It’s good business to protect natural areas within your housing estate, not only because they make it a nicer living space that can command a higher property price, but also because the functions they provide have monetary value for both you as the property owner and also the municipality within which you live.
Any greenfield development will have areas within the property that are serving a function. For example, a small stream running through the property is a natural drainage channel that directs excess water out of the area and into larger streams. The swampy area around the edges of the stream filters the water flowing in, holding silt and impurities, and releasing higher quality water into the stream. The patch of healthy grassland on the slopes of the hill above the stream soaks up rainfall and then, after its plants and soil have taken what they need, lets the excess drain slowly into the swamp.
Translated into built-environment functions, this little system is a natural storm-water drainage and water filtration system with an option on water storage. Each of its three elements harbours different plants, small wildlife and insects that provide other important functions, such as pollination and producing healthy soils, that are important for others in your municipality or province.
So it’s not surprising that more and more home owners seek out – and are willing to pay higher prices for – lifestyle options that provide higher quality of life, stimulating surrounds, and also contribute to the protection of nature. This translates into a convincing incentive for developers to create havens of indigenous biodiversity within housing developments.
In Australia, single-family home owners are willing to pay a 3.4% premium on houses that have visual access to privately owned protected areas. In the USA, home owners in Colorado are prepared to pay premium for plots in conservation developments, which communally protect large tracts of natural areas within the property. These plots also sell faster than conventional plots. In Carolina, conservation developments carry a 39% premium. Across the USA, 90% of home owners consider environmental features to be important.
Willingness to pay is difficult to forecast, but it is increasingly evident that natural areas and open spaces have a high attraction value for home owners, and are also desirable to high-profile investors in the business world.
What’s the big deal?
Many of the arguments for protecting and nurturing biodiversity and natural habitats are well known. For a start, humans depend completely on natural systems for their wellbeing and development.
At the most basic level, we couldn’t have water without rainfall and flowing rivers, and we couldn’t have food without healthy soils to grow plants, and pretty little insects to pollinate the flowers that develop into fruit, vegetables and grains. On a more complex level, healthy ecosystems help to stabilise the effects of droughts and floods, control disease and pests, store carbon, cycle nutrients, purify water, and regulate air quality. They also provide raw materials such as wild foods and medicine, offer habitat for biodiversity, maintain genetic diversity, and are important for culture and leisure.
What’s it worth?
The goods and benefits that healthy ecosystems provide are called ecosystem services, and they can be given a monetary value. There is not yet a consistent and comprehensive economic valuation of all South Africa’s ecosystems, but the studies done so far show that they carry a very high monetary value. For example, a study published last year in the journal Ecosystem Services put the annual value of the ecosystem services provided by South Africa’s terrestrial, freshwater, and estuarine habitats at R275 billion.
When ecosystems become degraded, there can be far-reaching implications for our economy. For a simplistic example, draining and filling in a wetland directly reduces the quality of water flowing into the local stream, and this eventually translates as a higher cost for purifying the water that enters our taps, food production plants, and breweries. In some cases degrading natural systems can have international implications, for example if poor quality freshwater reduces the health of estuaries and they can no longer function as nurseries for wild fish, this can directly threaten the fish populations that our neighbouring countries depend on for food.
So now what?
As our impact on natural areas grows, the ability of ecosystems to provide the services we depend on declines. In addition, much of the land that houses valuable ecosystems is outside of protected areas. In Durban, for example, nearly a third of ecosystem hotspots, or priority ecosystem service areas, are privately owned. If ecosystems within privately owned land are managed well, they can continue to be functional. In addition to this, if they are protected, rehabilitated where necessary, and incorporated innovatively into estate design, they can provide a number of functions that developers would otherwise have to build infrastructure to provide.
Although even the most conservation-conscious developments cannot adequately substitute for pristine natural habitat, they can contribute significantly to maintaining ecosystem services and reducing fragmentation of natural areas, while improving the desirability and sales potential of their developments. The one thing we can never get more of is wide-open space, so it’s worth investing in, especially considering that the actual rands-and-cents value of the services they provide are a boost to bottom line.