The many benefits of preserved green space

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by Alison Mitchell, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

It’s easy to take lands in their natural state for granted. An old forest or beautiful meadow in your town may have “always been there,” but unless the land has been permanently preserved, it may be built upon in the future.

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New Jerseyans seem to understand the wisdom of preserving land. Over the past 60-plus years, voters in the Garden State have overwhelmingly passed every statewide ballot question on funding to protect open space, farmland and historic sites. The most recent was in 2014, when voters approved a measure to dedicate part of the state’s Corporate Business Tax revenue to sustainably support long-term preservation efforts.

Despite our state being the nation’s most densely populated, about a third of our total land mass has been permanently protected so it will be available for future generations. All of our 21 counties have amazing parks and nature preserves: everything from neighborhood pocket parks to vast properties covering hundreds, or thousands, of acres.

These preserved properties offer tremendous benefits to nearby residents, as well as to those living in a much wider area:

Environmental – Protected open space provides a host of environmental benefits for local communities, including replenishing groundwater supplies, improving water quality, mitigating flooding during storms, safeguarding wildlife habitat, and removing pollution from the air. Forests, trees and soils on preserved land absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere, helping in the fight against climate change. Tree-covered parkland in cities also helps reduce the urban heat island effect. Several years ago, the New Jersey Keep It Green coalition tried to quantify the environmental benefits of open space. They found that for every 10% increase in forest cover, water treatment and chemical costs decreased by 20%. Wildlife also benefits – open spaces in New Jersey support more than 2,100 known native plant species and nearly 900 wildlife species.

Recreation and health – Preserved open space provides low-cost or free recreational opportunities to residents and promotes health and well-being. Parks and preserves throughout the state offer hiking, biking, birding, dog walking, paddling, fishing, horseback riding and more. Physically active people who use outdoor open spaces have lower incidences of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, depression, certain cancers, and obesity. Experiencing nature at parks and open spaces provides a feeling of peace and serenity, boosting mental health. It is estimated that activities on protected open space account for millions of dollars in avoided medical costs annually, plus millions more in avoided losses from reduced productivity at work.

Parks can also improve the public’s quality of life in other ways. Some provide space for community gardens, allowing people who don’t own land to grow their own fruits and vegetables. Other parks may offer an opportunity to prevent youth crime through recreation programs that offer social support from adult leaders, leadership opportunities for participants, a sense of group belonging, and opportunities for community service.

Property values – Studies have found that protected open space increases the value of nearby homes, since buyers are willing to pay more for properties near and adjacent to green spaces. Who wouldn’t want to gaze out their window at a preserved forest or field, or simply step out their backdoor to access a trail system? New Jersey Keep It Green coalition found several years ago that the average home price increases 16% when it is located near permanently preserved open space, the value of a vacant lot increases 35% when it is located next to permanently preserved open space, and parks contribute up to 20% of the value of homes in urban areas.

Homeowners who live near preserved lands are usually happy to have them as neighbors; indeed, nearby residents are often among the driving forces responsible for making these public green spaces a reality. Once a new public preserve or park is opened, neighbors often serve as the local eyes and ears to make sure that the green space is well-maintained and safe.

According to the Rails to Trails Conservancy, which turns abandoned train lines into linear parks, nearby residents sometimes fear that a proposed new trail near their property will lead to increased crime, such as littering, trespassing, burglary and vandalism. For the most part, these fears are unfounded.

“A large majority of trail opponents find that their fears about the trail never materialize, and numerous studies refute that rail-trails increase crime, lower property values or introduce new liability claims,” said an article by the Rails to Trails Conservancy. “In fact, adjacent residents almost invariably become enthusiastic trail users and supporters within a few years of a trail’s creation.”

National studies back this up. In 2019, for example, researchers reviewed 45 papers on the connection between green spaces and crime, and found that the presence of green spaces, including parks and trees, reduces crime in urban areas.

If open land near you is preserved as a park or preserve, there may be changes to adjust to. For example, if the property is purchased using public funding – including state Green Acres Program funds – the land will be open to the public. That usually means the addition of some level of amenities, which will vary in scope depending on the entity charged with managing the land. Trails and parking areas are common at rural preserves, while restrooms, ballfields, and other similar recreation facilities are more common in urban and suburban parks.

If your community plans to acquire land in your neighborhood for new parks or preserves, studies suggest that residents will benefit. Your home will likely become more valuable, and you will hopefully have a great place to enjoy recreation in a landscape that will provide environmental benefits in perpetuity!

To find out more about the benefits of open space, check out New Jersey’s 2007 study, Valuing New Jersey’s Natural Capital: An Assessment of the Economic Value of the State’s Natural Resources. The dollar figures are outdated, but the principles still apply. You can find it at https://rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/rutgers-lib/35012/.

A more recent resource on public land is the Return on Environment study by Mercer County. Find it at https://www.mercercounty.org/departments/planning/return-on-environment-report/-fsiteid-1#!/.

And for information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

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