New market for developers: homebuyers want view of woods, not large lawns

June 29, 2004

ANN ARBOR—People prefer a view of the woods over a manicured lawn, a new University of Michigan study found, suggesting a potentially huge untapped real estate market for conservation developments.

The U-M study debunks a myth that people want big homes and big lots and suggests residential alternatives that could be hugely popular if marketed properly, said Rachel Kaplan, professor of environment and behavior at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

Kaplan co-authored the study with her husband Stephen Kaplan, a U-M professor with joint appointments in electrical engineering and computer science and psychology, and Maureen Austin, assistant professor of environmental science and outdoor studies at Alaska Pacific University.

The study also showed that misuse and misunderstanding of the term “open space” fuels the myth that people prefer big lots.

The scientists surveyed residents in 18 subdivisions in Livingston County’s Hamburg Township, Mich., the fastest growing county in the state. Some of the subdivisions were conventional, meaning large lots and homes, others were “conservation” developments, a concept developed by Rhode Island-based environmental planner, Randall Arendt. These residential communities preserve the most valuable natural features of the subdivision as a communally-owned resource and site the homes on smaller lots which take advantage of the nature views.

The majority of residents in both conventional and conservation subdivisions said that a “nature view from home” of wooded areas was their top priority in a home site, but the view of the woods was largely unavailable in the conventional developments, Rachel Kaplan said.

Yet, those same conventional subdivisions had more of what planners call “open space” than their conservation community counterparts.  

“The most significant thing that came out of this study is that the myth that big homes on big lots are what is most important to people and therefore everything that happens is market driven is wrong,” Stephen Kaplan said. “To finally show that this is not preferred by the people who live there is the last blow. While people who own big houses on big lots like them, even they placed a much higher priority on having a nature view from home.”

Part of the problem stems from confusion caused by the term “open space” as used by planners, and misunderstanding of the term by developers and homebuyers, the study concluded. One can have acres of open space, Rachel Kaplan said, but no preserved natural features. A lawn is not a natural feature, Kaplan said.

Part of the solution is to properly define open space and use more accurate terminology altogether, they said. For example, planners could use the term “conservation ordinance” rather than the misleading “open space ordinance” for areas marked for preservation from development.

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