Difference between open space and preserve

This is open space but not a preserve.

This is open space but not a preserve.

Reviewed: June 12, 2024

Visitor Question: What is the difference between open space and a nature preserve? We have what the neighbors call a preserve behind our house. It is just all woods and nothing else. The real estate agent said it could never be built on.

Now I have been appointed to our local planning commission, and they are talking about open space. Just to confuse me further, they are talking about preserving open space. Are open space and a preserve the same thing, or if not, what are the differences?

Editors Reply: There is no hard and fast rule on this, but as a matter of usage in the U.S., open space is a far more general term.

It also is the term that traditionally has been used in land use planning. It might indicate anything from a forest to a park; in fact, in some jurisdictions land use maps show cemeteries as open space. We can't really argue with that, since they do serve as habitat for birds, butterflies, and rodents.

In other words, local planning commissions and governing bodies frequently figure out what they want to include in the category open space. It might range from people-oriented small parks dominated by a playground to a natural area or bird sanctuary maintained by a governmental entity or by a private group.

The connotation of open space is that it is an area of recreation or respite for people or where birds, insects, and small mammals find sanctuary, or if there is a water source, reptiles, amphibians, and fish might be prevalent too.

A preserve usually has a stricter definition. For instance, we haven't ever heard a cemetery called a preserve. Often the term preserve is preceded by "nature." The idea behind a preserve is that this area will remain undeveloped for human habitation in perpetuity as a conservation measure, or for educational purposes.
We hope you don't mind, but we added a photo of Bryant Park in New York on a Sunday afternoon. This park would never be called a preserve, but it is open space in the language of planning.

For a preserve, active management to either conserve or enhance habitat values for plants and animals may be implied as well.

Sometimes a general purpose local government manages a preserve, but more often they are the property of and responsibility of a conservation district, park district, or conservation organization.

Subdivisions and developments also may set aside what they call a preserve as common ground, protecting these preserves with restrictive covenants and managing them using HOA dues.

Both open space and preserves may be quite large. However, a 6000 square foot preserve would be pretty useless as a set-aside for nature study or ecological benefits. Parks that small are fairly common in older neighborhoods in the U.S. and often are called pocket parks, just to give you another term to consider.

In sum, our advice is not to worry much about the distinction, but this commentary should give you some ideas about why each term is used the way it is.

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