The construction of urban green spaces that provide a cooling effect on hot days, removal of paving in rural areas, allowing more rainwater to seep into the soil, forestation to promote carbon storage, etc. These are just a few examples of ecological measures that could protect an urbanised Flanders against the challenges of the 21st century. An online tool developed by VITO – which is freely available – allows both governments and businesses to tangibly and rapidly calculate the social benefits of this. “All it takes is half a day’s work.”

What impact do changes in land use have on an urbanised Flanders? How can this impact be calculated? And what benefits does green space provide to people and society? Ten years ago, VITO and the universities of Antwerp and Amsterdam started developing an instrument that would answer these questions at the request of the Flemish government. Since then, this Nature Value Explorer has evolved into an online tool and has been modified and expanded several times. Users – from local and regional governments to urban planners, conservationists and educational institutions – can use the tool to discover and calculate the socioeconomic significance of green space.

Pragmatic methods

The tool, which is freely available, offers an insight into the benefits that vegetation and water can offer – examples are cooling, infiltration, air and water purification, recreation and benefits to human health. “It calculates these benefits both in the city and in rural areas,” says Inge Liekens of VITO. “The results show the impact of changes in land use, the added value of nature-based solutions, the benefits of control measures or the advantages of green development projects for people.” The calculation is performed using pragmatic methods developed in various scientific projects, and based on existing spatial data – for example, geographic data for Flanders. The tool is also compatible with various existing planning methods.

The Nature Value Explorer has been revamped over the past ten years. The latest version is from April 2018: that is when the tool became “spatially explicit”. Liekens: “Users wanted a fast tool that involved little extra work. Since then, it has become possible to add ecological measures to drawings. Grassland here, heathland there, water here, a park there, etc. This makes changes in land use the core of the tool.” It was quite a big step forwards, but it still wasn’t enough for some users. “Urban planners and landscape architects often develop their plans in sophisticated drawing programs. Until recently they had to retrace everything in the Nature Value Explorer. That has also changed: their plans can now be uploaded very easily using shapefiles. This makes the tool even more user-friendly, and using the tool only takes half a day’s work.” New updates are already being planned for the tool. VITO is currently testing a module that can be used to visualise biological value. “We will also provide a separate results page with the effects nature has on our health.”

Interest outside Flanders

In the meantime, there is also interest in the Nature Value Explorer on the other side of the linguistic border. In collaboration with the University of Liege, the Walloon government wants to check whether the methods and calculations of the tool can also be applied in Wallonia. “But Wallonia will have to provide the spatial input charts for this, as our tool is based on Flemish data,” says Liekens. And people have also started using the tool abroad. “We have a few users in the Netherlands, and other countries have also expressed an interest in using the tool as part of climate adaptation.”

Climate adaptation

As indeed, the tool also has potential with regard to the climate. “Many local governments have committed themselves to supporting the fight against global warming, often in the shape of concrete objectives. We can use the Nature Value Explorer to calculate the effects of local measures, especially in the field of climate adaptation: for example, how ecological infrastructure can help to limit the urban heat island effect in built environments. To also help municipalities to select these measures, VITO wants to link the information on the climate portal of the Flanders Environment Agency (VMM) on the impact of global warming with possible measures and their effect on this impact. “At the moment we have developed an initial prototype. We are now looking into how to continue its development with various partners. But it could also become a new, separate tool – separate from the Nature Value Explorer,” says Liekens.

“Visualising nature in a positive manner”

Guy Heutz, the manager of the Hesselteer ecological consultancy firm from Antwerp, has been using the Nature Value Explorer since 2017. “We want to make our clients more aware of the added value of nature. That green spaces not only require work and maintenance, but have social benefits as well. This tool is highly suitable for that.”

Heutz also praises the update to the Nature Value Explorer from April 2018. “This made the tool much more user-friendly. Using the tool now takes much less time, partly thanks to the convenient dashboard used to control the tool.”

The Nature Value Explorer allows users like Heutz to visualise nature clearly and in a positive manner. “And no longer from a defensive reflex, which would mainly focus on limiting damage to nature. This turnaround is highly valuable.”

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