The Claremont Wilderness Park provides hiking trails connecting to the San Gabriel Mountains
Natural open space is a natural, or undisturbed, landscape set aside for the purpose of preservation or conservation of natural resources and features (such as plant and animal habitats) or scenic aesthetic values; it is precious because it cannot be replaced once lost and requires protection and conservation from the City of Claremont. There are numerous advantages to preserving open space that benefit people across many aspects of life. Individuals, landowners and developers can benefit through increased property values thanks to access to open space. The community of Claremont, as a whole, benefits by maintaining a sense of place and community through environmental protection. Protecting natural settings also benefits individuals’ lives by providing cultural and recreational assets, creating a break from the urban setting and creating an essential human connection with nature. In the context of Claremont, preserving and improving the existing natural open space means preventing most if not all new development in natural areas and increasing the biodiversity of these areas.
Buffer Areas to Protect Natural Open Space
Preserving natural areas and preventing sprawl has been a responsibility of planners since the birth of the profession. These natural areas are generally protected from development by formal regulations, such as laws and by-laws, which normally stress the value of the ecology in the area. Land parcels adjacent to protected natural open space pose an issue for the habitats and wildlife in the area; in many cities, especially in Southern California, these parcels are zoned for some type of residential usage that often encroaches and may damage open space.
Dedications for Open Space – Flower Mound, Texas
One of the many ways that cities can deal with this issue is to create a buffer area between the development and natural area through the use of a dedication. A dedication is an area of land given by the developer to the government, usually the local government, as a requirement for allowing development. One precedent where this was used successfully for the protecting of natural open space was in Texas, in the Town of Flower Mound. The Town created a trail ordinance that outlined where all trails were to be built; this means if a development is planned in a location where the Master Plan shows a trail, the developer must build it. These trails have adequately fulfilled the purpose of connecting the town’s open spaces as well as providing buffer areas for protecting them. From this precedent we can recognize the importance for local governments to create clear goals and plans for the management and protection of natural open space. The City of Claremont is on the right track as it develops a master plan for the management of the local Wilderness Park.
The Town of Flower Mound managed to protect vast areas of open space with its Trails Master Plan and easements on local developers
Promoting Infill Development
Another way to protect environmental damage in natural open space areas is to prevent the development of along their outskirts completely by promoting infill development; building on unused and underutilized lands within existing development patterns (California Department of Planning and Research). California needs to favor development within existing urban areas to achieve its environmental goals and to help improve the economies of its cities and towns. However, according to the California Infill Builders Association, there are numerous roadblocks for cities to overcome to promote infill projects;
- Inadequate infrastructure– Many prime locations for infill development suffer from weak demand for housing due to deteriorating/unappealing sidewalks and streets, lack of public transit, insufficient or aging utilities. Areas require significant public investments in infrastructure to make infill projects profitable and attract for private financing.
- Higher Economic Costs– A more expensive construction process, longer permitting time, and additional infrastructure burdens often deter developers from infill projects.
- Restrictive Local Land Use Policies– Requirements for local infill projects often require extensive, time consuming, and expensive planning studies that deter developers from taking on infill projects.
- Unavailable parcels– Vacant parcels in cities are often too small, or scattered for actual development. In Claremont’s case there is also the issue of many historic structures that require creative development practices in order to make them viable for reuse (the Packing House is an excellent example of this).
With so many obstacles for private developers, it is highly important that cities and other forms of local government step in to provide incentives and assistance programs to achieve infill development goals.
Davis, California and Infill Development
The City of Davis, California has extensive experience in dealing with growth issues with infill development to protect surrounding natural areas. Davis is similar to Claremont in that the downtown is economically strong and alternative transportation systems are well established though much of the community is built to standard suburban models, although Davis is still undergoing growth. In an attempt to attract developers the City of Davis has created a list of vacant and underutilized parcels, and their ideal development potential that it has listed on the city website. This partially eases the process of infill development for the developer and is ideal for local government. This precedent also makes another problem very clear; local governments need to transition themselves off redevelopments, a tool for acquiring funds for projects that has been eliminated in California, and become more creative in other ways to assist financing infill projects.
Encouraging Native Species
Another goal for protecting natural open space in Claremont is to maintain the existing biodiversity. One way to do this can be to remove invasive species, but then there is still the potential for more invasive species to return. Part of this comes from properties around open space areas that use landscaping that is not endemic to the area. One solution is to strongly encourage, through financial incentive and education, the use of native species for landscaping and removal of lawns on properties throughout the City.
Long Beach, CA – A lawn prior to conversion to native species garden
The City of Long Beach currently has a program called “Lawn-to-Garden” hosted by the Long Beach Water Department that educates residents on best practices and designs for native species landscaping. It also provides incentive for each square foot of lawn converted to a more sustainable native species garden that uses less water. Similar programs exist in Claremont, but don’t have the same level of engagement, and can follow a similar model to Long Beach’s while being tailored to more local needs of using native plant species like the ones found in the San Gabriel foothills.
Long Beach, CA – After conversion