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Conservation Communities: Creating Value with Nature, Open Space, and Agriculture

Conservation Communities: Creating Value with Nature, Open Space, and Agriculture

by Ed McMahon

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Practical how-to information for conservation-minded urban-planning professionals is provided in this invaluable guide. The importance of natural lands or open space in master-planned communities—either in the suburbs or on the edge of existing cities—is thoroughly explained and coupled with examples of conservation-oriented housing developments that


Practical how-to information for conservation-minded urban-planning professionals is provided in this invaluable guide. The importance of natural lands or open space in master-planned communities—either in the suburbs or on the edge of existing cities—is thoroughly explained and coupled with examples of conservation-oriented housing developments that incorporate this key component.

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Urban Land Institute
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Conservation Communities

Creating Value with Nature, Open Space, and Agriculture

By Edward T. McMahon

Urban Land Institute

Copyright © 2010 Urban Land Institute
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87420-217-5


An Introduction to Conservation Development

Mike Sands and his wife Betsy love walking to the Station Square shops, the farmers market, and the horse stables near their home, even on chilly northern Illinois days. They also love the organic farm, the ten miles (16 km) of trails, the commuter railroad station, and the 400 acres (162 ha) of ponds, preserved prairies, and oak savannas at Prairie Crossing, a master-planned community outside Chicago.

Prairie Crossing is a critically acclaimed conservation community that was designed to combine responsible development, open-space preservation, environmental restoration, and easy commuting by train. This type of community is a relatively new approach to real estate development that is growing in popularity because it has shown that it is possible for developers to design and build communities that are good for the land, good for the residents, and good for the pocketbook.

Why Conservation Development?

New approaches to real estate development are needed now more than ever. New housing options are needed to support the growing U.S. population, which is expected to increase from 306 million in 2009 to more than 438 million in 2050. Still, it is the inefficient use of land, not population growth, that is fueling the rapid conversion of open space and working land to houses and commercial areas. The average lot size for each residential unit is half an acre (0.2 ha), but more than 50 percent of the land developed since 1994 has been broken into housing lots of ten acres (4 ha) or larger. Large-lot subdivisions are one of the major factors contributing to the accelerating consumption and fragmentation of land.

According to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) National Resources Inventory, between 1982 and 2003 more than 35 million acres (14.2 million ha) — an area the size of Illinois — were converted for developed uses. About 6 million acres (2.4 million ha), 28 percent of this land, was prime farmland, defined by the USDA as "land that that has the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for producing food, feed, forage, fiber, and oilseed crops and is also available for these uses."

Statistics further suggest that the rate of land conversion is accelerating. A 2009 research report using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Resources Inventory predicts that the developed area in the United States will increase by 54.4 million acres (22.0 million ha) during the next 25 years. "The impact of development on rural nonfederal land is a concern in the balancing of development needs with conservation of natural resources," concludes the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. "This is an especially important consideration when the lands best suited to producing food and fiber come under development. Conversion of agricultural land to developed uses can also result in fragmentation of landscapes, leading to diminished values for wildlife, water management, open space, and aesthetic purposes, among others."

Further enabling of the sprawling, haphazard pattern that has characterized America's approach to development — and to conservation — will exacerbate many of the problems sprawl already has created, including less functional open spaces, degraded watersheds, fragmented wildlife corridors, deteriorated working lands, and increased air and water pollution. People living in sprawling neighborhoods also feel the impacts of increased traffic congestion, longer commutes, and little sense of community.

Many rural communities also are suffering devastating economic consequences. When farms are plowed under to make way for development, the businesses that once depended on these farms can no longer survive. A growing body of evidence shows that far-flung, large-lot residential development rarely generates enough revenue from property taxes to cover the services it requires. Building the roads, schools, sewer service, fire, police, and other infrastructure needed to support homes and neighborhoods that are dispersed helter-skelter across the landscape is inefficient and expensive. Cost of community services (COCS) studies undertaken by the American Farmland Trust show that, on average, for each dollar generated in revenue through taxes, it costs $1.15 to support residential subdivisions, compared to $0.28 for commercial and industrial uses and $0.36 for working and open land. As the old saying goes, "you don't have to pay for cows to go to school."

Many smart growth advocates suggest that development needs should be met through infill development and the redevelopment of existing urban neighborhoods. This is a good idea. Unfortunately, the finite amount of land in urban areas is insufficient to support all of the nation's future housing and commercial development needs. In addition, the high cost of this land — as well as political and regulatory obstacles to its development — lead many developers to avoid compact, mixed-use, new urbanist-inspired approaches on infill sites. Moreover, many Americans who once found satisfaction in suburbia are choosing to retire in rural communities where nature and open space are easily accessible. While infill development will continue to be a critical goal for smart growth, experts suggest that most new development will continue to take form in greenfield locations, where virgin land has been undeveloped or used for agriculture or forestry. In Greenfield Development without Sprawl, Jim Heid writes that Portland, Oregon's metropolitan regional plan projects that 70 percent of near-term growth will be on greenfield land as opposed to built-up areas. Other U.S. jurisdictions predict numbers closer to 90 percent.

Support for Land Conservation

While many Americans want to live in rural areas, they also want to protect the assets that draw them to the countryside. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents in a recent National Association of Realtors survey said that it is "very important" to preserve land being used for farming and/or agricultural purposes (64 percent) and natural areas such as forests, wetlands or deserts, and stream corridors (62 percent). A significant majority also responded that it is "very important" to create certain types of open spaces, including playgrounds for children (75 percent), playing fields for soccer and baseball (61 percent), and easily accessible neighborhood parks (60 percent).

Another measure of Americans' interest in land protection is the number of ballot measures to fund land preservation that have been passed in recent years. In 2008, despite the nation's severe economic and fiscal crisis, voters approved 90 measures totaling $8.4 billion in new public funding for land conservation — a single-year record. Minnesota passed the largest open-space state referendum in the nation's history, increasing the sales tax by three eighths of a cent to generate $5.5 billion over the next 25 years for land preservation and environmental protection. A $500 million bond measure on the East Bay Regional Park District in California was approved by 71 percent of voters, while a $200 million bond measure in Hillsborough County, Florida, was passed by 79 percent. Voters supported open-space preservation measures even in areas where open space seems plentiful. Voters in Johnson County, Iowa, for instance, approved a $2 million bond for open space, while those in Blaine County, Idaho, established the first county land conservation program in Idaho with the passage of a two-year property tax measure.

Public financing and private charitable donations can protect only a small amount of land, however. In rapidly growing areas, where governments are struggling to pay for infrastructure and other needed public services, there may be no funds available to carry out citizens' desire for land preservation.

Americans' interest in land preservation does not always reflect antigrowth or antidevelopment sentiments. When new development is balanced with plans for the permanent protection of open space, Americans are more likely to accept responsible development initiatives as reasonable and appropriate. In the National Association of Realtors survey, for instance, 50 percent of respondents said that their position on growth depended on "the situation and circumstances."

The first principle of better development is figuring out where not to develop. This principle applies at every scale, from the individual site, to the neighborhood, to the region. Every community needs a long-range conservation plan, just like it needs a long-range transportation plan. When citizens think all land is up for grabs, they are likely to oppose all new development everywhere.

Limitations of Land Use Regulations

Local governments have responded to citizens' calls to stem the tide of rural land development with new land use plans, laws, and regulations. Outside of major cities, county comprehensive plans typically call for the preservation of "rural character" and "rural lifestyles." But the well-intended growth plans and development codes that guide the decision making of elected officials and staff often subvert their stated objectives. Conventional zoning ordinances advance a seemingly logical, Euclidian model of development planning in which large-lot zoning is proffered as a "silver bullet" to protect open space. A bit of land is set aside as open space, and every other acre of unpaved and buildable land is zoned for residential, commercial, or industrial development. Subdivisions are designed with cookie-cutter precision, because subdivision ordinances require rural and suburban land to be systemically divided into uniform house lots and streets. Development manuals and planning staff insist on it.

Local zoning laws often have unintended consequences. In an effort to protect small farms and ranches, many local governments dictate minimum lot sizes for development. Requiring large minimum lot sizes in rural areas, however, often fragments and degrades the landscape's scenic, wildlife, and watershed values. It also denies landowners an opportunity to advance their development goals while concurrently sustaining a viable working landscape for farming, ranching, or forest management. Instead, large-lot zoning forces many landowners to subdivide their land into five- or tenacre (2- or 4-ha) lots, creating parcels that are "too big to mow, but too small to plow." Mandating large-lot development as a strategy for protecting rural character often fails; instead, it may transform the landscape in ways that are not productive for agriculture, aesthetically inspiring, or effective as new communities.

Decades of attempts to preserve rural areas — including purchase of development rights, conservation easements, zoning overlays, deed restrictions, and agricultural zoning — have achieved mixed results. Society has succeeded in protecting some extraordinary individual properties but has largely failed to protect the overall rural environment.

The Conservation Development Approach

Conservation development offers a valuable tool for accomplishing land preservation goals while providing communities with a sound development strategy that will meet their exurban housing needs. In conservation development, land protection measures are funded by market forces and private capital. Although conservation development tools once were used primarily by conservationists and wealthy landowners to help preserve land targeted for conservation, in recent years, increasing numbers of mainstream real estate developers have used conservation development techniques to plan housing subdivisions, resorts, and large-scale master-planned communities with ample green space.

Conservation communities have grown in popularity because market forces are converging to create demand for authentic, livable communities in once-rural areas. Homebuyers have shown that they value natural open spaces, native plants, wildlife, and beautiful surroundings — and that they are willing to pay for these amenities. Developers are responding by incorporating large-scale open-space areas into their development plans.

From a developer's perspective, there are several reasons for conservation development. Some conservation developers have engaged in this practice to protect a cherished piece of land — a place they have grown to love. Others have used conservation development to overcome entitlement challenges and thwart anticipated public opposition to their projects. Perhaps the greatest benefit for developers, however, is that conservation communities help differentiate their product. Nationwide, houses that abut open space and/ or are located in communities that feature open space as an amenity sell faster and at higher premiums than comparable homes elsewhere. Some studies have found as much as a 15 to 30 percent increase in the value of properties adjacent to parks and open space. (For additional information, see "Sales Advantages" in Chapter 2.)

What Is Conservation Development?

Conservation development defines the process of planning, designing, building, and managing communities that preserve landscapes or other community resources that are considered valuable for their aesthetic, environmental, cultural, agricultural, and/or historic values. The term also can refer to a community that results from this process.

Conservation development requires an integrative, systemic, and holistic approach to land use planning and development. It can help communities preserve open space and protect rural character. Most important, it can enhance property values, minimize infrastructure costs, and foster the development of graceful, environmentally responsible, and livable communities that appeal to today's increasingly sophisticated consumer.

Conservation developers undertake a deliberate, conscientious, and engaged approach to site planning, land preservation, infrastructure design, landscaping, architecture, and community governance. Conservation development typically is accomplished through the use of a layered, iterative planning process. Initially, scenic, environmental, cultural, and historic values are clearly delineated and set aside for permanent protection. In the land area that extends beyond these conservation areas, new development is often — but not always — tightly clustered. Clustering development both facilitates the protection of open space and enables communities to minimize the number and extent of roads. Reducing impervious surfaces, in turn, enables natural areas to function more effectively. As an alternative to clustering, some conservation developments distribute homesites across the parcel in a manner that is strategically designed to ensure that the development sits lightly on the land.

How Conservation Development Differs from Conventional Development

Conventional development is largely guided by the rules of geometry, the principles of physics, the protocols of engineering, and the values of efficiency and wealth maximization. Land is the raw material of the developer's craft — an imminently pliable and subservient surface from which plans take form. Perhaps more poetically, land sometimes is viewed as the canvas on which developers express their creative and/or wealth-creating vision. Notwithstanding the developer's utilitarian or romantic priorities, conventional development is largely a practice of imposing a land use program on a landscape, regardless of its unique physical, ecological, cultural, agricultural, or historical attributes. When open space is incorporated into a design, it often is done as an afterthought, with little consideration of the aesthetic, ecological, cultural, and community value of a particular property.

Conservation development differs from conventional development in its focus on all the uses of the site — on the open space as well as the built environment. The open space in a conservation community may be preserved and protected for natural, aesthetic, or cultural purposes, as well as for passive and active recreation. While many conventional development projects include open space for these purposes, conservation development focuses on the quality, quantity, and characteristics of the land to be preserved. Conservation development goes beyond simply setting aside open space to identify which land should be preserved and for what purposes.

Principles and Goals

Conservation development is a practice of land use planning and community design that strives to maintain a respectful relationship with nature. Conservation development embraces a broad range of techniques and strategies to advance specific development objectives, while concurrently protecting a landscape's essential natural and environmental values. In many cases, conservation development initiatives seek to preserve and restore sensitive plant and animal habitat, protect cultural and historic resources, conserve scenic vistas and inspirational landscapes — including mountains, ridgelines, farms, ranches, or river corridors — and support and enhance the quality of a rural community's economic and social values.


Excerpted from Conservation Communities by Edward T. McMahon. Copyright © 2010 Urban Land Institute. Excerpted by permission of Urban Land Institute.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ed McMahon is the Charles Fraser Senior Resident Fellow for Sustainable Development at the Urban Land Institute and a former vice president and director of land use at the Conservation Fund. He is a renowned authority on sustainable development, land conservation, and urban design. He is the author of Better Models for Commercial Development, Green Infrastructure, and Land Conservation Finance.

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