Conservation Design Challenges

Sep 6, 2013

Conservation Design Challenges

Although the numerous benefits of conservation design often outweigh the potential challenges, many challenges still exist with implementing conservation design. The following sections explore some of the challenges of conservation design including ordinances, key players, education, and on-going maintenance. If addressed, these challenges could be catalysts that promote the wider use of conservation design in the region.


While there are excellent examples of ordinances that allow for the option of conservation developments, many current ordinances and development practices used in communities can also be a roadblock to implementing conservation design. Although many conservation design developments are implemented through a Planned Unit Development (PUD) which provides extra guidance from the Planning Commission, it can be a somewhat difficult framework to navigate for the local planning staff and developers. According to NIPC's 2003 Conservation Design Resource Manual, "one of the primary reasons developers give for avoiding conservation design is the time consuming and uncertain nature of this process. In most cases, no special review or approval is required to build conventional developments, while it is complicated and time intensive to build conservation developments" (Ibid 2003). By requiring project specific approvals, communities may unintentionally deter conservation design strategies. The manual goes on to suggest that "communities that are committed to the outcomes of conservation design may wish to strengthen the language even more, enough to tilt the ‘playing field' toward conservation. The recommended approach is to allow for conservation developments by right in the zoning code, so that no special approvals are required" (Ibid 2003).

The zoning codes are not the only local ordinances at odds with the concepts of conservation design. In many cases subdivision, landscaping, stormwater, roadway, and other land use ordinances are not sufficiently flexible for conservation design. The Conservation Design Resource Manual (referred previously) is specifically designed to help alleviate these issues and was created in partnership between NIPC and Chicago Wilderness.

Education and Awareness

A major challenge in the promotion of conservation design as a development policy is getting the four major stakeholder groups - homebuyers, developers, local officials and local communities - to see the benefits of such a policy. Although conservation design does not increase the number of overall units in a development, it does preserve more open space, which leaves individual units with smaller, more contained lots. Homebuyers who are looking for more land might at first bypass developments built with conservation design principles in mind. In addition, most communities do not have much experience with conservation design and may be hesitant to implement new land use policies that differ from conventional developments. As a result, developers often rely on more conventional development practices. Local officials may be following the community's inclinations or may be influenced by developers to opt for more conventional designs. These are some examples of potential and realistic scenarios that can prevent conservation design implementation in communities.

Many local experts agree that education for all stakeholder groups can provide a different perspective to these scenarios and provide information about the principles and benefits of conservation design. Education helps to alleviate and allow for focused discussion of the misconceptions and the realistic trade offs present between conventional development and conservation design practices. Education can be an equalizer that moves a community forward to making informed decisions about their development preferences.

Workshops, seminars and one-on-one meetings can help to open up the possibilities for conservation design through thoughtful dialogue between participating parties. Currently many organizations in northeastern Illinois engage in these activities including Chicago Wilderness and Delta Institute by providing information on best practices for conservation design and its principles.

Ongoing Maintenance

Once a conservation design development is built, the communal open space and natural drainage systems in place need to be maintained. Local sources say that maintenance responsibility is one of biggest concerns with building a conservation design development. Conservation design developments use a variety of solutions to accomplish this. The most common solution is home owner's association fees, used to hire a contractor to maintain the open space and native landscaping with cyclical burns and light grooming. Developments can also partner with forest preserves, park districts and land trusts. The goal is to establish a long-term arrangement to care for the open space. It can take years before the native plants are established so maintenance is very important to the success of the open space.

On a smaller scale, such as with commercial spaces, usually the property management is responsible for maintaining the site regardless of landscaping choice. Conservation design techniques including native landscaping are less expensive and require less frequent maintenance. In one study the annual maintenance cost of open space with natural landscaping was $75 per acre compared to a typical lawn maintenance that was about $225 per acre. In the middle is passive recreation (trails, bike paths) with a cost of about $200 per acre (NIPC, 2003).

Wide Use of Conservation Design

The benefits of conservation design are amplified when widely used. This could lead to the interconnection of individual conservation design subdivisions so that the natural areas and natural systems of each would be extended and strengthened, aiding the protection of water quality, the reduction of flooding, and the expansion of habitat and biodiversity (Haines, 2002). Also, natural areas used for such recreational activities as walking and biking could be linked together or with public natural areas, expanding the range of trails beyond the confines of each subdivision's outer boundaries (Haines, 2002). By providing open spaces and buffers that require no public expenditures to obtain or protect, public funds can be used for preserving or purchasing other natural areas (NIPC, 2003).

Another practical benefit of the wide implementation of conservation design would be the reduction in the cost of financing conservation design developments. Prairie Crossing, which has proven the profitability of conservation design, required initial financing that was relatively expensive, due to the perception that it was a high-risk venture (Local Sources). Today, conservation design may be a less-foreign concept to potential lenders, some of whom may even recognize its economic benefits, but until it is widely implemented, they are likely to prefer familiar, conventional approaches to the design of subdivisions.

In addition, local sources say there would need to be a deeper understanding of the differences of implementing conservation design in different environments. In rural and less populated suburban environments, there is more open space to fully utilize the larger-scale natural stormwater management techniques and implement extensive natural landscaping and land management. In more populated suburban and urban environments, where less open space is available green roofs, strategic natural landscaping and smaller scale stormwater management techniques can be utilized. More urban conservation design is often referred to as green infrastructure or low-impact development. In these environments, conservation design can be combined with other development strategies such as infill or brownfield redevelopment to utilize existing infrastructure and increase the land value while considering and enhancing the environmental aspects of the site. Additional considerations such as soil ph levels and previous site contamination and degradation, have to be addressed when redeveloping land especially on brownfield sites. These factors directly affect the conservation design techniques that can be utilized on site but also opens up an opportunity for creative solutions.

For more information on infill development, read the Infill Snapshot.For more information on brownfields, read the Brownfields Strategy Report.

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