Homebuilding Recovery: A Zoning & Planning Overhaul

Zoning Poster.jpg

Part III of the Recovery Blueprint for homebuilding. Defining good zoning and good planning, and a look at how social engineering plays in.

What exactly is ‘planning’?

It can be government creation of an Interstate Highway, or a city council vote on a new park. For the purposes of this blueprint, planning refers to the design of a new land development or a design for redevelopment. In both cases, the land plan is the developer's business plan. The design will either be positive or negative for the sustainability — long-term health — of the city.

Typically, the ‘planner’ will be an engineer or surveyor if the development is suburban, or an architect or ‘urban planner’ designing an urban redevelopment. In any case, the planner will follow regulations that set ‘minimums,’ such as a minimum on lot size, side yards, front and rear setbacks, and so forth. There are a few major problems with this ‘minimums’ based system.

In order to maximize profits for the client (the builder or developer), the planner is encouraged to squeeze as many units as possible within the available land. The design of the development becomes a mathematical exercise, more than an attempt to create an attractive and functional neighborhood design.

The result becomes a monotonous, cookie-cutter solution. It maximizes not just density, but also construction costs, with a high volume of streets, utility mains, and sidewalks.

Technology made the situation worse, with software not only limiting creativity, but also influencing the planning to correspond with the predetermined, robotic functions of the widely used software.

A minimums-based design is quite rigid. In the long run, if a design is driven only by density, the development can be far less profitable for the developer, despite the original intention to economize. Builders who buy lots from the developer also end up paying more than they would have with a different approach. When topography and the overall property configuration are more complex, and as restrictions on wetlands and tree ordinances increase, it gets worse. Rigid designing is like trying to fit a square peg in an odd shaped hole, increasing waste.

Development after development becomes a clone, because of the way regulations are written and interpreted. This monotony can then only be broken up with a much greater attention to architecture and landscaping. The ‘geometry’ of each development remains similar.

This is where the confusion between good planning and good architecture comes in. An example is New Urbanism, with architecture as its key component. A coherent architectural theme, full front porch, and street trees are typical of these developments. Compare that to the vinyl sided, bland subdivision where the three-car garage is the dominant feature. New Urbanism typically wins the curb appeal beauty contest. (Of course, in upscale suburban communities where every home showcases great architecture and landscaping, that is not necessarily the case.)

Underlying New Urbanism is the implication that certain design elements will change behavior and solve social problems. Neighbors will want to interact regardless of income, race, religion, and so on. Many think this ‘Stepford Wife’ approach places design as a tool to implement mind control. Is it?

Those who reside in New Urban communities desire the more attractive setting. The architectural and landscaping control creates a welcoming and cohesive community appearance, compared to the garage snout vinyl cladded subdivision. These developments are typically more expensive per home square foot, thus your neighbor is likely to be somewhat successful, just like you. This is no more social engineering than is providing any market for successful people who value appearance and like to live among others with similar values.

Within a city, other planning solutions can result in social change. Replacing a blighted, high crime neighborhood with a gentrified urban mecca for wealthy residents that enjoy the nightlife is one sure formula to do so. But is it a change in the right direction for a city?

What happens to those low-income families that are displaced? How are their lives improved? Theoretically, they could move to a safer, less blighted area, like many who were displaced by Katrina. Instead of displacing poor families, there are viable solutions based on rebuilding blighted areas and maintaining affordability. Not the typical ‘smart growth’ solutions, though; those often add significantly to redevelopment costs. Compressing these families into dense, high-rise structures does nothing to foster pride, thus, high-density low-income housing could be considered unsocial engineering.

Zoning gets attacked, but the truth is that it tends to preserve property values better than intermixed usage does. New Urbanism offers the promise that the rich and poor can all live on the same block. That would be marketing suicide for the developer and builder. Suburban zoning can also be a terrible model. It places the strip mall or multi-family homes along arterial roads, then transitions to the large single family lots and homes as one drives deeper into the subdivision or the ‘master planned’ community (i.e., ‘larger’ subdivision). Showcasing the cheapest housing, and placing the most families in the worst places is land use madness. To highlight inexpensive homes and strip malls cheapens the development and the city as a whole.

A blueprint for recovery without class barriers, one that benefits all income levels, can easily be accomplished today. To start, the suburban zoning pattern is in serious need for an overhaul. Reversing the pattern would increase property values and profitability, and values would be more stable over time.

A less rigid geometric pattern would reduce monotony, while allowing the development design to adhere to the natural terrain. An adherence to the natural terrain allows surface flow, which reduces the expense and negative impact of traditional storm sewer systems.

How can all of the above be expedited? Cities can be proactive by writing regulations that reward better solutions. That particularly includes a modification of their existing minimums-based regulations.

Flickr photo by infomatique (William Murphy): "Discussion: 'Can Zoning Be Bad For You?' All land in Dublin City is zoned for one particular use or another, some more restrictive than others…"

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 pps-vr.com.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Zoning & Planning Overhaul

Daniel R. Levitan
President, Levitan & Associates

An excellent article and one with which I totally agree.

It is foolhardy to believe that zoning or planning for strictly social purposes can be successful as the market determines where they wish to live, in what type of community, in what home and at what price.

Good planning is its own reward, creating sustainable environments where homes and values stand the test of time.

There is no excuse for "bad" planning - it is not more cost effective nor does it create housing that sells better. In fact, a development with good planning will outsell the competition lacking proper planning in good markets and bad.

Define planning

Ian, that is why I defined planning for the purpose of this article at the beginning. You are correct, regulatory planning restricts property rights. Design innovations allows the planner to make the best of a bad situation.

What exactly is ‘planning’?


Sadly you fail to answer your own excellent question - What exactly is ‘planning’?

You are not exact enough, and deal with formalities. Planning is a political and economic limitation on land owners. Quite who has the power to limit the land owner depends on which planning system you are dealing with, with differences across American States.

The answer to the question in Britain is:

Planning is the national denial of capitalist development rights by a state that prefers to sustain the market in mortgage lending than allow the building of cheap homes in plentiful supply.


This is an abuse of the word "planning".

The 1947 Planning Act allows this powerful denial to be sustained today, and protects the City of London.


Ian Abley