Conservation in Davidson, North Carolina

Ethan Landen



As the world’s population grows, there is more pressure to develop land for housing, agriculture, and businesses. In the Southern Piedmont region of the United States, there are high rates of land use change from rural and agriculture towards greater development for neighborhoods and businesses.  The Southern Piedmont ranges from Charlotte to Atlanta, encompassing historic forests and prairies often cleared for farms as the area was settled. The fast rates of land consumption in this region have led to stresses on infrastructure, natural lands and ecosystems, as well as the local farms (Spurlock, 2009). The global impact of climate change must also be considered. The Southeast holds a close relationship to land with the beauty and warm climate bringing many people to the region, but these “sense of place” attitudes are often outcompeted by prevailing pro-business and pro-development attitudes (BenDor et al., 2014). The suburban Charlotte town of Davidson, North Carolina is an interesting case study for conservation issues of the region as it may be viewed as a leader in conservation efforts. Yet, even in Davidson, there are shortcomings that need to be analyzed to provide a sustainable future not only in Davidson but also applicable to the region. Using Davidson as a study, we can acknowledge proven conservation efforts as well as identify challenges and new methods for better conservation initiatives. By looking closely at the competition of sense of place and rate of development, we can realize limitations of conservation efforts of the region and work towards more successful initiatives for the future of the region.

The future of towns like Davidson in the growing Charlotte metro area is dependent upon how they begin their planning today. Davidson’s conservation successes include many green spaces, parks, natural woodlands, as well as the Davidson College ecological preserve, but this sustainability is limited to set aside parks and misses factors such as infrastructure and policy change that need to be considered. Although there is already land set aside to maintain green spaces, the increasing urban sprawl happening around Charlotte is attracted to suburban centers such as Davidson as there is ample space to support neighborhood developments. The outward sprawl is incentivized since there is open and less expensive land with strong private property rights (BenDor et al., 2014). This push for development is an important and necessary aspect to the growing economy of metro Charlotte, but striking the balance with respect to natural ecology, sustainable planning, and consideration for the future are key aspects that can be easily glossed over in the rush to develop.

The greatest land use change in the region is conversion of agricultural and natural lands towards development (Auch et al., 2012). The growing population promotes this change yet the balance between sustainable growth and urban sprawl is elusive. Private landowners are important stakeholders in the discussion of land use changes of the southeast United States with over half of the woodlands in the region are privately owned (BenDor et al., 2014; Butler & Leatherberry, 2004). Large-scale conservation of woodlands is dependent on these landowners. When studying factors that lead to landowner decisions on land use, BenDor et al. (2014) found that a landowner’s connection to place is a key determinant in land use decisions. With the regional trend towards development for neighborhoods and urban sprawl, the scale is tipped to favor development rather than conservation of land (BenDor et al., 2014). The prevailing pro-business attitudes and policy push the tide towards developing with large economic incentives for landowners. Landowners in and around Davidson face the same pressures today threatening the natural green space of the area.

The region’s ecology is also at risk from development. The natural ecology of the region has been influenced by human activity for a millennium, but if the growth of towns like Davidson is not managed effectively and urban sprawl continues in the Piedmont, then the water supply is put at risk of being depleted and the natural woodlands and small farms will disappear (Spurlock, 2009). As the population of the region grows, consumers desire to have more space for yards and families at the expense of carbon stocks, habitat for native life, and the forests of the southeast. Set aside green spaces and human-maintained parks cannot act in place of natural woodlands and ecosystems. Natural ecosystems also have a close relationship with public health issues through its relationship with water quality and air quality (CDC, 2018). Human growth is reliant on and limited by the surrounding environment illustrating the importance to have greater consideration for conservation with the rising population in the Davidson area.

Conservation solutions

Although the past few decades have brought vast sprawl and unchecked growth to the region, conservation organizations are present and playing a role in working to create more sustainable land use in our region; including land trusts to conserve land, tree plantings to offset carbon emissions, and advocacy groups to change local policy towards sustainable growth policies. Some of these organizations are Davidson Lands Conservancy, Catawba Lands Conservancy, West Side Community Land Trust, and Trees Charlotte. These organizations lead the way in showing active measures we can take in sustainable growth in towns like Davidson.

Local governments are acting. In 2018, Charlotte City Council publicly committed to become a low carbon city by drastically reducing carbon emissions by 2050 by focusing on energy produced by buildings, transportation, energy generation (i.e. coal power plants and renewable energy solutions) and innovation (Watts, 2019; Harrison, 2018). Also, as Charlotte and the surrounding metropolitan area is growing, the town of Davidson stands out as a leader in sustainable growth with dedicated commitments to sustainability in its economic plans and a strong partnership with Davidson College.

Charlotte’s commitment to become a low carbon city and other local initiatives being implemented are a step in the right direction, but urban sprawl around Charlotte and resulting ecological loss require strong conservation mitigation. Everyday actions by people towards more sustainable lifestyles can also aid in balancing the scales.  Simple actions such as recycling, being mindful of using plastics and one-use items, and limiting waste and carbon emissions are important lifestyle changes that make large differences in the long run. Sustainability in conservation work encompasses a large range of actions and philosophies that in total work towards conservation-minded approaches to all aspects of life benefitting both people and the environment. Therefore, implementation of sustainable growth models will reduce the threats to the region resulting from past growth models and therefore work to benefit the people of the region and the environment.

By working towards a more conservation-minded, sustainable growth model for the Charlotte metro area, we will provide a direct benefit for ourselves and future generations. Conservation of important green spaces and native life and ecology of the southeastern Piedmont will pay dividends to future generations. Local land trusts working in combination with local governments to conserve land will provide a wealth of benefits to the community. The benefits of conservation are not only local but have a regional and even national scope by maintaining the strong carbon banks of woodlands (Ontl, 2020).

Charlotte is aptly named the “city of trees” with surrounding woodlands of Oak-hickory forests and these hardwood trees are prime to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere to help offset carbon emissions. Reducing our carbon footprint and fighting climate change requires conservation of woodlands in the area by setting them aside and not developing and further fragmenting of the landscape. Humans will benefit to be a part of a healthy local ecosystem that will provide clean air, clean water, and a multitude of health benefits.

The current model of growth is that development continually moves outward with infrastructure struggling, in contrast with a true sustainable growth model will include conservation as well as building infrastructure that is complementary to the necessary growth of the region (Shoemaker et al., 2016). Reducing congestion and traffic benefits those living in the region as well as help to reduce transportation carbon emissions. There are many benefits to moving towards “urban green infrastructure” by helping maintain air and water quality along with mitigating climate change effects such as climate and extreme weather events (Tzoulas et al., 2007). Along with ecological benefits, sustainably built infrastructure provides social opportunities for recreation, tourism, and aesthetic value (Tzoulas et al., 2007). All conservation solutions require consideration of every facet of the issue at hand and finding a solution that benefits both human and environmental aspects. Therefore, applying sustainable conservation solutions to  urban sprawl and climate change will provide benefits to all.


The southern Piedmont is rapidly growing, putting at risk the loss of habitat and native woodlands along with worsening water and air quality. Rapid land consumption is a result of pro-development attitudes in the region leaving conservation often as an afterthought. Present day pro-development values heavily influence the outward sprawl happening in the region. Although Davidson (NC) has succeeded in setting aside some green spaces, there is a need for greater conservation through sustainable planning policies to benefit infrastructure, combat climate change, and benefit the native ecology and people. The future of the environment and future generations requires a bigger role of conservation planning in land use through individual lifestyle changes, local government policies, and more active local conservation.


I would like to thank Davidson Lands Conservancy for their support and help in writing this paper, specifically thank you to Dave Cable in helping to develop the project and guidance. Also, thank you to Katie Noble for her support. I would like to thank Dr. Doug Shoemaker and Dr. Chris Paradise for their thoughtful help in the editorial process.




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Ethan Landen

Ethan Landen, Davidson College Class of 2022