Harken back to your Economics 101 class and you may recall the concepts of built capital and financial capital as major pieces of the basic economic equation for producing goods and services. Others may be familiar with human capital and even the concept of social capital (one of my favorites especially when looking at the connection between social capital and walkability – but that may be another blog post!). All of these types of capital are key to thriving communities across the Globe. In this post, I’d like to discuss one type of capital that isn’t always considered but arguably provides many of the benefits we enjoy in New Hampshire’s vibrant villages—that is Natural Capital.
A quick definition of natural capital is: the assets, such as ecosystems, that humans rely upon for many of our needs, including clean water, food, and carbon capture. These assets provide a flow of goods and services for all of us called ecosystem services.
Many of us in the field of ecological economics study how we use and value our natural capital. Ecological economics is still developing, but it has already shown its potential for helping us think about solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing society. Have you ever come in from a wonderful day at the ocean or the lake or in the mountains and said, “wow, I really benefitted from New Hampshire’s natural capital today?” If you haven’t, don’t worry, you are not alone. Natural capital is often hidden or taken for granted in the background, and because there haven’t been many ways to value it and incorporate it into decision making, it hasn’t always been considered in our decision making.
We are fortunate to be awash in natural capital here in New Hampshire, and it is arguably part of the New Hampshire advantage. Some of us are studying how we use natural capital in the region and how we can better incorporate it into our environmental decision making. My research group at Plymouth State University’s Center for the Environment has been looking at this very question in partnership with colleagues at UNH and Dartmouth with support from the National Science Foundation through New Hampshire’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NH EPSCoR). One new study we just published looked at the value of conservation land in removing pollutants, such as Nitrogen, before it reaches the impaired Great Bay Estuary. Yes, you read that correctly, our natural capital (that is forests and watersheds) can help remove some pollutants as part of natural ecosystem functions and may help us save some money compared to building up engineered methods for purifying water and other services.
Flood mitigation is another benefit from natural capital we might have in our communities. You may have heard of the valuable things wetlands can do for humans: holding back floodwater is one of those. For instance, a 1-acre wetland, 1-foot-deep can hold approximately 330,000 gallons of water (see Purdue Extension) and is often more cost effective than building a large flood control dam. This is not to mention the habitat and water purification services wetlands also provide as well as the copious recreational benefits our natural landscapes can provide, something we would call co-benefits and have tried to understand in another, recent paper.
All of these services contribute to the vibrancy of our villages, so the next time you are thinking about a planning decision in one of our wonderful villages, I suggest taking a second to ask about the natural capital implications. You’ll probably be happy you did – because not only will you save money but there likely will be many co-benefits for you and your fellow citizens to enjoy. Let me know how it goes!
This blog was originally written by Shannon Rogers and posted on the PLAN NH website on Sept. 26, 2016.