by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders

Over 100 nations have pledged to protect 30 percent of their land and 30 percent of their ocean by 2030. Now that the commitments have been made, countries, states, and local jurisdictions might learn a thing or two about how to achieve that goal by looking at communities that surpassed 30 percent well in advance of 2030.

Inspirational plans can help achieve ambitious land protection goals. In a 1908 plan, Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. advised Boulder, Colorado to preserve the mountains, forests, and plains surrounding the city. Years later, this plan was part of a motivational effort that resulted in the first voter-approved open space sales tax in the United States. Using additional open space taxes, development regulations, intergovernmental agreements, and other preservation tools, an extensive greenbelt now makes Boulder feel like a city tucked within a national park. Thanks to similar efforts by Boulder County plus federal park and forest protection, over 320,000 acres have been permanently preserved, or more than 70 percent of the county’s total land area.

In Southwest Florida, Collier County was the target of destructive land schemes in the first half of the 20th century. But in 1974, the county adopted one of the first transfer of development rights (TDR) programs designed to use market forces to redirect development potential from barrier islands, mangrove forests, marshes, beaches, and other environmentally sensitive resource lands to areas appropriate for growth. The county subsequently adopted two other TDR programs which, in concert with federal, state, and private conservancy efforts, have permanently preserved roughly 80 percent of the county’s total land area.

King County, Washington has the nation’s most successful TDR program, preserving over 140,000 acres often by negotiating inter-jurisdictional transfers of development potential from rural forests under county jurisdiction to areas in the heart of Seattle and other incorporated cities. Public officials and voters here have also demonstrated strong support for resource preservation by approving numerous open space bond measures and tax provisions. When state and federal land holdings are added to the public lands preserved by local government, the combined preservation exceeds half of the county’s total land area.

In 1971, a report entitled Can the Last Place Last? proposed an environmental vision that continues to guide preservation to this day in Marin County on the opposite end of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The voters subsequently approved an open space property tax that resulted in 34 preserves with a total acreage of over 15,000 acres. In 1980, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust became the nation’s first private non-profit organization devoted exclusively to farmland preservation and over 44,000 acres of county farmland there have been permanently preserved partly with money from a farmland preservation proposition approved by California voters in 1988. Together with extensive federal and state parks, these local efforts have permanently preserved roughly half of Marin County’s total land area.

In 1980, Montgomery County, Maryland, acknowledged that permanent preservation is the only cure for “impermanence syndrome”, a pessimism experienced by owners of farmland in the urban fringe that agricultural land is inevitably doomed to be converted by development. As a treatment, the county adopted a TDR program supplemented by traditional easement purchases that have permanently preserved most of a 93,000-acre greenbelt surrounding a compact development corridor. When combined with over 60,000 acres of federal, state, and local parkland, these programs have permanently preserved roughly half of the county’s total land area.

There are many other examples of “over-30-percent” communities, including Pima County, Arizona, which used its award-winning Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan in partnership with federal and state programs to preserve 49 percent of its total land area. These communities demonstrate that land preservation requires collaboration of public and private partnerships, multiple conservation tools, and creative problem-solving. But most of all, these successes result from strong public support, consistent political will, and determination to keep pursuing a goal regardless of the many unforeseen obstacles that the future throws in your path (Pruetz 2012).

Pruetz, R. 2012. Lasting Value: Open Space Planning and Preservation Successes. Washington, D.C.: American Planning Association – Planners Press.

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.