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The beneficial impact of conservation development as a way to both accommodate population growth and save land in outlying suburbs and rural areas is highlighted in Conservation Communities: Creating Value with Nature, Open Space, and Agriculture, a new publication from the Urban Land Institute (ULI).
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The beneficial impact of conservation development as a way to both accommodate population growth and save land in outlying suburbs and rural areas is highlighted in Conservation Communities: Creating Value with Nature, Open Space, and Agriculture, a new publication from the Urban Land Institute (ULI).

Authored by ULI Senior Resident Fellow for Environmental Policy Edward T. McMahon, the book showcases conservation communities as a shift away from the sprawling, highly land-consumptive development practices of the past to more sustainable practices that will pick up momentum as the economy recovers.

According to McMahon, conservation development - which involves preserving large amounts of land in perpetuity as part of the overall development plan -- can temper the backlash against sprawl that has spawned widespread no-growth movements in many of the outlying "greenfield" areas far from urban cores. "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," McMahon writes. "The first principle of better development is figuring out where not to develop. This applies at every scale, from the individual site, to the neighborhood, to the region. Every community needs a long-range conservation plan. When citizens think all land is up for grabs, they are likely to oppose all new development everywhere."

The publication defines conservation development as 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," McMahon explains. "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."

The difference between conventional and conservation development: Conventional development, says the publication, is guided by the rules of geometry, the principles of physics, the protocols of engineering and the values of efficiency and wealth maximization. Conservation development differs from conventional in its focus on all uses of the site - on open space as well as the built environment. "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," McMahon writes.

Among the benefits of conservation development: Reduced capital costs (less need for new infrastructure); lower risk of environmental hazards, including flooding and water pollution; a healthier lifestyle due to a living environment that encourages physical activity; better land stewardship; market differentiation; potential for positive publicity; higher perceived value and quality; and the satisfaction of doing the right thing.

To clarify misperceptions about conservation development is and what it is not, McMahon explains that it is:

  • Not a panacea, in that it is not appropriate in every setting or on every site
  • Not inherently altruistic, in that the pursuit of conservation development may be driven primarily by profit motives
  • Not a tool for stopping growth, because it is, ultimately a tool to guide development
  • Not cluster development, because cluster development -- while concentrating uses - does not necessarily involve an investment in natural or cultural resource protection
  • Not green building, in that it focuses more on how land is used, rather than energy efficiency and environmentally sensitive materials (although green building often occurs in conservation communities)
  • Not elitist, in that the same design principles can be applied to moderately-priced communities as well as more affluent ones
  • Not low density - some conservation communities have the same or higher densities as conventional development; and
  • Not golf course communities; in fact, the book notes, "golf course should never be included as part of the natural open space calculations, and should be considered only after the ecologically valuable lands have been set aside."

Conservation Communities offers numerous case studies of developments that have successfully achieved one or more of these goals -- protecting working landscapes, preserving scenic beauty, and protecting fragile ecosystems. Detailed profiles are provided for Bundoran Farm in Albemarle County, Va.; Galisteo Basin Preserve in Santa Fe, N.M.; Hidden Springs in Ada County, Idaho; Homestead Preserve in Bath County, Va.; Jackson Meadow in Marine on St. Croix, Minn.; Santa Lucia Preserve in Monterey County, Calif.; Serenbe in Fulton County, Ga.; Spring Island in Beaufort County, S.C.; Storm Mountain Ranch in Steamboat Springs, Colo.; and Tryon Farm in Michigan City, Ind., as well as shorter profiles of numerous other projects.

"Notwithstanding their unique points of emphasis and practice, the developers of these diverse projects regard the protection of significant landscapes as a defining purpose of their work," McMahon writes, noting that the case studies offer an "intriguing glimpse into the realm of the possible."

"The no-holds-barred conflict that traditionally has characterized the developer/conservationist relationship is evolving into a more cooperative and big-picture approach to land use problem solving. As sprawl creeps out from the suburbs into once-rural areas, communities are searching for efficient and productive tools to guide future development."

Conservation Communities (ISBN 978-0-87420-132-1) is available at ULI's online bookstore ($39.95 for members, $49.95 for nonmembers) and everywhere books are sold.

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November 19, 2019, 10:21 pm PDT

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