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Street Nature Score: Attempting To Tip the Market
July 16th, 2012
People talk about driving sustainability with “the market” rather than with government. But how do we get the market to push sustainability? By making its value clear and measureable. Rather than just saying things are “eco-friendly,” we need numbers for people to compare, just like comparing price, gas mileage, CPU speed, etc. Informed buyers create a conscious market; tying sustainability benefits to financial and quality-of-life benefits is even better.
Street Nature Score is a new tool I created to help the market drive greener cities by measuring natural spaces in urban areas. Nature benefits cities by absorbing stormwater and CO2, reducing urban heat island effect, and raising property values. Nature also benefits people – filtering pollutants from the air, improving their moods, and reducing stress and crime due to what E. O. Wilson calls “biophilia.”
Today, most property owners, house-hunters and realtors have only an intuitive sense of the verdancy of different locations, which is insufficient for accurate comparison. Therefore, assessment tools are indispensible, because our intuitions are so often wrong. Designers estimating the sustainability of products frequently find they greatly miscalculate compared to quantitative LCA scores. It’s also important to measure what matters; even the City of San Francisco’s urban planners, who are some of the most sustainability-minded in the country, only have records of the trees permitted for planting in the city. This does not include most of the trees on the street, backyard trees or other landscaping, or the trees and other greenery in city parks, which make up an enormous portion of the city’s nature. Better information is needed for people to make better decisions.
Tipping the Market
Living in a walkable, high-density neighborhood is one of the best lifestyle choices people can make to minimize their ecological impact. However, these locations often have very little nature in them, and thus feel intuitively less pleasant, comfortable, and safe to people than the leafier suburbs. Street Nature Score is intended to help people find locations that have the best of both worlds, and can help property owners realize the value of having nature in the heart of the city.
To tip markets, a tool must be useful to those buying and selling. Street Nature Score aims to be a valuable sales tool – it allows realtors to embed a location’s score on their own websites, so customers can compare the area’s natural elements to other properties. Research has shown that home prices can increase up to 13% with street trees, and business districts with vibrant natural areas can have 9-12% higher consumer spending. This existing financial value can drive the market to push sustainability, even without government mandates.
Markets can only push sustainability when meaningful and actionable information is easily accessible. The website Walkscore.com, which inspired Street Nature Score, has already had an impact on real estate sales and urban planners. Street Nature Score is intended to assist urban planners as well, making quantitative comparisons easy. When it's easy to see the value of urban nature and how different locations compare, more property owners will be motivated to green their sites.
Giving It Away
The tool is free and is now in beta, and we are spreading the word to realtors in Seattle and San Francisco, for which we currently have data. Other cities will be included as donations arrive or GIS experts volunteer their time. I encourage both realtors and ordinary people selling or renting properties to use it, and for buyers to ask their realtors to use it.
As a design researcher, strategist, and teacher for over a decade, I understand how sustainability tools can help turn vague notions into actions, and I am excited about helping cities and citizens better understand the nature they have or lack. By putting the right tools in people's hands, we don't have to be in city government to help create greener cities.