Turning the Tide Against
Poorly Planned Development

Article originally appeared in
Green Scene
Magazine of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society
April 2005

Copyright 2005 by Adam Levine


The suburban development that has been enveloping Philadelphia and other large US cities for the past 50 years, such a promising ideal when it began, is now seen by many Americans as a major threat to their quality of life. Car-dependent communities miles outside the city now suffer from air pollution and urban-style traffic jams. Residential and commercial developments have devoured farms, woodlands, meadows, marshland and other open spaces at an alarming rate. Between 1970 and 1990, the United States lost 19 million acres of rural land to development. That's almost 30,000 square miles, and the loss continues at a rate of 400,000 acres a year.

In the five-county Southeastern Pennsylvania region, between 1982 and 1997, 131,000 acres (204 square miles) were converted to urban uses, almost 55,000 acres of prime farmland were lost, while

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more than 122,000 new households were accommodated. In Montgomery County, Pa. alone, between 1970 and 2000, 91,000 acres of farmland and natural lands were developed-more than 142 square miles, or 30 percent of the county's total land area.

As the suburbs drawn people and business out of the cities and towns, urban centers have suffered. More than 30,000 vacant lots are scattered throughout Philadelphia, and in smaller area cities, such as Chester, large sections have been abandoned by all but the chronically poor. Besides reducing the quality of life for human residents in both urban and suburban areas, piecemeal development has also fragmented wildlife habitat. Populations of many species have declined, but a few have exploded, among them various exotic invasive weeds, and that four-legged scourge of suburban gardens, the white-tailed deer.

Stream corridors have suffered as surrounding watersheds and wetlands have been filled in and built on. Precipitation, rather than soaking into the soil and recharging groundwater supplies, now quickly runs off lawns and paved areas, picking up pollutants such as lawn chemicals on its way to the nearest stream. Besides water pollution, stream erosion has increased along with development, and damaging floods are now common even during what were once considered only average-size storms.

Some people suggest that all new development be banned until we can sort out what we already have, but local experts agree that even if this was possible, it is not necessary.

"The fact is that population is redistributing itself from city areas to less dense areas, and we have to deal with that," says Charles Day, executive director of the GreenSpace Alliance of Southeastern Pennsylvania. "To take a Luddite-type attitude, to try to stop all growth, isn't going to get you anywhere." Day and others point out that, with proper planning, intelligent growth and land conservation can occur side by side.

Public Support for Land Preservation

Concern about poorly planned development has led to increased public support for land preservation projects in this area, reflected in the passage of numerous municipal and county-level bond referendums and various local tax levies that have raised more than $600 million since the mid-1990s. In the vanguard of this movement was Chester County, where voters approved two bond issues, in 1997 and 1999, totaling $125 million. Montgomery County, where the only areas not under severe development pressure are those already developed, spent $100 million on a wide variety of conservation and revitalization projects between 1993 and 2003, and set a new statewide record by approving a $150 million "Green Fields/Green Towns" referendum in November 2003. All 62 municipalities in the county supported the referendum, which passed with 72 percent of the vote - more than any of the candidates running for county commissioner in that election.

One key to its success was the inclusion of projects for both the developed and rural parts of the county, says Dulcie Flaharty, Executive Director of the Montgomery County Lands Trust (MCLT), which, since its founding in 1993, has spearheaded open space preservation in the county.

"We were not just preserving farmland and creating trails, were making pocket parks in the towns, planting street trees," Flaharty says. Being bipartisan was also important, she adds, as it allowed elected officials regardless of affiliation to support the program-not that they needed much encouragement. The winter before the election, MCLT, using a $10,000 private donation, hired a polling firm to survey county residents regarding their attitudes toward open space preservation. The overwhelmingly positive results of the poll were used to justify the unprecedented $150 million request.

"Polling showed us that, either through the popular press or their own concern, people understood the problem," Flaharty says. "Open space preservation was something they wanted their tax dollars used for."

For those who needed convincing, Flaharty pointed out the relatively small expense for each taxpayer and compared it to other possible expenditures. "Would you stay home from the movies for one night a year," she liked to ask, "in order to have a place for your kids to walk and play for the rest of their lives?"

While $150 million is not going to pay for all the projects that need attention in the county, such bond issues are important, because, by showing a community's commitment to preservation, the money can then be used to encourage other organizations, government agencies and private individuals to add to the kitty.

"It's like anteing up in poker," says Philip Wallis, president of the Natural Lands Trust (NLT), in Media, Pa., one of the area's oldest land preservation groups. "If you don't have value at the table, you're not going to succeed….Nobody is going to give you all the money for any project. Most of the deals I do have five sources of funds."

Setting Priorities

Before this recent spate of bond issues and tax levies, saving open space from development, in Southeastern Pennsylvania as elsewhere in the US, had been most often a reactive process. In general, only after a parcel of land was threatened were the resources mobilized to protect it. This process, flawed as it was, resulted in the preservation of large tracts of open space in this area, much of it due to the work of dedicated land conservation organizations. Through 1995 (the latest year for which complete figures are available), 161,000 acres in the five-county area had been protected by various means, out of a total area of 1,405,000 acres.

Despite these successes, it became clear several years ago, as leaders of preservation groups discussed how to expand efforts, that their work would be more effective if they had a more exact knowledge of the existing land resources in the region. Identifying critical areas worth preserving before the bulldozers stood idling in the wings would make protection of valuable land more than a last-minute, last-ditch effort that, as often as not, failed as time ran out.

It was also hoped that a regional map, showing where critical parcels overlapped governmental boundaries, would encourage more interaction between the county's 238 municipalities, each of which has its own planning board, and most of which are not cooperating with each other in land-use planning.

Using computerized mapping technology, or GIS, the GreenSpace Alliance, with support from a coalition of regional organizations interested in land-use (including the , MCLT, NLT, and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society), spent more than a year identifying and ranking lands in the five-county Southeastern Pennsylvania region, based on their agricultural, natural resource and recreational value. The resulting planning maps are part of the Regional Open Space Priorities Report, released in early 2004.

According to its introduction, the report "identifies, prioritizes and recommends protection strategies for natural resources, agricultural and recreation lands [and] encourages partnerships between state, federal, local and private conservation groups and others to protect critical open spaces in the region while sustaining economic growth." More specific goals of the plan include the creation of interconnected habitat to support a diversity of wildlife; funding of parks and greenways throughout the region, especially focusing on river and stream corridors; and protection of farmlands and water resources, especially the headwaters of streams.

The report recommends the permanent preservation of half of the still-undeveloped and unprotected "Open Space Priority Lands" that were identified in the mapping process, amounting to about 158,000 acres, a goal that can be reached in a number of ways Outright purchase of land, or buying conservation easements that preclude future development, are the methods most often used to protect land in the past. But to meet the goals outlined in the Open Space report, the building community needs to be involved in the process, applying conservation principles that protect natural areas every time a parcel is subdivided. These preserved areas, which preservation experts recommend amount to at least half of the acreage of each parcel, will over time connect to similar natural areas as adjacent parcels are similarly developed.

The ultimate goal of the report, says Charles Day, is to limit the fragmented development that has occurred for so long and with such devastating consequences, and instead foster "connectedness and continuity" in the landscape, and a sense of "regional stewardship."
"Some people think the community they see out the kitchen window is all there is," Day says. "But where does their storm water go to, where does their wastewater go? Where do they shop, go to school? Where do they recreate, where does their trash go to, their electricity come from?"

As an example, a township planning commission, with the help of the regional maps, will be able to look beyond the borders of the individual parcel of land on its agenda, and consider the consequences of their decision on a wider area. Instead of considering the land as part of a particular town or county, with boundaries based on political whims of the past, it can be seen as part of a watershed, with boundaries based on natural land features that may encompass any number of different municipalities.

Phil Wallis envisions a time when all of us, government officials and single citizens, have the health of the land in the forefront of our minds, not matter how large or how small the decision to be made. It is happening, here and there, but it needs to happen more and more. Caring for the land needs to become as natural to us as caring for our children. Only then will our land-which holds our roots, which is the basis of our life-be on its way back to health.


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