Land Planners Dig In Again

Housing Construction.jpg

In the housing industry, land planners are the first to be dropped during a downturn… and the first needed in an upturn. A good way to monitor the optimism of the housing development market is to monitor the volume of land planning.

The land plan is the beginning of a long and arduous process. Unlike architecture, which is relatively quick from design to construction, land planning takes patience. It can easily consume a year or two (or more) for a US neighborhood to go from the initial design stages to the beginning of construction.

Typically, but not always, national recessions coincide with downturns in the construction industry. For example, housing growth in the Minneapolis region leaped to the far outer suburban regions because we had an urban boundary that raised raw land prices and made unsubsidized affordable housing within the core unattainable. To get a financially attainable home for a middle-class family meant a 30 mile trek to the suburbs, typically in that shiny new gas guzzler SUV.

About a year before the national recession, when local gas prices exceeded three dollars a gallon, homes sales in the outer reaches of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) came to a standstill. This halt impacted the low-value suburban cookie cutter bland developments. Planning consultants that simply followed the regulatory minimums saw their workload come to a screeching halt.

Around that same time, our unique land planning business grew 30%. Our clients were savvy developers and builders who knew that they needed an edge to entice buyers back into new purchases. Unfortunately, development redesign takes time to go through the approval processes. When the banking collapse triggered the national recession and the housing collapse, we had 105 neighborhoods going through the approval process. Within a 48 hour period, all 105 neighborhoods either went dead or dormant. The building industry Armageddon had begun.

Most design professionals we knew reduced overhead to survive or went out of business. We weren't aware of any that took the time or money to re-educate or re-tool. On the other hand, during the five year downturn we invested more time, money, and energy than we had in the past into improving design models, software technology (and related patents). This depleted our personal and corporate resources, because no bank or investor was interested in a company that served the home building industry. Our work outside the US kept us (barely) afloat.

During the recession years we had only two jobs within the US: A single master planned community of 1,900 units, and a 20 lot subdivision. That was it. When 2012 began, the phone started ringing with requests for the planning of new domestic developments. The preparations to invest in the recovery were underway.

In the years before the recession it had become increasingly more time consuming and difficult to gain approvals. The US is the only country in which we work where neighbors have input into development decisions, even when a project clearly meets all required regulations. But now, we are witnessing quicker approvals than before, as citizens (I think) recognize that their net worth, income potential, and perhaps their job (or that of a family member) is tied to getting the housing industry healthy again.

When suburbia imploded, urban planners and architects rejoiced and announced a resurgence of urban growth that promised an era of utopian living. People were going to walk, bike, or be bused to nearby jobs in gentrified (i.e. expensive and exclusive) neighborhoods. Instead of decaying urban blight, we were going to see suburban blight. To be sure, urban economic growth areas such as Washington DC saw reinvestment and positive redevelopment, but for the most part, the promising urban rebirth miscarried.

In the 45 years that I’ve been in the planning, engineering, and software side of land development, I’ve continually read about the death of the suburbs and the major change in the housing market. Most of the predictions have proven to be false. Terms like 'cocooning' and 'clustering' failed to catch on, and are no longer commonly used.

More recently, I’ve seen a projection that 50% of all households will be single person entities in the not too distant future. I’m from the hippie generation. If, in 1969, forecasters judged that we represented future housing needs, everyone would surely have foreseen an upcoming growth in communal neighborhoods, marriages with multiple sex partners, and children raised in flower gardens. Yet most of our generation grew to be conservative, short haired, well behaved, religious suburbanites and business leaders.

I’m certainly not an economist, a demographer, or a professor, but my projection is that the idealistic young people of any generation will eventually marry and desire (for the most part) a home with a yard in which to raise their children. A home they are proud to pull up to in a neighborhood that is beautiful, safe, connective, and functional. In addition, I believe that they will want a lower-maintenance home that consumes little energy for heating and cooling. That home could very well be in a redeveloped urban environment, or in a suburban setting.

Those that qualify for a mortgage today want to arrive at an individual home that elevates their sense of self-worth, especially after experiencing the recession. Instead of a 10mpg SUV, they are likely to drive home in a vehicle that gets three to five times that efficiency, making the cost per gallon not so critical, even if we go beyond five dollars a gallon.

The resurgence in development is sprouting in many regions. North Dakota, for example, desperately needs to house its workers in cities that offer enough of a living standard to entice families. Before the boom, the minimalistic regulations worked well. But that approach is far behind the curve to create competitive, sustainable towns during the current population explosion. The number of new development submittals and the demand for housing is overwhelming both the city staff and the local engineering firms.

To make matters worse, developers and builders flooding into the area to make a quick buck have built some truly terrible dwelling places. The result has been a sense of caution that is preventing quick approvals. Many consulting firms that used to prepare farm property splits or new utility easements are now planning large scale developments. They are either unqualified or ill-prepared for designing new cities.

Regulations such as streets with 66-foot wide right-of-ways and absurdly wide local paving widths (often over 40 feet) go unchallenged because consultants do not want to deviate from obsolete regulations in fear of further delaying approvals.

Moving forward as the housing market recovers, if we simply repeat the same solutions that we used prior to the recession, growth will be slow but steady. If we add significantly more value by advancing both home and neighborhood design, efficiency, and value we can accelerate economic recovery and leave a better legacy for future generations. At the same time, we would increase developers' profitability, and decrease municipal maintenance burdens. As with any product, demand is created or re-energized when the product is significantly improved.

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

Flickr photo by outtacontext, 'A few acres of suburban land, previously a high school… becoming a housing development.'


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Wide roads, rights of way, and future intensification

One of the ironies of the modern penchant for "intensification" in most of the first world, is that many of the areas being intensified have streets that are narrow, and an abysmal lack of rights of way to access infrastructure of all kinds.

This results in "intensification" as a policy ending up far more expensive and economically destructive than simply keeping on sprawling. Narrow roads designed for 5,000 vehicles per day end up carrying 30,000 and no widening is even planned. Or if investigated, is abandoned for reasons of cost (of acquisition of land and demolition of existing structures).

Shlomo Angel et al discuss this in "Making Room for a Planet Full of Cities". They say that new greenfields development now, should be designed having in mind that intensification might be required in the future.

Ironically, uninhibited sprawl does result in more intense "nodes" being developed later on land that was "leapfrogged", because once development has occurred around and beyond it, it becomes more logical what use it should be put to, and this is often a mixed-use node of amenities and transit hub and higher density housing. Angel et al point out that "infill" of fragmented land occurs faster in Houston than in Portland. One reason is that the price of all land is forced up so much in Portland by their UGB, that it does not merely force more intense use; it is an obstacle to useful utilisation, period.

Just as gold is a speculative commodity with prices completely independent of the actual uses of gold, urban land in growth-regulated markets can be traded almost indefinitely between speculators, and used as collateral for further highly-geared "investing", without actually being put to any use. Strangely, people seem to be capable of seeing the lunacy in "Ponzi" type schemes in everything except urban land and housing.

bare minimum gets you nowhere...

It's clear that one person is thinking in the capacity of minimums while the other is thinking in the capacity of maximums.

66' R/W w/32'-40' of pavement is not a requirement nor is it sustainable ... it forces units back but does not allow for shaping of the development and yards; causes flash flooding because of the significant amount of impervious surfaces; significantly increases a municipality's maintenance costs over time; and maybe most importantly, they are UGLY and give no sense of HOME other than, "yeah, I live here."

Not many people like walking or biking (I am an avid bent cyclist) along routes that are straight, narrow and close to traffic. Easements are used for utilities and drainage...they can also be used for sidewalks and paths to allow for curvilinear routing that makes the path to the destination a more enjoyable experience.

I have lived on this earth for only 41 years. During that time, I have been practicing civil engineering as a professional since 2002 and have been involved in the construction industry since 1990. I have yet to see a suburban environment that has both sides of the street (landing strip of 32'-40') full of cars with traffic and emergency vehicles trying to access the same problem area simultaneously. Maybe if the stars aligned just right that "might" occur but it is a faulty excuse to use over-kill.

Urban Twin Cities and first tier suburbs from the first part of the century to the 1970s had issues. However, now, most new homes have two and three car garages & longer driveways which promote off-street parking. This removes the need or excuse to "pave-the-world". To make excuses to spend more money on infrastructure because an engineer's fees are based on a percentage of construction costs is bad form. That guard has either died or has been replaced with a new generation of thoughtful engineers whom look at the problem and find new solutions to the entire set of problems that land development brings which are cost effective in the short, near and long term.

This thinking was a problem with urban development (under the old guard) because of minimal thinking. Minimum standards pull out the best in every industry correct? We are lazy at best and it takes effort and skill to do something that is more than the minimum that results in a net reduction in cost and a net increase in both profitability and reduction in time. The issues of the past ranged from inexperience (engineering is a "learned" or "experiential" industry), lack of vision, political ineptitude, constructability and costs. That is not the case with how developments and municipal infrastructure can be implemented today.

We no longer need a three person survey crew (GPS with a base station and a 4-wheeler gets the job done) or 6 months to design and prepare construction documents for grading, sanitary sewer, storm sewer, water main, streets and site hydrology. Construction crews no longer need to give the horses a break during hot days for grading operations. Software today allows us to run many iterations of a problem with different potential solutions whereas yester-years projects could only be afforded to be done once. Construction equipment has the capacity to transform a landscape in months instead of years with precision our grandparents could not have even fathomed.

A mentor once told me, "The only thing constant is change." He also said, "God gave you two eyes, two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion." I'm still working on the second one and probably will be to my dying day. However, the first is and will always be true. The housing industry hasn't really changed over the past 100 years. However, the regulatory agencies and how they design their ordinances/regulations are what we should be looking at here.

If you have ever looked, nearly all ordinances are the same. Not just similar but IDENTICAL. If the attorney(s) would have written the ordinances in college, they would have been kicked out for plagiarism. It is all too apparent that policy makers have NO idea what they are doing and that mentality is being passed from generation to generation because like all of our parents said, "Because I told you to." or "I've just always done it that way." is good enough.

The housing market bust should be seen as an opportunity to revisit why we do what we do. How we should do it. What problems do those methods cause and/or solve. How can we improve. What needs to change yesterday, today and tomorrow. It's not a matter of if we can change. It's a matter of having the intestinal fortitude to try something that seems plausible, look at the results, and modify or accept those results. Our homes are an appreciable asset. Our methods for creating homes should also follow the trend of appreciation. Improving our methods will ensure that housing stock will appreciate in value. With the housing market collapse, we definitely saw what the "true" value of our housing stock is. We can do better.

Although site development and housing is based in the earth sciences like physics & chemistry, we have all forgotten how to throw clay and turn it into a really cool shape that EVERYONE can appreciate.

The people who aren't good at creating "sexy" or "appealing" shapes will try to charge more for their efforts in their "attempt" at doing so. However, the people who are good at achieving a better product with mass appeal won't have to charge more for their efforts. They will be able to charge a little less based on volume.

Continuing to do something that has a negative consequence over and over again and having the unrealistic expectation that something good will eventually happen is the definition of insanity. As Susan Powter was well known for saying, we need to, "Stop the insanity!", be bold and find new solutions that satisfy the things that makes us human:

A desire to be creative.
A desire to express oneself.
A desire to have a place that you are proud to call your own.
A sense of home/family/community.
The ability to enjoy the outdoors and open spaces (landscape).
The ability to get from one place to another without having to stop every 300'-600' for a stop sign at a four-way intersection.

The premise of Prefurbia creates a place where a person's intellectual, spiritual, physical and emotional needs are met. Those states of well-being are critical to each person's happiness and sense of self-worth. I may not have grown up with flower power, but I do remember HR Puff N' Stuff and Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. There isn't anything wrong with thinking outside of the box and creating something that isn't just functional but beautiful.

All of us in the home industry should be interested in leaving a legacy of neighborhoods that people will enjoy for generations to come.

wide street lanes

We work in 46 States, and all but one - North Dakota has consistently enormous streets and right-of-way widths. Snow storage is no excuse, as the 50' wide right-of-way typical of Minnesota new suburban streets have far more snow that needs moved, but then our streets are typically between 28 and 30 feet wide, the same as Oregon, the same as Texas, and about 40+ other States.

As far as the pavement width argument - in that 'emergency' aren't the emergency vehicles going the same direction to the problem?

In the 1920's cars had no garage, so parking on the street sides were essential, then in the 40's we began seeing 1 car garages as commonplace, then the 60's were two car garages, leading to the past two decades where a suburban home in the north not only has a three car (or more) garage, but typically an oversized one with a driveway extending full garage width to the curb that can essentially park the families 6 to 9 Ford F150 extended cab trucks!

In other words we need less and less street parking and thus one sided street parking is more typical. Our Williston 'Creekside' neighborhood is typical for our designs, the setbacks are greater on average which promotes more garage usage and the streets become park-like which encourages neighbors to not clutter the street with vehicles. Creekside uses narrower right-of-ways and streets with absolutely no negative ramifications. We have neighborhoods in Surry and Dickinson approved with narrower street and right-of-way. And lastly, West Fargo already took the lead to change the street regulations to 50' Right-of-Way and 28' wide paving.