Looking beyond ecological functions to the value of ecosystem services in the urban regions of Houston
Natural landscapes and organisms serve our wellbeing in a great variety of ways: water purification, flood protection, recreation, recharging of aquifers, protection from damage by hurricanes and tropical storms, pollution reduction, carbon sequestration and more. The Greater Houston region, which encompasses a huge and diverse assemblage of forests, prairies, bottomlands, wetlands and bays receives a tremendous amount of benefits (ecosystem services) from the ecological functions of the natural world. This policy paper explores the ways in which various entities in the Greater Houston Region are working to identify and better understand the services provided by urban riparian, upland and coastal ecosystems that traverse this region. In the paper, we discuss the recent urban riparian and other ecosystem successes in enhancing and/or restoring ecosystem services to solve infrastructural needs, often at a lower cost than traditional solutions. With examples provided, we find that the outcome is often even better than the initial cost saving assessments reflect: solving a problem using ecosystem services by preserving or restoring an entire or even partial ecosystem can produce a whole host of ecosystem services in addition to the single service needed to accomplish the function of the infrastructure.
Without the ecosystem services provided by these 10 ecoregions, the Greater Houston Region would economically and environmentally suffer in trying to provide equivalent services to its residents and industries. Incorporating the value and benefits of ecosystem services into infrastructure and policy decisions in the Greater Houston Region is still evolving but a few best management practices now exist. For an expanding urban core such as the Houston Area, there is a critical need to: (1) Provide more opportunities for regional recognition and support of the 10 unique ecoregions in the Greater Houston Region; (2) Engage in more region-based research on ecosystem services to better understand natural benefits and the cost-effective infrastructure solutions that this understanding will enable; (3) Compare the economic value of ecosystem services to other alternative approaches when making public policy decisions regarding land-use and infrastructure; and (4) Incorporate ecosystem services into infrastructure decisions.