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Ecosystem services and the new metropolitan age

My colleague Buck Kline, at the Virginia Department of Forestry, attended the Wildlife Habitat Council 1st Ecosystem Services conference last week in Maryland. He just forwarded me his speaker’s notes for Sally Collins’s presentation. Sally Collins, as folks may know, is the new Director of the USDA Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets.

Ms. Collins’s comments included these points:

- 40 years ago we had a “Top Down” approach to address environmental concerns. We created legislation, agencies like EPA, etc. Decisions were based on command and control mechanisms that were based on things like fines and penalties or the fear of such. There was very little thought as to unintended consequences.

- These approaches really didn’t solve all the critical issues that we now face (climate change, invasive species, sprawl due to county zoning, etc.)

- Every economic sector is now an environmental sector. We need incentives and penalties that include alternatives and we need global solutions.

- Environmental solutions will increasingly come from entities like environmental NGOs, corporations, etc. and not necessarily Congress. Sally sees her role as Director of the Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets as facilitating the connection of those “bright lights” outside of government to make these solutions happen. She sees governments role to act as a “nurturing parent” to unleash the creativity of public/private partnerships.

- We need National metrics for ecosystem services. There are too many standards being developed that create market uncertainty and confusion.

- We need to expand on existing mitigation banking markets. We need a good accreditation system to train natural resource managers that can market bundled service.

- We need to manage for all services that flow off a property.

- We need to consider green infrastructure first when considering any new development.

The thing I really like here is her second bullet, this notion that our environment=our economy, and vice-versa. If a “top-down” command and control approach isn’t the way forward, and I wholeheartedly agree it’s not, then what is? Her fourth bullet seems to suggest a decentralized, bottom-up concept.

Now, interestingly, the Brookings Institution released their Metro Area “MetroMonitor” report card yesterday.  I have posted the PDF on the Blackboard. The Monitor’s author, states:

This metropolitan perspective begins to highlight the important role of local economic structure and housing dynamics on performance during the recession. It suggests that recovery may be quite uneven as well, posing particular challenges for policymakers seeking to ensure a truly national rising economic tide.

I find it fascinating that the author, Alan Beube, focuses on the “important role of local economic structure” and then states, a “truly national rising economic tide” may be a challenge. This jibes well with another Brookings project, called The Blueprint for American Prosperity, which I have also posted on the Blackboard, that frames our economy in the same way, rather than a national economy, we are a collection of regional economies:

“The premise of the Blueprint project, that we are a nation composed of vibrant, innovative, urban areas, I think is unassailable…The Blueprint calls for re-thinking the map. Instead of thinking of ourselves as a collection of states, a notion that was imagined in the 18th century, we should organize ourselves as a network of metros that provides the vast majority of jobs, ideas, and innovations.”
-Greg Nickels, Mayor of Seattle

So, we have here a convergence getting ready to happen. Forces that in the past weren’t very synergistic are now coming together — environmental and urban policy interests focusing on the importance of regional economies. Perhaps we may be moving into what will be known as a new metropolitan age, a new age of the city. And, what is so interesting this time around is the possible inclusion of ecosystem services in the new urban agenda. It’s not yet well defined, but this idea of eco-urban policy is bubbling to the surface. In the Blueprint, for example, the Brookings folks note the importance of urban sustainability:

To achieve true prosperity, our nation must leverage its key assets-innovation, infrastructure, human capital, and quality places-principally concentrated in metropolitan areas.

• The Senate Banking Committee is exploring the possibility of MetroPolicy’s “Sustainability Challenge Contracts” to encourage states and localities to devise a broad vision for coping with congestion and carbon emissions encompassing transportation, housing, land use, economic development, and energy policies.

Yes, times are tough money-wise. But this downturn gives us the opportunity as a nation to grow in wisdom, to mature in ways that we just haven’t had to, to come to grips with our real source of long-term wealth—our built, natural, and social infrastructure.

And thanks to Forest Policy Research for the image of Ms. Collins.

- Michael Collins


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