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Open space: More than just a pretty place

BY 2035, southeastern Pennsylvania is expected to grow by 393,000 people and 241,000 jobs, growth that will provide considerable benefits to our economy. But what will it do to our open space?

BY 2035, southeastern Pennsylvania is expected to grow by 393,000 people and 241,000 jobs, growth that will provide considerable benefits to our economy. But what will it do to our open space?

Continuing at the current rate of land consumption, 167,000 acres of natural and agriculture land would be subject to development over this period - an area itself half the size of Montgomery County.

Pennsylvania's Growing Greener initiative provides support to conserve this land, but after a decade of success, the funding sources for Growing Greener are nearly gone.

As our elected leaders debate continued funding for Growing Greener, and as we plan for sustainable growth and development, it's important to recognize the value of preserved open space and the significant contributions it makes to our regional economy.

Unfortunately, there's a misperception that preserved open land is nonproductive and nonrevenue producing. But the opposite is true.

A recently released study commissioned by the GreenSpace Alliance and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission quantified the value of preserved open space in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. The study - the first of its kind for southeastern Pennsylvania - examined the economic benefits associated with preserved open space in four areas: residential property values, environmental services, recreation and health, and jobs and revenue.

Prepared by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, Econsult Corp. and Keystone Conservation Trust, the study found that the region's 300 square miles of open space:

* Increases property values by an average of $10,000 per household.

* Saves local governments and utilities more than $132 million a year in costs associated with drinking water filtration and flood control.

* Supports nearly 7,000 jobs, and generates more than $566 million in annual spending, $299 million in annual salaries and $30 million state and local tax revenue.

In Philadelphia alone, nearly 13 percent of the land - 17 square miles - is preserved open space, largely parkland. Not only does this parkland increase property values, but it also:

* Provides recreational opportunities valued at $221 million.

* Helps residents and businesses avoid more than $408 million in health care costs every year.

* Generates $131 million in annual expenditures, $46 million in total earnings and more than $10 million in state and local tax revenue.

As the city moves forward with its "Green2015" plan to add 500 acres of green space throughout the city, it needs to look no farther than nine-acre Clark Park in West Philly for the economic benefits parks can bring.

More than 600,000 visits are made to Clark every year, making it one of the most heavily used facilities in the city park system. They use the park's playing field, jogging and biking trails, basketball court and playground.

It's also home to a twice-weekly farmer's market that attracts up to 700 people on Thursdays and Saturdays, has 18 vendors and generates an estimated $650,000 in annual sales for local farmers.

Small businesses realize significant benefits from the park. Green Line Cafe reports it does 30 to 40 percent more business than a second nearby location, attributing much of this to its location along the park.

Perhaps the most impressive figure, however, is that an analysis shows that homes within a quarter-mile of the park can attribute an average of $46,000 of additional value to their proximity to Clark Park.

While the region has done a commendable job in preserving open space, far more needs to be done. Regional planning efforts have identified more than 230,000 acres in southeastern Pennsylvania that could be preserved, while retaining sufficient land for future growth. Quality development, coupled with targeted open space preservation, improves the quality of life for us all.

FAMILIES, businesses and officials at all levels of government have an interest in making sure our valuable open spaces aren't taken away. They increase our property values, save our tax dollars, create jobs and generate revenue. We simply can't afford not to protect them.

Patty Elkis is associate director of comprehensive planning for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. Donna Pitz is executive director of the GreenSpace Alliance.