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Building with Nature

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Published on: Aug. 2, 2008

Last revision: Dec. 8, 2010

Who hasn’t heard someone reminisce about the good old days of hunting quail and rabbit in a field that is now a shopping mall, or finding crawdads in a creek that now runs in a pipe?

Many of us dream of escaping to the country, to rural views of meadows and trees, and a chance to enjoy the sounds of birds and frogs rather than passing traffic. Yet when we move there, we bring the things we are trying to escape with us.

We find ourselves still surrounded by roads and houses, perhaps more widely spaced but with expanses of monotonous mowed grass. The peaceful spot in the country we dreamed of is filled with the buzz of lawn mowers and weed-eaters all weekend long.

This dilemma is not new. Societies have tried to strike a balance between the built and the natural environment since the first village was created. We needed to beat back the wilderness to build safe, convenient, comfortable places for people to live, but our conquest often meant eliminating natural habitats, or confining them to small parks, which led to a host of environmental problems, including flooding and stream erosion.

However, a new approach brings together conservation and development in ways that benefit people and nature. This approach is known as conservation-friendly development.

Conservation-Friendly

Conservation-friendly development incorporates sustainable design, low-impact development and green building to create living space that is more in harmony with nature. The following principles drive the new approach.

  • Avoid consuming natural habitat by promoting infill development and redevelopment to make better use of existing developed areas.
  • Conserve sensitive or important natural resources, such as streams, wetlands and remnant prairies. These resources improve the quality of life within the development.
  • Preserve open space and green corridors for wildlife habitat and human enjoyment and recreation. Connect these areas to create a system of greenways across neighboring developments, communities, counties and even states.
  • Recognize that trees, streams and other natural features are essential infrastructure for a community and need investment and maintenance to provide the most benefit.
  • Minimize changes to natural soils, drainages and topography, and if they have changed, seek to restore their original function.
  • Encourage the use of energy-efficient, renewable or reusable technologies such as green roofs and geothermal heat pumps.

Best Management Practices

A conservation-friendly developer often implements proven techniques, known as Best Management Practices. The following are a few examples:

Conservation cluster design.

Clustering buildings on smaller lots allows the remaining land, usually environmentally sensitive habitat, in the development to serve as common space for people to enjoy. Concentrating buildings provides room for both wildlife and people and allows for better stormwater management.

Vegetated swales and rain gardens.

Unlike storm sewers and large stormwater detention basins, swales and rain gardens delay runoff from rains and provide a chance for more water to filter into the ground and be used by vegetation. This reduces runoff and flooding, and filters the water through plants and soils to remove contaminants picked up from roads and lawns. It also replenishes streams and aquifers with clean, naturally filtered water, helping to restore the natural water cycle. These practices are often more effective and less expensive than larger stormwater structures like detention basins, and they provide wildlife habitat.

Naturalized retention basins.

Most local government regulations require developments to provide temporary storage of stormwater to prevent flooding. Standard designs provide no other function than water storage. Basins designed to act more like natural systems and that use native vegetation increase the aesthetics, water quality and conservation value of an area. They are also less likely to attract nuisance geese or experience shoreline erosion.

Decrease impervious surfaces.

Impervious surfaces, such as roads, parking lots and rooftops, increase stormwater runoff. Impervious surfaces can be reduced by narrowing streets, decreasing parking requirements and by building up, instead of out. Using permeable paving materials allows water to naturally infiltrate into the soil. Reconditioning soils compacted by construction equipment increases the amount of water they can absorb and filter.

Water harvesting.

Typical developments shed much more water than do natural systems. Rain barrels or cisterns capture rain from rooftops and can then be used to water plants or wash outdoor furniture. Rain gardens delay runoff by capturing it in shallow depressions filled with plants. The runoff provides natural irrigation for the plants, and the gardens shine as a bonus.

Native landscaping.

Landscaping with native plants replaces lost habitat and helps improve water quality and conserve soils. Native landscaping requires few chemicals and little mowing, and it creates interesting features and recreational opportunities. Using native plants also connects us to our cultural heritage and establishes a legacy for those who come after us.

The above principles and practices of conservation-friendly development make economic sense. For example, it costs less to conserve a stream and its buffer of trees than to remove all the trees, relocate and reshape the stream with heavy equipment, and then line it with concrete.

Site preparation for a conservation subdivision is also cost-effective. Less of the property needs to be cleared and graded, and standard infrastructure like roads and sewer lines are concentrated in a smaller area. Conservation-friendly practices usually are more stable than large-scale practices such as levees and dams, the failure of which often come with tragic results.

What’s more, conservation practices improve your quality of life. Wouldn’t you rather live next to a natural, tree-lined stream than a concrete channel? You could dabble your feet in the unspoiled stream on hot August nights. Similarly, in a conservation-friendly development, you could walk out your back door and spend the evening strolling through the woods with your family.

Everyone benefits when developers adopted conservation-friendly principles and practices. They would become more commonplace if government regulations expressly allowed these practices instead of requiring variances that result in costly delays for developers.

Consumers could also demand conservation-friendly homes, assuring developers of a market for their product. Once demand appears, developers and their design consultants will learn to build and promote development that is conservation-friendly, and financial institutions will recognize the economic value of such developments in their loan approval process.

The Department of Conservation encourages and supports communities, local governments and developers in their efforts to adopt conservation-friendly development practices.

The Department currently has five community conservationists in Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield. Community conservationists assist neighborhoods, local governments and businesses as they work to include quality habitat for both people and nature.

Conservation-Friendly Benefits

To the Environment

  • Reduce negative impacts to streams and fish/wildlife habitat
  • Protect water quality by reducing pollutants that reach our streams
  • Preserve trees and other native vegetation
  • Reduce air pollution

To the Community

  • Help maintain drinking water supplies
  • Increase recreational opportunities
  • Lower the cost and maintenance of streets, curbs, gutters and other infrastructure
  • Increase property values
  • Reduce the potential for flooding
  • Reduce landscape maintenance costs

To the Developer

  • Lower construction costs
  • Reduce land clearing and grading costs
  • Reduce costs of streets, curbs, gutters and other infrastructure
  • Provide marketing opportunities
  • Increase lot values

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