Nature as an Economic Engine

Summer is a time when many of us try to spend more time outdoors, in nature. It’s also a time when we spend more money on outdoor activities, generating an important seasonal economy. A new June, 2014 report issued by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn highlights the impact that outdoor recreation can have on a local economy.  The report calls attention to an area on the south side of Chicago that stretches into Indiana and contains an interesting combination of industry and natural features; the area is called the Millennium Reserve. Quinn’s report embraces these conflicting uses and recommends investments to improve industrial facilities while, at the same time, calling for more of the natural areas to be opened up for public access and use. Specifically, the report, Millennium Reserve: Opportunities for Action, states that, “Americans spent more than $145 billion dollars in 2011 on outdoor recreation, including bird watching, hiking and fishing.” The guiding principles of the plan focus on combining economic growth with healthy ecosystems while creating jobs and honoring the region’s history.   

This spring, I had the opportunity to participate in a tour and panel on a similar topic. I was invited to be a resource by the RACER Trust (Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust), at a summit focusing on reuse of a former GM property in Elyria, OH. The RACER Trust's mission is to remediate and position for redevelopment 89 former GM locations. After touring the property on foot and by car, we met for a facilitated discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the property and brainstormed about realistic re-uses for the property. The property will most likely be redeveloped into a mix of open space and warehouses; however, several of us participating remarked that the natural aspects of the property could themselves be a draw if strong transit and retail/service connections could be made.

As I reflect on the Millennium Reserve report and the RACER Trust panel, I see the group of champions of natural settings starting to evolve. No longer is the environmentalist, naturalist, or landscape planner alone in embracing the value of these spaces; it is not uncommon now for politicians, such as Governor Quinn, business leaders, and economic development leaders to also realize the opportunity that exists by incorporating natural features into developments or allowing them to be a key element of a revitalization strategy. Natural areas have long been viewed as development opportunities. Now, nature itself is the opportunity.  Nature has taken a back seat to the needs of industry for a very long time. It’s good to see nature getting top billing these days as a way to revive industry and secure the health and well-being of our cities and residents for many years to come.

What natural assets do you have to protect and promote? How can you use those assets to further develop a healthy community?