Olsson Associates


Investment in Kansas City’s urban natural resources pays

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Ted Hartsig, Environmental

Those trees in your yard are saving you anywhere from 15 to 25 percent on your cooling and heating bills each year. That doesn’t include the 15 percent or more they add to the value of your property. Or the savings they provide in upkeep and repairs by catching rainfall and allowing it to infiltrate the soil, protecting your home and nearby properties from erosion and flooding. Trees, shrubs, and grasses reduce runoff volumes, thereby regulating stream flow and reducing the potential for flooding; and they clean the air of dust and many pollutants. Just as important, well-planned green streets and parks that include native vegetation improve commerce and attract customers and visitors. Numerous studies demonstrate that owners and tenants stay longer in green communities, and more people want to visit these inviting, stress-reducing areas.

The benefits that can be derived from urban tree cover and other urban natural resources don’t just happen. We have to work with nature to receive the value and economic benefits of these natural resources. It’s much more than just planting a seed and hoping it grows; the vegetation that protects our properties is also critically dependent on healthy soil and clean water, which are our other abundant natural resources.

Consider a simple model in which healthy soil supports deep roots that allow the growth of healthy vegetation. In turn, rainwater infiltrates the ground, which cleanses it and stores it for future use by plants. From there, free water flows slowly toward streams and ponds. The soil not only provides nutrients for the plants, but also for the microbial life that is critical for sustaining vegetation. When well balanced, plants, soil, and water reward our community – less energy is needed to maintain the landscape; less energy is needed to cool our buildings in summer or heat them in winter; less water is needed to keep vegetation green and growing; and cleaner water and air are available for us to use every day. The natural resource balance extends outward to economic, environmental, and quality-of-life benefits.

When vegetation and soil are disturbed or even destroyed by construction, we must invest capital to restore or recreate the balance that normally should be provided as a free ecological service by plants, soil, and water, and we start losing their benefits. The arrows in the model showing the outward potential of a balanced environment turn inward when we direct resources into trying to “rebalance” them. More energy is used, more water is consumed, more money is spent, and the quality of our environment is at risk.

We see the beauty of the trees and other vegetation in our urban environment every day. Water is always on our minds: often we have either too much of it, or too little. Soil, on the other hand, is the often forgotten and mismanaged resource that is the fundamental foundation for maintaining a healthy urban environment. In most cities, topsoil is often compacted, pulverized, and often stripped away, with the expectation that planting trees and placing sod – along with copious amounts of water and fertilizer – will restore the landscape. Not so! Soil is a complex composite of organic matter and living organisms combined with the mineral sand, silt, and clay that are not only vital to vegetation and water movement and storage, but also serve an important role in regulating our environment and creating green spaces of value. Without good, living soil, vegetation will struggle to survive and water will rapidly move off the landscape.

Kansas City has a good record of investing in the protection of natural resources. Recognizing the importance that the proper balance of plants, soil, and water play in stormwater management, Kansas City will invest more than $68 million in green infrastructure projects over the next few years. The first of these projects has been completed within Kansas City’s historic Marlborough neighborhood. Lenexa’s Rain to Recreation program focuses on preserving Lenexa’s natural resources as a way of more cost-effectively managing stormwater and enhancing the quality of life for Lenexa residents. As a result, in 2011, Money magazine named the city one of the best places to live in the U.S. Lenexa has become a role model for other communities that are interested in the benefits of green infrastructure and good natural resource management. Citywide, the Metrogreen and other local trail systems include more than 1,000 miles of trails, scattered in various communities around the metro, plus a growing number of bike lanes, most of which connect more than 90,000 acres of stream corridors that have been conserved by 14 metro communities.

Maximizing Kansas City’s natural resources requires deliberate actions if we are to benefit from their services, including:

  1. Conserving and improving soil resources: Soil is more than a building medium – it is a living system necessary for sustaining above-ground life. Conserving topsoil in place, sustaining the organic matter content of the soil, and avoiding unnecessary compacting of soil will help support our urban environment, and the ecosystem services it provides.
  2. Using the right vegetation in the right place: Placement of trees, shrubs, and/or grasses in the right locations will maximize maintenance and energy reductions and water conservation. Using native plants requires less maintenance than what imported or exotic plants require, and native plants use less water. Native plants also improve soil conditions and enhance water infiltration. Substantial savings in landscape maintenance can be realized using native plants.
  3. Capture water where it falls: Just like Kansas City, Missouri, and Lenexa, Kansas, many communities are implementing green infrastructure projects that capture rainfall where it falls, allowing it to infiltrate and be stored in the soil (1 foot of good soil can hold 4 to 5 inches of water). This type of action, which incorporates conservation of soil and use of vegetation, will protect our properties and surrounding areas while also reducing the need for water and chemicals on our landscapes.

Kansas City’s natural resources have been mapped to understand how and where these resources can contribute to the growth and prosperity of our region. This information is available at http://www.marc.org/Environment/Natural-Resources/Natural-Resources-Inventory/Natural-Resource-Inventory.

Kansas City is in the right spot for having great natural resources. When you’re out walking around your neighborhood, remember that the green spaces you see are more than just trees. The balance of plants, soil, and water is a subtle but strong economic boon. 

(Ted Hartsig is a senior scientist in Olsson's Overland Park, Kansas office. This article was prepared for a special supplement in the Kansas City Business Journal.)

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