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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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.