Technological advances allow Civil Engineering and Land Surveying professionals to perform, in minutes, tasks that would have taken days or weeks before computer usage became widespread. I have been fortunate to have been part of the technology industry from its humble beginnings. In the 1960s, working for a Land Planning firm, I began inventing devices to reduce the time it took to draft plans. These contraptions would hang on the wall, jokingly labeled Rickometer1, Rickometer2, etc. My systems allowed me to get the plans out faster, but the designs were no better because of these devices.
Fast forward four decades and nothing has changed.
For all the technological advances in the land development design industry, not a single design solution has evolved beyond today’s prevalent cookie-cutter planning patterns. We can knock out plans ever faster, but rarely better.
Why Has Technology Failed To Improve Planning?
This is something I’ve wrestled with over the past several years as I developed my latest industry offering: Performance Planning System (PPS). Originally I had thought the problem of moving the development industry forward was lack of communication, understanding, and in some ways respect between consultants in surveying, engineering, planning & architecture.
For example the numbers pros(civil engineers and land surveyors) fear working with the vague and terribly inaccurate freehand work of the artist pros (planners, architects, landscape designers, etc). The artists mistakenly think that if their work goes into a Computer Assisted Design (CAD) system, it somehow magically becomes accurate. To stereotype for a moment, these different consultants often have very different personalities. The artists and numbers people are not likely to be found in a friendly chat at the corner coffee stand, unless forced together by a business meeting.
The land development related software industry is competitive, but mostly controlled by the big three companies: Autodesk, ESRI and Bentley. All three offer land development design “add-ons,” but none offer a true “land planning” system expanding beyond the cookie-cutter recipe. Another problem is that software terminology is specific to the particular industry it serves. As such, the planning terminology typical of, say, a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) package would not be part of a civil engineering software package. Land surveying-specific terminology would never show up in an architectural package. All of these software giants have done a glorious job of allowing their “users” to get the job out faster. But we need to create wonderful neighborhoods, not faster subdivisions.
Civil engineers and land surveyors must be extremely accurate, because the plans they produce are legal documents. The basis of their plans is coordinate geometry, which tracks points tied to a numbering system. This “point numbering” system, introduced in the 1970s, introduces complexity; it’s an instance where automation increases tediousness.
Changing The Course Of Land Development
Putting technology aside, a host of other factors have prevented land planning from moving forward in the right direction. In the past two decades our land planning firm developed new methods to design neighborhoods that would significantly reduce the infrastructure and environmental impacts of development, while maintaining the density of conventional and Smart Growth design alternatives. This evolved into providing exciting neighborhoods with lower housing costs.
In other words we developed a higher level of land development practices through methodology that was not device dependent, but instead, knowledge driven. To teach this knowledge, we worked with Sustainable Land Development International (SLDI.org) to produce the book Prefurbia-Reinventing the Suburbs from Disdainable to Sustainable. The book sets a foundation for a new way to think about land development design and regulations.
When we wrote Prefurbia we retained Rickard Kronick, an author who specializes in the history of architecture, to investigate the various college courses in planning offered in the USA. All offered Urban Design courses. None were specific to suburban design. Suburban development represents 80% of the growth in the USA. Did you ever wonder why suburban planning and design has stagnated? Wonder no more!
Next, we developed an advanced coordinate geometry design software that eliminated the tediousness of point number management. This new software would blend common terminology of the various land development consultants, in an effort to break down communication barriers between designers and engineers.
Finally, we planned to expand the platform to a series of college level courses for low-impact suburban design. I approached a multitude of urban planning professors to seek help with this project. None were interested.
It was time to re-evaluate. Reality check: There will never be software functions that will create wonderful, vibrant neighborhoods that are environmentally sound and economically feasible. A software function only automates complex tasks into less keystrokes. This guarantees monotony if everybody uses the same package. In order to advance planning we must improve that other software… you know that stuff that lies between your ears!
Creating a New End User
So we decided to create a system that would create a better end user. This meant teaching those number pros design methods that create character and value, and giving the artist pros a foundation in engineering and surveying. Teach how to recognize the tremendous waste in design to create more efficient development. Teach the importance that architecture plays in every development, not just from a façade (front porch) perspective. Teach how to integrate the interior floor plan as a component of the overall neighborhood functionality. The world is designed using ordinance minimum requirements that result in minimal projects. Teach how to design beyond the minimums.
In other words, teach low impact design that embraces the environment as well as the developers profitability. We teach what can go terribly wrong when attempting “green” goals. We estimated that the entire cost to us to expand the product into something that educates is less than $10 a package (per student). We also intend for this system to be a portal inviting others to contribute to the educational material.
Make no mistake – this does not mean we have made anything “easier” for the land development industry. Just the opposite. The knowledge base is extensive, and each new element adds a layer of thought to the planning process. In time we will know if this experiment in a new approach to design will yield the intended results, and create a more sustainable world.
Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of Performance Planning System. His websites are rhsdplanning.com and performanceplanningsystem.com.