Free software from U of M, Urban InVest, promotes natural sustainability worldwide

The University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment created a new sustainable software, Urban InVest. With the Natural Capital Project, they aim to reduce overall temperatures in cities, target nature inequities, and plan for greener futures.

The Urban InVest software creates maps to assist city planners and developers in determining where investments in natural land can maximize benefits for the environment and human life.

The software explores three crucial questions leading to a more sustainable environment. "Where in a city is nature providing what benefits to people, how much of each benefit is it providing, and who is receiving those benefits?" said Perrine Hamel, the leader of the research at the Stanford Natural Capital Project.

Urban infrastructure vs. Natural infrastructure

One of the problems when planning how to repurpose old land is whether urban or natural infrastructure provides the most advantages economically and sustainably.

"We used Urban InVest to show how, compared to golf courses, new parks could increase urban cooling, keep river waters clean, support bee pollinators, and sustain dwindling pockets of biodiversity," said Eric Lonsdorf, lead scientist for the Natural Capital Project at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

The challenges faced in urban developmental areas can be detrimental to the community and environment. Problems such as inadequate water supply, rising temperatures, and decreasing bee habitats and biodiversity can be mitigated through the Urban InVest software.

"Urban nature is a multitasking benefactor – the trees on your street can lower temperatures so your apartment is cooler on hot summer days. At the same time, they’re soaking up the carbon emissions that cause climate change, creating a free, accessible place to stay healthy through physical activity and just making your city a more pleasant place to be," said Anne Guerry, Chief Strategy Officer and Lead Scientist at the Natural Capital Project.

Now that the software has been used in multiple cities around the world and several U.S. cities including Minneapolis, it has provided a gateway for underused golf course land to be repurposed. Minneapolis golf revenue continues to decline which creates opportunities for private golf course owners to sell their land and develop natural infrastructure benefiting the community.

"Nature-based solutions can be more resilient and cost-effective solutions to urban environmental challenges," said Lonsdorf.

The question was asked which golf courses are in the process of being repurposed. According to University of Minnesota Professor Watkins, there is no database of golf course plans or which ones have been repurposed for sustainability.

Although, golf course redevelopment is a common issue in Minnesota with multiple courses currently deciding on the new purpose of the land.

"Our tool is meant to help people think about sustainability more intentionally and easily," said Lonsdorf.

Health benefits for lower-income people

The software uses temperature patterns and social and economic data such as income levels to target land in low-income communities. When it comes to reaping the benefits that nature provides to wealthier populations, low-income communities are at a disadvantage.

"We hope our tool predicts how changes in urban planning could affect those inequities," said Lonsdorf.

The demand for Urban InVest is growing rapidly as the world mitigates risks from climate change, pollution, and development.

"We hope that as development moves forward in urban planning that our tool [Urban InVest] helps identify opportunities for nature-based solutions that also meet societal needs," said Lonsdorf.