Conservation of Existing Natural Spaces: Conservation Design

Conservation design (also known as open space zoning, cluster development or conservation zoning) refers to the practice of clustering or grouping new development on a specific area of land so that remaining portion of the land can be protected through municipal and environmental reserves (held by municipalities) and conservation easements (held by land trusts). Conservation design or cluster development is most applicable in suburban areas where there are still a significant number of larger, undeveloped parcels[1].

Recommended Practices

Site assessment. Before subdividing a parcel of land, the site should be thoroughly assessed to determine the most suitable and least ecologically-sensitive lands for development. In some situations, it may be determined that a particular parcel of land is not suitable for supporting development. In such a case, a municipality could use tools such as the transfer of development rights or land swaps (i.e., exchanging more suitable municipal lands with a developer) to ensure protection of the parcel and to focus development efforts in other areas.

Site adaptive design. When a particular parcel of land is deemed suitable to support development, it should be mapped and planned according to the desired end uses. Often in a cluster development scenario, a developer is allowed to increase the density of their development in exchange for setting aside the remaining land for environmental protection and recreational amenities. A developer can create the same total number of lots as originally planned, but these are smaller, with fewer roads and more public green space. The end result is a development that is considered to be more attractive to home buyers because of the protected green space. As a result, the developer is able to charge a premium for lots and recoup the same amount of revenue as what they would have from a conventional development.

Project Considerations

Compatibility with adjacent land uses. Based on the cluster development experience in the U.S., there are many lessons that can be learned and applied to the Alberta context. It is important to design cluster development to be compatible with adjacent land uses and users. For example, in the Seattle area, some rural residents are critical of cluster development due to the opinion that new houses in clustered developments appear out of character with the adjacent land uses. One proposed solution to alleviate concerns in this jurisdiction is the requirement for wider buffers and visual screens between the houses and the adjacent land uses, as well as new houses designed to reflect the style of current housing. Other criticisms of this style of development relate to the increased traffic on rural roads and the fact that these housing developments are still highly car dependent.

Getting buy-in. It is critical to involve the local community in the land-use planning process and get buy-in from local residents that may be affected by the development.

Regional planning. Attention needs to be paid to the overall design of cluster development areas to ensure that, where possible, there is still a larger regional plan to conserve continuous areas of wildlife habitat, rather than perpetuating habitat fragmentation.

The Business Side

Economic benefits for landowners and developers. From the perspective of the landowner who wants to subdivide and sell their land for development, this approach offers a solution that ensures the landowner can receive a full market value for their land. From the perspective of the developer, they can still get a full market value for the developable area.

Cost savings for developers and municipalities. Reducing the length of streets reduces utility infrastructure needed and can lead to substantial savings for developers. The Center for Watershed Protection[2] has estimated that clustering development could save up to 60% in road and infrastructure costs compared to conventional approaches to development.

The Nature Side

Ecological goods and services. This land development strategy helps to protect ecologically sensitive and otherwise important lands and natural resources in perpetuity, while acknowledging the need for constrained, ecologically-minded development. Under this approach, there is a much greater area of land conserved for ecological goods and service provision, including wildlife habitat, groundwater recharge, greenhouse gas sequestration, nutrient cycling and other ecological functions.

The Community Side

Recreation opportunities. Home buyers who purchase a dwelling in a conservation design community enjoy the proximity of the green space for walking trails and other recreational activities. When applied to a larger scale, this concept may encourage a more physically active population and result in cost savings to the health care system.

Health benefits. Access to nature provides numerous benefits – physical, mental and social. By conserving existing natural space, this example of NBS can boost health outcomes for residents.

Real estate marketability. Proximity to green space, conservation areas and parks increase property values for home owners and developers alike.

Center for Watershed Protection. 1998. Better Site Design: A Handbook for Changing Development Rules in Your Community. Ellicott City, Maryland. (June, 2021).

Feinberg, D. S., Hostetler, M. E., Reed, S. E., Pienaar, E. F., & Pejchar, L. 2015. Evaluating management strategies to enhance biodiversity in conservation developments: Perspectives from developers in Colorado, USA. Landscape and Urban Planning 136: 87–96.

Primeau, S., Bell, M., Riopel, M., Ewaschuk, E., & Doell, D. 2009. Green Communities Guide: Tools to Help Restore Ecological Processes in Alberta’s Built Environments. Land Stewardship Centre of Canada.