A gentler water footprint and a good life:

Gainesville’s Madera is one model for how Floridians could live better with water at home.

By Chloe Bennett

As you speed down Williston Road passing housing development upon housing development, you might well miss Madera and drive right past. The subdivision is tucked compactly into the woods, but that’s part of its beauty and relevance: Madera is one of Gainesville’s best examples of how we can develop differently to live more ethically with water, land and other resources.

When you turn into Madera from Williston Road, you leave a hectic world and enter a quiet one in the woods. The 44-acre residential subdivision showcases a more sustainable way of life. Madera’s homes include Energy Star appliances, pervious pavement that allows rainfall to trickle back down to the aquifer, low-flow fixtures and energy-efficient building shells that use less concrete than typical homes. Residents irrigate very little – but still have gorgeous yards.

As you make your way down the shaded road, there are no curbs to carry stormwater to storm drains. The roadside seamlessly meets the grass and earth that runs alongside it, allowing water to filter through vegetation and avoid the flooding and other problems associated with stormwater.

Further in, the din of Williston Road traffic is taken over by a symphony of birdcalls, a mourning dove leading the way. The little feathery figures dart in and out of the foliage surrounding Madera’s empty retention pond. The pond was built as a backup in case the plans to create a community with no stormwater runoff didn’t work. But those plans have worked well.

Low Impact Design (LID) is a development technique to limit stormwater runoff and therefore maintain water quality while returning water safely back to ecosystems. Thanks to LID, most rain that falls in Madera is naturally kept on site and percolates down into the soil. The retention pond has become a place to take the dog or sit at a bench and watch wildlife.

Unfortunately in most of Alachua County as in most of Florida, LID is the exception to the rule, says Pierce Jones, founding director of the University of Florida’s Program for Resource Efficient Communities. Most subdivisions are built with the idea that people want turf grass and pretty flowering plants. Many people don’t realize that a yard can be just as beautiful with smaller amounts of turf surrounded by live oaks, pines and the wildlife that live in the woods.

The conventional, one-size fits all formula for site design and home design comes at a cost not only to the environment, but to the homeowner as well. Madera shows you can have an environmentally friendly home that is aesthetically pleasing –with the added benefit of much lower water and power bills.

You wouldn’t know it by just driving through that the residents of Madera were using far less water than homes in other Gainesville subdivisions. Though the homes in Madera save water inside, their most impactful feature is the water they save from landscaping, which represents the lion’s share of water use in conventional developments. All the homes in Madera are landscaped with native plants and a limited amount of turf grass, so they require far less water. A report from the Program for Resource Efficient Communities found that Gainesville homes with automatic irrigation systems use an average 358 gallons of water a day, with some subdivisions using far more. Homes in subdivisions without automatic irrigation use an average 190 gallons a day.

Turf grass is not all bad; it’s important on sports fields and to give kids a place to play. However, it is not necessary in the quantity seen in many developments. Over time, turf grass is a huge cost that the homeowner – not the developer – has to live with. The homeowner has to mow, fertilize and irrigate it. Those long-term costs and impacts become huge when you consider the number of homes and lawns in a city the size of Gainesville.

Another change from cookie-cutter subdivisions is that each home is different, has its own personality and each is helping save the planet in its own way. An especially noticeable feature is that the lots were not stripped before construction. There was limited clearing of trees and plants, which has left each home hidden from the road and surrounded by fern, oak and pine. This is different from the conventional approach “which often is, take all the trees out of my way so I have plenty of room to stick the building in” says Gainesville landscape architect Glenn Acomb, who worked on Madera. By leaving a lot of the vegetation onsite, the final home and lot can allow for natural drainage, infiltration and less stormwater to flood down the street.

All the lots in Madera are zero discharge, meaning there is limited to no runoff. This is important because the runoff from irrigation and storms picks up fertilizer and contaminants from roadways as it travels to storm drains. Asphalt is made from the remnants of crude oil distillation. Think of all the pollutants water picks up when it flows over our asphalt roads and parking lots and into storm drains. From these storm drains the water is usually dumped into a nearby water body.

Because Madera has virtually no runoff, there is no contaminated water being dumped into nearby creeks like from most housing developments. From conventional neighborhoods, the stormwater makes its way from the storm drains, through creeks, and to larger water bodies such as Newnans Lake and the Sweetwater Wetlands Park.

Before the Sweetwater engineered wetland, contaminated water flowed into Paynes Prairie where the Alachua Sink is located, a direct link down to the Floridan Aquifer that provides our drinking water. Madera is an example of how we could reduce this contaminated flow by building just a little differently.

There is a mistaken belief that it is more expensive to build these types of homes. Madera has shown that initial construction costs are lower – and long-term costs to the owner far less – than conventional homes. “Most of these things were more altering the way they [builders] do things, in most cases, nothing that would alter their bottom line other than getting adjusted to this new way of working,” said Acomb. “Once they adapted to it, it just seemed to be second nature.”

Still, it is hard to get entire industries to change. “It’s the way it’s been done and there is a reluctance to change and it will take time,” said Acomb. “Turf and mulch are the cheapest options for builders. The initial cost from a developer perspective is, turf looks good and it is cheap.”

It is important to keep pushing for more sustainable ways to develop land and live on it. Homebuyers can help make the case. Margaret “Peggy” Carr a UF associate dean and professor in the UF College of Design, Construction & Planning, points out that “once these developments are in place, this land is forever compromised. Once roads, sewers and waterlines are in, it is pretty much lost for any other use.”

Sustainability shouldn’t just be a buzzword. The way we live with nature and how we view nature must change if Florida is to accommodate a growing population with strained resources. “Sustainability has become so accepted it’s not as interesting to some people as it used to be,” said Carr, so some people are using other terms, such as resiliency. Living well with the Earth and our shared resources is the important point.

Madera is the only housing development of its kind in Gainesville, although other developers have adopted some tenets of sustainable or resilient development. Homebuyers can help by demanding greener options. Later as homeowners, they can save money and use less water without any drastic change in behavior.

As you leave Madera, you reenter the heavy traffic on Williston Road and meet the harsh bright sun that was merely diffused rays on the shaded path a few moments before. The spotlight may not be on this unassuming subdivision now, but perhaps that’s the point, as some Floridians begin to live more gently with the resources of their state.


About Project Blue Ether

WUFT News is publishing this multi-week series on water by University of Florida students, led by award-winning environmental journalist and author Cynthia Barnett, who is a visiting professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.