Measuring Impact: Evaluating the Economic, Social, and Ecological Services of the City of Ann Arbor Greenbelt Program

Client Organization: 
The Conservation Fund
Project Location : 
Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, Michigan
Secondary Client Organization: 
City of Ann Arbor Greenbelt
Summary of Project Idea: 

In 2003, residents of Ann Arbor passed the Open Space and Parkland Preservation Millage, known as the Greenbelt Millage. Money generated through this tax levy is used to protect farmland, open spaces, and natural areas within portions of eight townships surrounding Ann Arbor, known as the Greenbelt District, with a smaller portion of funds reserved for purchasing park land within city limits. The primary purpose of the initiative is to preserve open spaces, natural habitats, working lands, and the City’s source waters in the Huron River watershed. Since its launch, the millage has provided funds to add 72 acres of additional park land within the city and to protect over 4,700 acres of farmland and open spaces within the Greenbelt District.

There are few examples nationwide of citizens voting to tax themselves to preserve land outside of the cities where they live by funding the purchase of development rights. Observations by local policy makers, the media, and members of the public lend  support for the claim that over the past decade, the Greenbelt has provided lasting benefits to both Ann Arborites and to surrounding communities of the Greenbelt District. But how might we take a detailed, rigorous approach to quantifying and qualifying the benefits of the Greenbelt? Indeed, what measurements should we be using and why? Furthermore, how might we convey those benefits, not only to the various stakeholders who will decide its future, but to other communities that might wish to explore this novel approach to land preservation?

The Conservation Fund and Greenbelt Advisory Commission seek assistance in measuring and then describing the impact of the Geenbelt millage, including evaluating (and valuating) the economic, social, and ecological services provided by the Greenbelt. We believe this is a timely undertaking as the millage approaches the halfway point of its lifespan. Most obviously, we would like to evaluate the economic and ecological benefits of the Greenbelt in ways that a broad audience can understand. But we would also like to consider a range of social, educational, and other outcomes that the Greenbelt has generated, and to put these outcomes in a comparative context, evaluating them against other similar programs nationally, and even in comparison with a “business-as-usual” scenario for this region had the Greenbelt millage never passed. Such an analysis is especially timely given the emerging national discussion about the value (or not) of land protection, as federal, state, local agencies, governments, and NGOs consider the effectiveness of land preservation programs already in place or that might be put in place.

This proposed analysis requires an integrated approach of varied team members so that all the impacts of the Greenbelt millage can be captured, measured, and evaluated. Because we hope that the contents and conclusions of the study will reach a broad and diverse audience, we hope to work with team members on exploring several ways to share and disseminate their findings. 

SEAS Program Areas: 
Conservation Ecology (Aquatic Sciences, Terrestrial Ecosystems, and Conservation Biology)
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Informatics
Environmental Justice
Sustainable Systems
Landscape Architecture
Role for each program area: 

Conservation Ecology for measuring the ecological services provided by the preserved land, including, but not limited to, effects on water quality, flood mitigation, climate change mitigation, wildlife, rare species and communities, etc.

Environmental Policy & Planning for considerations like evaluating the effectiveness of the millage ordinance and goals and results of efforts to date. Assessment of the net economic effect of the preserved lands, taking into consideration effects on tax revenues, cost of services provided by local governments, effects of providing affordable farmland to the local food economy, etc.

Behavior, Education, and Communication for considerations including how the preserved lands affect and change the behavior of citizens and how we can best educate and engage citizens regarding the Greenbelt and similar programs.

Environmental Informatics for help in synergizing all the disparate data needed to measure impact, analyzing all the local and landscape data to assist with evaluation, and for helping create informative visualizations, etc.

Environmental Justice for providing support to the assertion that the Greenbelt millage provides value and services to citizens of Ann Arbor and the surrounding townships, including more access to local lands for the general public and farmers, and to help make that case while also evaluating whether we are asking the right questions and considering the appropriate services that it provides.

Sustainable Systems for help in synergizing all the disparate data needed to measure impact and for considering the life cycle of the systems impacted by the Greenbelt millage.

Landscape Architecture for help in analyzing and visualizing the available landscape data to assist with the evaluation and quantification of the economic/social/ecological services provided to date by the Greenbelt, with the possibility of additionally assessing future potential alternate scenarios.

Professional Career Development Benefits: 

We believe this project would serve an immediate, urgent need by informing the citizens of Ann Arbor and the surrounding eight townships about the contributions of the Greenbelt Program. However, this project has the potential to educate and inspire policy makers at all levels of government, as well as community groups and citizens throughout the United States. Thus, there is a tremendous professional development opportunity here for a dedicated group of researchers not only to assess the Greenbelt, but to imagine its potential as a model ordinance for other communities. The Greenbelt Program Manager and members of the Greenbelt Advisory Commission, who bring a great deal of experience and expertise to issues of land preservation, local agriculture, economic development, and sustainability, are eager to collaborate and lend assistance as needed to ensure this project is a success.  We believe additional professional venues for showcasing this work will be relevant, including potentially The Conservation Fund workshops or webinars, and professional conferences.

Identify expected products/deliverables: 
We are expecting a report that includes the analyses as discussed in the Project Summary.  An executive summary and/or additional project summaries targeted towards different audiences will be an important component of this report. Potential audiences include various constituencies, including current and potential Greenbelt participants; area residents; Ann Arbor City staff; federal, state, and local government officials; and potentially other communities that might consider implementing similar programs/millages. 

The project results will be presented and discussed during a Greenbelt Advisory Commission meeting, which is televised and recorded.  We would also request presentations about the project be made to other stakeholders, including participating townships, government officials, City staff, and other interested parties. Additionally, project results might be included in case studies and other materials published by The Conservation Fund.

Contact full name: 
Ruth Thornton
Job title: 
Greenbelt Program Manager
Ann Arbor
State or Country: 
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Catherine Riseng
Contact Phone: 
734-794-6210 ext. 3
Contact e-mail: 
Contact information: 
Staff member of a potential client organization
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Patrick Bradley
  • Sharon Hu
  • Devin Kinney
  • Daniel Tanner
Project Status: 
Past Project