Cookie Cutter Housing: Wrong Mix For Subdivisions

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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

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Great one! this article is

Great one! this article is really amazing.
It helps in boosting my knowledge..
I'm hoping for more posts soon.
gain twitter retweets

new home buyers wanting more then beige vinyl in little rows.

I work as a realtor, and I think many people are getting tired of the same old subdivision. I take the buyers around to one after another of grey or beige vinyl sided homes in neat little rows. They cannot remember one house from the next. Some give in and look at older houses (not that's bad).

Even expensive houses (for my area) are getting stuck in that rut. I have a subdivision that costs $500,000 for the average. Outside of the great location and really nice residents as neighbors, it doesn't offer anything more then a competing subdivision a little further down the road that costs half of that.

Same too small lots (don't get me started on lot sizes lately), straight boring roads, not even fancy streetlights or anything! Plus the developer is looking to get out of finishing the roads :(

Between developers, home builder, town officials, zoning, and the cost of open land most buyers are giving up on a lot of things they would have liked to have had in a new house. They have to give in, there are no other choices for the most part, and they do end up liking the house for the most part. Bigger lots, having the garages not overpowering the streets and look alike houses are the main thing people talk about.

Probably the reason when I build my new house, I will have to move out a little further out or develop my own neighborhood (I really like the look of your subdivisions Rick).

Never said mandated staggering setbacks

The thrust of the article was that we have ordinances that state only minimums ... this is translated to the design crowd as not minimums but are used as absolutes. The fact is these ordinances do not suggest alternatives, but worse, the complacency of the professionals hired to design and present, enforce following these minimums. To think that a land surveyor, civil engineer, or technician (formerly known as a draftsman) acting as the Land Planner (the case with the vast majority of those designing our future USA neighborhoods) have a natural talent to design attractive sustainable development while thinking outside the box is a fantasy. They read the minimums and follow that recipe... there is no other recipe suggested in most American ordinances other than perhaps some TND alternatives and PUD - both which allow even tighter minimums. To mandate staggering would be absurd... to clearly offer more options while suggesting design standards that would enhance value would promote better neighborhood design suggests designs that would not have an after-taste.

Agree completely with those

Agree completely with those ponts. Good article, just had a few things to say.

Good Design?

I agree completely with some of these points about regulations for the built environment. But I have issue with your assessments of basing regulation around "better design".

For instance, you mention that staggering homes equates to a better streetscape. I really don't think that's true at all, nor is there much in the way of historical or design precedent that could prove that. One can simply walk down a nice street in a neighborhood or city and realize that most homes and buildings actually have the same setback from the street as their surrounding buildings. It creates continuity, not chaos, much like a nice row of street trees.

What is "good design"? Seems like a very subjective regulation. Codes are arbitrary enough as is.

Good Design?

Mandated variable street setbacks?

There goes the Grand Crescent at Bath.

Owen McShane, Kaiwaka, New Zealand.
Director, Centre for Resource Management Studies.

I never said anything about

I never said anything about mandated street setbacks, nor did I advocate for such.

I denounced his notion that a "staggered street" setbacks makes for a better streetcape environment, and my counterpoint was that historical precedent (before street setback minimums) shows that often buildings are within a range of each other. Having similar setbacks of buildings creates (in my opinion and backed up with a wealth of design precedent) a very nice streetscape. Would you see a no setback building next to a 30 foot setback building? No, that would look odd.

If someone wants to "stagger" their buildings, go right ahead, I think that's fine. But I am queasy about crafting codes after perceived aesthetics rather than aesthetic that is at least proven, to a degree or another.

I never said anything about ...

I know you didn't and I was supporting you.
I was just trying to make the point that there are horses for courses and mandating any kind of uniformity
– even uniform variation – will kill some designers innovative and satisfying design.
Tread lightly and encourage risk!

Owen McShane, Kaiwaka, New Zealand.
Director, Centre for Resource Management Studies.

It's all about risk

A good article, and anyone who wants to experiment with the formula should be applauded.

People tend to individuate their interiors, usually not the exteriors. For most people, the production home is just fine. The article does not mention that homogeneity is such a precious commodity that subdivisions freely create homeowners' associations to further restrict owners' rights, and people willingly buy homes in these subdivisions.

It's all about reducing risk to property values. For those who want to concentrate on other things, having a developer and planner set the design is just fine. For these people, homes are no different than other consumer products like refrigerators or cell phones. You wouldn't want your cell phone designer to scramble up the keypad just for variety, or fashionably shape the refrigerator in a way you can't get a jug of milk in it.

Then, there are those who do like creative individuation, and there are plenty of existing subdivisions that offer this too.

Richard Reep
Poolside Studios
Winter Park, FL