Putting value back into public green space:

Rights, obligations and finding funding for green spaces

By Erik Andersson (Stockholm Resilience Centre), and Jakub Kronenberg (University of Lodz)

How does your city view commercial activities on public land or business making a profit from publicly-owned resources? As part of GREEN SURGE’s research into the green economy, we at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the University of Łódź are interested in ways to capture the value of green infrastructure and to use these facts and figures to advocate for and finance green space maintenance. To build on the case studies we have already investigated, we would like to invite you to submit new ideas, suggestions and examples to us by email from your own city context.

Maintenance is often seen as a cost, and effectively articulating its multiple benefits remains a key challenge within urban development discourse. In order to address this, we first have to find out to whom it is valuable and how the beneficiaries are willing to contribute to covering this cost. This information not only justifies the maintenance but can also be a means of generating funds to support it.

City of Soller on Mallorca (photo by Cecil Konijnendijk van den Bosch)

Why the focus on commercial interests and business actors?

In practice, real money is needed to protect and develop urban green infrastructure and maintain the provision of public goods such as ecosystem services, to ensure that these benefits are non-rivalrous and non-excludable, that is, that everyone can benefit from them. Money is needed to buy land, finance management, pay staff salaries, buy tools and equipment, equip visitor centres and for myriad other expenses. So rather than the abstract valuation of ecosystem services, the financing of ecosystems seems a necessity. We view urban green infrastructure as an entity around and within which many services are provided to society, yet this entity does not reap the benefits of the services it renders. 

Where could the money come from? There is strong evidence that urban green infrastructure indeed supports many business and economic interests. For example, green infrastructure can provide connections that link amenities to the city, its neighbourhoods and main streets. Major tourism destinations such as urban forests, big parks and waterfronts attract visitors to neighbourhood districts, local establishments and cultural destinations. Green public spaces and green corridors can channel and calm traffic, allowing people to spend more time along transportation routes. Green spaces attract home buyers, and this provides an additional incentive for real estate developers to locate their investment close to green spaces. Also, a growing number of cities allocate public space to farmers’ markets, charging fees to vendors selling produce or other farm products there. Cities located near farming districts or interested in promoting urban farms or food production within their boundaries may look to facilitate the development of farmers’ markets that sell high quality local food. 

Thus, greener neighbourhoods may increase the profitability of many businesses, and access to public space offers an opportunity to attract attention and market products partly made up of public goods. A commercial interest also indicates that there is money involved. Can this be a source for financing green space maintenance and improvement?

People enjoying early spring in an outdoor cafe in Munich (photo by Jakub Kronenberg)

Rights and obligations

Research carried out as part of the GREEN SURGE has shown that money directly related to the provision of ecosystem services is being earned in and around green spaces and public places. As the relationship between these green spaces and the earnings they generate is not recognised, very little of this cash flow goes toward conservation or sustainable development. Often, most of the profits fail to move beyond the pockets of private investors. In our research, we suggest that a system of rights and obligations can help regulate and find new financial arrangements for green space maintenance. 

A right is something to be conferred and then – at least temporarily – owned. GREEN SURGE has defined a right as “a privilege granted to an organization in the form of continued use of a particular space, product or service, associated with UGI and ecosystem services, granted only on the basis that said organization agrees to fulfil … obligations stipulated in advance”. When it comes to public space, usually it would be up to the local governments to confer rights. Concessions would only be given on the strict condition that the receiver fulfils certain obligations, either towards the city or a particular place. For example, if a commercial organization was to request a right (say, permission for a café to extend its outdoor area into a public park), the permission could be granted on the condition that they agree to look after or fund a stipulated amount of conservation and maintenance activities. The permission would be subject to their conservation and maintenance obligations and could therefore be revoked in the case that they failed to honour these conditions. 

There are many types of rights, and the particular set we are investigating now is for commercial, temporary use of public land. Can we design a system that allows commercial interests on public land without compromising the equal access to the land and the public goods it generates? And how is this system set up to best ensure that money is actually made available for reinvesting in green space?

How it works in Stockholm

In Stockholm, commercial use of public space is organised as a license system where you apply for a permit from the local authorities to carry out a specific activity, which may be granted in return for a fee. The license system means that you as a permit holder have limited claims to the right – if for example construction work or other activities negatively affect your business you cannot claim compensation, and rights can be revoked at short notice. Activities are classified into broad groups like retail, events and advertising, where each group has its specific rules and regulations, and the size of the fee is decided by the attractiveness of the location. Underlying the whole arrangement is the explicit condition that none of the activities seriously inhibit public access to and use of the spaces.  

How does it work in your city?

What about other cities? Currently, we are investigating how city authorities have thought about and organized commercial uses of public space in cities across Europe. However, time and resources are limited and we are certain that there are interesting examples we have not yet found or included. How have these issues been dealt with in your city? Or have you come across an interesting solution somewhere else? We would welcome your ideas and contributions regarding rights and obligations in the context of public green space. We are also curious to hear about your own experiences and of further relevant examples in other cities that you are aware of. What is at stake is an opportunity to have your city featured as a case study (or perhaps even a best practice case study) in further GREEN SURGE work. We have included a list of questions below to show what we mean by the rights and obligations framework as a method of raising additional funding for maintaining public green spaces.

What’s next?

We will generate a database of examples from which we can learn and tailor new designs to cater to local needs. Once we have a good empirical basis of the current practices we will reach out to GREEN SURGE partner cities and other interested parties to discuss how existing arrangements may be improved and which critical questions must be answered before developing a comprehensive rights and obligations programme. The work will also help to highlight the multiple values that green spaces have and reinforce the need to broaden discussions about urban green infrastructure and its connection to economy and urban dynamics. This is only one of many threads in a new take on green space and its connections to the economy.

Our questions on rights and obligations in the context of public green space

We are looking into how commercial activities on public land are regulated in different cities and countries. We study regulations, which we understand as systems of rights and obligations, i.e. in return for the right to use public space you commit to giving something in return. Public space is commercially attractive as public resources attract people and for businesses, more people mean more potential customers. Careful consideration of beneficiaries, clear communication of how their profits relate to public green space and a better understanding of how these profits could and should feed back into the spaces that generate them may provide insights into alternative financing mechanisms for green space maintenance and thus assist a shift towards a green economy. We are interested in your city and would be very happy to hear from you regarding your own professional experience in this area, any ideas from your local context or from your own research. Please, contact us by email, at the addresses given below.

a)    Activities?

Which commercial activities are allowed in urban green spaces/on public land? Are these activities grouped into categories? Categories can be based on type of activity or on the regulations that frame them.

b)    Regulations?

What kind of regulations are in place to control and organize the use of public space?

Rights: What kind of rights do permit holders from the different categories receive? What is their spatial and temporal extent? Do they include rights to serve food and alcohol, the right to charge entrance fees etc.? What is the format of the contract, lease or licence? What are the implications for tenure and tenant rights?

Obligations: What is given in return for these rights, the permit to use public space? Fees or rents, management commitments, green procurement, low emission transportation to and from the site etc.

Governing body: Who grants permits or signs contracts? Does it depend on the activity or is it always the same authority? Are there any activities that require multiple permits? Who monitors and enforces compliance? Is the public’s right of access explicitly stated or prioritized in policy guidelines?

c)     Location?

Is the same type of activity dealt with differently depending on the location (permitted/not permitted, higher or lower fees)? What decides the rules in place for a specific location? Centrality and accessibility or local qualities like green spaces’ character or cultural significance? How detailed is the differentiation between locations (individual objects, neighbourhoods, city districts etc.)?

d)    Financial set-up?

If rights are granted in return for a fee, then where does the money go? Is it directly reinvested in maintenance of public space and assets (same location or generally) or does if feed into the general municipal budget? How much money do different activities generate, and how does the total compare to the city’s overall budget for green/public space maintenance?

Please contact: Erik Andersson (Stockholm Resilience Centre, erik.andersson@su.se), Jakub Kronenberg (University of Lodz, kronenbe@uni.lodz.pl)