We talked earlier about the three ways that the land is negatively impacted at the very beginning of the building process; existing landscaping is removed, habitat is damaged or destroyed, and softscape or permeable ground cover is replaced with hardscape or non-permeable material.
Whether or not this happens is controlled at three different points in the building process.
The builder. This player may have the most to say about a project
but probably has the least investment in its outcome. By the time any ill-effects
of short-sighted building practices are felt, the builder has moved on to other
Local building authorities. Building departments, boards of appeal, and conservation commissions have the power to approve subdivision plans including the size of the lots and the footprints of buildings, street layouts, setbacks, and open space.
End users. The homebuyer, commercial owner or tenant is most affected by green/non green building. Unfortunately, end users often enter into the process too late to have much influence on land use policies.
Builders are paying more attention to the impact they might make on the land before they begin to build a house, a subdivision, or a commercial development, but such forethought is not only new, it is unfortunately not universal. Where the builder is not inclined to invest the time and energy required to build green, doesn't understand the repercussions, or just doesn't care, control can still be exerted by one of the other players if they understand how vital it is.
When a town recognizes the principals of preserving green space and forces or incentivizes builders to include them in their plans from the formative stages the battle is almost won. In areas where land is becoming scarce this is happening, but in locations where there is ample open area it will probably take 10 or 15 years before rational building policies are paid more than lip service.
One example of sound land use planning is the cluster subdivision. Progressive communities began to realize as early as the 1980s the value of developments in which home sites are placed in a central area and peripheral land is allowed to remain in a natural state and treated as common land for the use of all owners. In a variation on this, builders are required to donate the undeveloped acreage to the town for inclusion in a conservation land bank, protecting it from development in perpetuity.
In addition to the conservation of open space and the ability to leave much of the natural habitat intact, a carefully designed cluster development requires much less area for streets and driveways than the traditional subdivision grid, reducing the non-permeable cover that contributes to a host of water problems.
Local government can also require "tree tagging" where the builder must hire an arborist or similar expert to sign off on every tree the builder wishes to remove. If the tree is not a junk variety, does not stand in or in close proximity to a building footprint, is healthy, and does not present the possibility of root incursion or a safety hazard, it is tagged "safe". This prevents the wholesale clearing of land and is not only of environmental benefit but prevents the proliferation of arid, treeless, and ultimately unattractive developments.
Lacking green awareness on the part of either builders or local government, an informed buyer or user who gets involved early in the building process can make a big difference in the way a subdivision, an individual house, or a commercial property respects the environment. But once a builder hacks down all of the trees and stumps and clears the development it is just a little too late.
If you are in a position to control the clearing of your land and the preservation of its habitat or if you are inclined to fight the larger battle and run or volunteer for a local building authority you can get a lot of advice from organizations devoted to preserving "backyard habitats" and we will give some web URLs at the end of this article. Here, however, are some basics.
- Clear as little land as is practicable. This choice will, of course, be
dictated by the size of the lot. If you are building on a 1/4 acre you
will be hard-pressed to retain much open space. Still, you can often save
a little natural growth and habitat by the way the house is sited on the land.
Placing the house closer to the street (the way our ancestors did in the 1600
and 1700s) will allow for larger backyards and shorter drives and sidewalks,
thus minimizing non-permeable surfaces.
- Clear judiciously. Know the habits of every plant and tree before you remove
it. Is a tree a prime specimen (oak, maple, birch) or a tree that will be
a source of litter and aggravation year round (willows, sumac.) Evaluate the
location of each tree. Deciduous trees on the south side of a house provide
summer shade but allow the strongest winter rays to contribute to heating
the house. Evergreens on the north side provide a wind buffer year round.
Even those trees that are to remain may need a judicious pruning before construction
begins, both to enhance light and air circulation and for safety from large
branches overhanging living areas.
- Keep wildlife in mind. Native grasses provide shelter and cover to birds
and small mammals. Kentucky Bluegrass does not. Vast lawn areas gobble water
and contribute little to the environment so think seriously about retaining
swaths of meadow type vegetation or planning for wildflower gardens instead
of lawn. Animals also need food so avoid removing plants (including weeds)
that provide seeds, berries, or nectar that will attract wildlife.
Don't rush to clean up nature's imperfections either. A dead or dying tree (if it doesn't present a safety hazard,) can be a sculptural centerpiece in a garden and whether standing or a deadfall can provide homes and food for up to 400 varieties of birds, small mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. Small brush piles likewise provide food, cover, and homes for many helpful critters.
- Respect wetlands. Many communities enforce strict rules about building too close to or destroying wetlands but others ignore the concept except where state or federal rules apply. Destroy or infringe on wetlands at your peril. These are nature's sponges and can't be fully appreciated until they are missed which tends to happen when torrential rain is pouring into a home's basement or through the front door. Wetlands usually occur in lower-lying areas and support growth that is particularly well suited to handle heavy rains or runoff. They also provide a home for many beneficial forms of wildlife.
There is a lot of information on preserving the environment when building;
here are two: the National Wildlife Federation, www.nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitats,
offers a searchable database of native plants and trees and their benefits.
provides comprehensive information about foot and shelter plans for all manner
In our next article we will talk about the many ways of mitigating all of that asphalt and concrete that so impact the environment.