Neighborhood design

A 'Prefurbia' Development Solution

Land development around the world is in a "reset" mode due to the economy. Developers used to be profitable because of escalating land and housing prices – even if they did a terrible job at developing the land! In today’s economy, sustainability addresses the difference between profitability and bankruptcy.

All land developments affect the existence (livability), economics and environment of the region surrounding them. Each individual development becomes part of a patchwork that forms the quilt of a "city." The problem today is that most land developments are not sustainable ─ which presents a domino effect that can destroy a city.

Most land is developed by private individuals who focus on their site and rarely build additional regional infrastructure to support development outside their boundaries. Developers typically look at land as another product to bring to market to derive profits. Investors (not developers) often secure land via an option, and then follow local ordinances, to gain approvals. They then flip the approved site to a developer, reaping millions of dollars in profits without placing a shovel into the ground. If the land is being presented by an investor or the developer, the procedure is the same. After the land is financially secured, the investor or the developer will get a "land plan" to start the approval process. Obviously, a residential land plan is worth more than a farming land plan.

A world built to absolute minimums
Since land planning is the very first step in a multi-step process, the developer naturally seeks the help of an expert land planner. The consultant that secures the initial planning contract is likely the same one that will design the sewers, streets, and grading. Land surveying companies typically offer land planning services because this practice secures other services – and why not? There is no licensing, qualification or experience to list "land planning" as an expertise. The planner tries to maximize the use of the site to keep the developer satisfied, which translates into squeezing the most number of units into an area as possible. To accomplish this, the planner seeks out the minimum dimensions allowed by law. Thus the word "minimum" is read as "absolute;" this, in turn, literally guarantees monotony. To make matters worse, holding every home to the minimums for front setback, side yard, the square footage, does not address issues like connectivity (cars and people), safety, home values, views, streetscape, efficiency, or energy savings. Nor does it encourage honoring the natural surface flow of rainwater, minimizing disturbance of the earth, or saving trees.

Those sitting on planning commissions and councils blame the developer for blandness, but the reality is those same commissioners and council members approved the ordinances that enforce unsustainable development in the first place.

Technology has advanced almost all aspects of our lives, except in the design of cities. Innovations in design and development have only automated the process of building to the minimums. Land planning automation allows the end user to plug in lot minimums and then lots and streets appear as fast as one can move the cursor across the screen.

Instead of using automation to create instant subdivisions, land developers should harness technology to create wonderful and sustainable neighborhoods.

In a Costa Rica neighborhood, (pdf) a land planner had previously designed the development geometrically to local minimums. In contrast, the Prefurbia plan exceeds minimums with a 44 percent reduction in street length and a 58 percent in walk volume, yet the connectivity for pedestrians and vehicles is superior. Street width is the same on both plans, but the Prefurbia walks are wider and more inviting. Both indicate 116 lots, but the original plan required several lots to be used as "park" space and the Prefurbia plan includes 116 larger lots plus an additional 12,000 square meters in parks.

Lessening waste in land development
Prefurbia reduces development waste and increases "flow." These concepts are new to land development.


A typical single-family subdivision

This figure shows a single-family subdivision that seems to maximize its land use. An area to the north on the site is reserved for detention ponds. This municipality requires a 4-foot wide walk constructed on both sides of the street indicated by the white lines parallel to the paving. This was an approved plat ready to be developed, and then the developer was made aware of Prefurbia.

Using new technologies that track design-induced waste, planners can determine the efficiency, or Environmental/Economic Density (ED Ratio) of a plan. This ratio is computed within a performance planning system.

The environmental density of the single family subdivision is just 42 percent so surely that would indicate an efficient design. There is little left over green space around the residences, and families overlook each other’s bedroom windows. Looks can be deceiving.

Waste in a single-family subdivision

Of the 208,871 square feet of street paving, 55,932 square feet (yellow) is only half utilized, and 13,760 square feet (red) is all waste. This equates into exactly one-third of the street being built is waste. The 7,461 linear feet of street, priced approximately $300 a foot, will cost the developer $2,238,300 to construct. Four-foot-wide sidewalks add up to 13,659 linear feet (2.6 miles), which are not likely to be used much because 4-feet walks are not wide for two people to walk side by side.

It’s impossible to create a plan with zero waste; however, planners can do a much better job of reducing it. The science of reducing waste has not been part of education or awareness in land planning. Future planners need to be trained on how to recognize and eliminate as much waste in design as possible.

Prefurbia neighborhood plan

This Prefurbia plan not only reduces waste but adds functionality with 6-foot-wide (50 percent wider than the original) meandering walkways. The 41,028 square feet of walks have 25 percent less surface area, reducing costs and environmental impacts. There is 4,974 linear feet of street, again reducing environmental impacts and cost to construct (and maintain) by one-third. The ED Ratio drops from 42.0 to 37.4 (11 percent) with a slight loss of density (141 to 136 or -4 percent). Green open spaces abound with no homes looking directly into each other’s bedrooms.

About the Author

Rick Harrison is president of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio in Minneapolis, Minn.

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