New report highlights green infrastructure importance

As Michigan emerges from the deep recession and economic turmoil, our green infrastructure will be an important economic development driver. A new MSU study shows that natural amenities can have a positive impact on population, income and jobs.

In Michigan’s emerging New Economy, natural amenities are an increasingly important factor for job attraction and economic growth. This green infrastructure includes the network of open spaces, forest, agricultural land, parks, river corridors, shorelines and wetlands within and between our urban areas. Increasingly, people move to communities rich in natural amenities, then invest their talent, creating new jobs. In the old economy, green infrastructure was an intangible benefit, not deemed especially critical for economic development.

A new report from Michigan State University (MSU) Extension’s Michigan Natural Features Inventory and the MSU Land Policy Institute explores how green infrastructure and other natural features influence local economic growth. Many past studies found a positive relationship between these assets and economic development, but this is the first Michigan-specific study to look at this issue at the city, township and village scale.

Researchers wanted to learn whether natural amenities provide a competitive advantage to communities in Michigan, which components of green infrastructure drive population, income and employment growth, and what the measurable impacts are of specific natural amenities to local economies.

The results were encouraging. Of the 27 natural assets included in the study, 19 had a positive impact on population, per capita income and/or employment. Particularly important were rivers and streams, recreational access (things like campgrounds, trails and boat launches) and Great Lakes shoreline. Wetlands, forests agriculture and botanical gardens were also economically important. As might be expected, environmental contamination sites and pollution discharge areas had a negative impact.

There are important implications of this study for state and local land use policy. Among other recommendations, the report’s authors suggest that the state develop a green economy plan to guide how natural assets can be leveraged for long-term economic success. They also recommend that local planners and economic developers explicitly consider the green infrastructure in their activities, especially when developing master land use plans, and park and recreation plans.

One of the barriers to implementing the study’s recommendations is availability of natural features information for local decision makers. To address that issue, the report calls for a centralized electronic clearinghouse to gather, store and share useful data. Technical support, decision support tools and education can help communities in Michigan fully utilize that information in their planning activities.

Perhaps more than anything, this and similar studies refute old arguments pitting conservation of natural amenities against economic development. In truth, Michigan’s abundant natural amenities will be an essential part of state’s economic success.

To download a copy of the Drivers of Economic Performance in Michigan: natural features, green infrastructure and social/cultural amenities study, visit the MSU Land Policy website.