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Ecosystem Services in the Built Environment
 
The Bullitt Center. Credit Nic Lehoux

Steve Whitney

When people think about ecosystem services, they often picture a wilderness landscape with clean rivers flowing through healthy forests. This landscape is producing food, medicinal herbs, fiber, clean air, and clean water among other important services that humans depend on for survival and quality of life. However, we seldom think about the extent to which these same benefits are, or are not, being produced within urban areas and the built environment.

There are significant consequences to ignoring the potential for the built environment to produce and deliver ecosystem service benefits. Removing nature from an urban landscape, or failing to maintain that urban landscape in harmony with the ecosystem that encompasses it, reduces the resilience and sustainability of those communities. With an ever-increasing majority of people living in urban areas, the role of ecosystem services production within urban boundaries cannot be ignored. The ability of these urban areas to provide quality of life over time is inextricably linked to our ability to integrate ecosystem services into our urban planning and design practices.

Accordingly, promoting ecosystem services within the urban context is critical to improving the human condition and ensuring the ongoing vitality of our communities. But understanding the role and need for ecosystem services in urban areas is a nuanced issue that requires us to move beyond simplistic models that create a dichotomy of nature versus human development, or ecological functions versus technology. In an urban context we cannot draw a bright line between “natural” and “human.”

Creating a Dialogue with Nature: The Bullitt Center
The Bullitt Center is a 50,000 square-foot office building located in Seattle’s Central Area. Called “the greenest commercial building in the world,” the project was the first multistory office building in a dense urban neighborhood to achieve the Living Building Challenge—the most rigorous benchmark of sustainability in the built environment. To meet the Challenge, the Bullitt Center was required to achieve a set of “imperatives,” including generating as much energy as it uses in a year, avoiding toxic materials, and capturing rainwater for all purposes, including drinking.

Given these requirements, it was natural to wonder about the value of the benefits produced by the building.

To answer this question, researchers from Autopoiesis, Ecotrust, and EcoMetrix Solutions Group dug into the ecosystem service values generated by the building. Optimizing Urban Ecosystem Services: The Bullitt Center Case Study, found that just six of the building’s green features will produce up to $18.5 million in benefits to society over the life of the building. This is the first time ecosystem service values have been calculated for a building.
Lifetime Value of Public Benefits Provided by the Bullitt Center

Ecosystem services are benefits provided by natural systems to support all life on earth. Such benefits accrue broadly to society rather than directly to building owners or tenants, and current regulatory and financial systems do not fully account for them.

In this research—funded by the Bullitt Foundation, which owns the Bullitt Center—the team calculated values for public benefits, such as energy efficiency, solar energy, walkability, rainwater capture and use, composting toilets, and enhanced carbon storage in the forest from the exclusive use of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood.

Although many other public benefits—low-cost housing, pollution reduction, sanitation—are subsidized or required as a price of doing business, investments in sustainability are currently voluntary charitable acts by developers. This places sustainable buildings at a commercial disadvantage to conventional buildings.

“Society provides enormous annual subsidies to residential and commercial real estate, many of which promote sprawl. But society does not acknowledge the benefits that deep green buildings provide to the general public,” said Denis Hayes, CEO of the Bullitt Foundation. “By ignoring the benefits such investments provide to society at large, we penalize the best buildings and reward the worst,” he added.

The Bullitt Center. Credit Nic Lehoux The value of such public benefits can vary based on factors such as the assumed social cost of carbon emissions and the discount rate applied to benefits received in future years.The table above shows the public values calculated for the life of the Bullitt Center.

In addition to its quantitative research, the team also provided a qualitative assessment of an additional dozen ecosystem services benefits. If these other benefits were accurately quantified, they would add significantly to the documented value of the Bullitt Center.

For example, stormwater mitigation —which is directly related to rainwater capture and reuse—can be extremely expensive for cities to address. Seattle recently spent more than $1 billion to address part of the stormwater challenge it faces. The Bullitt Center has no more stormwater runoff than would be expected from a native Pacific Northwest forest.

The magnitude of this one benefit demonstrates the need to begin incorporating public benefits into regulatory and financial frameworks.

The Bullitt Center is a six-story heavy timber commercial structure built entirely of Forest Stewardship Council certified wood. The research team calculated that the use of FSC-certified wood retained an additional 1,844metric tons of carbon dioxide sequestered in the forest, relative to wood from forests managed to legally required Washington State forest practices standards. This finding is a result of the differences between post-harvest carbon stores in forests managed to rigorous FSC requirements and those associated with the business-as-usual practices common in Washington.

The Bullitt Center study seeks to not only quantify values but also extend the way ecosystem services are valued and modeled in the built environment. Before the current Bullitt Center study, ecosystem service valuations were typically limited to natural ecosystems or large-scale rural areas. This research was grounded in the terminology and science of both ecology and economics, which are often incompatible with the terminology and frameworks of architecture, urban and regional planning, engineering, landscape architecture, interior design, and other design professions.

There are significant consequences to ignoring the potential for the built environment to produce and deliver ecosystem service benefits. Removing nature from an urban landscape, or failing to maintain that urban landscape in harmony with the ecosystem that encompasses it, reduces the resilience and sustainability of those communities. With an ever-increasing majority of people living in urban areas, the ability of these systems to provide quality of life over time is inextricably linked to our ability to integrate ecosystem services into our urban planning and design practices.

AThe Bullitt Center: A 50,000 square-foot Seattle office building called the greenest commercial building in the world. Credit: Nic Lehoux s we move from reliance on ecosystem services toward reliance on centralized technology solutions, we introduce a greater level of fragility into our urban areas. Every time we make an urban design decision, we make a trade-off between comprehensive, resilient solutions, such as stormwater filtration spread across the landscape, and targeted, often-brittle solutions, such as combined sewer overflow systems.

Biophilic urbanism—urban design that reflects humans’ innate need for nature in and around and on top of our buildings—can make significant contributions to a range of national, state, and local government public policy objectives, including climate change mitigation and adaptation and improvements in public health.

Other potential benefits include reducing the heat island effect, reducing energy consumption for thermal control, enhancing urban biodiversity, improving human well-being and productivity, and improving water cycle management. Effective planning and policy can underpin adoption of biophilic urbanism.

The Bullitt Center offers an unprecedented opportunity to communicate the value of ecosystem services in an urban context. The quest to reduce externalities from the built environment while maintaining high population densities, community resilience, and quality of life requires a careful balancing of ecosystem services and technology within our urban planning and design.

The Bullitt Center produces meaningful direct benefits (or avoided impacts) for over two-thirds of the twenty-two ecosystem services classified by the UN’s Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity  study. This suggests that ecosystem services provide an important complement to the Living Building Challenge, with most of its requirements mapping naturally to one or more ecosystem services.

Steve Whitney is a program officer with the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, WA.

To read the full study, visit www.pinchot.org/bullitt
 
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