Making a Business Case for Greener Cities 1

Friday, March 13th, 2015
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To borrow liberally from famous pop star Beyoncé, “if you liked it, then you should’ve put a value on it.”

You have to let the world know what you really appreciate to guarantee it stays around. In tight economic times, having a business case, or a quantifiable ‘value’ for a project or an asset is becoming more and more important. Dollar is king, and if you can’t value something, it might just fall off the agenda.

Building a business case is relatively straightforward when you are thinking about single purpose assets with a clear cost and a direct monetary benefit, but once you start thinking about environmental and social outcomes which are more difficult to measure, the whole economic equation becomes a lot more complex. The business case for urban greening and water sensitive urban design repeatedly falls into this trap. In a world of brick and mortar, how do you put a value on nature? Can you assign a dollar value on the pleasure you get from hearing a bird sing nearby or begin to estimate the value we collectively place on protecting natural landscapes?

Many practitioners are trying just that. To ensure decision makers and investors realise the broad benefits of natural infrastructure, economists, engineers and ecologists are working together to quantify the ‘ecosystem services’ that plants, waterways and soils offer. The ‘services’ can include cleansing of stormwater, flood management and air filtration along with provision of shade, beauty and a calming effect we all love.

The best thing about working with natural systems is that these services are often given free of charge, and are available to everyone. On the downside, those services are also taken for granted and have no clear ‘pay-back’ loop, making the building of a business case a difficult affair. However, a triple-bottom line (social, environmental, financial) analysis can be very useful in bringing stakeholders together to deliver multiple benefits, as it allows a combined and weighted evaluation to be undertaken. If you are planning on building a business case including some of the more ‘indirect’ environmental and social benefits, keep these three tips in mind:

1) Don’t use out-of-context or exaggerated values

For those of us who work in the environmental sector, setting a large dollar value against the outcomes we fight so hard for can be very tempting. However, grabbing grand claims of economic benefits from dubious sources in far-away countries will only undermine the business case. Make sure there are sound economic grounds for the benefits you are allocating, that they are locally relevant and specific to the type of proposal at hand.

A classic example here, is laying claim to increases in property values due to urban greening. Yes, greener suburbs are generally more desirable and expensive, but there are a lot of factors behind property values – a greener suburb may also be an older established suburb, with great access, facilities, house sizes and reputation. The value-add from greening needs to be made on a fair playing field and the benefit needs to be directly related to the type of project at hand. The full uplift of property values due to a proximity to a park can’t be attributed if your project only improves an existing park (and doesn’t build the park itself).

2) Remember to tell the story

Once you get into the business case mind-set, it’s hard to get back out again. Remember that an economic cost-benefit analysis is a comparative tool to assess the relative performance of options. There will always be benefits that we struggle to quantify, so it’s important to always tell the whole story. Pitch clear reasons for the project to go ahead. And remember, many projects have gone ahead without the numbers coming out in the black, the key is building a strong case for action and giving confidence in the solution.

3) Know your audience

It’s a general assumption that decision makers will respond to an economically proven proposal. However, our brains aren’t all wired the same, and factors that engage us will also change with time and context. For some, dollars and cents can drive action, but for others, triggering empathy and emotion by relating to their experiences will be much more effective. Tailor your case to the audience at hand and think about the context in which they work, their drivers and their worries.

References: Stormwater Victoria and Clearwater held a joint seminar on ‘delivering value through integrated water management’ in Feburary 2015 which informed this article. Proceedings are available:

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  1. Conrad

    Great article, as landscape architects we often struggle with quantifying the intangibles. I suggest using precedence – in particular measuring the difference between the before and after to asssess the success of the intervention. At sym studio we have a scorecard which acts as a yardstick for development which allows for evidence based decision making.