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Cultivating Natural and Cultural Landscapes through Conservation Subdivision Design

by Randall Arendt                                                              [launch slideshow]

If you have ever driven by a development site both before and after construction, you will probably have noticed how drastically the pre-existing landscape—both natural and cultural—has been altered, sometimes almost beyond recognition. Very typically, woodlands have been felled, hedgerows have been pulled up and cleared away, the natural contours of the terrain have been ironed out into dead-flat building platforms, drainages have been relocated, old houses and barns have been razed.

Usually not as obvious is the lack of necessity for many of those changes, which forever impoverish the community by permanently erasing special features that are often impossible to replace or replicate. The loss of habitat, familiar landscapes, and character-defining buildings are often the result of indifference by developers and their engineering consultants, and ignorance of practical alternatives by local planning staffs and officials who approve such proposals, based on outdated zoning and subdivision codes which legitimize this kind of corporate and municipal misbehavior.

Preserved drainage ditch.Much has been written concerning practical alternatives to standard "cookie-cutter" development patterns, particularly those involving residential subdivisions, which alter far more acreage in any given year than any other land-use type.

Readers of this magazine may recall an article that appeared in Issue No. 7 in 2000 ("Designing Traditional Neighborhoods Around Natural Features"), where this theme was sounded.

In that piece, I quoted Raymond Unwin, one of the great leaders of the Garden City movement, who in 1911 told members of the Chicago Club, "City planning must be a combination of the art of man and the beauty of nature… We therefore preserved the trees and the hedgerows, so the site would not look so bare from the beginning."

The inspired notion of designing the city as a garden had sadly faded by the late 1920s, but many of the underlying premises of the movement were revived and greatly expanded by perceptive landscape architects several generations later, most notably by Ian McHarg, whose seminal volume Design with Nature brought the nascent idea of ecological planning into sharper focus for many students and practitioners of his era. Many of those ideas have, in turn, evolved into the art and practice of "conservation planning," together with its implementation tools: conservation zoning and conservation subdivision design.

At the heart of this approach is the idea that the residential subdivision design process can be reformed so that such developments become a major tool for achieving a community's conservation objectives, at no additional cost to developers. In fact, studies have shown they save money on expensive site grading and street construction, and that the lots tend to sell more quickly and at premium prices.

Trout lily.These concepts have been the subject of several books—such as Growing Greener and Conservation Design for Subdivisions—in which the landscape approach to site design has been simplified into a four-step design process easily understandable by lay members of local planning boards, not to mention developers and their engineers. The critically-important first step consists of inventorying resources worth designing around and preserving, either because they represent daunting obstacles to development (such as wetlands, floodplains, and steep slopes), or because they encompass special value-adding natural or cultural features that are extremely vulnerable because they are NOT located in unbuildable areas.

The second distinguishing feature of this approach is its commitment to pre-identifying and preserving a community-wide network of conservation lands, "linked landscapes", as it were, not merely a hit-or-miss collection of isolated green pockets dotted here and there around the township or county.

The following narrative slideshow presents two dozen images capturing different site features that have been inventoried, evaluated, designed around, and saved through this common-sense approach to land development. Half are located in conservation subdivisions that I have personally designed in various landscapes and regions, ranging from New England to the Upper Midwest, and from Texas to Florida. These photos are divided into four broad categories: Cultural Features, Natural Features, Restoration Examples, and Community Lands & Commercial Applications. As the pictures themselves are each worth a proverbial thousand words, captions have been limited to a brief statement or two providing background for the reader.

Further Reading: The central tenets of conservation planning and subdivision design are described and illustrated in several free downloadable publications posted on www.greenerprospects.com.

View slideshow of 25 cultural, natural, and restoration features of conservation subdivision design  >>   
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Randall Arendt is an author, lecturer, educator, and site designer specializing in land conservation through more compact development design. Propelled by outrage at the lamentable state of land-use planning in many parts of this country, he is the author of numerous articles and four volumes on this subject, has designed conservation subdivisions in 24 states, and has lectured in 46 states and seven Canadian provinces. Randall is an Honorary Member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and a Fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute in London. Further information on Randall, plus numerous free downloadable publications, are posted at www.greenerprospects.com.
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All photos on this page by Randall Arendt, including title background photo.


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