Fact Sheet: Low Impact Site Design

Conventional development strategies treat stormwater as a secondary component of site design, usually managed with “pipe-and-pond” systems that collect rainwater and discharge it off site. In contrast, Low Impact Development embraces hydrology as an integrating framework for site design, not a secondary consideration. Existing conditions influence the location of roadways, buildings, and parking areas, as well as the nature of the stormwater management system.

LID site design is a multi-step process that involves identifying important natural features, placing buildings and roadways in areas less sensitive to disturbance, and designing a stormwater management system that creates a relationship between development and natural hydrology. The attention to natural hydrology, stormwater “micromanagement,” nonstructural approaches, and landscaping results in a more attractive, multifunctional landscape with development and maintenance costs comparable to or less than conventional strategies that rely on a pipe-and-pond approach.

Sensitive site landscaping is an important component of Low Impact Development. Ecological landscaping strategies seek to minimize the amount of lawn area and enhance the property with native, drought-resistant species; as a result, property owners use less water, pesticides, and fertilizers. The maintenance of vegetated buffers along waterways can also enhance the site and help protect water quality.

A clustered subdivision with smaller setbacks and preserved natural areas (left) contrasts with a conventional subdivision where all the trees have been removed.

Design Objectives

  • Develop a site plan that reflects natural hydrology.
  • Minimize impervious surfaces.
  • Treat stormwater in numerous small, decentralized structures.
  • Use natural topopgraphy for drainageways and storage areas.
  • Preserve portions of the site in undisturbed, natural conditions.
  • Lengthen travel paths to increase time of concentration and attenuate peak rates.
  • Use “end of pipe” treatment structures only for quantity/rate controls of large storms.

Applications and Design Principles

LID site planning is similar to Conservation Subdivision Design (CSD) process, though LID site planning can be applied to both residential and nonresidential development as well as redevelopment projects. The four step process of CSD (identify conservation areas; locate home sites; align streets and trails; draw in lot lines) provides a serviceable framework for the LID site design process, which involves designing a stormwater management system in conjunction with the second and third steps of the CSD process.

Site Analysis

An LID site planning strategy will begin with an assessment of environmental and hydrologic conditions on a site and identification of important natural features such as streams and drainageways, floodplains, wetlands, recharge groundwater protection areas, high-permeability soils, steep slopes and erosion-prone soils, woodland conservation areas, farmland, and meadows. This investigation will help to determine what “conservation areas” should be protected from development and construction impacts, and what site features (such as natural swales) might be incorporated into the LID stormwater system.

The site analysis will also identify a “development envelope” where development can occur with minimal impact to hydrology and other ecologic, scenic, or historic features. In general, this will include upland areas, ridge lines and gently sloping hillsides, and slowly permeable soils outside of wetlands. The remainder of the site should be left in a natural undisturbed condition. It is important to protect mature trees and to limit clearing and grading to the minimum amount needed for buildings, access, and fire protection; lawn areas increase runoff that must be managed, whereas preservation of wooded areas reduces the volume of stormwater that must be treated. Construction activity, including stockpiles and storage areas, should be confined to those areas that will be permanently altered, and the construction fingerprint should be clearly delineated.

Locate Development and Roadways

Based on the development envelope from the site analysis, developers and their consultants should prepare potential site development layouts. These layouts should minimize total impervious area; reflect the existing topography; and utilize existing drainageways, swales, depressions, and storage areas in their natural state. The goal is to minimize the amount of runoff that must be treated in a stormwater management system.

In order to reduce site coverage but not square footage, site development layouts may include buildings clustered together, parking structures (instead of lots), or taller buildings with a smaller footprint relative to floor area. However, these strategies may conflict with local land use regulations that address density, height, frontages, and lot coverage, so consultation with local officials is critical to help them understand the rationale for the proposed development plan. Other strategies for minimizing impervious surfaces include reduced road widths, smaller parking areas, permeable paving, and green roofs, all of which are described in greater detail in other LID fact sheets.

Once approximate building locations are known, general roads alignments can be identified. Roads should not cross steep slopes, where cutting and filling will unnecessarily disturb drainage patterns; instead, roadways should follow existing grades and run along existing ridge lines or high points. As a rule of thumb, roadways should run parallel to contours on gentle slopes, and perpendicular to the contours on steeper slopes. On sites where a large amount of parking is required, it should be broken up into multiple smaller parking lots; this can also help to reduce grading on hilly sites, since separate parking areas can be placed at different elevations.

Conventional development strategies concentrate stormwater runoff in storm sewers and deliver it to a few large ponds for treatment at the end of the pipe. Low Impact Development seeks to create multiple small “sub-watersheds” on a site and treats runoff close to the source in smaller structures.

Create a Decentralized Stormwater System

The actual location of buildings and the alignment of roadways should be determined in conjunction with the design of the stormwater management system. The goal of this process is to minimize “directly connected impervious area”—those impervious areas that drain directly into a pipe-and-pond stormwater system. Designers should seek to maintain or create small sub-watersheds on the site and “micromanage” the runoff from these sub-watersheds in small decentralized structures, such as swales, bioretention areas, infiltration structures, and filter strips. Paved surfaces should be graded and crowned so that they form multiple “mini-watersheds;” the runoff from each small drainage area should to a different bioretention area, swale, or filter strip. Roof runoff should be sent to rain barrels, cisterns, dry wells, and vegetated areas via level spreaders.

LID site design should also seek to maximize the travel time for stormwater runoff. Conventional pipe systems increase the speed of stormwater runoff, resulting in bigger peak discharge rates (and therefore bigger ponds) at the end of the pipe. In contrast, LID seeks to increase the time of concentration (the average travel time for rainfall) through a variety of techniques: retain stormwater in small structures close to the source (described above), provide as much overland or sheet flow as possible, use open drainage systems, provide long travel paths, and use vegetation to increase surface roughness.

Wherever possible, site design should use multifunctional open drainage systems such as vegetated swales or filter strips which also help to fulfill landscaping or green space requirements. Swales and conveyances can be designed to increase travel length (and time of concentration) with long flow paths that loop around parking lots or other features, rather than more direct routes. The result is increased infiltration and more attenuated peak discharge at the downstream end of the site—the peak comes later and is smaller.

LID stormwater structures (such as bioretention areas and infiltration trenches) should be sized to treat the stormwater from frequent, low intensity storms for water quality and infiltrate it into the ground or slowly release it; they should not be expected to completely manage the peak discharge rate or volume from large storms. Volume and rate controls at the downstream end of the site may still be necessary, but much smaller as a result of LID site design, decentralized stormwater management, and long travel paths.

Benefits and Effectiveness:

  • A comprehensive approach to site design is the most effective, cost-efficient means of minimizing stormwater runoff. A small investment in design at the outset of the project can reduce the expense associated with conventional stormwater systems.
  • An LID site design approach based on natural hydrology will integrate the built space into the natural environment, giving the development integrity and an aesthetically pleasing relationship with the natural features of the site. Many LID stormwater management structures also serve as site landscaping.
  • Developers who take a careful, comprehensive approach to site design—one that accommodates local development goals and protects important resources—run into less resistance from neighbors and local boards concerned about the aesthetic and environmental impacts of development.
  • Site designs that involve a minimal amount of clearing, grading, and road/parking lot construction have lower overall site development costs.
  • Small, distributed stormwater “micromanagement” techniques offer an advantage over centralized systems because one or more of the individual structures can fail without compromising the overall integrity of the stormwater management strategy for the site.
  • Smaller decentralized facilities feature shallow basing depths and gentle side slopes, which reduce safety concerns as compared to deep ponds that must be fenced off.


  • The comprehensive LID site analysis and design process can rarely be conducted “in house” by developers; it requires the assistance of knowledgeable and qualified engineers and landscape architects.
  • Some LID site designs that seek to cluster development and reduce lot coverage may conflict with local land use regulations or public perceptions about what type of development is desirable (a compact multistory building may be more visible than a single story building with a larger footprint.) Consequently, some public education may be necessary as well as cooperation among developers, advocates, and regulators who recognize the values of the LID site design approach.


* There are no particular maintenance requirements associated with an LID site design, but b y reducing the amount of stormwater runoff and associated stormwater management structures, LID can reduce the amount of maintenance required on a site.


The cost of an LID site design will vary depending on the site. The expertise necessary to create a comprehensive site plan may cost more than a simple engineering plan that ignores natural conditions and treats stormwater using a “pipe and pond” system; however, the resulting plans are commonly less expensive to construct and maintain, and the additional landscaping and aesthetic value of an LID development will add a premium to the sales price.

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