Case Study

The Green Valley Institute:
Balancing Growth and Conservation through a University Partnership

by Susan Westa, AICP

It is easier to conserve rural natural resources and promote more sustainable development when numerous partners join together in a collaborative. Increasingly, special university programs are being created to help communities plan their land use and conserve their natural resources. Partnership administrators often take the lead in organizing efforts of localities and regions and in providing education and technical assistance in planning and conservation.

Since 2000, the Green Valley Institute has been at the forefront of planning and conservation efforts in a historic rural area in Connecticut and Massachusetts known as the Last Green Valley. The educational and other programs of the institute offer lessons for other localities and regions that want to leverage resources of universities, volunteers, and other stakeholders.


Rural Conservation and Development

Planners across the United States were made aware of the importance of conserving special places in New England when the Center for Rural Massachusetts published a landmark publication, Dealing with Change in the Connecticut River Valley: A Design Manual for Conservation and Development (Yaro et al. 1993). The illustrations from that design manual are now familiar to most planners. Those guidelines have helped many local community leaders and stakeholders envision the differences between sprawl and conservation-based development.

Planners who have not heard of Dealing with Change in the Connecticut River Valley are probably familiar with Randall Arendt's work, including (with Brabec, Dodson, Reid, and Yaro) Rural By Design (Chicago: Planners Press 1994), Conservation Design for Subdivisions (Arendt 1996), and Crossroads, Hamlet, Village, Town (Arendt 1999). The Center for Rural Massachusetts is a partnership at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst between UMass Extension and the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning. The center's mission is to "develop new models for vibrant, rural communities to guide them to make informed decisions using cutting edge tools when planning growth, protecting resources, fostering local economic development and maintaining rural character."

The Green Valley Institute in northeastern Connecticut and south central Massachusetts is similar to the Center for Rural Massachusetts in at least three ways: both are located in New England, both work toward attainment of conservation objectives through partnerships, and both have similar status as quasi-independent educational programs of universities.

The Green Valley Institute is a partnership between the University of Connecticut College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the University of Massachusetts Extension and the Quinebaug Shetucket National Heritage Corridor. For the past five years, the Green Valley Institute has been working in a 35-town, bi-state region referred to as the Last Green Valley. The mission of this unique partnership between two universities and a national heritage corridor is to ensure that each community has the tools and information it needs to make sound land-use decisions. Through educational programs and technical assistance and by increasing volunteer capacity, the Green Valley Institute works with land-use commissions, land trusts, large landowners, and others who are converting land to new uses to ensure that they have up-to-date information, are aware of innovative strategies, and know what has worked in other regions to balance growth and conservation.

University Partnerships

Partnerships between universities and communities or regional alliances can play an important role in addressing land-use, community, and natural resource issues. In some areas, however, those partnerships have not yet begun to reach their full potential. Many communities have capable educational institutions with students eager to gain practical experience in their fields and with faculty whose focus is on community planning or natural resource issues. One excellent example of university involvement in planning was described in a recent issue of Practicing Planner. The University of Louisville's Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods Program has applied a holistic approach to help revitalize a neglected urban neighborhood (Gilderbloom 2004).

Such partnerships can connect the insight of professors, the outreach capabilities of cooperative extension systems, and the experience of local and regional organizations. These partnerships can bring diverse groups together to develop unique solutions to planning problems, disseminate planning information at the local level, and get plans implemented. Universities have an inherent interest in the success of their communities and regions. Providing leadership related to land-use and community planning decisions can protect the natural, scenic, or urban character of a university's community and region, while also helping to create suitable development needed to attract faculty, staff, and students. Communities that join forces with local universities and share available resources can increase their opportunities for progress when tackling local planning issues.

Throughout the country there are many examples of university partnerships focused on conservation and land-use initiatives. One example is the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area in West Virginia and western Maryland, where a team of forestry professors and extension specialists at West Virginia University have teamed up with economic development, tourism, and conservation organizations to create a new heritage area with a mission to "conserve, develop, interpret and promote a regional network of forest-based attractions and resources." (Selin and McGill 2005) Some of the partners in that heritage area include the Randolph County Chamber of Commerce, the Maryland and West Virginia divisions of tourism, Pendleton County (West Virginia) Visitors Committee, and the Canaan Valley Institute (a regional, nonprofit conservation organization with offices in West Virginia and Maryland). The Appalachian Forest Heritage Area, an "emerging ... new form of sustainable development ... that integrates historic preservation, tourism, the wood products industry, and economic development" (Selin and McGill 2005), is an example of how a university partnership can benefit a multi-state region.

Illustrative Examples of University Partnerships

. Center for Rural Massachusetts (University of Massachusetts)

. Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods Program (University of Louisville)

. Appalachian Forest Heritage Area (West Virginia University)

. Land Use Law Center (Pace University)

. Planning with POWER (Purdue University)

. The Green Valley Institute (Universities of Connecticut and Massachusetts)

An example of a notable university partnership organization is the Pace University Land Use Law Center in New York. That group has created a comprehensive program targeted at community leaders addressing land-use issues. Unlike the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area Partnership, this program is not limited to one geographic area, but has expanded to bring the university's expertise to a wide range of locations. Pace University provides a four-day comprehensive training program for community leaders, a one-day program in the basics, a self-certification program for local land-use boards, and land-use dispute training. The Land Use Law Center partners with other organizations to bring its programs to communities. Those partners in the past have included the Hudson River Greenway Communities Council, the Metropolitan Conservation Alliance, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and county governments. The Land Use Law Center's mission is to work with "local land use leaders ... [so] they can create balanced patterns of land development and conservation" (Pace Law School 2003).

Another university partnership focusing on land-use issues is Planning with POWER (Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources), at Purdue University in Indiana. That statewide partnership program, coordinated by the university's cooperative extension system and the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant program, also partners with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Planning with POWER is an educational program linking land-use and watershed planning at the local level (Planning with POWER).


The Green Valley Institute: How It All Began

A 35-town region in northeastern Connecticut and south central Massachusetts is referred to as the Last Green Valley (see Figures 1 and 2), because it is a rural oasis in an otherwise developed corridor along the East Coast of the United States from north of Boston to south of Washington, D.C. A 50-mile radius from the center of the heritage corridor includes all of Worcester and Springfield, Massachusetts; Hartford, Connecticut; Providence, Rhode Island; and the southwestern reaches of metropolitan Boston. However, more than 70 percent of the land in this region is still in forest or agriculture (see Figure 3). There are charming village centers with town greens (see Figure 4) that contribute to the unique historic, rural character of this region. The area is what New England used to be.

These are among the reasons that Congress designated the region as the Quinebaug and Shetucket Rivers Valley National Heritage Corridor in 1994. Public Act 103-449, federal enabling legislation, was introduced and passed by Congress in 1994 and signed by President Bill Clinton. The corridor became one of only four such designations in the country. The federal designation of National Heritage Corridor recognized the significant features of the lands, water, and man-made resources of the corridor, and it established the mission of the QSHC, which is "to assist in the development and implementation of integrated cultural, historical, and recreational land resource management programs that will retain, enhance and interpret these significant features." The Quinebaug Shetucket Heritage Corridor Inc., a not-for-profit organization that receives federal funding, was designated as the management entity responsible for achieving these goals.

The Last Green Valley RegionGeographic Detail of the Last Green Valley Region
Figure 1 Figure 2
The Last Green Valley RegionGeographic Detail of the Last Green Valley Region

About a decade ago, the University of Connecticut's Cooperative Extension System and the Quinebaug Shetucket Heritage Corridor (QSHC) became aware that they had overlapping concerns about land-use and natural resource issues in the Last Green Valley region. At that time most towns in the QSHC did not have professional planners on staff to help them address these increasingly complex issues. In New England, land-use powers reside almost entirely with individual towns and their volunteer land-use boards and commissions. Connecticut is broken up into 169 fully incorporated municipalities. Towns in the northeast are more like townships found in other parts of the country. There are no counties in Connecticut.

Site Plan AcceptableForests and Agriculture in Typical Village in the Last Green Valley Region
Figure 3 Figure 4
Forests and Agriculture in
the Last Green Valley Region
Typical Village in the Last Green Valley Region

Photos courtesy of Leslie Sweetnam

The cooperative extension and the heritage corridor found that there was a significant need for community assistance with planning and conservation issues. As a result, in 1996 a new educational partnership was established between the University of Connecticut and the QSHC. The partnership began with the creation of a shared "Corridor Circuit Rider" position, which would focus on designing and implementing educational programs aimed at addressing land-use and natural resource issues in the then 26-town QSHC (Godin and Broderick, 2001).

The Challenges of Growth Pressures

Although the jurisdiction of the QSHC is still quite rural today, development pressures are increasing. People continue to move to the region from urban areas looking for more inexpensive and attractive places to live. Many build new houses and some commute to urban areas. A recent New York Times article devoted to the changes occurring in eastern Connecticut noted that "residential commuters, drawn by lower prices and a slower pace, can get to the outskirts of Boston from northeast Connecticut in less than an hour. They can get to Worcester, Mass., or Providence even more quickly" (Yardley, 2005).

The 2000 census revealed that four towns in the region experienced more than 20 percent growth in the preceding 10 years, and one town grew more than 30 percent. The 2020 projections of population are even greater, with 11 towns expecting more than 20 percent growth — two of those are projected to be more than 40 percent and one town will grow by 106 percent. (That town is located between two casinos.) An increase of 28 percent in a decade is large anywhere, but it has an even greater impact on a town with a population of 1,556, such as occurred in the Town of Scotland in this region. Other growth pressures are related to recent large-scale commercial developments in and near the region, including two casinos (see Figure 5), a planned entertainment campus with a movie studio and amusement park, and a large indoor car racing facility with associated entertainment. Sprawling development also is impacting existing land-use patterns in the region. Two-acre residential development is the only new residential option in many of the communities. Big box commercial development continues at the edges of the region's small cities, while those same cities continue to decline and minimal funds are invested in revitalizing their centers even though they have the infrastructure to accommodate higher density development.

Foxwoods Casino 
Figure 5  
Foxwoods Casino  

Courtesy of the International Environmental Co. website

Organization of the Institute

The earlier, formative partnership eventually evolved into the Green Valley Institute, which now includes seven full- and part-time employees. The first partner position, the Corridor Circuit Rider, is one of the co-directors of the institute (and the author of this case study). One of the co-directors has a community and environmental planning background and the other has a background in forestry and natural resources. The institute's target audiences are municipal land-use decision makers (planning and zoning commissions, conservation commissions, boards of selectmen and finance), land trusts, owners of private farms and forests, real estate agents, building contractors, and others who play a role in designing and building projects (Westa, Broderick and Tyson, 2005). In 1999, nine towns in Massachusetts were incorporated into the QSHC and joined the existing 26 local governments in Connecticut (Godin and Broderick, 2001).

In 2002, the Green Valley Institute partnership was expanded to include the University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension. Other programs at the University of Connecticut's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources now are active participants in this partnership, including the Program of Landscape Architecture, the Department of Natural Resource Management and Engineering, and the Plant Science Department. The interdisciplinary nature of this partnership draws on the expertise of the university's faculty in community planning and design, sustainable development, forestry, GIS, water resources, and many other areas.

Partners of the Green Valley Institute

  • University of Connecticut (UCONN) College of Agriculture and Natural Resources — including Cooperative Extension, Landscape Architecture, Natural Resource Management, and Engineering and Plant Science
  • University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension
  • Quinebaug Shetucket National Heritage Corridor


Charting the Course with a Needs Assessment Survey

The Green Valley Institute addresses community growth and conservation through continuing education programs, a Geographic Information System (GIS) Center, and the building of volunteer capacity. In 1999, a needs assessment survey of municipal and land trust leaders yielded a 35 percent response rate. The results of this survey have guided the institute's program development since then. The survey revealed a strong demand for continuing education in natural resources and land use. The topic that rated highest overall was the need for information about creative development techniques that conserve open space (Godin and Broderick, 2001). In response to that need, the Corridor Circuit Rider created an educational program entitled "Development Alternatives in the Quinebaug Shetucket Heritage Corridor" in conjunction with the Landscape Architecture Program at the University of Connecticut. This PowerPoint presentation (see Figures 6 and 7) received the 2002 Communication Award from the Connecticut Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. The Community Design Specialist developed a program that leads communities through the conservation subdivision design process, and another program looks at how to incorporate commercial development into the rural character of the region.

Typical Layout of a Subdivision with 34 two-acre lotsConservation Subdivision with 37 one-acre lots
Figure 6 Figure 7
Typical Layout of a Subdivision
with 34 two-acre lots
Conservation Subdivision with 37 one-acre lots.

Other topics that rated high on the needs assessment survey included: water resource issues (e.g., protecting wetlands, surface water, and groundwater); tools for protecting open space and farmland; understanding and protecting wildlife habitats and corridors; and the roles of municipal land-use commissions (Godin and Broderick, 2001). From 2000 to 2005, the institute has addressed many of these topics and is now in the process of conducting an updated needs assessment survey to determine if it should be changing its focus or addressing new topics. It also is gathering input from program participants through program evaluations. And through close working relationships with local town and regional planners, the institute gains important insight into the value of its programs and the needs of the region.

Key Programs of the Green Valley Institute

The Green Valley Institute's educational workshops currently address land protection issues, natural resource-based planning, alternative development options, fiscal impacts of community land-use decisions, and village design issues. The Protecting Family Lands Program, which introduces landowners to land protection options such as selling development rights, donating conservation easements and bargain sales, has resulted in the protection of more than 2,939 acres in the heritage corridor.

Outcomes of the Green Valley Institute

  • Protecting family lands program
  • Economics of land use workshops
  • Design guidelines for village Centers and Downtowns
  • Workshops on creative open space protection
  • Conservation biology workshop series
  • Weekend retreat: "A New Introduction to the Natural World"
  • Training in Geographic Information Systems and Global Positioning Systems
  • "Brush Brigade" — Volunteers clearing trails and removing invasive plants
  • "Green Valley Connections" — Greenway mapping project
  • Establishment of local conservation commissions
  • Local implementation of conservation subdivision regulations
  • Local adoption of mixed-use village districts
  • Development of local open space plans and financing of plan implementation

Another program, the Economics of Land Use, has helped more than 100 participants in six towns to better understand how land-use decisions ultimately affect the tax millage rate in their communities. Working closely with town planners and planning commissions, the institute's Community Design Specialist has helped two communities develop and approve design guidelines for their village centers and downtown areas, and is currently working with three more. In 2005 the co-directors developed a new series of workshops designed to help communities with creative solutions for paying for open space protection — from limited development techniques to forest management — and with detailed information about gaining public support for such projects and managing open space funds.

In 2004, the institute developed a program for real estate agents to inform them about the range of land development and conservation options available, including education on finding conservation buyers and techniques of conservation subdivision. The real estate agents received continuing education credits for their participation in this innovative program.

The Green Valley Institute also has hosted a weekend retreat called "A New Introduction to the Natural World." Participants attend this weekend event at a local camp for no charge. They learn about natural resources and how land-use decisions ultimately can impact these resources. Participants also learn about the volunteer opportunities available in their own towns and the region so they may become actively involved in this process. Following this weekend, participants are asked to commit to a volunteer position or activity in their community — perhaps sitting on a planning and zoning or conservation commission or local land trust board, or working with another organization such as the local soil and water conservation district. Others prefer to work outside and have joined the Green Valley Brush Brigade, which clears trails, builds bridges, and removes invasive plants from municipal and land trust land.

Involving Students

This year, the Green Valley Institute partnered with students from the University of Connecticut's Program of Landscape Architecture to assist two communities with design issues. In one project, the students developed alternatives for a new Town Center in Dudley, Massachusetts.

In another project, the students developed and analyzed alternatives for connecting downtown Willimantic with the Willimantic River, including new parks, trails, and other amenities (Figures 8 and 9). In Willimantic, students also looked at an emerging big box commercial strip to consider ways to make that area more attractive and function better. The Community Design Specialist worked closely with the landscape architecture faculty to make these projects meaningful for the students as well as the communities. Such projects can help position communities for grants and other assistance to implement projects. Dan Mullins, president of the Willimantic Whitewater Partnership, noted, "By putting the vision into images, the students sparked the collective imagination of the public, spawned an attitude of possibility and creativity, and provided the community with a valuable resource — dynamic and creative conceptual images to present to the public, politicians, potential funding sources and developers."

Sketches of Willimantic River Project Prepared by UCONN StudentsSketches of Willimantic River Project Prepared by UCONN Students
Figure 8 Figure 9
Sketches of Willimantic
River Project Prepared by
UCONN Students
Sketches of Willimantic River Project Prepared by UCONN Students

Has this University Partnership Made a Difference?

The Green Valley Institute recently conducted a follow-up survey of people who have attended its community planning and design seminars to determine what kind of impact the programs have had in the region. Of the respondents who attended at least one of these workshops: 73 percent have supported open space planning efforts in their communities, 55 percent have explained to others the pros and cons of community growth, 55 percent have read more on these topics; 53 percent explained to others the role of open space in balancing a community's budget, and 60 percent have worked to promote new strategies in their communities.

When asked if their towns have done anything, the numbers were smaller. However, these are big changes for communities to make and as one respondent noted, "The workings of town government take time — with persistence, new and good ideas will prevail." Of those who responded, seven said their towns have taken steps to adopt design guidelines. Nine have taken steps to adopt conservation subdivision regulations. Seven have taken steps to develop a new mixed-use village district. Twelve have taken steps to develop an open space plan, six have taken steps to approve an open space fund or bond, and 11 have attempted to purchase open space. One respondent specifically noted that their town was incorporating workshop information into the update of their Plan of Conservation and Development and another reported the development of an industrial heritage district to reuse old abandoned mills for mixed-use development.

In addition to the educational programs and student projects, the Green Valley Institute has helped 18 town conservation commissions develop community resource inventories. At least 13 of those have used the inventory data to help them identify priority resources for conservation. Nine towns have incorporated the resource information into their comprehensive plans, and eight towns are using the inventories in their review of development projects. We also have helped nine towns in the corridor create new conservation commissions; four more are working to establish such commissions.

The Green Valley Institute's GIS Center has partnered with the University of Connecticut's Center for Land Use Education and Research to present GIS and GPS training courses so the region's communities and land trusts can manage natural resource data themselves. The institute is also working with the region's councils of governments on a "Green Valley Connections" project aimed at building a corridorwide map of greenways and blueways. And it recently began to plan for a new conservation biology workshop series designed to give a deeper understanding of natural systems, why they are important, and what partners can do to support and maintain them.

These educational programs and technical assistance are all small steps in addressing the larger issue of balancing growth and conservation in the Quinebaug Shetucket National Heritage Corridor. The Green Valley Institute is making progress that would not have been made without this innovative university partnership. The changes may be slow in coming and happen piece by piece, but more and more communities are making changes as a result of the partnership. They are considering new, more sustainable growth patterns, directing new growth to areas where it makes the most sense, and protecting their more fragile resources and the landscapes that make the Last Green Valley region so special. For these efforts, the Green Valley Institute was recognized by APA with the 2005 Public Education Award.

What's next?

The Green Valley Institute is interested in tackling issues that still are not getting enough attention in the region and that are critical to offering logical, cost-effective growth opportunities, including new village development, village infill and small city redevelopment. The institute understands that conservation planning and development is one side of the coin. If the QSHC is to remain a viable rural region, the institute must address the whole picture. Balancing growth and conservation, the mission of this university partnership, is the only way the Last Green Valley can maintain its unique rural, New England character and important natural features.

Partnerships with local universities can help communities address many issues by offering resources, educational programs, and technical assistance that otherwise might not be available. Contact your region's university to determine what opportunities might be available in your town or region.


  • Conduct a needs assessment survey to guide partnership efforts in the formative years. A needs assessment survey of municipal and land trust leaders conducted by the Green Valley Institute helped chart a course for the most appropriate educational programs to provide in the region. Conducting a new needs assessment also can help keep partnership programs relevant to changing demands.
  • Award continuing education credits to participating professional groups. The institute provided continuing education credits for real estate agents for their participation in one of the educational programs. Awarded credits can make a difference, or the failure to provide for such credits may be enough to steer certain audiences away from a given program.
  • Make educational offerings convenient, and without cost, if possible. The institute offered one of its programs over a weekend, and participation was very good. The time at which an educational program is offered can make a difference as to its potential for success. If a program can be underwritten by partners without cost to participants, participation rates are likely to increase.
  • Bring student projects and communities together. Students of planning, landscape architecture, and environmental sciences want to learn in a real-life environment. They provide free or low-cost labor and evolving professional experience that can greatly assist local governments with solving planning and conservation problems. Students offer creativity and energy that often is needed to jump-start a project or to bring together various constituents in a community. University partnerships can be an effective means of organizing the efforts of students.
  • Follow up with participants to gauge progress in implementation. Educating students, citizens, and stakeholders of communities is only part of the objective. Implementation must take place or the investment in education does not pay its full dividends. The institute conducted a follow-up evaluation of efforts in communities to implement the partnership's suggestions. Such an evaluation has helped the institute to focus on its ultimate objective — to provide for better planning and conservation by communities and landowners in the region.
  • Balance growth and conservation. A university partnership in a rural region must be able to objectively balance conflicting demands on the landscape. If the partnership is too focused on conservation, it may lose the interest and confidence of important stakeholders such as real estate agents and elected officials. Balancing conservation with sensible economic development that fits into the rural character of the region and draws on its valuable natural resources is a key to the success of the region and the partnership.
  • Program evaluation doesn't have to be rigorous — define success in simple terms. The outcomes in this case describe that progress can be measured in a number of ways, and data can be gained through surveys of participants. The Green Valley Institute quantified its progress in terms of the number of ordinances adopted, the number of conservation commissions established (or pending), and acres of land conserved, among others. Other benchmarks, such as the number of students participating in institute activities, could be developed.
  • Develop a knowledgeable volunteer base. Many people are interested in the future of their communities but don't know how to get involved or lack the background. Providing knowledge and information can give potential community leaders the background they need to feel comfortable getting involved. Educational programs designed for new volunteers can improve land-use decision making. Creating new volunteer opportunities, such as the Green Valley Brush Brigade, can tap into volunteer skills and interests that are currently unmet.

Susan Westa, AICP, is Co-Director of The Green Valley Institute, where she has been a Community Planning Educator for the past four years. For almost 10 years, Westa was a planner with The Saratoga Associates in Saratoga Springs and Buffalo, New York. She was involved with a wide range of environmental and community planning projects for this multidisciplinary consulting firm. She serves as the Professional Development Officer for the Connecticut Chapter of APA. Westa has a master's degree in Environmental Science from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and a bachelor's degree in biology from Hobart and William Smith Colleges.


Arendt, Randall (with Brabec, Dodson, Reid, and Yaro). 1994. Rural By Design. Chicago: APA Planners Press.

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Arendt, Randall. 1999. Crossroads, Hamlet, Village, Town: Design Characteristics of Traditional Neighborhoods, Old and New (APA Planning Advisory Service Report No. 487/488). Chicago: American Planning Association.

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Westa, S.P., S.H. Broderick, and C.B. Tyson. 2005. "Getting the Word Out in the Last Green Valley: Integrating Digital Video, Direct Mail, and Web-Based Information for Specific Target Audiences." Journal of Extension, Vol. 43, No.1.

Yardley, William. 2005. "In Connecticut, One Quiet Corner and One that Welcomes Bustle of Development." The New York Times, June 13, 2005.

Yaro, Robert, Randall Arendt, Harry Dodson, and Elizabeth Brabec. 1993 (fifth printing). Dealing with Change in the Connecticut River Valley: A Design Manual for Conservation and Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.