Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Conservation Neighborhoods by Randall Arendt

One concept jumps out at me when I study Randall Arendt’s ideas for neighborhood design – balance.

Amid a bulls-rush of conventional thinking by real estate developers telling us that every square inch of raw land must be actively developed and sold off to support the “economic viability” of a project, Arendt has tirelessly advocated leaving significant swaths of common natural space as part of the overall development.

Here’s the idea.

Start by taking the conventionally zoned density of a proposed neighborhood - let’s say it happens to be one acre per home site. Instead of carving out a series of one-acre plots stacked boundary to boundary, consolidate the building site to some percentage of that one acre. For the sake of this discussion, each home site becomes a half acre.

A couple of dynamics result.

By downsizing the individual lots, a cluster rather than a linear pattern takes form resulting in less required infrastructure (roads, walks, water, sewer, site grading, etc.) thereby reducing the cost and effort involved in infrastructure development.

And instead of each homeowner having his one acre, half the land in the development is open for all to enjoy. So in a 100 acre development, each homeowner now has access to 50 acres of natural open space instead of just one acre minus the building footprint and drives.

Arendt brilliantly refers to conventionally designed lots as “too big to mow, to small to plow.” But in a conservation neighborhood, “enough” land is allocated to accommodate a reasonable dwelling, and large contiguous areas of the natural landscape are preserved as a community asset. What manifests is the same building density with lower costs to the developer (translated to the homeowner) along with a more sensitive treatment of the natural environment.

This design approach has been called “twice green.” Simultaneously, conservation neighborhoods save money and preserve large areas of the natural environment.

How do you choose the land that should be conserved?

Identify the unbuildable acreage (wetlands and natural drainage areas), woodlands, and unique and beautiful natural amenities presented by the site.

Wetlands and lowlands, for eons, controlled the storm water runoff naturally and free of charge. Filling them in, as many developers are inclined to want to do, brings about new expensive problems handling the storm water and dramatically increases the cost of site preparation. And, the development process generally bogs down with the jurisdiction’s Department of Environmental Quality which frowns (for good reason) on filling in wetlands.

Preserved woodlands help mitigate carbon produced by development and should always be part of an urban clean air strategy.

And have you ever noticed that many developments are named after the natural amenity the developer just destroyed to build the neighborhood, as in Turtle Creek (that only now exists underground in a pipe!)?

Why not keep the wonderful natural beauty that already exists? Designers, no matter how talented, are hard pressed to match the beauty Mother Nature gives us for free.

Back to the concept of “balance.” Conservation neighborhoods create intrinsic balance between developed areas and the natural landscape. Arendt, over the years, has codified the monetary benefit (for the sake of accountants), but the true balance is recognized by the human spirit. Conservation neighborhoods, by experience, prove that beauty is important for the soul.

Here’s a brief clip of Randall Arendt talking about the economic benefits of conservation neighborhoods.

And read more about conservation neighborhoods in one of Randall Arendt’s many books including “Growing Greener” and “Conservation Design for Subdivisions: A Practical Guide to Creating Open Space Networks”.

A note to readers: I'll be away from blogging for a little while to catch up on some things. Viruses and the flu seem to be swirling around excessively as of late and I have not been perfectly immune, if you know what I mean, so I've got lots of stacked up design work before me. Keep checking in; be back soon.

No comments: