together is so important.”

The property also includes an upstairs courtyard with large raised planters and trees. “If you’re on that level, you can see right through your windows to foliage, and you can walk right out to it and sit there,” says Aoyagi.

“It’s affordable housing, and that extends those small living spaces another few square feet into fresh air. These residents didn’t expect this, and they feel like they’re in a special place.”

Where Nature Adds The Most Value

Poovey says some factors critical to creating high-quality spaces — and ones that add economic value — never change. Depending on the climate, the need for sun or shade is fundamental. “It must have the feeling of being safe,” she adds. “It also has to be easy to get to, and it has to be beautiful.”

Emerging factors critical to the value of green spaces begin with accessibility by foot. “People want to be able to walk about a quarter of a mile to them, so they can’t be far away,” says Poovey. “They also need to be places that people can go to be alone, but together. Sometimes you want to sit and read but feel like you’re part of the community. Think of your living room or a beer garden, where you can move your chairs around to play a game. And all public space needs to be programmed. You need to have things going on, whether it’s concerts or exercise classes.”

Shady Lane Park in Houston, Texas

Courtesy of NRPA

Developers aren’t always convinced that leaving precious space open or green adds value, but more are coming around. “There’s a tendency to want to maximize the space and build it all out,” says McCabe. “But developers who do that are missing the opportunity to make a space people want to linger with and engage in.”

That’s the point of programming — getting people to dawdle while, preferably, patronizing nearby businesses. “If you look at commercial developments that include retail, office, and even residential, it’s about building and managing the time people spend there,” says McCabe. “So it makes sense that you’d offer space to be used by the businesses, such as restaurants or coffee shops, or more flexible spaces that can be used by vendors or businesses to
bring people there with a program. It could be as simple as a concert or picnic area or space for mobile food trucks or kids’ games. But it includes some kind of programmed event that uses the space and encourages people to stay.

Kids playing at Trojan Park in Wellston, MO

Courtesy of NRPA

Roth says the success of parks, trails and open spaces is important in development not just for initial sales of properties but also because such places better build a sense of community — which adds to long-term value. “Parks are one of these things that you see used by members of the community across ages, races, ethnicities, and income classes — everybody’s using them,” he says. “We may all have a different relationship with parks, open spaces or trails. But we all have our niches of why we want to be outdoors, and it’s that availability of that space that makes it possible.”

The challenge today, however, is that funding for such spaces dropped during the Great Recession and hasn’t fully recovered. “In addition to getting public money from the local government, agencies are looking for other sources of funding, like public-private partnerships,” says Roth. “That could be a condo development where the developer sets aside green space and enters into a joint relationship with the local park agency to make that space available.

“Whatever the arrangement, as new towns are built, it’s important that developers make space and time for those activities,” asserts Roth. “People are attracted to communities that have strong trails and beautiful parks.”


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