The Movement Toward Sustainable Land Development

Tony Seruga
February 27, 2009 — 1,570 views  

Urban planning and city construction have had trends and influences affecting them (and on the cities that implement them) since John Nolan at the turn of the 20th century, with his emphasis on weaving a network of footpaths and parks through planned land development areas. As the trends have waxed and waned, and different demographic elements have come and gone, the tendency to think of cities as planned developments has come back into style. One of the drivers to this trend towards sustainable land development has been seeing the consequences of the Interstate Highway System. The Interstate Highway System induced families to move out of the tightly packed urban cores of cities and into suburban land developments that offered a wide open back yard and lower real estate prices, with the ability to just drive to work in the financial district. This ex-urbanization caused much of the "inner city rot" mentioned by Jane Jacobs and ineptly re-mediated by "the projects" like Cabrini Green in Chicago.

The unfortunate effects of these developments in American mobility on land development have included an emphasis on parking lots over housing, shopping over parks, and sterility over vibrancy. The suburbs have also contributed heavily to run-off problems, flooding, and in California, deforestation that leads to landslides during the rainy season.

One of the hottest trends in planned housing developments is sustainable land development. In large part, it's the merger of two prior trends - the desire to have more mixed use development; shopping, public transportation and housing all within walking distance, and housing developments meant to engender a sense of community with the neighbors. It merged with the growing desire to make everything "green" as a trait consumers wanted in their homes and business office space, and is officially the first Hot New Housing Trend of the 21st century.

One of the earliest sustainable land developments in this area includes the western expansion of Madison Wisconsin into former dairy land. The Madison Expansion Council fought with developers to maintain parks and walking paths while accommodating strip malls and power shopping centers. It's had some success, but its failures have been fascinating. The first thing most of the developers did was buy plots outside of the Expansion Council's area of control, and build in the "traditional" way. Fifteen years later, those developments have experienced significant price declines compared to the more restrictive "urban planned" zones, which most residents find more pleasant to live in.

Other cities learned from Madison's attempts at urban planning. Salt Lake City has had pressure to open up The Wasatch Reserve to developers for going on 30 years. Learning what worked and what didn't work from Madison, they extended their bus routes and light rail out to the areas zoned for shopping, and designated very tightly regulated plots for development of mixed housing and office space, with a John Nolan-esque network of parks and footpaths through it. The aim was to make sure that nobody needed to "drive across the street" to go to the grocery store, and it's proven to be a significant boon in land development.

One of the major criterions used for development of the Wasatch Reserve was sustainability. The natural drainage path leads right into the Great Salt Lake and water from snowmelt is an important source of water for the city. Quite specifically, the aim was to make sure that the development didn't harm either of these resources.

The next step up from "do no harm" when planning sustainable land development is "restore what was there before". The principle case study for this is the Robinson Preserve near Tampa Bay. Bill Robinson, the businessman who built up the Champs line of sporting good stores, and several other businesses, had been buying up land plots in the area between Tampa Bay, Perico Bayou and Palma Sola Bay. His original plan had been to put up a 700 home housing development, and a world championship golf course.

When Robinson was approached by county officials about the environmental impact of Palma Sola Bay, he changed his development plans. Robinson allowed the county to buy 480 acres in the middle of his development to restore salt water marshes and mangrove forests, to help restore natural habitats and to use the natural water cleansing effects of having a tidewater marsh. This resulted in the number of houses dropping by two thirds. On the other hand, the community buy-in has giving him considerable benefits, as the restoration project has earned good will; he's even set up a charitable trust to help build lookout points and boardwalk walkways through the restored wetlands area. This put Bill Robinson up as a leader in sustainable land development, and the Robinson Preserve is considered a model for working with natural landscaping rather than trying to pave everything over into more parking lots.

Wetlands restoration is a comparatively new initiative in urban land development, and an important one; it's thought that if the wetlands surrounding Lake Pontchartain had been present, rather than extensive (and non-resilient) urban developments, much of the flooding caused by Katrina would have been averted in New Orleans.

On the other hand, New Orleans has a separate issue, being the busiest port in the United States, and that makes balancing commercial needs with the benefits of wetlands very difficult, as wetlands by their nature tend to encroach on shipping corridors.

When considering sustainable land development, talk with city officials and work closely with them to put together a development that encompasses their long-term vision for the area.

About the Author

Tony Seruga, Yolanda Seruga and Yolanda Bishop of specialize in commercial and investment real estate. As of May, 2006, they and their partners are managing over $600 million dollars worth of new projects.

Tony Seruga