This blog post is part of the Everyday Destinations series, which focuses on increasing physical activity in small and rural communities through everyday destinations.
Cluster development refers to a development approach that concentrates housing into a portion of available land, typically closer to transportation networks, while preserving a portion of the land for open space uses, such as conservation, recreation, or agriculture.
In rural areas, cluster development encourages a gradual transition from towns to rural places. This approach can also be used for infill development[link to blog post] by creating clusters of homes on previously developed sites.
Cluster development provides a variety of benefits, including reduced expenses on infrastructure and service delivery, environmental services provided by conserved natural areas, and social benefits of building homes closer to one another while retaining open space, such as natural features and agricultural land.
Cluster development does not require public funds to protect open space; this planning approach provides an opportunity for private landowners, instead of public entities, to implement and maintain environmental protection approaches. It can also balance economic benefits both for private owners and municipalities by permitting development on sites.
This approach promotes physical activity by increasing walkable, bikeable, and rollable destinations close to homes, such as public parks, recreation opportunities, and community amenities, and expanding housing near existing destinations.
Variations of this approach include conservation subdivisions, conservation design and development, and open-space residential development.
Cluster development can create more housing options and create a network of connected destinations. In municipalities with affordable housing requirements, cluster developments are one option for increasing 'missing middle' housing — that is, housing options that are more varied and closer together than single-family houses and smaller than midrise buildings.
Municipalities can allow cluster developments with a higher density as infill development on underutilized lots, as in one Oregon community's 'cottage cluster' development program (Milwaukie, OR). Higher-density projects may encounter opposition from residents in communities where residences are spread out; however, this approach is worth considering where there is a need for affordable housing and the preservation of open space. It may be valuable to demonstrate how this approach aligns with community goals identified during visioning activities.
Equitable development opportunities are not limited to housing. Communities can consider how to partner with developers, local organizations, and residents to engage community members in open space stewardship, increase physical activity, and increase access to everyday destinations through cluster developments.
Cluster Development: Cluster development design can include using smaller lots and topographic considerations to preserve environmentally sensitive areas. Source: La Citta Vita, wikimedia.org (CC BY-SA 2.0). Residential community.
Connection to Small and Rural Towns
Cluster development provides multiple benefits to small and rural towns. This development style can preserve existing natural characteristics, contribute to community character, and increase available housing stock.
To promote cohesiveness with existing community attributes, communities can adopt requirements that align with the existing context, including local density patterns.
Cluster development can also protect existing assets, including scenic views and environmentally sensitive features, by reducing impacts on rural landscapes. In areas where developments are near rural or open spaces, clusters located adjacent to existing town centers create a transition to lower-density spaces.
This planning approach can help communities save on development expenses by concentrating infrastructure needs into smaller areas closer to existing community facilities, transportation infrastructure, utilities, and communications networks.
When implemented with natural features in mind, cluster development can provide landowners with the opportunity to develop their property while protecting environmental conditions.
It is important to note that cohesive guidance and requirements are necessary to manage growth and conserve open spaces without contributing to sprawl.
Case Example: Amherst, Massachusetts
Amherst, Massachusetts, adopted incentives to encourage cluster developments that offer affordable housing options through their inclusionary zoning bylaws (Burnett et al. 2008). Two examples of early cluster developments, Misty Meadows (1987) and Canterbury Farms (1990), consisted of 37% and 27% affordable units, respectively. In addition to affordable housing, community benefits included preserved open space and aquifer recharge area protection.
Amherst offers an affordable housing density bonus for projects that include a minimum of 10% affordable housing, which meant that the developments were able to include an additional number of lots that would otherwise not have been possible.
However, inclusionary projects encountered community resistance: while residents expressed general support for the affordable housing requirement, some community members adopted a 'not in my backyard' perspective when it came to siting these affordable housing units (Burnett et al. 2008).
The city continues to encourage cluster development as an inclusive approach to affordable housing development. In 2021, the Town Council approved a zoning bylaw amendment that included required residential developments, including cluster developments, with over 10 units to include affordable housing (Amherst 2021).
Strategic Points of Intervention
Practitioners have a variety of options to help their communities implement cluster developments. This section provides a non-exhaustive list of strategies that professionals with the ability to influence the built environment can use to improve access to everyday destinations.
Collaboration between these professionals and public health is crucial as public health professionals can support planning approaches and engage partners but may not have the authority to implement some of the strategies identified below. For more information on the role of public health professionals in helping implement these strategies. For more information on other partners that play a role in implementing the growth area identification approach.
The following list of strategies can help professionals from different sectors come together and implement planning approaches that support a mix of accessible everyday destinations. Community engagement is crucial throughout every step of implementing the strategies below.
Planners and public health professionals can collaborate to create equitable engagement to collect and act on community needs. Communities will have to select the strategies based on their contexts and constraints. The links at the end of actions provide more guidance materials and examples from small and rural towns across the country.
- Integrate cluster development as part of comprehensive plans to serve as a policy basis for cluster development requirements (Chester County Planning Commission n.d.). Comprehensive plans with goals and policies related to cluster housing can inform future decision-making processes and generate regulatory conditions that support cluster housing.
- Determine community needs that might align with cluster development, including environmentally sensitive areas and increased housing needs (Nelson 2012).
- Determine community growth areas that can accommodate cluster developments, encouraging developments that preserve contiguous open spaces (Nelson 2012).
- Determine infrastructure and services, such as utilities, schools, and fire protection, that may be needed to support cluster development (Chester County Planning Commission n.d.).
- Identify conservation goals to preserve community character and achieve the benefits of cluster development. This may include goals for preserving open space, the amount of housing created through cluster development, and strategies to reduce regulatory barriers for cluster development, such as minimum lot sizes (LeSher n.d.).
Regulations and Incentives
- Determine what regulatory mechanisms exist for implementing cluster development requirements, such as municipal zoning ordinances and subdivision and land development ordinances (Chester County Planning Commission n.d.).
- Adopt density bonuses (increase development capacity of real estate) to incentivize developers to design cluster developments (Chester County Planning Commission n.d.; Isle of Wight County 2021).
- Draft and adopt community design standards to ensure open space preservation, reduce environmental impacts, and encourage walkability (Nelson 2012).
- Determine metrics that apply to cluster developments, such as the ratio of development to conservation space, lot size, and minimal development size (Grand County 2008). Metrics ensure that cluster development practices achieve the desired outcome.
- Require cluster development design standards and performance criteria appropriate for the community (Nelson 2012; Grand County 2008).
- Determine criteria for permitting community systems, such as septic systems and wells if a site does not have access to municipal services, to ensure permitting processes support cluster developments (Nelson 2012).
- Develop future development standards that permit the construction of infrastructure such as utility connections and roadway infrastructure in incremental phases.
- Provide options for pre-application consultations to ensure that developers have access to the necessary information to protect environmental assets and implement cluster development patterns.
- Introduce development agreements as an opportunity to expand cluster developments.
- Include cluster development considerations into discretionary approval processes, such as discretionary review by a planning commission, for subdivisions or planned unit developments.
Communities have active organizations, leaders, and professionals who can contribute to implementing the strategies provided in the previous section.
Built environment and public health professionals should consider, and if applicable, reach out to the following groups to implement the adaptive reuse approach. These groups can also recommend other organizations that may be able to collaborate.
The following non-exhaustive list of partners offers potential starting points — there may be more partners to consider, depending on the community.
- Integrate community member inputs by gathering information on local destination needs through deliberately inclusive public engagement opportunities. This ensures that community members have equitable input and agency in development decisions that affect them.
- Collaborate with local area experts and subject matter experts, such as university extension services and county environment and sustainability departments, to identify environmentally sensitive areas that would benefit from conservation or preservation.
- Gather data trends and regional pattern information from metropolitan or regional planning organizations to determine where cluster developments can help meet regional housing needs.
- Partner with municipal departments to create destinations near cluster developments and ensure connections to the surrounding community, such as green spaces, community facilities, and pedestrian-oriented development.
- Collaborate with environmental organizations and subject matter experts, such as floodplain managers, who can contribute to data-informed and sustainable development patterns.
- Identify community organizations and civic groups that could serve as partners for creating destinations within and near cluster developments, such as community centers, parks, and schools. Consider connecting with national partners, such as AARP, who can offer insights on livability and encouraging physical activity.
- Connect with public transportation agencies, public works teams, utility companies, and service providers, such as police and fire agencies, to determine what infrastructure and service improvements might be necessary to advance cluster developments.
- Connect with local housing authorities and stable housing advocates to determine opportunities for public investments in cluster development.
We are interested in case examples that support physical activity through everyday destinations in communities with a population of less than 20,000 people. If you are aware of such communities, please share their stories with us at email@example.com. By directing us to such articles you can help other small and rural communities become more active and healthier.
Amherst (Massachusetts), Town of. 2021. Town Council Meeting Minutes: July 21, 2021.
Burnett, Kimberly, Jill Khadduri, and Justin Lindenmayer. 2008. "Land-Use Strategies for Encouraging Affordable Housing." In Research on State and Local Means of Increasing Affordable Housing. Prepared by Abt Associates for the National Association of Home Builders.
Chester County Planning Commission. n.d. "Cluster Development." Planning eTools.
Grand County (Colorado). 2008. Rural Land Use Process.
Isle of Wight County (Virginia). 2021. Isle of Wight County Zoning Ordinance. Rural Residential District, §4-3001et seq.
LeSher, Alec. n.d. "Cluster/Conservation Subdivision in Rural/Urban Area." Chapter 6.2 in Sustainable Development Code. Jonathan Rosenbloom and Christopher Duerksen, editors.
Merzbach, Scott. 2021. "Zoning Changes to Mandate More Affordable Housing in Amherst." Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 5.
Nelson, Kevin. 2012. Essential Smart Growth Fixes for Rural Planning, Zoning, and Development Codes. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Active People, Healthy Nation
Active People, Healthy NationSM is a national initiative led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help 27 million Americans become more physically active by 2027. Increased physical activity can improve health, and quality of life, and reduce healthcare costs.
Top Image: Doc Searls/FLICKR.COM (CC by-SA 2.0). Kenyon College and the town of Gambier (which is contained within Kenyon), on a hill above the Kokosing River in Knox County, Ohio.
About the Authors
Jo Peña is a research associate with APA.
Sagar Shah is a planning and community health manager with APA.