Green Neighborhood Design ala "Prefurbia"

After spending 25 years designing over 600 communities in 45 states and 10 countries, we wrote the book Prefurbia to make an awareness for those involved in the processes of land development about new ideas, techniques and methods that we had discovered relating to suburban site design. In addition to these new methods, the book explains problems with the current regulatory systems, mostly caused by our minimums based regulations, and ending with an example of a new type of “rewards based” ordinance.

No matter how great it may be, any development plan is secondary to the presentation. The site plan is only part of the process to approval – the best site plan is only as good as the presentation to convince council or planning commission for a “Yes” vote.


These critical public meetings are the most important part of the entitlement process – no “Yes” vote: no deal – simple as that! Each presenter deals with the dog-and-pony show in their own ways with an endless variety of styles (or lack of style).

All of these public meetings have one thing in common –the neighbors (if any) will be there to oppose to the new development. Perfurbia is written from the perspective (needs) of these various parties with the process to approval, the planning commission and council members, the developer, and the design team.

In the old days there were three factions – the developer presenting the plan, the neighbors opposing the plan, and the council listening to both sides. If the development was high profile, someone from the local press might also show up to write an article about the controversy. The planning commission and council are fully aware that all plans will be met with neighbor opposition and they will have to listen to their lengthy complaints along the route to approving (possibly) the developer’s plan. In the past the citizens sitting on these boards would most likely dismiss Elwood and Betsy Smith’s complaint on how a development in their back yard would invade their privacy, and would vote in favor of that new master planned community instead.

Today there is often an additional audience – the entire region of neighbors – when the meetings are televised. The televised council listens to the neighbor’s objections, no matter how absurd they may be, then answers to the camera – the general community watching at home with answers that show they really care about every citizen’s opinion. The televised council member must never appear too much in favor of the developer as it can be misconstrued as not caring about the citizens they represent.

A televised Council member hears the Smith’s complaint and may look into the camera with a very concerned look explaining on how maybe we have too many new homes in this town and proceed to tell viewers that the developer might want to consider a buffer and dropping density. What is happening is that concerns go from developing economically sensible neighborhoods, perhaps to: “please elect me Mayor when I’m on the ballot.”
post resumes below image

Coving reduces surface runoff, enhances privacy, and
exchanges road surface for increased lot sizes, allowing
higher density without punishingly small homesites.
(Image: Rick Harrison Site Design)

The design catalyst for Prefurbia is “coving,” a method created in the mid-1990’s that relies on new technologies to create a more efficient pattern of land development compared to conventional and traditional methods. Without lengthy explanation (the book is the best source for explanation) a by-product of Coving is that for any given density, the length of street is typically reduced by 25% with a corresponding increase in average lot size. Another side-effect is that the lot sizes vary greatly and rapidly from minimum to maximum to create the effect along the streetscape to pulloff the art of coved design.

With the new “green” movement towards environmentally responsible development – coving can be the perfect solution as a reduction in the run-off from paved surfaces combined with the increase in organic area is a perfect foundation for Green Design.

In the early years of Coved design, virtually all the work was done in the USA. Our first large site plan done outside the States, was in Freeport, Bahamas. We designed Heritage Village, which began as a TND layout (by another planning firm) and ended up with our new method of Coving. In 2000 when we were first contacted to design Heritage Village we asked about doing presentations to the city council and planning commission to help move the approval process along. We were told that the development company and the regulating entity were the same, if they liked the plan it would be built! That is exactly what had happened.

Our next attempt of the Coving outside the USA were not so easy. In Mexico City we were told to keep the minimum and maximum range of lot sizes under 20% – a regulation which essentially kills the use of coving to be efficient, however later we found the Monterrey region of Mexico more progressive to work with.

In Puerto Rico, the horizontal regulations were no problem to work with, but the vertical (slope) regulations were problematic in Coved design in steep slopes. These slope regulations did not have alternatives which would have made more sense – they were untouchable. On relatively flat sites – no problem, steep sloped sites are very difficult to comply with (not impossible but difficult) when coved.

Since then we wrongly assumed that planning outside the USA could have similar problems with restrictions that were absurdly prohibitive for designing great neighborhoods. In Puerto Rico, when we asked to sit down with the government officials to change policy to create better neighborhoods, the developer said – no. At the time we did not understand why it was so critical that we were rejected to suggest changes.

It was only when we worked in Bogota, Columbia that we realized their systems may not be so backwards after all… Last year we were hired to do some significant planning work in Columbia. My first request was that we meet with the authorities to show them new ways to design neighborhoods and start working on changing the regulations, and were given (like Puerto Rico) an absolute – NO!

Unlike Puerto Rico, the basic setback and engineering minimums were not as restrictive and did not limit the design process. We then asked to present the plan to the authorities – and were told that was not necessary. Being it was Columbia you can imagine that at first we thought: Cartels? Corruption? The reality was much simpler. Since our plans met the minimums (they actually exceeded them), they were automatically considered approved! Imagine that – no neighbors to complain! If everything conforms – it should be approved – right? Just plain old common sense! That was exactly what was going on in Puerto Rico – in Mexico City, in fact in many countries we would think were backwards were in fact very forward thinking. Developers who follow the zoning – who follow the minimums do not need public meetings!

When you think about it, in this country if the development being submitted meets or exceeds the zoning (and the subdivision regulation minimums), why does it need to go through any of the public approvals at all? The American Developer often faces months or years of delays, enormous interest payments, the tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars) spent on consultants and legal help for plans that conform. Instead that massive sum of money could go towards making a better neighborhood, better architecture, better landscaping, less environmental impacts! What a concept!

Reducing minimums would still require public meetings, however. The public would still have plenty of input when the regulations and zoning changes. Those types of meetings should be public to get citizen input. If the developer is proposing something that goes below minimums or does not conform to zoning, then it is reasonable to go through the more time consuming process that we currently have.

So this brings up the question – how would the developer introduce something different to the written law? This could be a particularly bad problem under typical PUD (Planned Unit Development) regulations which typically give blanket changes to the minimums when alternative designs are not covered by straight zoning. This PUD Pandoras box, once opened can have devastating results when the staff and neighbors both agree that the plan is simply not good enough.

When the developer thinks the plan is just fine a battle of wills ensues that can last years of revisions and legal battles – in the end these expensive delays increase lot costs – the home buyer ultimately pays. The problem is that most PUD’s are simply too vague.

If a PUD ordinance, or any special ordinance such as Cluster Conservation, or Coving was specifically spelled out – developers would get rewarded for great plans complete with open space and connectivity(typically density and setback relaxations). Simple and somewhat easy to administer.

Perfurbia’s hundreds of new concepts, methods, and industry bullet points are a wealth of information useful to anyone involved with land development. But what we began to realize after writing Perfurbia, is a new thought – how did we take something so simple and let it get so out of control?

These “third world” countries that are so progressive as to actually allow developers who comply with the rules to quickly build their neighborhood – maybe are not so third world after-all. Perhaps we have the regulations and systems as it exist is to keep the system “busy” with many billable hours. Imagine if we could simply get a plan stamped and the next day construction could begin. How many billable earning hours are eliminated, how much less construction and land holding interest saved? That would be very hard to calculate, but it’s most likely significant.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it…
Al Gore – “The Inconvenient Truth”

The inconvenient truth won’t win me many friends in the consulting industry who’s income depends upon generating billing time (meetings), but can we afford to continue down the path we are presently in?

Rick Harrison is the President of Rick Harrison Site Design (www.rhsdplanning.com), and author of Prefurbia, published by the efforts of Sustainable Land Development International, www.sldi.org and available directly from www.prefurbia.com.


One Response to “Green Neighborhood Design ala "Prefurbia"”
  1. Craig says:

    3 points: (1) I wished me and my family lived in a “prefurbia” neighborhood. (2) The industry will have a hard time changing not so much from the individual that needs the time-based billing but rather the entire cast of characters that thrive on getting their piece of the pie. I’ve never seen so much inefficiency as the development plan approval process. And (3), possibly our industry needed the fat-trimming economic crisis to move the old “status quo” off of their pedestals and open their minds up a little to something not so conventional.

    The question now is “how” to move toward new and fresh ideas without getting caught in the same quagmire that helped stall us out before? Who are going to be the decision makers that hold the fate of these new concepts in their control (ie: banks/investors, developers/builders, agencies, consultants)?

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