Faith-Based City Planning: Exorcising the Suburban Dream

church and town, college hill RI.jpg

We're coming to the end of the season when we focus a great deal of attention on faith. What is faith? The Biblical definition calls it the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1, KJV). Humans have the capacity to firmly believe in something that cannot be explained by reason and is not visibly evident. Faith is the basis of the world's major religions, and often is a cause for war, and today, terrorism. But though the season of faith may be winding down, there is still a place where faith remains strong year round: It is often the basis of the way we plan our communities.

Over the past two decades, our city planning has become faith based. A new preacher has evolved in the form of the Architect or Planner who evangelizes to the congregation that they can all live in serenity if they have faith in the teachings. Their sermons of architectural commandments introduce dimensional ratios that can deliver a utopian existence, promising a wonderland for families.

To enforce faith, you of course need an evil entity to oppose. The evil entity in the faith of land planning is The Suburbs. Those that believe in the suburbs are inherently evil and must be converted or they may spend eternity dammed to a cul-de-sac. The automobile is sacrificed on this altar, with the chant "Space – Space – Space".

Converts to this faith include many if not most, politicians (not just liberals), architects, planners, environmentalists, movie stars, and many in the press. Those that have not converted yet include land developers, builders, city council and planning commission members, and the majority of the home buying market.

Some of the principles this faith are as follows:

  • Thou shalt build upon thy dwelling a porch of such magnitude that it can serve as a gathering place.
  • Thou shalt construct a path of 2 cubits (approximately 4 feet) wide near thy porch for followers to meet and pray that a cul-de-sac shall not influence thy offspring.
  • A place for chariots shall be placed upon the buttocks of thy dwelling. Thy chariot must not be nearer to the dwelling than 4 cubits or thee will be smitten.
  • Thou shall plant a tree half a cubit from thy curb and in front of thy porch.
  • Create a place for gathering no farther than 600 cubits from thy dwelling.
  • Thy dwelling shall have Craftsman trim.
  • The path to heaven is taken by bicycle, light rail, or walking, not by powered chariot.
  • A congregant must dwell in extreme closeness to thy neighbor.

Myself? I’m a disbeliever; a heretic who thinks there is no place in the design of our cities and neighborhoods for this belief system to be regulated or enforced. If development companies are believers, then by all means let them develop their land in such a manner, as they will have the faith that homes will sell to those that also believe.

The danger arises when Federal funding is tied to the faith, on the basis that developments of extreme density will surely result in less vehicular miles traveled and a more healthy environment for human creatures. Do not follow this faith, and good luck getting funded. Is this the American way?

I do not believe the automobile is evil, and I'm thankful that I live in an era where I can think nothing of traveling 20, 30, 40 miles or even 400 miles. A hundred years ago my ancestors had no such luxury.

I am thankful that I live in a place that offers a sense of space, yet is not too distant from neighbors and services. I am especially thankful for choice. Yes, there is a coffee shop about a 10 minute walk away, but a three minute drive will get me to a coffee shop that offers more tasty drinks at lower costs.

Looking outside, I see two feet of new snow. I’m especially thankful that I do not have to use our icy walks in the sub-zero temperatures, and wait for the bus that connects downtown to the bus that would take me to within a ¼ mile of my office. Yes I’m thrilled to have a 5 minute drive to work instead of an hour bus ride (buses connect downtown, not in the burbs). Of course, those with faith believe that exposure to sub-zero weather and walking along icy surfaces is somehow healthier.

I lack the faith that extreme density without car ownership is a better way. As a disbeliever, I cannot find the faith to believe children being brought up in high-density, high-rise projects have the same quality of life as those brought up in homes with a secure and safe yard to play in. I cannot find the faith that living in high rise rentals is an American Dream.

I do believe the consumer will not flock to this new life of high density living. Yes, New York today is a somewhat exciting place to visit, but just a few decades ago it was a truly awful place. What will it be like two decades from now? Will it be a great place to live for those on the lower side of “middle income”?

I believe there is no magic architectural solution to create a better society – none. There is no special setback, density, or building-to- street ratio that can somehow provide a better life. There is no software button one can press to analyze land use and, bingo, spit out a solution. To believe that any of formula of that sort could be workable takes faith, a faith that is apparently held by many.

I also believe that it’s simply untrue that the suburbs are not walkable. In the southern states, most cities demand walks to be constructed on both sides of the street. Because of snow, as one ventures north, walkways become less mandated. I have visited (and not on a press tour) the developments of the faith of land planning: I’On, Kentlands, Celebration, SeaSide, WaterColor, etc. What I’ve observed is that there seem to be no more or less people walking than what I have seen in conventional suburbs. On these visits I have never seen a single person sitting on his or her front porch – not one.

Yet I do believe that a full front porch is important for two reasons. The first is that it connects the living spaces to the street, and it can be used to congregate. But secondly, there is a warmth to a neighborhood of homes that have full porches. It adds character, compared to the coldness of a development lacking porches. So— how the porch is used is not the only measure of its success.

The sooner we can get faith out of the design of our cities, the sooner we can implement sustainable solutions that have a positive effect on our living standards and help get our housing market (and our economy) back on track. And yes, I hope I’m dammed to a cul-de-sac for eternity!

Photo by Will Hart of College Hill, Rhode Island - Looking North-East with The First Baptist Church in America (1775), 75 North Main Street in the foreground.

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 and

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To enforce faith, you of

To enforce faith, you of course need an evil entity to oppose. The evil entity in the faith of land planning is The Suburbs. everycode

Their sermons of

Their sermons of architectural commandments introduce dimensional ratios that can deliver a utopian existence, promising a wonderland for families. buy facebook fans


But though the season of faith may be winding down, there is still a place where faith remains strong year round: It is often the basis of the way we plan our communities.plumber hoboken nj

Those that have not

Those that have not converted yet include land developers, builders, city council and planning commission members, and the majority of the home buying market. compensation for a work related injury

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Those that have not

Those that have not converted yet include land developers, builders, city council and planning commission members, and the majority of the home buying market. electricians bordesley green

Over the past two decades,

Over the past two decades, our city planning has become faith based. A new preacher has evolved in the form of the Architect or Planner who evangelizes to the congregation that they can all live in serenity roofing companies nj

But though the season of

But though the season of faith may be winding down, there is still a place where faith remains strong year round: It is often the basis of the way we plan our communities. tankless hot water heater nj

Their sermons of

Their sermons of architectural commandments introduce dimensional ratios that can deliver a utopian existence, promising a wonderland for families. kitchen plumbing repair nj

faith inspires common sense?

I'm but a mere dabbler in things urban planning, but I am intrigued by this conversation. How's this for faith-based planning? I may not be as quick as others to dismiss this traffic plan - I think there's something to be said for forcing people (however non-coercively) to open their eyes and see the others around them. I'd be interested to see what you all think about the project.

What property values say about people's preferences

I live in an older neighborhood in the inner core of Portland in a Craftsman bungalow with a large front porch that I sit on all the time in the warm weather. And, if I sit on the porch for an hour, I'm almost guaranteed to have at least one conversation with with one of the many neighbors passing by on foot. My neighborhood is almost all single-family houses on 50' x 100' lots, with back yards, and there are plenty of families with children. We're a 10 minute walk from the light rail line, a bus stops on my corner, and we can drive downtown in 9 minutes when traffic is light. Most people in the neighborhood have cars, but people also walk and ride bikes a lot. I ride my bike to work much of the time in the warm weather, otherwise I drive. I think my quality of life in my neighborhood is higher than it would be in either a newer cul-de-sac suburb or a very dense high-rise neighborhood. Apparently a lot of people agree with me, because my house is easily worth twice what a house of the same size would be in most of the Portland suburbs.

In many ways, my neighborhood is the best of both worlds. While it would be silly to require new developments to have Craftsman trim, I think there is something to be said for encouraging relatively high density development that takes the best from the "streetcar suburb" style development that characterizes my neighborhood.

Thank you, Rick, for your common sense

All the arguments for and against "New Urbanism" or Suburbs, or whatever else do not really matter so much as this: We are Americans and WE WANT TO BE FREE TO LIVE WHEREVER WE WANT! We do not want bureaucrats, politicians, or do-gooders telling us, or requiring us, to live where they think they know best. This is not the Soviet Union. Some people want to live in a city in an apartment or on a small lot. Some want to live out in the country on a large lot. I say let people live where they want--period. Let the free market control what type of subdivision and home is built, how it is built, and where it is built. Anyone who wants to dictate to us has basically adopted a totalitarian mindset. So thank you, Rick, for bringing some common sense to the table.

Everybody believes in something

Mr. Harrison, I reviewed your Prefurbia slideshow - nice graphic presentation, btw - and I see just as many "articles of faith" operating here as you criticize in New Urbanism. Indeed, each slide is based on an ideology that another writer could as easily turn into the Rick Harrison "10 Commandments," as you acknowledge in a later post.

As a practicing New Urbanist developer, I have encountered that these - or similar - articles of faith are carved in the stone tablets of local, regional, state and federal development regulations. Moreover, when we've been able to get past that gauntlet we're stopped dead in our tracks by banking regulations and Wall Street practices that are tied to the same belief system.

It is a common misconception that auto-oriented, low-density suburbia is the market preference but those of us who have tried to do anything have learned instantly that this "market" is anything but free and, as some posters have pointed out, suburbia forecloses choice rather than opening it. To blithely say that people can choose to live in dense cities (where cost of living is often much higher, for reasons mentioned below) is a glossing over of the real market choices, and ignores the fact that people ARE choosing to live in dense urban areas, driving up the values there.

Suburbia, as a child of Modernism, has its intellectual roots in none other than Marxist Communism. The suburban project has been facilitated by massive Federal wealth-redistribution projects (Highways, GI Bill, Fannie/Freddie, FHA, HUD) and continues to be subsidized by taxes at all levels of government that either redistribute wealth from urban areas, or borrow from future growth - the ultimate in unsustainable models.

If real estate markets were truly free and unsubsidized the landscape of choices would be dramatically different, and likely in ways that would surprise ALL of us - urbanists and suburbanists alike. For examples of how it might differ, though, I think it is instructive to look to the patterns of development that precede the Modernist era (pre-WWII). (this is not to advocate or dream of a complete return to this era, but merely to find a meaningful existing sample.)

Traditional urban patterns and practices held sway for thousands of years in every culture, not because of blind faith, but for extremely practical reasons. Access to other people for economic production and protection of farmland for food production went hand-in-hand, for example. This was not because people "believed" it was good to live close together; life simply demanded it.

It must also be noted that traditional urban forms were incredibly resilient in the face of both catastrophic and gradual changes, because the basic urban armature - streets and blocks - is immensely adaptable, as the enduring history of cities has demonstrated.

This brings me to my last (and then I'll shut up) point about your proposed (defended) planning methods. I see in Prefurbia a set and immutable mix of uses and building types. How does it (or suburbia in general) accommodate fluctuations in the balance of residences to commercial or changes in demographics? How would it handle a change in transportation mode, communications technology, or even the primary industry of its region? How will future owners add value to their property (ala adding on) without ruining your composition? (and I haven't even brought up climate change!)

"Prefurbia" is nicely designed to answer all the questions you have posed for it, but what about the questions you can't pose, because they haven't occurred yet? Do you suppose things in the future won't change? Isn't that a BIG leap of faith?

I agree that there are more than a few ideologues among New Urbanists, but the biggest ideologues I've encountered recently are the defenders of suburbia. New Urbanist principles (including front porches) are pragmatic (like the real 10 Commandments, IMO), not articles of faith (like transubstantiation.)

Nevertheless, we needn't stones at each other.


Only comment worth reading

Out of this entire article and subsequent discussion, the only thing worth reading is Frank Starkey's comment above. The simple fact is that the free-market is not at all free when it comes to development and housing choice, and the main reason people choose the current suburban form is that it is realistically their only "choice".

If the regulations against mixed-use and even moderate densities were removed (along with the huge subsidies for car travel), we'd see the development of a much larger variety of housing and neighbourhood types, from very dense urban places to standard suburban neighbourhoods and (here's the most important part) everything in between. Give developers and people choices, and then let's see what develops.

Land prices matter

Please read my long comment at the bottom of this thread.

I absolutely AGREE with you on this:

".....If the regulations against mixed-use and even moderate densities were removed......"

The VITAL thing is to NOT put "boundaries" and zoning in place that force up land prices. If you force up land prices, you REDUCE the rate at which efficient locations will "densify". Google Alain Bertaud; "Spatial Distribution of Density".

Any metro that keeps its land prices LOW, and allows densification to occur naturally at the most beneficial places, and allows urban land use "churn" and various agglomaration efficiencies (without allowing cumbersome zoning to get in the way); will BURY other metros economically AND by every measure of efficiency. Alain Bertaud's studies explain WHY places like Los Angeles and Vancouver and London and Sydney have "dense sprawl" or "dysfunctional density". There is NO CORRELATION between "density" per se, and economic efficiency. The "Spatial Distribution of Density" is what MATTERS. That is, your density needs to be at its MAXIMUM in the RIGHT places, and at its MINIMUM in the WRONG places.

Metros that force up the price of land as a consequence of urban growth boundaries, end up with a relatively consistent rate of "density everywhere", instead of a SLOPE to the urban density profile. If you have no restriction on the fringe, though, your land prices will remain low regardless of how low interest rates go or how easy credit becomes. However, your "spatial distribution of density" will end up FAR SUPERIOR to those metros who limit their fringe. You will end up with extremely low density at the fringes (which hardly matters), and your "density" will be in the RIGHT places.

It is as simple as this: how many people can afford a typical inner suburb condo in a metro with inflated land prices: condos for $1,000,000? In the "cheap land" metros, the same inner suburb condo might be $200,000. Ultimately, in the latter case, you are going to have a lot more people living that way.

Thanks Frank

You may see that I do borrow some basic elements from New Urbanism, and appreciate your comments.


how sweet

really ... these people do not need to be engaged on an intellectual level Frank.

They are intellectually dishonest and do not need people enabling there ideas.

Interesting Article But Could be Better

I thought Mr. Harrison was hitting on something important here, but then realized that he didn't present any facts and was just substituting one design faith for another. Also, the tone of the article is a little unprofessional and detracts from the content.

It'd be nice to see a more thoughtful and in-depth discussion of this issue.

Actually driving IS evil

Driving could be considered evil because it is the transportation mode that is most likely to impact others - private cars are much more likely to result in accidents than any other mode, and even if you avoid killing or injuring someone with your car, you still impact their health with the pollution from your tailpipe (both through the particulate matter and through the climate change caused by the CO2 emissions).

Since you have a choice to use other means of transport with lower impacts, but you freely choose the means that impacts others most, that could be considered evil.


For those not in-tune with what has been happening, the faith based planning article was intended to bring attention to using certain design elements and/or density goals as an end-all means to an end. Those failthful see only one solution to planning, and unfortunately, government funding is often tied to those goals only. In other words, there is no room for any other opinion, design, or density. Without being open to alternatives that leaves only one method as the end-all to all forms of design and neighborhod building. Certainly all types of planning are valid, but only when applied to the particular situation. As far as my CNU opinion, LEED-ND, is derived from the relationship with CNU and LEED, which in turn is demanded by many government contracts, which leads to my case in point which is essentially forcing one solution to build cities (at least from government's perspective).

I am also no fan of the suburbs - this is why we developed new methods, technologies and educational material. If the suburbs are to be built and grow, what is wrong with fixing the problems and making new suburban neighborhoods wonderful places with lower economic and environmental impacts?

As far as mixed-use, suburbs, etc, all one has to do is visit the web site and go to comparisons and you will see the before and afters of some subdivisions to be sure, but mostly you will see mixed-use developments of varying densities - including midrise, or the example of CND style mixed use to Prefurbia mixed use:

From the comments given - it proves the point that the respondents all have a certain faith in their way being "the" way with no room for others "faiths". Yes, I have a certain "faith" in our planning methods and theory - no doubt about it, but I'd never force it through legislation, political influence, funding, etc, but more by choice.

I hope this clarifies the intent of the article.

Finally, is this Mr. J Hoff the very same activist Johnny "Northside" Hoff? Just curious.

Mr. Harrison

You still refuse to engage in a fact based argument!

This shows your faith over fact!

This is not "Northside" and I am not an activist ... I am simply and easily proving that you do not know what you are talking about.

You have NO facts to back up your claims.

BTW a lot of planners think that LEED is a racket ... and most recognize that CNU has flaws ... but at least they are making strides to understand what makes PLACES ... not just SPACES.

You probably cannot comprehend this Mr. Harrison.

And for those who don't drive?

What happens if/when you can't drive? The elderly, disabled and children have little choice in such environments. For example, we live in a dense neighborhood two subway stops from downtown Frankfurt. In our five story building, there are two families, two elderly women, and a young couple. The benefits of such density and diversity are incalculable, from having someone to help take out the trash or shoveling the sidewalk, to coffee break/playtime get-togethers and BBQs. And not only can I walk my son to his day care, but on the way home we can stop at a playground that attracts dozens of kids from the whole neighborhood in the afternoons. If we had to play in the safe and secure back yard, he would get bored in 2 minutes. In the future, he will be able to walk to school, which is also just down the street. On our 5 minute walk to go shopping, we have an inspiring view of an historic Lutheran church tower. This was our choice, and I think there will be more demand for such places in the future. Finally, regarding the walkability of suburbs in the USA, I would like to relate a common story from my friends, neighbors, classmates and professors here in Germany (who have visited the states): when they went for a stroll visiting friends or family in the suburbs, they were either stopped by the police, or asked if they needed a ride somewhere (I'm going to guess out of the neighborhood). Sidewalks do not make a suburb walkable, people do.

Got faith, Mr. Harrison?

You also don't appear to have much faith in the intelligence of your readers, Mr. Harrison. Instead of any real argument, you spout this ridiculous rant about faith. If you would read a little yourself (books, articles, etc), you might find some faith in facts, nearly all of which reveal the truth you try to hide with this business-as-usual nonsense.

Importance of land use planning

Mr. Harrison spends many bits swiping at CNU straw men rather than addressing the bulk of what I perceive as the new orthodoxy of land use planning: the importance of density and mix. To the extent that he does address this issue, I think his piece is seriously flawed. He makes the common implication that a move toward more dense communities must be the result of planning impositions, rather than the result of relaxing existing prohibitions on dense development. There is much solid argument detailing the pernicious effects of existing density prohibitions and making a strong case that this sort of planning imposition is much more common than the specter that Harrison attacks. See, e.g., the work of Jonathan Levine.

Finally, I find Mr. Harrison's faith schtick to be more than a little ironic, given that his entire piece rests heavily on an article of his own faith: that global warming is either not a real problem or that its solution will come automatically.

The concept of "faith-based"

The concept of "faith-based" gets at the heart of the idealism on the part of many in the planning community. Never question what APA preaches; for all will be good.

I have a planning book from the early 1970s that goes on and on about how the new trend for urban shopping malls (e.g. Portland's Lloyd Center) are the key to revitalizing our cities. They are now the punchline of planning jokes.

The big front porch that is never used and the hokey architecture of modern "new urbanist" neighborhoods will be what we look back at and laugh at in 30 years.

Wow - the failthful answers!

The comments are what I expected. People have a choice - to live in an auto-centric suburb or live in dense cities. Given the response it would seem that people have no choice - they certainly do!

Hey Maryland

"Maryland's incentive-based approach has been less controversial, but the study also suggests it's been less effective."

That is not a condemnation on smart-growth ... it's a condemnation on weak regulation.

You people really need to learn that you are WRONG!


I presented no faith based argument, as you did! I reported facts from a variety of studies and you have NO counter argument. You, your designs and ideas are amateur at best.

Your lack of intellectual honesty exposes your veil of integrity.

Throw a few facts up there ... I tear em down.

Dear Mr. Hoff

Sticks and stones...

I must have really hit a nerve, wow! Sorry! Here is the facts - I've been contracted (paid) to design (in the past 16 years) over 700 Neighborhoods in 46 States, and 13 Countries with a 100% approval record on all designs I've designed and presented. These range from small sites to the 47 square mile Ranch at White Hills (250,000 units) south of the Hoover Dam, and the town of Madrid Expansion (30,000 units) in Colombia. I have never done a sketch plan - all my work is to survey plat accuracy. On the average my designs reduce public infrastructure 25% without losing density. I hold several patents in design technologies and have more patents pending. I've been keynote at many major conventions in the planning, sustainability and architectural industry.

If you think I'm an airhead and want to call me names, I'm sorry I've hit a nerve with you, that's fine - I'm curious, what are your accomplishments?

another thing

Sorry Harrison, but your stuck your neck out with an empty head!

Let's break this down:

"I am thankful that I live in a place that offers a sense of space,"

- notice he cares more about personal space than a sense place. "i"i"

"yet is not too distant from neighbors and services."

- again no understanding of place - just the individual - probably thinks Ayn Rand know what she was talking about.

"I am especially thankful for choice."

- Wow - for someone so against transit you are thankful for choice?!? the majority of America is auto-centric, thus, the reliance on a single mode of transportation LIMITS choice, it does NOT expand it ~ dolt!

"Yes, there is a coffee shop about a 10 minute walk away, but a three minute drive will get me to a coffee shop that offers more tasty drinks at lower costs."

Again, his choice is so individually focused - think about - how was that coffee made - someone other than himself did that - but his concern for the network of how all the people get there (including all the other customers who support the restaurant when he is not there enjoying the variety) is absent.

Also, his designs are pretty colloquial ... I've seen undergrads produce better work.

Religion as Planning

Mr. Harrison:

A home run.

this guy is so wrong it's funny2

Other studies help to cross examination the data and benefits surrounding mixed-use projects. Typical of single family development is the reliance on a cul-de-sac street network. Recently, the state of Virginia became the first state to significantly limit cul-de-sacs from development. Cities like Portland, Oregon, Austin, Texas and Charlotte, North Carolina have taken similar actions. From a transportation perspective, cul-de-sacs discourage walking and bicycling leading to an auto-dependent population. From a services perspective cul-de-sacs make it harder and more expensive for governments to render these services, forcing them to travel further distances. When understanding the effect of the disconnected street network on the nexus of land-use and transportation, what becomes apparent is that the disconnected network forces more drivers onto arterial roads, which overtime leads to gridlock and widening the road, costing more tax payer money.

Research conducted in Charlotte, North Carolina’s Department of Transportation studied the effect of connectivity on fire station service areas and capital facilities planning. The findings showed that as street connectivity increased, the number of households served by each fire station increased as well, reaching numbers between 20,800 to 25,900 compared to less-connected service areas serving only 5,700 to 7,300 households. The fiscal impacts on a per capita annual basis of less-connected network was $586 to $740, compared to just $159 to $206 in the more-connected transportation areas. Furthermore, since an ordinance limiting cul-de-sacs, response times have decreased to less than 5 minutes, reversing the trend caused by the disconnected network of increasing response times.
Another study completed by the American Society of Civil Engineers compared travel demand in a conventional, disconnected suburban pattern to a traditional or grid network neighborhood. Evaluating vehicular capacity, travel speeds, impacts of travel times and delays, and other factors, the study found that the “traditional pattern allows traffic to be dispersed among a dense network of local streets, whereas the status-quo pattern relies on a sparse network of major arterials.” This results in a travel demand on the status-quo pattern of 75 percent more on arterials and 80 percent more on collector streets that the traditional grid development.

A 2008 study by the University of Connecticut’s Center for Transportation and Urban Planning under took a public health and safety approach to understand the potential benefits of a connected grid street network. The study investigated the relationship between connectivity, network configuration, density, severe vehicle crashes, and mode choice of 24 California cities, classifying them as “safe cities” and “less-safe cities” (severe/fatal crash rates one-third of state average and close to state average respectively). In general, “Safe-cities” were established prior to 1950, had a higher population density and enjoyed a larger walking/biking/transit mode share. Indeed, in the pre-1940’s section of Davis, California the walking/biking/transit mode share was 59 percent compared to the post-1980’s section.

this guy is so wrong it's funny1

The Public Interest Projects, a for profit business and real estate development firm located in Asheville, North Carolina, came up with a new methodology to help governments understand the difference in property tax yield by comparing tax revenues on a per acre basis generated by a range of building types in different locations. The results of an analysis of Asheville, North Carolina and Sarasota, Florida clearly show a much greater return from urban centered, mixed use properties than single-use suburban development. By calculating revenue on a per acre basis, an apples-to-apples comparison of revenue returns is revealed.

In Sarasota, Florida the research found that 3.4 acres of mixed-use downtown development yielded 8.3 times more annual county property taxes and accumulated revenues that were 830 percent greater than a 30.6 acre, 357-unit apartment project. From a cost perspective, the public infrastructure installation costs of the downtown development were paid off in three years and totaled just 57 percent of the suburban project’s public costs, which will take 42 years to pay off.
In Asheville, North Carolina a suburban mall, built along a big box and commercial corridor, produces taxes of $7,995 per acre for the county, while two to four-story apartment buildings downtown generate twice as much as the mall ($18,109), and tree-to-four-story mixed-use buildings containing condo units generate $44,887. The biggest generator of revenue in downtown Asheville is a six story mixed-use/condo building producing taxes in excess of than $250,000 per acre. The analysis also revealed higher returns generated by mixed-use development’s property tax revenue when compared to sales tax revenue created by big box stores like Wal-Mart. In Asheville, after taking into account the state’s portion of the sales tax and adding the remaining money to the per acre property tax, Wal-Mart generates about $51,000 per acre, making it competitive with three to four-story mixed-use/condo developments closer to the city center.

Fatal Mismatch - Economically Ignorant Planners and Land Markets

Hoff, you personify the type of planning advocate referred to in the following paper. You've got all these fabulous little details to support your argument, but you don't see the big picture. The big picture is, what growth restraints do to land prices and what land prices do to all the outcomes you CLAIM will occur.

Paul CHESHIRE, London School of Economics:

"Urban Containment, Housing Affordability and Price Stability: Irreconcilable Goals" (2009)

"The planning goals of urban containment and now densification conceive of houses in terms of physical units and of land ‘supply’ as the area allocated for housing by the planning system; estimates of ‘demand’ are driven by household projections. Prices and price volatility are, however, determined by economic forces and there is a fatal mismatch between the operational concepts of demand and supply in markets and the parallel concepts with which the planning system works. Planning allocates a scarce resource – land – so is fundamentally an economic activity; but its decisions are made independently of price or market information. Moreover the concepts used by the planning systems vary with institutional arrangements and culture. Underlying these fatal clashes is the fact that
housing is a complex good with many attributes, each of which is subject to particular supply and demand conditions and that one of the most important attributes of houses is space – both inside and around them. So the more planning systems attempt to densify development or to confine new housing to ‘brownfield’ land, the more inelastic supply of a vital housing attribute is, the more ‘unaffordable’ housing becomes and the more volatile housing markets will be. There are solutions - but none of them comfortable for policy makers......"

".........Policy analysis and implementation is focused on physical units of housing, areas of land and densities of buildings and takes no notice of market signals or the real drivers of demand or supply........"

"........Price volatility is damaging for a number of reasons. It transfers asset values between groups. It creates financial instability, especially since house purchases are largely financed on credit – the origin of the current crisis in the financial system. It also makes monetary policy more difficult even for independent central bankers since it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore housing-market pressures rather than just for inflation targeting in setting monetary policy. Also booms and busts in house prices create oscillating wealth effects feeding through to consumption spending......."

"........In a recent paper (Glaeser et al, 2008) analysed price
volatility and its relationship to the elasticity of supply across 79 US metropolitan areas. During the cycle of the 1980s and early 1990s the most volatile of the 79 markets was Los Angeles, where real prices rose 67 percent from 1984 to the peak of 1989 and declined by 33 percent in the following five years. This was substantially less than the average for England of a 79.2 increase followed by a 37.6 percent fall. The boom in Britain from the 1995 trough to the peak in 2007 was getting on for twice that of the previous cycle – an increase of 146.7 in real terms. We do not yet know how large in proportionate terms the subsequent fall will turn out to be......"

Cheshire then discusses the Glaeser, Gyourko and Saiz 2008 paper, and adds:

".......This evidence (the Glaeser et al paper) does not prove that there was or was not a bubble in some US housing market areas but does show that price volatility is closely related to the elasticity of supply of new housing and is not inconsistent with a model in which expectations about future house prices influence current demand and in which the supply side of the housing market is endogenised. When we compare this to the English housing market we find not only is the average price volatility in England greater than in the most extreme urban area market in the US but it has increased very substantially over time while the supply of new housing – as the
last columns of Table 1 show - has become even more inelastic. A price increase in real terms between 1993 and 2007 1.85 times as large in percentage terms as in the previous boom produced an increase in building of only 38 percent of the previous increase. The peak of market construction in 2007 was only 86 percent of the level of construction of market housing averaged in each year of the 1960s. One of the main findings of Barker (2003) was how inelastic the supply response of house construction was in England and Wales. The evidence of Table 1 is simply further support for that view. The supply elasticity of construction is very low and has been falling. What are the reasons for this and what does a low elasticity of supply of new construction imply?......."

Cheshire then discusses the justification for land use regulation, due to the market failures that will occur in its absence. He continues, however:

".......As argued elsewhere (Cheshire and Sheppard, 2002; 2004) not only does the fixed location of land lead to particular types of market failure but it also generates important distributional effects, normally ignored. Consumption of a wide range of important goods and amenities, often thought to be provided free, actually is conditioned on individual incomes and wealth because the value of these attributes is capitalised into house prices. Thus, the ability to benefit from better schools or the amenities generated by land use planning is determined by household income. For example, the amenity values generated by Greenbelts differentially benefit richer house owners because the value of Greenbelt access is fully reflected in house prices. As a result only richer households can afford to purchase the flow of benefits that are associated with preserving the Greenbelt. The outcome - perhaps paradoxical to planners who are culturally egalitarian - is that the net effect seems to be that Greenbelts produce an even more unequal distribution of welfare (measured as equivalent income) than the incomes of home owners themselves (Cheshire and Sheppard, 2002)......."

Cheshire then discusses the differences in land use regulations, between Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, and the USA. Britain has practised urban growth restraint for much longer than any other nations, and therefore is a useful working example to learn from.

"......If we are to provide stable prices for a given quality of housing and are to do so via a ‘planning’ system rather than just by a regulated market with some government provision for low income housing, then what we need to predict is the effective demand for housing and garden space given that it is the quantity of land that the system allocates. Then we have to allocate not just that quantity of land predicted as being compatible with price stability but
more. Not all the land allocated as available for development will actually be developed. One rule of thumb suggested (Evans and Hartwich, 2006) is that this implies allocating 40 percent more land than the estimated demand indicates is needed......"

Cheshire then discusses some model simulations done by himself and his colleagues, with the following fascinating conclusion:

" a world in which the supply of land is restricted, the real driver of real house price inflation seems to be income growth not growth in household numbers. This stems from the strong income elasticity of demand for space....."

"......So long as we constrict the supply of land and the demand for space is as income elastic as it appears to be, projections of household numbers – even were they accurate – would be little help in guiding our system to improve housing affordability, maintain the quality of housing or dampen price volatility. Houses are not simple goods and demand is not just for quality-constant houses (something quite imperfectly measured in current house price indicators) but for improving house quality. A central component in ‘improving quality’ is more space. Such improvements in turn imply more land for housing and, in the absence of such an increase in land supply but rising incomes, average real house prices will continue to trend upwards.
It is unpopular and difficult to confront the dilemma posed in this paper but the irreconcilable conflict between current planning policies and underlying economic forces – the fundamentals – means we are faced with three unpalatable policy choices. We could try to live with housing markets becoming ever more volatile and housing of a given quality becoming ever more unaffordable with the very undesirable distributional consequences this would have quite apart from the implications for future financial and economic stability. The second choice would be rigorously to follow the logic of 1947 state planning. If we are intent on allocating land for each use without regard to price then logically we need to introduce space rationing. If price does not determine the supply of land then price must not determine its consumption. Each adult could, for example, have a ration of say 40 sq metres with dependent children having, say, another 20 sq metres each. We could, if we wanted, even introduce a trading system so young adults or those willing to live in more cramped conditions could sell some of their space ration perhaps buying back space in later life. This would be in some sense inequitable but very much less inequitable than the outcome of the present system.
The third possible policy choice would be to modify our system of land use regulation so that it takes explicit account of price signals in determining land supply. As argued in Cheshire and Sheppard (2005) an elegant way of doing this would be to use the differential in the price of land with and without planning permission as a trigger to release land unless the social or amenity value of the land in its existing use exceeded the price differential. While it might be difficult to agree precisely what the amenity value of undeveloped land was in all circumstances, the evidence is clear that for very large areas of intensive farmland – see, for example, Barker (2004) Table 2.1 - the amenity value cannot possibly exceed its value in gardens so that land for development would be readily available in more than adequate quantities. This would obviously mean reassessing current policies of densification and the boundaries of existing protected land and it would mean looking systematically at the public values generated by maintaining present designations. What it would emphatically not mean is ‘concreting over Britain’. Even if the total area of towns and cities increased by half (sufficient effectively to eliminate land scarcity according to the estimates of Cheshire and Sheppard, 2002) still their total area would be only about that of Greenbelts now. While perceptions of the majority of people are that half or more of England is developed the actual figure is about 10 percent. Even in the ‘overcrowded’ South East it is only 12.2 percent......"

"........(Barker, 2006b). The area covered by existing English Greenbelts alone is about one and a half times the total area of England’s urban areas.
The purpose of these reforms should not imply a free for all for development on current nonurban land. As discussed above there are good reasons for regulating land markets and for policy to control where building occurs. An additional possible reason for being concerned with urban densities might be if clear evidence appeared demonstrating lower densities contributed to a higher carbon footprint. The way to resolve that problem – if it exists – would be to impose an appropriate carbon tax, a strong case for which exists anyway. Trying to reduce carbon release indirectly by using an opaque set of regulations which only determine patterns of new development (a very small fraction of total development), is not likely to resolve any contribution the density of the built environment may make to overall carbon use; as well as continuing to have the serious impact on housing markets identified in this paper. Indeed, it is very probable the "Greenbelt and town centre first" policies in fact tend to increase carbon emissions. They intentionally extend commuting trips since workers have to cross the Greenbelt and they separate people who are increasingly dispersed, from shops, thus increasing shopping trips.......

".........More obviously some non-urban land has high amenity or environmental value and the public interest would be served by safeguarding it from development. One of the ironies is that this in fact applies to some ‘brownfield’ land such as the extensive grounds of 19th Century hospitals. Much intensively farmed agricultural land with little public access, however, has negligible value beyond its value for producing food fully reflected in its market price. Policies with respect to such low amenity non-urban land, especially adjoining existing urban areas, need to be urgently reviewed........."

So, go ahead, Hoff; - turn the USA into a "once was a great nation", just as urban growth restraint planning has done to Britain.

Nice Try

I don’t know whether to laugh or be concerned – the religious imagery is humorous but the implications you make and the outright mistruths perpetuated are scary. I realize the aims of the “new geography” and its kotkinites are to ignore the facts of an inefficient suburban built environment and gloss over the mistakes that were made. This done in order to try and put a new shine on an old product that rather than having “a positive effect on our living standards and help get our housing market (and our economy) back on track”, this building pattern is what has lowered quality of life and is what put our economy in its current position. Density is not just about “high-rises” as you put it and I seriously doubt that planning on the assumption that people don’t like to walk because of two feet of snow and sub zero temperatures is valid considering the majority of the country never experiences this type of weather. The choice you preach about (two can play that game) is the very thing that homogenous suburbia takes away not provides.
I appreciate what you are trying to say - to point out the slavish devotion to certain design principles. However, I also realize this is just a cover for pursuing your ultimate agenda which is despite the “new” rhetoric is essentially just perpetuation of the same building practices of the last 60 years and in turn the negative externalities associated with that.

good points

I would be all in favor of suburban development if the negative externalizes were internalized to the homeowner ... the problem is only a very few would be able to financially support the public burden that disconnected street networks put onto society.

Densities don't take transit

My community in the eastern part of Montgomery County, Maryland was subjected to a community master plan based on a concept of transit serviceability as far back as 1981.

The concept of transit serviceability was about improved transit bus service, park-and-ride lots and a massive increase in residential densities in order to force residents of thousands of new apartment and townhome units to ride transit - with the emphasis of all that transit being the Silver Spring Metrorail station, a long and slow bus ride away.

It was also about protecting large lot zoning and "viewsheds" in the far-away Montgomery County Agricultural Preserve, through the use of transferrable development rights.

From the perspective of the residents of eastern Montgomery County, the concept of transit serviceability was a failure.