What is Forest Friendly Development?

Each year, over 1.5 million acres of land in the U.S. is developed. Conversion of rural land to urban and suburban uses often results in significant forest loss, particularly where mass clearing is a standard practice at construction sites. The Forest Service estimates that nearly 1 million acres of forest were converted to developed uses each year in the 1990’s, and projects that by 2050, an additional 23 million acres of forests may be lost due to development. Municipalities and developers in urbanizing areas can take steps to protect existing forest resources and prevent forest loss while still allowing for development. Forest friendly development includes a set of practices that protect forests by:

1. Directing growth away from large, ecologically intact forest land using zoning and urban growth techniques

2. Permanently protecting valuable forest land (e.g., streamside corridors) through purchase of land and conservation easements

3. Limiting overall forest loss during development through local regulations that:

  • Limit clearing of native vegetation
  • Require forest conservation
  • Require forested stream buffers
  • Promote development that conserves open space
  • Include provisions for physically protecting trees during construction
  • Provide stormwater credits for tree conservation and planting
  • Require tree planting in landscaped areas or as part of reforestation requirements

4. Developing municipal programs for community reforestation projects on public lands, providing incentives for planting trees on private property, and establishing procedures for long term maintenance of the urban forest.

Trees physically protected during construction using fencing

Why Conserve and Plant Trees at Development Sites?

Individual developments that are ‘forest friendly’ are often highly desirable properties that provide shade and greenery, increase property values, reduce heating and cooling costs, and provide a host of other benefits. Additional benefits of trees at development sites are summarized below.

Economic benefits
  • Decrease heating and cooling costs
  • Reduce construction and maintenance costs
  • Increase property values
  • Positively influence consumer behavior
Environmental benefits
  • Reduce urban heat island effect
  • Enhance function of stormwater management practices
Community benefits
  • Improve health and well-being
  • Provide shade and block ultraviolet radiation
  • Buffer wind and noise


How Do I Know if My Community is Forest Friendly?

In some communities, it may be obvious from the tree-lined streets, extensive greenways and wooded subdivisions that forest friendly practices are being used. However, most communities have more subtle indicators of how effective their local programs and regulations are at protecting trees and forests. A review of your community’s suite of local programs and regulations related to forest conservation and tree planting is a useful way to a) see how your community measures up, and b) identify specific areas to improve. The types of programs and regulations you may need to review include:

  • Urban and community forestry programs
  • Public education programs
  • Watershed protection programs
  • Zoning regulations
  • Natural resource protection regulations
  • Stormwater management regulations and design guidance
  • Subdivision regulations
  • Erosion and sediment control regulations
  • Landscaping requirements
  • Street and sidewalk standards
  • Parking lot design standards
  • Requirements for utilities, signs and lighting

A program/code review can identify specific things the community is actively doing to promote or require forest conservation and tree planting. It can also identify potential barriers to forest conservation and tree planting that are often buried within local codes and ordinances related to land development. These barriers may not outright prohibit trees, but can still act as disincentives to tree conservation or planting, or otherwise affect tree health. For example, many communities’ street and sidewalk design standards specify a four foot wide planting strip in between the street and sidewalk. When large street trees are planted in this small space, their health is compromised because they receive only a fraction of the soil volume needed to support healthy tree growth. Click here for a summary of potential regulatory barriers to conserving and planting trees at development sites. A checklist for conducting a review of your community’s programs and codes for forest friendly development is provided here.

The typical planting strip for urban street trees is only 4 feet wide and does not provide adequate soil volume to support large healthy trees. Planting strips should be at least 6 feet wide to accomodate large trees.

The ultimate goal of a program/code review is to make the recommended changes to programs and regulations that result in increased forest cover in the community. This type of review can be done though a site planning roundtable process. Site planning roundtables typically focus on reviewing a municipality’s codes and ordinances with the end goal of revising these regulations to be more environmentally friendly. A major strength of the roundtable process is that it involves a diverse group of stakeholders (e.g., planners, environmentalists, developers, parks, utility, and public works staff) who come to consensus on the recommended changes. This provides a sense of ownership and credibility to the recommendations. Additional guidance on site planning roundtables is provided in the Center for Watershed Protection's Better Site Design Handbook including a Codes and Ordinance Worksheet to use in evaluating your community’s development regulations.