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Eleanor Horne speaks on the benefits of open space at the New Jersey Planning & Redevelopment Conference on Thursday, June 16, in New Brunswick.

Most New Jerseyans appreciate the natural benefits of public open space, but those who work to preserve and maintain these spaces see its economic value as well. But can this value be measured? The answer is “yes,” according to a 2021 land use study, “Return on Environment,” prepared for Mercer County.

The study is the subject of a panel discussion titled, “Location! Location! Location! The Economic Value & Benefits of Preserved Open Space,” which takes Thursday, June 16, at the Hyatt Regency, New Brunswick. This panel is one of several virtual and in-person sessions of the New Jersey Planning & Redevelopment Conference sponsored by New Jersey Future and the American Planning Association. For more information on the conference, which also has virtual sessions on June 14 and 15, visit www.njfuture.org.

Eleanor V. Horne will speak at the open space session offering her perspective as the co-president of Lawrence Hopewell Trail (LHT). Joining Horne in the panel discussion are John S. Watson, Jr., co-executive director of the NJ Conservation Foundation; Leslie Floyd, director, Mercer County Planning Department; and Steven Wray, principal with Econsult Solutions, Inc, the consulting firm that prepared the report.

Horne recalls that when she first became involved with LHT 20 years ago, she read everything she could uncover about trails and open space, finding information about the positive effects on individuals and communities. However, she could not find a comprehensive document that included all the benefits and backed them with statistics.

Fast forward to the summer of 2020, and Horne accepted an invitation from the county’s planning department to join a community advisory committee for a research project that would provide the statistics she had been looking for. “There’s nothing like specificity,” Horne says.

The study would provide the foundation for the report, “Return on Environment: The Economic Impact of Protected Open Space in Mercer County, New Jersey.” Horne and panel members will discuss the report findings which cover the positive effects on water and air quality, individuals’ health and well-being, business opportunity, and property values. (The report can be accessed at www.mercercounty.org/departments/planning/return-on-environment-report/ )

A property located up to one half mile from protected open space shows an average increase of more than $7,100 in value, with housing stock in the area showing a total of $791 million in increased value, with increased tax revenues totaling $21.5 million per year, according to the report.

The report estimates that $104 million in annual economic impact can be attributed to business and employment opportunities including tourism, purchase of goods, and park maintenance. The report shows that open space supports 980 jobs for several positions including park rangers, farmers, hospitality professionals, and related roles.

Another benefit reported by the study is cost savings. By naturally improving air and water quality and reducing flooding caused by polluted storm water run-off, open space reduces the need for municipal spending on prevention, repairs and remediation.

An obvious benefit of open space for individuals is the environment it provides for walking, biking, and other forms of exercise. Consequently, people tend to be physically and mentally healthier, so individuals and employers save on medical costs and lost work time. “Something about getting outside has a positive effect on your state of mind,” says Horne.

The report includes several case studies of parks and trails, among them, Mercer Meadows and the Lawrence Hopewell Trail. As described on its website (lhtrail.org), the 22-mile trail winds through the two townships and is used by kids, families, joggers, hikers, photographers, recreational bicyclists, and commuters who bike to work. The trail is intended for and used by people of all ages, abilities, ethnicities, and backgrounds.

Horne, who has worked on the development of the trail since its inception 20 years ago, recalls the early planning days when some residents were opposed to it, fearing that its proximity to neighborhoods and business districts could increase crime and lower property values. Now that people have seen the opposite results, community members and town officials are reaching out to the planners and asking how they can create connecting trails in their towns.

Horne will speak on this topic in another conference session, “Safe Routes Everywhere and Safe Streets for All!” This session will address existing projects and organizations working to provide residents access to parks, trails, schools, and community assets.

The open-space and safe-streets discussions represent the theme of the planning and redevelopment conference: to restart, recover, and reimagine land use. The goal of the conference is to “build better, more inclusive, and equitable places where people live, work, and play.”

Horne believes that one of the most important commitments leaders of Mercer County can make is investments in trails and parks, and she wants residents to understand the value of these investments. “Trails provide access to open space, and everyone one who pays taxes should have access to open space,” says Horne.

As one who walks her talk, Horne interacts with public officials and community members on a regular basis. On Thursday, June 9, Horne will join LHT’s co-president Becky Taylor and others to speak about trails and public-private partnerships. The event, which will be introduced by county executive Brian Hughes, is titled “Let’s Connect: Creating a Robust Trail Network in Mercer County.”

Horne is an active member with several organizations including Circuit Trails, the county’s Bike-Ped Task Force, and the East Coast Greenway Alliance. She is a trustee of The College of New Jersey and the former vice president of Educational Testing Service Social Investment Fund, and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

What keeps Horne going is witnessing the benefits LHT and other natural spaces offer communities today and the commitment of advocates and public officials to preserve land for public use. “I want my grandchildren and their grandchildren to have access to open space,” says Horne.

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