Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Planning, Design, and the Built Environment

Committee Chair/Advisor

Caitlin S. Dyckman

Committee Member

Rob Baldwin

Committee Member

Catherine Mobley

Committee Member

David White

Committee Member

John Gaber


In the United States (US), low-density, non-contiguous development, termed sprawl, has long been of widespread concern. Since the 1970s, rural residential sprawl, or exurban sprawl, has grown faster than any other development pattern. Exurban sprawl is development beyond the urban/suburban fringe with ties to the urban environment, such as employment and consumption, rather than to rural economies. Exurban sprawl is highly consumptive of land and has implications for conservation, natural resource management, agriculture, and communities. This study explores two main avenues of exurban sprawl prevention in the US: voluntary conservation easements and local government growth management regulations. The use of the conservation easement mechanism in the US has been a success story in many ways. However, there have also been many scholarly criticisms of conservation easements, namely, the fear that financial incentives may undermine traditional regulatory approaches; the lack of public oversight; the potential for a piecemeal conservation approach; and the contention that conservation easements could interfere with public planning priorities. This research focused on how local government planners and land trust personnel in the US view their respective roles in shaping future land use in high-growth areas and how their roles coincide, interrelate, and differ. This was a convergent mixed method design, with twelve case studies of high-growth US metropolitan counties. The sources of evidence included the spatial analysis of housing densities by census block groups over time, semi-structured interviews with government planners and land trust personnel, and a survey of conservation easement iii landowners. This study showed that local government planners and land trusts largely operate with shared conservation goals. Both are heavily reliant on conservation easements to achieve landscape-scale conservation targets. Conservation easements are an integral and necessary tool for counties in the US to achieve their land protection goals. However, they are not sufficient to achieve them. Planners and local government elected officials should frame conservation easements as an integral part of a comprehensive landscape design approach that uses both incentives and regulations. Additionally, planners perceive that landowners do not want high densities in their communities. Low-density rural residential development is likely an ongoing source of exurban sprawl. More research is needed on how to plan and implement development that addresses consumer preferences and rural landowner concerns while maintaining rural areas' agricultural viability and ecological integrity.

Available for download on Friday, May 31, 2024