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Feature   | Winter 2009

Conservation by Design

Communities get "smart" about land use

A big house on a few acres in the country sounds like the American dream—and it has been in recent decades, as urban sprawl became the norm. However, a new landscape is emerging as unintended environmental consequences of that dream become apparent.

More than 55,000 acres of agricultural land in Indiana are converted to development each year. As the land changes in use, new problems can crop up—erosion, flooding, storm run-off and contamination.

Bob McCormick

Planning with POWER director Bob McCormick works with communities to solve land-use problems through environmentally friendly development practices.

Bob McCormick, director of Purdue Extension's Planning with POWER project, doesn't hesitate when asked what he considers the biggest problem in land use today. "Lack of open space—that's the No.-1 concern," he says. "That means buffer areas along rivers and more green space in urban areas."

Open space is largely undisturbed land. It can house wildlife, add natural beauty and soak up water like a sponge. Open space includes natural areas, such as forests and wetlands or managed lands like farm fields and parks.

When land is developed, it tends to contain more solid surfaces, which don't absorb water but allow it to run off. Parking lots, sidewalks, roofs and roads increase run-off. This water can carry away soil, robbing the ground of nutrients and picking up contaminants that pollute land and water.

Planning withPOWER, a partnership between Purdue Extension and the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program, works with Indiana communities to help them both solve and prevent natural resource problems resulting from changes in land use.

Climate change
McCormick sees a climate for land-use change coming. "Where people were willing to drive farther to go to work or shopping, they are now more conservative and do not want to drive as much due to high gas prices," he says. Other factors, such as the effects of carbon dioxide emissions on climate change and the need to house a growing population, also fuel the need to find ways to build environmentally friendly places for people to live, work and play.

This trend toward planned development that benefits the community, economy and the environment is called "smart growth." Community planners are turning to smart-growth policies to counter some of the development patterns—big houses on big lots—of the last 50 years.

Smart-growth principles include mixed land uses, compact building design, walkable neighborhoods and open spaces. The trend favors redevelopment of existing communities and providing a variety of transportation options.

McCormick says putting smart-growth principles into practice requires comprehensive community planning and long-term vision. "It should also involve a lot of public input," he says.


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