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Turning Redfields to Greenfields in Philadelphia and Beyond

This post is a follow-up to our previous entry about Philadelphia’s plan to turn 500 acres of underused land into city parks by 2015.

When a single good-sized maple tree can add over $7,000 to a home’s sale value, according to a study in Portland, Oregon, it’s not difficult to imagine the effect of turning large swaths of derelict urban land into parks, gardens, and playgrounds. Private properties in financial distress, or “redfields,” are the focus of a number of cities, such as Philadelphia, that are developing creative re-utilization strategies for underused land.

Increased property values are expected to be one of the most profound impacts of the Green 2015 initiative; the report states that vacant properties can reduce adjacent home values by 6-20%, adding up to a total of $3.6 billion in lost household wealth across the city.

Parks can significantly increase nearby property values, as evidenced in the real estate that surrounds Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia.

Well-tended parks could not only eliminate this negative effect, but also significantly improve the value of nearby residences. The Center for City Park Excellence has calculated that Philadelphia’s 10,000 acre park system is responsible for adding $220 million to the assessed value of nearby homes. Though the study only included parks larger than one acre, it is known that even small green spaces can influence property values. 

As part of its Green City Blue Lake initiative, Cleveland began the ReImagining a Greater Cleveland program in 2008, which is focused largely on promoting urban agriculture and green infrastructure. Cleveland has 20,000 vacant lots, 5,000 of which are held in a land bank. With funds from the Surdna Foundation, Neighborhood Progress, Inc., and Cleveland’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, 56 community groups have started pilot projects which the city will examine to develop best practices moving forwards.

Residents of Baltimore have undertaken many self-motivated conversions of city-owned vacant land.  Community gardens, pocket parks, and horseshoe courts, often marked with handmade signs, have sprouted up in unused lots. When the city recently announced efforts to accelerate the sale of 14,000 of its vacant lots, a group called Baltimore Green Space responded by enlisting residents to help catalog the vacant properties which they had converted, which the city plans to use to help preserve up to 300 green spaces.

Miami-Dade County’s redfields to greenfields plan, centered on the creation of transit-oriented parks alongside the Metrorail line and Miami River greenways, emphasizes job creation as a primary benefit. The construction industry (hit hard by the same recession responsible for the glut of abandoned properties in the region) could stand to gain over 14,000 jobs per year over five years, reports the City Parks Alliance.

The process of cleaning up vacant sites can be green and economical, too. The Dirt (ASLA blog) featured an article recently detailing how abandoned brownfield sites can be cleaned up with a process called phytoremediation, in which plants absorb toxins into their tissue. Some plants eliminate the toxins entirely, while others have to be removed as hazardous waste. In any case, the process, used by Cleveland in some of its pilot projects, can be 90% cheaper than traditional methods while providing the added bonus of improved air quality and stormwater retention.

Cities pursuing redfield to greenfield strategies are varied in terms of geography and economic history, but their ethos, summed up nicely by ReImagining a Greater Cleveland, is the same:

A city’s weakness is only as weak as their lack of ability to see potential in the opportunity any ‘crisis’ affords.

Economics of Parks: Adjacent Property

In a series of posts, we will begin featuring excerpts from the recently released publication from TPL on measuring the economic value of city parks. In this first post, we look at the increased property values attributed to parks in Washington, D.C.:

The most famous park in Washington, D.C. may be the National Mall with its museums and government agencies, but it is the many other parks—from huge Rock Creek Park to tiny Logan Circle, the ones surrounded by homes—that provide the city with the greatest property value benefit.

The city’s abundance of green has placed much of Washington’s real estate either directly abutting or within a stone’s throw of a park. This makes it convenient for the capital’s denizens to toss a ball around, enjoy a picnic, or just get a pleasurable view. The city’s coffers are also reaping the benefits.

Getting to this number is fairly straightforward. Using GIS in combination with the city’s assessment data, we find that the value of all residential properties (apartments, condominiums, row houses, and detached homes) within 500 feet of a park is almost $24 billion (in 2006 dollars). Using an average park value benefit of 5 percent, we see that the total amount that parks increased property value is just under $1.2 billion. Using the effective annual tax rate of 0.58 percent, we find that Washington reaped an additional $6,953,377 in property tax because of parks in 2006.

Park or Development: What’s More Economically Valuable

On a given city block, what is the revenue potential of a creating a new park as compared to that of new residential or commercial building(s)?

Say your city has a downtown parking lot. The average value of the adjacent developed properties is $2 million per property. The city is short on downtown park space and would like to create a park on that block, but is worried that it may lose out on maximizing property tax revenues.

We know from John Crompton’s research that parks can provide as much as a 20 percent marginal value to immediately adjacent residential properties, and additional 5 to 10 percent for those farther out. So let’s just assume 10 percent for only the immediately adjacent properties. In this case, the eight developed blocks would bring in a total of $17.6 million. Without a park and a development instead, the now nine developed blocks would bring in $18 million, only $400,000 more.

That’s not even considering farther out properties, which would bring even greater overall benefit. There’s also the non-property value costs that aren’t included here: added green infrastructure, a gathering place that can foster social glue, and a draw to visitors spending money at businesses and paying sales taxes.

Cities are finding that investing in parks is actually a smart economic development strategy: New York’s Bryant Park, Boston’s Post Office Square, Portland’s Courthouse Square, Houston’s Discovery Green and Chicago’s Millennium Park (for which the property value increase phenomenon has been called the Millennium Park Effect – pdf-). For cities with vacant parking lots sitting within their park poor downtowns, parks can indeed be a coffer-friendly key element in creating the economically beneficial, walkable, mixed-use downtowns they desire.

Build Parks, See Investment

New York Times

Hudson River Park, NY Times

There’s more evidence of parks positive affect on property values from New York City. A new report issued today by the Friends of Hudson River Park found that the $75 million the public invested in a section of the park in Greenwich Village sprouted into an additional $200 million in property values in a two-block area from 2002 to 2005 According to he New York Times City Room:

The study found that about a fifth of the value of properties within two blocks of the Greenwich Village section of the park can be attributed to the park, and that real estate prices near the park began to rise only when its construction began in 1997. And the park had a significant effect on nearby condo sales, as their prices increased by 80 percent once the Greenwich Village section of the park was completed in 2003.

The study was conducted by the Regional Plan Association. The findings offer more real numbers that park development is economic development.