Unlike a Rose By Any Other Name, Conservation Development Does Not Always Smell Sweet.

One of conservation development advocates’ core claims is that utilization of the land development technique results in a more environmentally-friendly finished product when compared to conventional land development techniques.  Such a claim is typically true.  It is true because conventional development land use laws do not require the identification and protection of the natural resources of the land to be developed.  However, just because conservation development is typically more environmentally friendly than conventional land development does not mean that its end-result environmental protection sufficiently maintains biodiversity by protecting, cornerstones of biodiversity, such as conserving essential habitat areas or ecosystem functions.  To put it in basic logic terms: just because option A is better than option B does not mean option A is adequate to achieve an objective.  The pertinent question is whether the substance of conservation development land use laws and ordinances adopted by a local jurisdiction leads to the actual maintenance of biodiversity.

Biodiversity is ecosystem focused.  Biodiversity can be succinctly defined as the “variability among living organisms on the earth, including the variability within and between species and within and between ecosystems.”  I recently read a 2012 article titled Do subdivisions designed for conservation actually help wildlife published in the always insightful High Country News.  The article touched on the issue of how effective are conservation development projects at maintaining biodiversity.

The answer to the question is, it depends.  Many conservation development projects built in the last decade have helped preserve biodiversity (including projects discussed in 2012 article).  However, many projects have not lived up to the label “conservation development” as commonly understood by ecologists.  Scientific research has revealed that the end result of many so-called conservation development projects is a natural landscape that has been left ecologically degraded and impaired without meaningful differences to historic checkerboard conventional developments.  For conservation development projects to successfully satisfy its underlying objectives post-completion, maintaining biodiversity can be broken up into three steps.

Step 1: An Ecological Site Analysis of the Ecological Attributes of the Proposed Project’s Land

As correctly explained by Armando Carbonell of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, private sector land developers and public sector local land planners must “understand both the ecosystem context and the ecological consequences of their actions.”  The prerequisite to such collaborative understanding is a thorough site analysis of the ecological characteristics of the proposed development project’s land.  The ecological site analysis must assess the four main ecological characteristics of land that are necessary to maintain biodiversity, or as I prefer for land development projects, its “ecological integrity”:

(a) composition,

(b) structure,

(c) function, and

(d) ecological processes.

Land is said to have ecological integrity/biodiversity when the four primary ecological characteristics exist within their natural ranges of variation and can withstand and recover from most perturbations that result from natural environmental dynamics or human disruptions.

Accordingly, as step one, local land use laws and ordinances must mandate a pre-design, site analysis of the ecological attributes of the proposed project’s land.  It cannot be optional.  The entire project must be surveyed to identify such features as the land’s essential ecosystem functions, its critical wildlife habitat, and the indispensable wildlife corridors between habitat areas.  Disappointingly, a 2014 study co-authored by Sarah Reed, an associate conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and a leading researched in the field, found only thirteen percent of adopted conservation development laws required an ecological site analysis prior to a development’s design and planning.

Step 2: Project Design and Planning Around Critical Habitat and Ecological Functions

Once the ecological site analysis is completed, development must be designed and planned around the site analysis’ results.  Mr. Carbonell correctly emphasizes that “[i]ts important (for planners and developers) to start interacting before a design gets finalized.  In the absence of understanding how watersheds work, or how an ecosystem works, you can get development patterns that are not terribly functional.”

At the same time, it is vital to recognize that there is no single way to design a conservation development project.  A conservation development’s design is site-dependent, as well as dependent on the larger scale natural areas in which the site resides.

For meaningful biodiversity protection to occur in a conservation development project requires ecosystem-level protection at a sufficiently large scale.  Therefore, the best designs set aside large areas of high-quality natural open space, strategically connecting the set-aside land across the project’s landscape and, to the fullest extent possible, to any adjacent national forests, state parks, local nature preserves, and conservation easements.  Preexisting wildlife movement corridors must also be retained.  The internal project layout of the housing lots and infrastructure must then be laid out around the preceding requirements.  By doing so should minimize the fragmentation of ecosystems prevalent in conventional land developments, and, unfortunately, present in too many projects labeled as conservation development projects.

Step 3: Ongoing Stewardship of the Land

The final step to maintaining biodiversity is for the development, once completed, to be subject to a long-term stewardship plan.  At a procedural level, such a plan must be enforceable and not mere guidelines or aspirations.  At the substantive level, the stewardship plan must focus on what is necessary to preserve biodiversity post-project completion.  That requires ongoing monitoring of the set-aside lands’ ecological characteristics.  Whenever identified, action must be taken to avoid the introduction of invasive plant species and to restore habitat if any disturbance, natural or human-caused, detrimentally alters the ecosystem.

Key Takeaways

  • When a thorough ecological attribute study is not conducted, a collaborative understanding between private sector developers and public sector planners (as well as third party stakeholders) will not be reached concerning the proposed land development project’s ecosystem context and the ecological consequences of the proposal.
  • Where such a collaborative understanding does not occur, the physical manifestation of a conservation development’s open space will almost certainly not help maintain the developed land’s biodiversity.
  • The term “open space” used in conservation development laws and ordinances is often not synonymous with the conservation of ecosystem functions. The term “open space” is too commonly used to describe human-designed and “made green” spaces, such as pocket parks, soccer fields, and open fields that – although often well-meaning – are nothing more than extremely large lawns.  None of those “open spaces” provide meaningful biodiversity protection and are hardly an improvement over golf courses.
  • Ecologists must have an ongoing role during all of the above-described three steps. Doing so will best ensure that a locality obtains the scientific input necessary to realize the environmental objectives conservation development is intended to achieve.

An insightful academic article on this topic, which is one among many and on which this post relied, is Liba Pejchar et al., Evaluating the Potential for Conservation Development: Biophysical, Economic, and Institutional Perspectives, 21 Conservation Biology 69 (2007).