reWorking Michigan: Green Infrastructure Can Drive Economic Growth

Feb 12, 2012

Can parks, natural areas and waterways affect employment growth and income?  Yes, according to a new study by the Land Policy Institute and the Michigan Natural Features Inventory at Michigan State University.

In our reWorking Michigan Monday report, WKAR’s Gretchen Millich goes for a walk at Hawk Island Park in Lansing with conservation scientist John Paskus.

JOHN PASKUS:    We were very interested in trying to determine what roles different types of natural resources and features like lakes, streams, forests, wetlands, nature preserves play in Michigan's economic recovery.   People have one thing on their minds, and that is jobs, jobs, jobs.  With the automobile industry nearly collapsing, foreclosure rates at an all-time high, very high unemployment, we really wanted to explore that idea or relationship between natural resources and economic prosperity. 

GRETCHEN MILLICH:  What were the conclusions of your report?

PASKUS: The conclusion that we came to was, first and foremost, that natural features and green infrastructure elements do play a role. That was one of the first things that we wanted to establish.  Is there a significant role in terms of economic performance?  Sure enough, that is what we found. In terms of specifics, I would say that the things that stood out most, which is very appropriate, since we're standing right next to the lake here, is high quality water environments. People definitely seem to be attracted to those areas where it's unpolluted, it's somewhat pristine, and you have access to those places.  So, high quality water, whether that's a lake, could be a pond, a river or a stream, or it could be the Great Lakes shoreline, played a big role in terms of income changes, population changes and employment.

Secondly, and again very appropriate, since we're walking along this boardwalk, was access.  So, its not just that these places are there. It's that people have adequate access to a diversity of experiences.  So, whether you're interested in kayaking, hiking, camping, as long as you have those places to go to and interact, that does definitely attract people to those places. We're now entering Scotts Woods.  I've taken my dog out here.  There's a dog park right next to it. During the warmer months of the year, there are always people out here, whether they're out fishing in the lake, swimming in the lake, walking with their families through the woods, kayaking, there are always a lot of people out in this section of the park.

MILLICH:  In communities like Lansing, when we have all these natural areas, how can we use them in terms of economic development?

PASKUS: One of the best ways to do it is to make sure that these areas are set aside and protected from development.  It sounds a bit contradictory, but you do have to have these areas set aside for the public's enjoyment.  That's first and foremost, and then secondly, you need to make them accessible, whether that means putting in trails, making sure there aren't any hazards in place, putting in boat launches for canoes and kayaks, putting in picnic pavilions that bring in people and allow people to enjoy them and access them. Lastly, you need to market what you have, and that's one of the missing elements in a lot of communities.  They don't really know what they have, so they don't necessarily know how to market it.  But if they do know what they have, say it's a long-standing park, they don't necessarily treat it as a key community asset. I think they need to flip that around and look at it in a different way.