Conservation development, also known as conservation design, is a controlled-growth land use development that adopts the principle for allowing limited sustainable development while protecting the area's natural environmental features in perpetuity, including preserving open space landscape and vista, protecting farmland or natural habitats for wildlife, and maintaining the character of rural communities. A conservation development is usually defined as a project that dedicates a minimum of 50 percent of the total development parcel as open space. The management and ownership of the land are often formed by the partnership between private land owners, land-use conservation organizations and local government. It is a growing trend in many parts of the country, particularly in the Western United States. In the Eastern United States, conservation design has been promoted by some state and local governments as a technique to help preserve water quality.
This type of planning is becoming increasingly more relevant as "land conversion for housing development is a leading cause of habitat loss and fragmentation". With a loss or fragmentation of a species' habitat, it results in the endangerment of a species and pushes them towards premature extinction. Land conversion also contributes to the reduction of agriculturally productive land, already shrinking due to climate change.
Conservation Development differs from other land protection approaches by aiming to protect land and environmental resources on parcels slated for immediate development—to protect land here and now. In contrast, a green belt approach typically aims to protect land from future development, and in a region beyond areas currently slated for development. It seeks to offer a gradient between urban regions and open countryside, beyond what a line on a map—typically a highway—currently provides. This approach seeks to avoid the dichotomy of economic urbanism on one side of such a street while on the other lies completely protected woodlands and farm fields, devoid of inclusion in that economy. Addressing the theoretical illusion that humanity walled off is better-off, Conservation Development recognizes that design of how we live is far more important than we allot credit; that instead of walling off a problem we need to face that problem and drastically lower our impact on the sites where we live, and indeed raise the performance of our communities toward a level where such walls are no longer considered first response requirements.
Conservation development was formulated in the early 1980s by a British-trained planner Randall Arendt. He pulled together several concepts from the 1960s. He combined the idea of cluster and open space design with Ian McHarg's "design with nature" philosophy.
Conservation development seeks to protect a variety of ecological resources and services such as biodiversity, productive farmland, ecosystem services, scenic landscapes and historic and cultural resources. This is achieved by identifying the ecologically sensitive and valuable areas. The protected lands can be under an easement to prevent development on it. Housing is then built around the protected areas. Density, lots sizes, types of housing and amount of protected area is dependent on the type of conservation development.
While not a prevalent type of development, it's estimated that conservation development takes up between 2.5%-10% of the total US real estate development. Conservation development is usually applied to rural, exurban or suburban residential subdivisions, though it does have a few urban applications (Doyle 4).
While there are several types of conservation developments, they all have several features in common. All developments have conservation land set aside, either held by a conservation organization or protected by a conservation easement. These developments must have ongoing stewardship for the protected portion of the parcel. Secondly, the development finances the protected area. Third, each development begins by surveying the land's ecological features and resources. A decision can then be made about where to build and what areas need to be protected. Lastly, these developments also use a variety of design features to reduce some of the negative impacts inherent in development. Examples include low-impact stormwater management systems, and landscape design.
Milder cites four principal conservation development techniques found in the United States. The first two he groups together as having a "conservation with development" philosophy. Conservation is the main goal with development as a means to that end. The latter two types fall under the "development with conservation" ethos. These two types of projects are done through private developers whose goal is turn a profit at the end of the day, but in a "conservation-friendly matter". Table 1 provides an excellent summary of the different conservation development techniques.
The first type he calls conservation buyer projects. In this situation, a land trust buys the property and places the ecologically important areas under a conservation easement. They then resell the land, including the easement, to a conservation buyer. The buyer cannot build on the easement, but may do so on the remaining, unprotected portion. This technique usually results in a few houses being built on the piece of land, resulting in a low density. According to a study undertaken by Milder & Clark, 98.4% of the total land receives protection, the highest amongst the four conservation development types.
The second type identified by Milder is called conservation and limited development projects (CLDP). They are often carried out by land trusts, and occasionally by conservation-minded developers or landowners. Real estate is developed for sale on an open market, and the profit is used to finance conservation of the nearby land. Milder & Clark found that 93.5% of the total land area is protected under this type of development. Recent studies done on the effectiveness of CLDPs in protecting, restoring and managing threatened resources reveal that it is significantly more effective at doing so, in comparison to conservation subdivisions and conventional development.
Conservation subdivisions are the third and best-known type of conservation development. This is a development that "sets aside a major portion of the site as conservation land" and clusters housing on the remaining portion. The houses are built on lots smaller than usual, meaning the density of the development nears the maximum allowed by zoning. Unlike conservation and limited development projects, a homeowners' association manages the protected land. These associations may lack knowledge and have different goals regarding the lands' management, which may result in a less than ideally managed conservation. As a result of this and other factors, a study found that on average only 57.1% of the total land area is protected from development.
The final type identified by Milder is called conservation-oriented planned development projects. These are large-scale development projects found in suburban and exurban areas. The scale of the projects means large tracts of land can be protected. They typically have densities nearing the zoned maximum and feature of a mix of housing types and land uses. The resulting percentage of protected land is 71.3.
The biggest advantage of conservation development is that it can protect species and ecosystems, preventing further habitat fragmentation and loss. By surveying the land and identifying the primary conservation areas where ecosystems are most at risk, communities are created without huge disruption to the environment. Conservation development also provides for secondary conservation areas, which provide corridors for animals to hunt, mate and travel through.
However, any development will have some impact on the land. But by studying it, there are ways in which this can be mitigated. A developer can have native vegetation planted. Wildlife friendly native species could be introduced, while invasive species are monitored and controlled. Stormwater management systems are also used to "promote natural flow patterns and infiltration", considered a very important factor in minimizing a development's impact.
There are several benefits from an economic standpoint. Conservation development allows developers to make themselves distinct in a competitive housing market. A developer can use an environmentally oriented marketing strategy, highlighting the benefits of the development to possible buyer with a green thumb. A final advantage of conservation development is that homes in these developments tend appreciate faster than their conventional counterparts.
Pejchar et al. and Arendt cite a number of economic benefits that accrue to municipalities through conservation development. They include fewer public costs on maintenance and infrastructure, protecting open space without losing tax revenues, and avoiding the loss of ecological services like landscape stabilization, flood control and clean water. A municipality also experiences a reduced demand for public green space since it has been provided free of charge by the development.
Lastly, there are a few social and recreational advantages to conservation development. With the smaller lots that accompany these houses, homeowners are likely to move into public green space and engage with their neighbours. Community events such as picnics or parties are more common. The protected green space also provides excellent recreational activities, such as hiking, jogging, or simply observing nature. It's hopeful that with this experience, people can reconnect with nature and develop a land ethic.
There are several drawbacks to conservation development. The first problem encountered is the perceived risk by both developers and homebuyers. In protecting sensitive areas, developers and homeowners see a risk in the possible elimination of desired sites to build homes. This might be a large enough risk to discourage developers. This could be a place for government intervention, which could provide tax breaks to developers building a development this way.
Conservation subdivisions and conservation-oriented planned development projects have been "criticized for protecting land at too small a scale to provide meaningful conservation benefits, while simultaneously promoting "leapfrog" development". This pushes sprawl further from the city and contributes to a more fragmented rural area.
This type of planning is becoming increasingly more relevant as "land conversion for housing development is a leading cause of habitat loss and fragmentation". With a loss or fragmentation of a species' habitat, it results in the endangerment of a species and pushes them towards premature extinction. Without biodiversity, we lose the many benefits we derive from it, including economic and ecological services, genetic information, and recreational pleasure, just to name a few. Land conversion also contributes to the reduction of agriculturally productive land, already shrinking due to climate change.