In the past there have been strings on listserves addressing the merits of more dense development versus low density development from a smart growth and water quality benefit standpoint. This is not a new topic to these listserves or those of us that dabble in the watershed restoration arena. The comments are typically thoughtful, and mostly pro-density. But what I find curiously absent from the conversation is the stated need to set aside the areas that otherwise would have been developed to accommodate growth (that is now presumably housed in higher density zones). In other words, doesn”t higher density development have to go hand in hand with open space preservation to limit or prevent the creep of the development envelope? This can be a sticky issue, because it gets into property rights, transfer development rights, and a whole host of legal issues. Despite these tough issues, I think it misses the mark to talk about increasing density in the name of protecting the environment, if it is not done in concert with mechanisms to ensure the preservation of substantial amounts of open space. If this isn”t done, then what is to prevent the sprawl and lower density development from occurring outside of the higher density zones? Market forces are not the answer in my estimation. I don”t think we can trust them just yet.
Two policy-related options that seem intriguing and worth exploring related to this smart growth paradox include:
- Designate a percentage of the good and excellent quality streams and their watersheds as off limits to development. Exceptions to this might be considered where stringent water quality and volume reduction criteria are in place coupled with commitments to maintain and monitor stormwater management systems to ensure water quality and habitat quality targets are being met.
- Reassess watershed use designations and reclassify stream systems for more realistic designations. For example, an urban stream designation that has new standards related to more realistic aquatic and human contact scenarios could be established. Effective management of such urban systems would still be required, but the goals/targets for water and habitat quality would become less stringent as agreed upon indicators of watershed health (e.g., effective impervious cover, urbanization, etc.) reached certain benchmarks.
Ted Brown, PE, LEED AP
Water Resource Engineer
Further ReadingE+D Podcast with Keith Bowers: The state of ecology and design in landscape architecture
Living Infrastructure: Green is great, but alive is even better
Water, Equity, and Ecology in Urban Planning
Composting Toilets: When Nature Calls
Sand Seepage Wetlands: Green Infrastructure Multi-Tool
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