The “Triple Bottom Line” in Michigan’s coastal communities – Element 6: Preserving open space

Open spaces and other natural coastal areas function as habitat for native wildlife and provide valuable ecosystem services that improve quality of life for humans and support local and regional businesses along the Michigan shoreline.

Michigan is home to over three thousand miles of Great Lakes coastline. Michigan Sea Grant categorizes some of the habitats found in these coastal areas as: beaches, coastal wetlands, Great Lakes open water, islands, lakeplain prairies, and sand dunes. Coastal areas may act as habitat, regulate hydrology, or play a part in numerous biogeochemical cycles. When humans find benefits from these functions, they are called ecosystem services. Ecosystem services can benefit both private individuals as well as the general public. Examples of coastal ecosystem services include: spawning grounds for commercial and recreational fish, reducing storm surge and regulating flooding, and improving water quality.

Coastal communities in Michigan have modified some of these coastal areas to gain access to the natural resources that the Great Lakes provide to Michigan residents and businesses. These modifications may impact how coastal areas function, which may reduce the levels of ecosystem services provided. Preserving open spaces and protecting natural coastal areas is important to maintaining high levels of ecosystem services that provide recreational opportunities and consumptive goods that residents and businesses depend on.

When these areas do not function as they normally would, it results in reduced levels of ecosystem services being provided. One of the most important components of preserving natural coastal areas is maintaining connectivity of habitat and hydrology. Connectivity of habitat does not necessarily mean preserving large, homogenous areas. Small patches of habitat grouped near one another can act as stepping stones across an otherwise urbanized landscape. Ensuring connectivity between these small patches becomes even more critical as species move from one to another because many urban areas (especially roads) can be fatal to species that attempt to cross them.

Protecting natural areas within the coastal hydrologic network is also critical in areas that are prone to storm surge and other flooding. Disconnecting hydrologic networks can lead to localized flooding in places not normally susceptible to flooding, and developing in flood-prone areas can lead to property damage, personal injury, or loss of life. Protecting vegetated areas along hydrologic networks can also assist with filtering out sediment and other pollutants before the reach open waters. By preserving natural coastal areas, not only is habitat for local species protected, but residents and businesses all benefit from the ecosystem services provided that sustain the triple bottom line for the Michigan coastal communities.

Michigan State University Extension and Michigan Sea Grant are actively involved in projects that seek to protect the environment, improve the quality of life, and promote economic activity in Michigan’s coastal areas. This article was adapted from: Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities, a report created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the International City/County Management Association, and Rhode Island Sea Grant. The document can be accessed at:

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