Preserving Open Space

by John Beggiato published Aug 26, 2014 02:25 PM, last modified Aug 26, 2014 02:45 PM
Excerpt from "The Value of Open Space - Resources for the Future"
Preserving Open Space

The Value of Open Space

Open space provides a range of benefits to citizens of a community, beyond the benefits that accrue to private landowners. Parks and natural areas can be used for recreation; wetlands and forests supply storm-water drainage and wildlife habitat; farms and forests provide aesthetic benefits to surrounding residents. And in rapidly growing urban and suburban areas, any preserved land can offer relief from congestion and other negative effects of development. Both publicly held and privately held lands can provide open space benefits, but because people who do not directly own the land still enjoy the benefits, open space is likely to be underprovided by the private sector.


Concern over the preservation of open space has been growing in recent years as rates of development have increased. There is evidence to suggest that in some areas, the rate of land conversion to development doubled in the late 1990s from rates of earlier decades (USDA 1997). In response, state and local governments, private land trusts, and even the federal government have undertaken a number of activities to preserve different types of land from development.


These activities range from local zoning changes to purchases of land for parks and purchases of conservation easements.2 The Trust for Public Lands reports that in 2003, voters in 23 states approved the spending of $1 billion on land purchases for open space, parks, and farmland. The American Farmland Trust estimates that approximately $2.2 billion had been spent, as of January 2003, by local and state governments and private land trusts to purchase agricultural conservation easements. These easements have preserved approximately 1.3 million acres of farmland. Such expenditures by government and private conservation organizations suggest that open space provides public benefits to communities, but these dollar expenditures present only a very rough estimate of the size of those benefits. Furthermore, they do not say anything about the relative values of different types, locations, and amounts of open space. Presumably, government would like to retain open space land when the benefits of doing so exceed the costs; thus, knowing something about the dollar value of the benefits is important for public policy.


Given competing demands on government budgets and rising land values in development, this benefit–cost question will become increasingly important in the future. In addition, comparing the values of different types of ownership of open space yields useful information to government decisionmakers comparing different conservation goals. For example, purchasing development rights retains private ownership; it is important to know what relative value such land has compared with publicly owned land. Similarly, because forests, wetlands, and farmland may have different values, governments with limited budgets may want to target the most valuable parcels. Also important are the location and size of open space. One question may be whether small areas, located close to residential developments, are more valuable than a single larger area of open space in a more distant location. A wide range of issues along these lines faces policymakers as they make decisions about open space.


* Excerpt from "The Value of Open Space - Resources for the Future". Read the full paper at Resources for the Future.

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