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New tools quantify costs, benefits of urban greenspace investments

New technology could help cities around the world improve people’s lives while saving billions of dollars. Urban InVEST, a suite of free, open-source software models creates maps to help decision-makers understand the links between nature and human wellbeing and evaluate the tradeoffs between development and conservation.

Even as developers and city planners increasingly see the benefits tree-lined paths and community gardens, they lacked detailed information about where a garden might help protect a neighborhood from flooding or trees might lower air temperatures. Researchers with the Stanford Natural Capital Project developed the free, open source software to help city planners visualize where investments in natural elements, such as parks and marshlands, can provide community benefits.

Urban InVEST uses spatially explicit biophysical and socio-economic models so users can quantify and map the way various urban designs can impact multiple urban services, such as water management, heat island mitigation and mental health benefits. By showing the costs and benefits to communities by socioeconomic status and vulnerability, the software “helps design cities that are better for both people and nature,” said Anne Guerry, chief strategy officer and lead scientist at the Natural Capital Project.

“Urban nature is a multitasking benefactor – the trees on your street can lower temperatures so your apartment is cooler on hot summer days,” she said. “At the same time, they’re soaking up the carbon emissions that cause climate change, creating a free, accessible place to stay healthy through physical activity and just making your city a more pleasant place to be.”

The software combines environmental data, like temperature patterns, with social demographics and economic data, like income levels, according to the Stanford News Service. Cities can upload their own data or access a variety of open data sources, from NASA satellites to local weather stations.

The Urban InVEST toolset features models for terrestrial, freshwater, marine, and coastal ecosystems, as well as a number of “helper tools” that help users locate and input data and with understanding and visualizing outputs.

“We’re answering three crucial questions with this software: where in a city is nature providing what benefits to people, how much of each benefit is it providing and who is receiving those benefits?” said Perrine Hamel, lead author on a new paper about the software published in Urban Sustainability and livable cities program lead at the Stanford Natural Capital Project at the time of research.

Urban InVEST was tested in several cities, including Shenzhen, China, Paris and Minneapolis. It builds on the Natural Capital Project’s existing open-source Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs (InVEST) platform, which is used in over 185 countries.

In Shenzhen, China, the researchers used Urban InVEST to determine that natural infrastructure like parks, grassland and forest could limit severe storm damage by soaking up rain and diverting floodwaters, avoiding $25 billion in damages. Trees and parks were reducing Shenzhen’ the daily air temperature in by 5.4 degrees during hot summer days, a value of $71,000 per day.

In Paris, the software showed where investments in more greenspace in low-income neighborhoods without access to such spaces could improve health and wellbeing in an equitable way.

In the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, private golf courses were selling off their land for development in the face of declining revenues. City planners, trying to decide whether to use the land for neighborhoods or parkland, used Urban InVEST to better understand the different outcomes. The software indicated that “new parks could increase urban cooling, keep river waters clean, support bee pollinators and sustain dwindling pockets of biodiversity,” Stanford officials said. “New residential development, on the other hand, would increase temperatures, pollute freshwater and decrease habitat for bees and other biodiversity.”

“Cities, more than any other ecosystems, are designed by people. Why not be more thoughtful about how we design the places where most of us spend our time?” Guerry said. “With Urban InVEST, city governments can bring all of nature’s benefits to residents and visitors. They can address inequities and build more resilient cities, resulting in better long-term outcomes for people and nature.”

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