Conservation design:
The quest for sustainable communities

Daniel Savard
December 2006 

n the quest for sustainable communities, organizations and jurisdictions are looking at ways to achieve provincial, regional, and local goals for land development, considering principles of "Smart Growth", "New Urbanism", and "Sustainable Communities". In addition, developers are expecting profits and communities are trying to protect their natural environment. Are these goals compatible?

Conventional subdivision development does not always achieve these various goals. With conventional development, land is subdivided into residential lots and streets with only un-developable land being preserved as open space. Most natural areas are cleared, graded, and planted with non-native vegetation. Stormwater is viewed as something to get rid of, rather than something to be managed. Finally, there are minimal opportunities for community life.

Conventional subdivision design
(Adaptated from: Arendt, R. G.  1996.  Conservation design for subdivisions: A practical guide to creating open space networks.  Island Press.)

Conservation Design for subdivisions (also known as 'Sustainable Community Design' or SCD in New Brunswick), is an innovative concept that meets most sustainability objectives. While popular in the United States, the concept of Conservation Design is practically unknown in Canada. The main characteristic of Conservation Design is that about 50% of the build-able area in a proposed subdivision is preserved, in addition to normal environmental constraints such as flood plains, wetlands, and endangered species areas. A subdivision designed according to Conservation Design principles has been characterized as being a "golf course subdivision," but without the golf course, which is replaced by a conservation area.

Conservation design
(Adaptated from: Arendt, R. G.  1996.  Conservation design for subdivisions: A practical guide to creating open space networks.  Island Press.)

According to Arendt's Conservation Design for Subdivisions (1996), "The basic steps involved in the designing of residential developments…[are to] maximize open space conservation without reducing overall building density." The implementation of this concept creates many opportunities and meets objectives regarding the reduction of greenhouse gases and action against climate change. However, the concept must be tailored to the local context and provincial jurisdiction.

In New Brunswick, the province, in partnership with the City of Dieppe, and Charles Poirier, a local developer teamed up to implement the concept in the project known as "Le village en haut du ruisseau" ("The Village at the Top of the Stream"). The team "…took the initiative to pilot Arendt's approach in a growing area in order to promote not just an enhanced tax base, but to achieve social and environmental benefits as well." (Cathy Ascroft, Plan Canada, Winter 2005). In this regard, the planning community in Canada perceives New Brunswick and Dieppe as leading the pack when applying sustainable community development principles to subdivision design.

This property is located close to Dieppe's downtown area in a zone where there is pressure to develop. The area is about 10 hectares and is zoned for low density development (about five units for the whole property). However, the City wanted revenue from the residential subdivision to pay for the services and expenditures it would create. Possible options were developed through multiple partners including the School of Planning at Dalhousie University, Groupe Littoral et Vie from Université de Moncton, NB Community College, and Grade 7 students at Anna Malenfant School. The options explored through these partnerships enabled the number of units to be increased to 100 while protecting 63% of the property as green space.

So far in the planning phase, the objectives and the general design of the subdivision have been determined. Possible innovations with the approach are numerous. For example, the project used a "traffic light colours" analogy to determine where development will occur. The project will include best management practices for stormwater management. Furthermore, students from Anna Malenfant School have contributed by presenting to City Council their design for an ecological park in the natural areas, and the ways for future residents to deal with mosquitoes on the site (i.e., the introduction of dragonfly larvae, frogs' eggs, and bats, and the construction of bird houses to keep the mosquito population at check).

Environmental Constraints Do not build
Significant Features Certain infrastructure permitted
Buildable Areas Building can occur

The project used traffic light colours on maps to determine where development could occur.
(Diagrams: Danie
l Savard)

The Dieppe project is moving toward the implementation phase, including possible adjustment of local by-laws. It is expected that in 2007, the first residents will live in this subdivision in Dieppe. This showcase will help encourage its use in other communities in the Province.

When people first hear about the conservation design concept for subdivisions, they are often skeptical. They believe the approach will cost more, or that the unknowns will be prohibitive. In regard to cost, research in Delaware has shown that the cost per lot for infrastructure (including stormwater management) for a 142-lot subdivision from $17,325 per lot for conventional to $6,259 per lot with conservation design. Conservation design for subdivisions does not have a hidden agenda because all aspects of the project (i.e., geography, biology, history, culture, economy, and social components) are considered and presented to the City Council and the public. The biggest obstacles to implementation of Conservation Design concepts in New Brunswick are that it is practically unknown and there are not yet concrete examples in New Brunswick (and very few in the rest of the country), and that it takes time to 'do the job right.' Furthermore, developers must understand the characteristics of their sites and municipalities may have to adjust by-laws to implement the concept. Finally, developers and professionals in site development need to overcome the tendency to repeat old inappropriate patterns and explore new opportunities to build sustainable communities.

Conservation Design for subdivision is a concept that requires education for all stakeholders and partners. The entire team has to understand and agree on basic principles before implementation. Therefore, the Sustainable Planning Branch of the New Brunswick Department of Environment has developed a one-day training module that explains the concept and its implementation. Without this training and a committed team, implementation is unlikely to happen.

For more information:
Contact Daniel Savard, Senior Planner, Sustainable Planning Branch, New Brunswick Department of Environment at 506-444-4391 or
Read the article "Designing for Conservation" in the Winter 2005 issue of Plan Canada, pages 27-30.