‘Smart Growth’ Depends on Community-Building in Right Locations

Advocates of “smart growth” have long said the best way to reduce human impact on the environment is to build communities in clusters, rather than in developments that sprawl for miles and miles. A new study from the Ecological Society of America now proves that’s true … but only if the clusters are located in the right places.

By analyzing housing patterns and habitat loss in northern Wisconsin between 1937 and 1999, researchers Charlotte Gonzalez-Abraham and Volker Radeloff, both of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, confirmed that clustered developments do help minimize habitat loss.

“The percentage growth of disturbed land area was much lower than for housing growth,” Radeloff said. “In the most extreme case, a 1,658 percent increase in the number of houses resulted in only a 204 percent increase in the disturbed land area.”

However, the researchers also found that the landscape in which homes are clustered makes a difference in how disruptive development is. Developments in deciduous forest areas led to the greatest amounts of habitat loss — up to 60 percent — while homes built in wetlands created the smallest losses. And clustered developments around lakeshores created a unique mix of circumstances, because they proved both popular and potentially damaging to the environment.

“People and wildlife are often drawn to the same places and that exacerbates the environmental effects of houses,” Radeloff said.

In lakeshore communities, for example, homeowners who clear away vegetation and woody debris can end up destroying the habitats of ground-nesting birds, wood turtles, green frogs and fish. Another complication of clustered developments along lakes is that, the more homes that are built, the less appealing the area might become to people seeking a natural living environment.

That’s an outcome many land-use planners and citizens in northern Wisconsin are already dealing with.

“Some areas are going to be more important to avoid than others because of their conservation value,” Radeloff said. “High-density development in areas such as lakeshores means degrading habitat we prize for its scenic and recreational value. In order for clustered development to reduce the impacts of housing developments, clusters must be located away from sensitive areas.”

Nationwide, housing developments have tended to be sprawling — rather than clustered — since the 1940s. Urban and suburban sprawl have been blamed for numerous environmental problems, including declining numbers of native bird species in many areas.

Gonzalez-Abraham’s and Radeloff’s study is published in this month’s issue of Ecological Applications , a journal of the Ecological Society of America.

The Ecological Society of America, “Location, Location, Location: Placement of High-Density Housing is Critical.” URL: (http://www.esa.org/pao/newsroom/pressReleases2007/10232007.php)

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