M&Ms Neighborhood Exercise


Create Your Own Conservation Neighborhood in 4 Easy Steps!

M and M exercise sketch planM and M

Example of a conservation subdivision: The original farm stone wall and part of the farm pasture have been preserved at Trim’s Ridge, This ten-acre conservation design subdivision, located in New Harbor, New Shoreham, RI, protects 3/4 of the site as open space. The original zoning designated an unimaginative layout of ten one-acre lots, five on each side of a cul-de-sac, which would have destroyed the stone walls, pastures and natural areas. Thankfully, the developers were able to persuade local officials and neighbors to allow conservation subdivision design. Photo Credit: Randall Arendt

Create your own conservation neighborhood by using M&Ms as house lots in this quick, fun and very informative exercise. Every volunteer planning commission member, appointed officials and anyone puzzled by current subdivision design should participate. It’s an eye opener! Great for kids too. Thank you to Randall Arendt for the information on this page. Learn about Randall Arendt’s workshop, “Protecting Community-wide Open Space Networks with Conservation Subdivisions and Traditional Neighborhood Design“.


Berkshire MountainsYield Plan

Participant’s Base Map Drawing (above left). Yield Plan (above right).

Land before development (above left). A 70-acre parcel in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains in Western Massachusetts. The site is wooded, with fields, a rough stone wall and a brook. The Yield Plan (above right) shows this same parcel of land developed using standard subdivision development methods that would spread development over nearly the entire 70-acre site.

Site Primary Conservation Areas LargeB Potential Conservation

Primary Conservation Areas (above left). Secondary Conservation Areas (above right).

Click on each image above to enlarge and open up in a window for printing.

  • Use the Participant’s Base Map Drawing (green colored sheet) as the sheet you will use to create your own conservation subdivision design using the M&M as houses.
  • Use the Yield Plan sheet (yellow colored – the site if developed using standard subdivision development methods) for comparison.
  • Use the bottom two sheets (Primary Conservation Areas, and Secondary Conservation Areas) to refer to for natural resource information.
  • Set your printer to print in landscape mode (horizontal) to print these images at the largest setting for the M&M exercise.

Each participant requires 36 M&Ms for 36 houses. These should be the smaller “Mini” M&Ms, found either in the candy section or more likely in the baking section of grocery stores (they are used in cupcakes, etc.). If they are difficult to find in your area, we can make do with the standard M&Ms. Possible substitutes are small black beans.
• Each person should also have a set of soft-lead red pencils (such as Berol Prismacolor) in red, black/brown, and green.


Site Primary Conservation Areas Large



STEP ONE-PART 1. Identify Primary Conservation Areas The first step, which involves the identification of green space worthy of preservation is divided into two parts: Primary Conservation Areas (image above) comprising regulatory wetlands, floodplains and steep slopes; and Secondary Conservation Areas (image below) including those unprotected elements of the natural and cultural landscape that deserve to be spared from clearing, grading and advancement. Use your pencil to circle wetlands, floodplains and steep slopes (these are normally unbuildable) on your Participant’s Base Map Drawing.


B Potential Conservation

STEP ONE-PART 2. Identify Secondary Conservation Areas (unprotected natural areas) to potentially preserve in the image directly above. The woodlands are identified in name only without an arrow in the image above. Use your pencil to identify the unprotected natural areas and cultural landscapes that are to be spared from clearing, grading and development on your Participant’s Base Map Drawing. This could be a meadow, forest, working farmland, contiguous areas of woodlands and streamside habitat, battlefield, or other natural or culturally important area depending on your objectives for the protection portion of this parcel.

Step 3 conservation


Use M&M’s to locate the approximate sites of individual houses on your Participant’s Base Map Drawing which for marketing and quality-of-life reasons should be placed at a respectful proximity to the conservation areas, with homes backing up to woodlands for privacy, fronting onto a central common or wildflower meadow, or enjoying long views across open fields or boggy areas. In a full-density plan, the number of house sites will be the same as in a“Yield Plan”. One example is shown in the image above.

In this process, an important goal is to lay out the actual development areas so that they can take maximum advantage of the property’s conservation elements, thereby capturing the added value those elements convey. Objectives for arranging development areas may be to screen them from the public road, to provide them with access and views to the natural areas, and to conserve for them as much undisturbed natural buffer as is possible. With regard to the property’s woodlands and fields, the conservation/development choice is sometimes an “either/or” proposition, depending on whether the forested areas or the farmland is deemed to possess greater significance and most critical.

Aligning streets

The third step consists of using your pencil on your Participant’s Base Map Drawing to trace a logical alignment for local streets to access the homes and for informal footpaths to connect various parts of the neighborhood making it easier for residents to enjoy walking through the green space, observing seasonal changes in the landscape and possibly meeting other folks who live at the other end of the subdivision. An example is shown in the image above.

lot lines


The final step is simply a matter of drawing in the lot lines using your pencil on your Participant’s Base Map Drawing, perhaps the least important part of the process. Successful developers of great neighborhoods know that most buyers prefer homes in attractive park-like settings and that views of protected green space enable them to sell lots or homes faster and at premium prices. Such homes also tend to appreciate more in value, compared with those on lots in standard “cookie-cutter” developments offering no views or nearby green space. In our example in the image above, the final product preserves 53% of the total site, 37 acres, as conservation land, while developing 47% of the site (33 acres).

You just created a better neighborhood than the pros! You provided landowners and developers with maximum value, million dollar views, privacy, and maximum home appreciation, and wildlife with nature to still call home. And you did it in just 5 minutes or less.


Cub Scout Christopher Choma learns to create a conservation neighborhood using M&M’s as house lots, courtesy Randall Arendt. Photo courtesy Sue Choma.

Percentage of Land Preserved
In urban, sewered, high density areas zoned at 2-3-4 homes per acre, preserving 40% open space, in addition to the unbuildable wetlands, floodplains, and steep slopes, is the norm. In rural, suburban edge areas at densities of one home per 5 and 10 acres, 70% or more of the land can easily be preserved.

Tying it all Together
The site design process described above should be related to the Community’s Map of Potential Conservation Lands contained in its Comprehensive Plan, or at least to criteria guiding the location of the conservation lands so that linkages will be created between resource areas on adjoining properties. As each parcel is developed, the conservation lands network will emerge as a protected greenway system encompassing whatever features the community has identified in its plans and ordinance as being important to design around and save.

When the inherent benefits of this approach are properly explained to local officials and residents, they often become much more amenable to revising their codes to encourage basic conservation design principles in new subdivisions. One way of introducing these concepts into your community is to incorporate sessions on conservation design in the continuing education courses for various land-use professionals working in your area.

Did You Know?
Conservation neighborhoods that preserve large percentages of buildable land, contrary to popular misconceptions, are proven more profitable, less costly and faster selling than conventional subdivisions.

dog on path

“The future depends on what we do in the present.”
– Mahatma Gandhi