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Understanding and Assessing the Functions of Open Space in the Changing New England Landscape

Principal Investigator/Project Leader: 
Department of Project: 
Environmental Conservation Dept.
Project Description: 

Rural landscapes around the world face intense development pressures from nearby urban areas. In the United States, rampant, low-density development at the urban fringe consumed approximately 800,000 ha of land in the last decade (USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service 2004). New subdivision developments and new towns are blanketing the landscape, often with little or inadequate provision for green infrastructure. This is certainly the case in New England, one of the nation's most densely populated regions. For example, every day 16 ha. of open space are lost to development in the state of Massachusetts with a total loss of 75,000 ha. between the years 1985-1999 (Massachusetts Audubon Society 2003). The current international food crisis creates the need to revisit the viability of traditional rural landscapes as a vital source of food, as well as important cultural and scenic resources.

One method for accomplishing this is to incorporate the preservation of green infrastructure in the form of farmland, forests and other natural resources into the design of new communities and developments (Arendt et al. 1994). While two new models of development in the urban fringe - neo-traditional communities and conservation subdivisions - promise the inclusion and protection of green infrastructure, there has yet to be an indepth post-construction analysis of these developments to assess whether this promise has in fact been kept. This project links two critical aspects of green infrastructure and open space protection: the design, planning practices and legal tools intended to achieve the protection, and the values that local citizens place on the preserved open space. Therefore, the goal of this project is to clarify the essential link between the best design and management practices for green infrastructure in new suburban residential developments, the actual results those practices achieve, and the value that residents place on the protected areas. While the planning and design goals for many new developments include the provisions of active and passive recreational areas, stormwater quality enhancements, wildlife habitat, and as a visual and health-giving buffer to the hard surfaces of urban areas. However, it is unclear whether many of these goals have been achieved.

This project will consist of research at two scales: 1) assessment and analysis of selected case studies of neo-traditional communities, conservation subdivisions and conventional developments from New England; and surveys of local residents at the town-scale about their attitudes and perceptions of both existing rural landscapes and new development. The results of this project will aid local planners and decisionmakers in revising their open space protection strategies in a manner that will result in more ecologically sound open space, that is also useful for recreation, stormwater and visual enhancement purposes in the developing suburban and rural fringe.