Once an anomaly, communities like Prairie Crossing—a masterplanned conservation community outside Chicago that combines responsible development, extensive open-space preservation, environmental restoration, and organic agriculture—are becoming much more common across America.

Conservation development technologies have been around for decades, but only in the past few years have developers, conservation organizations, landowners, and local governments begun to understand the potential of these technologies to link land conservation with land development while providing meaningful protection of natural resources. In addition, ample evidence exists that shows homebuyers will pay premium prices to live next to nature, green space, and even certain types of agriculture.

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.

There are, however, misperceptions about what conservation development is and what it is not. Conservation development is not:

A Panacea. Like any planning effort, conservation development requires tradeoffs. It is not appropriate in every setting or on every site.

Inherently Altruistic. While land trusts and wealthy landowners may have altruistic motives, developers often can make more money implementing conservation development projects than they would by taking more conventional approaches to land development.

A Tool for Stopping Growth. Conservation development, like any other type of development, focuses on how to develop land. By deciding what land should be preserved at the outset of a project, conservation development provides developers with a tool to generate competitive risk-adjusted returns from highly scenic, environmentally sensitive, and/or recreation-serving properties.

Cluster Development. While the terms “cluster development” and “conservation development” often are used synonymously, cluster development is a means to concentrating land uses in a manner that minimizes infrastructure development and, in some cases, facilitates pedestrian access across neighborhoods and to commercial and civic facilities. Cluster development does not necessarily involve a conscientious investment in natural or cultural resource protection; conservation development does. Cluster development also lacks conservation development’s focus on the preservation of land the quality, quantity, and configuration of the resulting open space or on the linkages among open spaces within and outside a development’s boundaries.

Green Building. Green building and conservation development are not mutually exclusive They can go hand in hand, but whereas green building emphasizes the vertical dimensions (the use of environmentally sensitive building materials, indoor air quality, water use, energy efficiency, construction waste management, and other elements of the built environment), conservation development emphasizes the horizontal dimension (good site planning and design, the preservation of ecological resource, the protection of open space, identification of view corridors, and other elements of land planning). Conservation development focuses on how land is used, setting the preservation of conservation land and its natural functions as a priority.

Elitist. Conservation subdivisions and master-planned green communities have a reputation for being affluent and homogeneous, but there is no reason that the same design principles cannot be applied to projects for residents with more moderate means. In fact, 30 percent of the housing in the Village at the Galisteo Basin Preserve, a conservation development near Santa Fe, New Mexico, is designed for lower- and moderate-income residents. Similarly, Myers Farm in Greenfield, Massachusetts, is a conservation development with condominium units designed for older retirees and families with modest incomes.

Low Density.
People often assume that a conservation subdivision, by definition, will have fewer lots available for development than a conventional subdivision. Many conservation development projects are low density, but many others are density neutral—they have the same number of units as a conventional project, but are designed in a compact form with urban-scale lots. A few conservation development projects have even received waivers to increase density beyond what had been allowed.

Golf Course Communities.
While some conservation developments incorporate golf courses into their design, golf courses should never be included in a development’s natural open-space calculations and should be considered after the property’s ecologically valuable lands have been set aside for permanent protection.

Excerpted from Conservation Communities, written by ULI Senior Resident Fellow, ULI/Charles Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and Environmental Policy, Edward T. McMahon.