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Expert Q&A: Linwood Pendleton

In what ways do ecological enhancements along the urban waterfront add value to human lives? To explore this question, we chat with Linwood Pendleton, an interdisciplinary scientist and environmental economist.

Pendleton holds the International Chair of Excellence at the European Institute for Marine Studies, part of the Laboratory of Excellence in Brest, France. He is also a Senior Scholar at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and the director of the Marine Ecosystem Services Partnership, an initiative that helps facilitate communication about the human uses of marine ecosystem services.

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Linwood Pendleton

From 2011-2013, he served as acting chief economist at NOAA. Pendleton holds a doctoral degree in resource and environmental economics from Yale University; a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School; a master’s degree in ecology, evolution, and behavior from Princeton; and a bachelor’s degree in biology from the College of William and Mary.

What is the Marine Ecosystem Services Partnership and why was it established?

The Marine Ecosystem Services Partnership was started as a way of creating a home for several databases of ecosystem services values that had been created for very specific reasons. For example, NOAA had a database of coral reef valuation studies, Conservation International had ConsValMap, a map of conservation values, and the World Resources Institute had done many one-off studies. As these projects met the ends of their lives, we didn’t want that information to disappear. We created the Marine Ecosystem Services Partnership as a library for that information, and we based its “card catalog” on ecosystems and geography. We are currently beginning to transfer the partnership web site to a more distributed platform through the organization GRID-Arendal, an organization was set up by the UN Environment Programme.

In 2009, you edited “The Economic and Market Value Of America’s Coasts And Estuaries: What’s At Stake,” a booklet produced for the organization Restore America’s Estuaries. In the forward, you state “Coasts and estuaries generate both economic value and economic impact—an important subtlety often overlooked in coastal development and planning.” Can you elaborate on that subtlety?

When we talk about economic activity in the coastal zone, we often talk about fishing and recreation-things that generate easily observed market transactions. We can go to places like the Bureau of Economic Analysis or the National Ocean and Economics Program and find out how many jobs are associated with and supported by businesses that benefit from access to the sea and coast, but often the discussion stops there. We can also talk about expenditures associated with fishing or recreational boating, but that doesn’t really tell you what the value is beyond the costs that are invested. While it may be a good measure of economic activity, it also doesn’t tell you how much value is added by those activities. It also doesn’t help you to compare the value of things that take place in the market with the value of things that don’t take place in the market, but are revealed in ecosystem valuation studies as having value. For example, walking down to a salt marsh and looking at birds is important to people. It affects their well-being, and there are techniques for trying to determine how much it affects their well-being. You can even try to discern how much that contributes to home prices. Those types of valuation studies focus on the extra value created by having access to healthy coastal ecosystems.

Often, we go where the data are and focus on market values. We overestimate those values because we don’t subtract true costs, and we underestimate the values of things that are not directly traded in the market. We know those things are important and that people are willing to pay for them. We know that they influence everything from the price of a condo in Los Angeles to a meal that is served on a pier, but there is no easy place to go to look for that information. You have to derive it from more complicated valuation studies that take money and time.

How much more do we know about the economic value of coasts and estuaries today than we did eight years ago?

We know a lot more. There are many, many times more studies now than there were then, and the increase in studies each year is exponential. However, our level of sophistication across the board hasn’t improved much. We haven’t done a very good job of putting all the information together. We have a lot of individual, one-off studies, of the potential economic impacts of a proposed coastal restoration project, but no one puts it all together and asks, “What’s the whole package of ecosystem services that is produced? What are the tradeoffs within that package?”

We have spent a lot of time over the past 20 years trying to value hypothetical changes in the environment without spending nearly as much time collecting data on what changes in values have actually resulted. We have a good record of what the changes are when we have environmental damage, a restoration event, new types of recreation, or new uses coming to a region because the demography is changing.

While there are now many more studies, and many more places being studied, we still haven’t taken the next step. We need to move toward a more professional understanding of ecosystem services values-collecting data on a more regular basis, focusing on the whole host of human uses and benefits from ecosystems. That way, we can track the changes in people’s behavior and the benefits they get as the ecosystems themselves change.

I made this very point in a recent editorial published in the journal Biodiversity called Measuring the human ‘so what’ of large-scale coral reef loss? My point in that editorial was that we still don’t know the impacts of the awful, massive coral reef deaths caused by bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef and in the Maldives in the South China Sea. It is because we weren’t collecting data! The same was true for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  These things happen, and then we say, “Oh no!” and we try and piece together what the impacts might have been. We collect data in so many other sectors of the economy. With that data in place, we can test hypotheses about how people react to policy changes, but by and large, we don’t collect that data for ecosystem services.

Coral bleaching in the South China Sea

As we gain a better understanding of that value, how much of a driver is it becoming in the inclusion of ecological protection and restoration in urban waterfront development and redevelopment? Can you give us an example?

It has taken a significant place in environmental impact assessment, marine special planning, and coastal planning. It is starting to take a more important role in working waterfronts, which used to be defined solely by fishing. Increasingly, people are realizing that if you only have fishing, you don’t have a buffer against vagaries of the market. You need recreation as well, for example. More and more developers get it. People in tax offices certainly realize that the value of homes depends on environmental quality, so by investing in the environment you are investing in property tax returns. People get it more and more. I don’t think you see coastal areas turning their backs on the ocean like you did in the 1960s and 70s.


Yes, literally. I lived in the coastal city of New Haven, CT for a long time and it was very difficult to get to the sea because Interstate 95 ran in between the city and the coast!

Of the social, economic, and ecosystem services benefits that urban waterfront communities can reap when they invest in restoring ecology at the water’s edge, which can be best quantified, and which seem to be the most compelling for urban communities?

Right now, green infrastructure is a very tangible, understandable idea. Faced with eroding beaches, people are having to make decisions about how to improve shoreline protection. As people think more about the shoreline protection value of different kinds of coastal ecosystems, they have started doing a better job of trying to quantify that.

I don’t see restoration of coastlines being pushed as much as it could be, though. I think that is because people see it as expensive and technically difficult, but it has very big benefits. We should see sea level rises and retreat from coastal areas as opportunities for restoration—not just as unavoidable costs of climate change.

Much of the damage done to our coastal ecosystems has been done by people in the name of “progress” and “economic development.” Have studies been done to examine the economic losses resulting from ecological fallout of poorly planned waterfront development?

Not nearly enough, because there is no decision to be made. Usually, it is only when we think there is an opportunity to fix something that someone is willing to pay to determine its value.

Generally speaking, how dependent are coastal cities on their nearshore and offshore ecosystems? How aware do you think these communities are of this dependence?

Coastal cities that depend on fisheries-both inshore and off-shore-have always recognized their dependence on the fish. Increasingly, coastal cities are starting to realize that the coast provides a lot of other benefits. I do not think, however, that many big cities have really come to grips with how important ecosystem and environmental quality is to home values. The economic footprint of healthy coasts and the economic costs of ecosystem degradation are huge. I mentioned New Haven earlier. As that city cleaned up its coastal areas, housing values increased and people started investing in areas they hadn’t invested in before. Big cities that enjoy pretty good ecosystem quality may not have a full appreciation of just how important that is.

If you could do one thing to change that, what would you do?

I’d try to pilot restoration in dense, urban areas that are low and at risk of sea level rise. For a long time, the Ballona Wetlands in Los Angeles were thought to be too expensive to restore, but it is poised to start happening now. The restoration planning is underway and it is a huge, very visible open space. When it is fully restored, people will be very aware of its presence. I believe it will have a big impact on quality of life, and that will help foster more urban coastal restoration in that area. However, that does not translate easily to San Francisco or Seattle. Each of these places needs that kind of high profile, pilot restoration project.

You are currently working in France. Have you seen any exciting, innovative, promising and/or inspiring ecological restoration initiatives along urban waterfronts in Europe?

What I have seen that is very inspiring is how much attention has been paid to maintaining access to the coast. In Brittany, where I live, there is something called the Sentier Côtier, a coastal trail that runs for hundreds of kilometers. It includes many places where you can leave the trail and get down on the rocks and beaches to see the flora and fauna. It is amazing, and it really links people to the sea.

Coastal trail at Frehel, Bretagne, France.

The other thing that is inspiring about Brittany is that they have preserved a lot of open space through their coastal law. The villages and cities are contained, but when you get to the edge of them, suddenly, everything is green and undeveloped. They have done a much better job—not in all of France, but in Brittany– of controlling urban sprawl and creating a sense of semi-wildness and open space along coastal areas. This is hard to find in the U.S.; especially as urban areas grow closer together.

You co-wrote an opinion piece in The Economist which states, “A healthy ocean ecosystem is a public good—both locally and globally.” Getting people to recognize and appreciate their connection to a local waterway is challenging enough. How do you get people to see how they benefit from a healthy marine environment that may be hundreds or thousands of miles offshore of their city?

You start by talking to them and asking about things that are important to them. Most people eat fish, care about marine animals, or have taken one or more very memorable trips to the sea. A study routinely done by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and NOAA about outdoor recreational activities found that 50% of all Americans go to the beach at least once a year. People may live far away from the ocean, but they still tend to vacation at the coast, watch TV shows about animals on the coast, and care about marine mammals and birds. They eat fish and increasingly want to know where the fish comes from.

The other side of that coin is that people are largely unaware of their impacts on the coast. We often talk about the coast being important because so much of our trade comes through coastal ports, but that comes with a cost. Stormwater runoff that goes into a river will end up in the sea. Pollution that comes from the tailpipe of a car or a factory smokestack may end up settling out over the ocean. I don’t think we have done enough to connect people–in both positive and negative ways–to the sea.

In 2016, a year which was a disastrous year for coral reefs, you led a study which examined the impact of coral reef devastation on human populations. I want to ask about that study, but first…let’s talk about how human populations impact coral reefs. How do urban coastal areas contribute to the degradation of coral reefs?

Sewage pipe draining into the ocean

With coral reef degradation, we used to focus on bad fishing practices. We got that relatively under control, and then we started focusing on sedimentation and eutrophication—especially in areas with poorly developed urban infrastructure, like in developing countries where many people live near the sea without a good sewer treatment system. I have seen this over and over again in Mexico, for instance. They’ll build a big resort by the sea, and expect all the workers to crowd into the closest town, which becomes a city, and all the untreated sewage simply goes into the sea and the reef dies.

We know that urban areas create runoff, and that runoff can be toxic, contain nutrients, and contain a lot of fresh water, which is not always good for reefs. Plastic is also very bad for corals and all coastal ecosystems. Because cities are places with a lot of people and lots of garbage on the ground with few ways of catching it, they produce a lot of plastic garbage.

Even though we have taken care of many of these problems, we still have the problems of climate change and ocean acidification. If you think about where a lot of carbon in the atmosphere comes from, it comes from cities. Not because they’re awful on a per capita basis, but because they have a lot of people and generate a lot of carbon dioxide and reflected energy that heats up the planet. Things like green roofs and other strategies for reducing CO2 emissions would be very beneficial to coral reefs.

Do you think people in cities that are not in tropical climates care enough about coral reefs?

People are starting to care, but it might be too late. It is true that in cities like Brisbane, where people are so close to the coral reef, they do care. People in Baltimore may assume that they don’t have that same kind of ecosystem quality just offshore, but they do. It may not have as many species as a coral reef or be as easy to access on a scuba boat, but it is there. In areas with darker, colder, perhaps murkier waters in temperate areas people may not have an appreciation for what is there.

I am on the Science Advisory Committee for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, ME. I was recently talking to the scientists there about the kinds of things they see when they go diving and they said, “It’s incredible! But people just don’t get it.” Even people in Portland, ME, who are very eco-groovy, well-educated, and interested in local seafood quality, are relatively unaware of what the marine ecosystem looks like just 100 feet offshore.

What did you learn from that coral study that can inform urban coastal habitat restoration?

That study began almost three years ago, before the bleaching events of 2016. The purpose was to provide a heads-up about the places where people depended most on healthy coral reef ecosystems, and where the twin stresses of climate change and ocean acidification were going to be greatest. The idea was to get people to focus on hot spots where climate change could cause a lot of problems.

Great Barrier Reef

The study revealed that the Great Barrier Reef and the South China Sea were places people needed to pay attention to, where bad things might happen in the next 50 years. We saw urban areas in Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, China, and Hong Kong that were potentially at the greatest risk because they are in low-level areas that were once protected by coral reefs. We also looked at dependence on fishing, but there are options for finding other sources of protein. It is much more difficult to move people, property, and infrastructure out of the way in urban areas than it is to do so in more remote coastal areas, say the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where housing density is very low and there is a lot of salt marsh, or in Ventura, CA, where retreat is being conducted by tearing up parking lots and allowing the sea to slowly take over. It was a shock, but not a surprise, when we started to see die off in the Great Barrier Reef and the South China Sea just last year. It was happening. It was really happening.

Are there any other findings you’d like to share with our audience?

One thing that came out of this study was that we still do not know a lot about what is happening in many parts of the world. We know there are a lot of people in urban areas around the necklace of the South China Sea, but we do a terrible job of collecting data on ocean conditions and ecosystems. This is largely because of political differences and difficulty getting research permits. The same is true of the western Caribbean and many places in the developing world. We tend not to know what is going on until it gets really bad.

The other thing that came out of that study was that most of the ocean is going to become considerably warmer or considerably more acidic. This is because ocean acidification gets worse as you move away from the equator (because colder water absorbs more carbon dioxide), and because bleaching gets worse as you move toward the equator.

What is the best way for ecological restoration and conservation practitioners to find and reach out to economists for collaboration?

I recommend two approaches. The first is to go to a web site like the Marine Ecosystem Service Partnership or my web site and find out who is working either in your geographic area or on the ecosystem type in which you are interested. You may find immediate advice just by looking at who has published most recently and tracking that person down. The other thing you can do is reach out to universities. Almost every major land grant university in the U.S. and public university in Canada, for instance, has a natural resources economics or agricultural economics department. Smaller institutions may have someone who is doing environmental economics within an economics department. People are often very willing to help local practitioners find an economist to work with. Sea Grant is also another great resource if you happen to be in the U.S.

Knowing what you now know about the value of coastal ecosystems, what policies and methods would you recommend to both retrofit existing coastal development to mitigate the harm it may be doing to the marine environment, and to plan for new coastal development?

Santa Monica Beach

The low-hanging fruit is reducing stormwater runoff and restoring urban streams and watersheds, that is a big win. In a study we did in Santa Monica Bay, for example, we found that restoring storm drains and coastal lagoons had big, immediate consequences in terms of how many people started coming back to the beaches.

Managed retreat is another thing we need to be all over. We should stop thinking about it as giving up and giving in to climate change, but as something that is going to happen. These are opportunities we would never have had otherwise to really start restoring parts of the coast that have been trapped in cement and pavement for a long time.

The third thing I recommend is hard to do but very important: embrace tides and sea level rise. We are not dealing with a bathtub. It is a fluctuating system. It may bring water to places in urban areas that will be scary initially, but it will give us the opportunity to restore inland waterways and tidal flows. My experience around the world has shown me that natural hydrology really creates good and exciting restoration. Harnessing that to power restoration could be transformative for urban coastal areas.

With sea level rise becoming a driving force in urban coastal communities, what policies and development standards should we be adopting to mitigate its impacts?

We talk a lot about the role of insurance in promoting bad coastal development, so clearly we still need to reform the way we do coastal flood insurance in America. The next step in that direction is not just taking away bad insurance, but requiring people to put up bonds for coastal development that, if they fall into the sea, could potentially have negative impacts on everybody else. You cannot just walk away from that and expect your neighbors to pay the bill. I’d like to see something like that happen or be considered as a way of creating another economic incentive to keep people out of coastal areas that are at risk of climate change impacts.

You hold multiple advanced degrees, and you work on two continents researching very serious environmental and economic issues. Did you ever think you’d find yourself quoted in the Hollywood Reporter? [Note: This was in an article about homes along Los Angeles’ coastline that were projected to be underwater by 2100.]

Part of what changed me from being just an academic to being someone who is more applied, was the responsiveness of the press in Los Angeles to my research and the resulting recognition from community leaders. I could see that my work was making a difference.

My last paper, the one on coral reefs and climate change, was covered in Italian GQ! People read the Hollywood Reporter. They read Italian GQ. It is amazing how much traction that coverage gets, and the entree you gain to discuss other issues. You never get that when you just publish in an academic journal that no one reads. I didn’t expect that level of interest from mainstream press, but when it happened, I cultivated it. When I write a paper now, I spend a lot of time working with our communications director at Duke and here in France, thinking about what I want people to take away initially so that they come back wanting to learn more. I think things like, “What are the 140 characters I can tweet about that will get people in a little deeper?” That is something I never did before, but it has helped me connect with people. It has been inspirational to me to be able to touch so many people with my science.

Any final advice for Leaf Litter readers?

The one thing I want to make sure everyone takes home is that while urban restoration might seem costly, especially compared to restoration in less-populated areas, the benefits are tremendous. There are so many people, so close, who can benefit immediately from that restoration. It’s not just that we can’t turn away from urban areas; we must focus on urban areas. Urban restoration touches millions and millions of people. It goes beyond the immediate economic benefit to affecting people who can now go for walks, see birds, go fishing, etc. in environments where that may not have been possible before restoration. It has a knock-on effect in the way people in urban areas see their relationship to the environment, whether it is the ocean ecosystem or the entire biosphere. I am a very strong proponent of urban restoration. Even though it is challenging and difficult, it is the most important kind of ecological restoration right now.


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