Nobody likes the taste of “cookie cutter” development. In the forty years that I’ve been in the land planning industry, at meeting after meeting I hear planning commissioners and city council members complain about the same thing: That developers submit the same recipes to cook up bland subdivisions over and over.
But while the developers are the scapegoat, it’s those who sit on the council and planning commissions that are as much, if not more to blame. They are also the ones with the power to change the status quo.
Communities have a cookbook that tells the developer and the design consultant the ingredients that must be used; this is called “The Ordinance”. Just as one might bake cookies using clearly defined amounts of flour and sugar, the cook looks to the ordinance to see that he will need exactly 10 feet between homes, at precisely a 20 foot setback from the curb, served up on a lot no greater than 5,600 square feet.
Thus, 100 cookies baked from the same recipe have about as much in common as the 100 lots built on “Pleasant Acres”. The developer presents the plan to the council. The scrumptious, pastel-colored rendering promises a tasteful development. But the council and planning members remember the aftertaste of the promises of past submittals.
Developers do not design land developments. They hire consultants who design them. The consultants are likely to be engineers and land surveyors, who also act as land planners. A cookie cutter development is called a "Subdivision”. A really large cookie-cutter development is called a “Master Planned Community”. In the end, no matter what its size, when you look down the street on which people live, both Subdivision and Master Planned Community have the exact same feel.
Why? Because the ordinance says so.
Yes, it's true that the ordinance does not say anything about how to make creative, wonderful, sustainable communities; it only demands certain minimum dimensions and area restraints. But the key problem is that the developer, the engineer, the surveyor, and the planners think that the term “minimum” means the “absolute” dimensions.
So who cooked up these ordinances? Who determined that 5,600 square feet was the ideal lot size for the zoning in a particular city? Why does the fire department demand the public streets be 40 feet wide, when in a nearby city the public streets are just 26 feet wide? Are the buildings burning down over there, and not here?
Citizens who have the power to create the changes that are needed – the councils, the planning commission members, and the Mayors — unquestionably embrace these recipes that enforce the absence of taste in their cities. Those who write regulations are actually often being paid to boilerplate these nauseating formulas from neighboring towns, when they should be looking to create entirely new recipes for tasteful development.
It’s time to throw out the systems that don’t work. Ordinances should be more reward-based and less minimum-based. A town's regulations should ask developers to explain each element of the design and tell how it benefits the developer, the resident or business owner, and the city.
For example, most ordinances simply state: '10 foot side yard minimum (20 feet between buildings)'. What if the ordinance was written as '10 foot side yard', then went on to explain that staggering the homes could offer a better streetscape. It might go on to mention that, with windows placed along the staggered side, living areas would have better views, making the homes more marketable. In this scenario, side yards could be reduced, to, say, 5 feet (10 feet between buildings). This type of regulation guides developers by rewarding better design with denser development. Virtually every aspect of the regulations could be written in such a manner. Nobody loses – everyone wins!
The developer’s consultants also deserve some of the blame. The developer will always hope for a project that will sell better than other developments in the area...always. Yet somehow, the developer trusts that the same consulting firm that designs all the other developments in town will have some special brainstorm that will somehow set this particular Subdivision apart.
This is one reason that nothing really changes. Another is that consultants who design Subdivisions (mostly licensed engineers and surveyors) are not likely to go against the rules. To a licensed individual who places his or her reputation and stamp on a plan, challenging a rule is very uncomfortable. Conflict between the consultant and the council and planning commission is highly feared: what if the change fails? The city's representatives might view the consultant negatively on the next project. It’s far simpler to use one cup of flour and a tablespoon of sugar.
Until only six years ago I felt as if I was the only one challenging convention. At every meeting I would present plans that went beyond ordinance minimums to make sustainable and functional communities. At every meeting, typically in the back row, was the developer's engineer, paid to attend. I had to defend against every question regarding engineering that was done outside of the recipe, and offer reasons for the benefits. Never once did an engineer who was paid to back me up offer support.
Then, in 2003 at a council meeting in the small town of Amery, Wisconsin, the impossible happened. On an engineering question, the developer’s consultant, Steve Sletner, owner of TEC Design, of Eau Claire, Wisconsin jumped right in and actually defended the changes we were challenging. A Licensed Civil Engineer became my instant hero (still is).
If every engineer thought more about the quality of life of those living in the developments that they engineer, this would be a much better world. Since then, Steve and I have been winning the war against the cookie-cutters in an enjoyable, relaxed atmosphere with councils and planning commissions everywhere.
Outside of the US, I've also found similar roadblocks to successful design. While in the Middle East, I met with the young head of sales for an extremely large developer. He complained about home designs that customers simply did not care for. I asked if he let his superiors know about the problems. Fear came across his face. Fear of confrontation is perhaps the biggest problem holding us back. Confrontation should not be an issue if there is supporting proof that the new solution offers less environmental impact and higher value, or is safer, etc.
An advantage we have in the US is that the citizens who sit on planning commissions and councils have more common sense than consultants give them credit for. When they don’t like the taste of what they are getting, they spit out negative comments at public meetings.
I wish that every planning commissioner and council member in this country could get this one message: If you don’t like the taste of what you are getting, hire a different cook to write a new cookbook for your community. President Obama recently stated that we must rely on the American spirit of innovation. A rewards-based regulatory system would be a major step in innovating the way our cities operate.
The planning industry needs a massive overhaul to replace our obsolete system with one that results in sustainable development. Minimum-based regulations are recipes that guarantee that only minimal cities will be built. Cities are the foundation of our society. And remember: You are what you eat.
Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable. His website is rhsdplanning.com.