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Determining the Value of Portland's Green Infrastructure
Determining the Value of Portland's Green Infrastructure

“It’s not easy being green.”

Take Portland, for example. The city has worked for over twenty years to deliver on commitments to address the causes and prepare for the effects of climate change. Now the city’s revised Climate Action Plan is doubling down on those commitments, calling for a whopping 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2050.

One the greatest assets the city has in its race to cut carbon is green infrastructure (GI)—the green streets, ecoroofs, urban forests, rain gardens, wetlands and other natural and man made features we have all over town. These valuable resources offer the city an innovative way to meet clean air and water goals. That being the case, the planning and policy measures the city is putting into place to manage these ecological resources are just as important as the bioswales, trees, and green roofs themselves.

Marissa Matsler, a Ph.D. student in PSU’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, investigates the use of GI and the value of the ecosystem services these assets provide. In a project supported by the Institute for Sustainable Solutions and a part of the Portland Climate Action Collaborative between PSU and the city, Ms. Matsler is working closely with the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to research and evaluate the ecosystem services GI provides in order to begin integrating its management with that of the city’s traditional infrastructure.

In order to do so, a cadre of city agencies must come to a consensus about what defines GI, identify GI facilities and networks throughout the city, and determine the value of these assets so resources can be allocated for their management. Ms. Matsler’s research aims to help the city answer two questions important to building such a consensus: “how can GI facilities be integrated into existing infrastructure management plans?” and “how are other cities approaching the definition and valuation of green infrastructure?”

To answer these critical questions, Ms. Matsler is conducting a cross-bureau review and analysis of current city policies and planning. She is also working with city officials to identify interdepartmental gaps and synergies. As for the valuation of GI, according to Ms. Matsler municipalities, companies, and government agencies are experimenting with various combinations of creative qualitative and quantitative techniques, along with traditional monetization methods, but there doesn’t yet appear to be anything like an “industry standard” for this burgeoning valuation process.

“It’s not easy to put a value on these resources,” Ms. Matsler said. “If you’re looking at a tree, you need ask what it would cost to replace it. You also need to look at the market-based value of the ecosystem services the tree provides: the value of the carbon it sequesters. Then there’s the social value of the tree, which is even more difficult to calculate. By contrast, the asset management and infrastructure valuation of traditional infrastructure is based on more concrete calculations like the cost of labor, maintenance, and mechanical components.”

Because the approaches for identifying and valuing GI are so radically different from those used to assess traditional infrastructure, it won’t be easy for the city to integrate the management of one with the other. But then again, it’s not easy being green. And as Ms. Matsler notes, when it comes to seriously considering the value of GI, Portland is ahead of the pack.

“Portland is really leading the way on a lot of this work,” Ms. Matsler said. “Our green infrastructure resources are essential to meeting the goals set by the city’s Climate Action Plan. That we recognize this and are starting to take green infrastructure seriously just shows how innovative the city is in its approach to addressing climate change.”