Now That the Suburbs Are No Longer Evil, When Will They Get More Functional?


Nothing like an Urban Riot (and a Pandemic) to cause renewed flight to the suburbs. This recalls when I was starting out in 1968, shortly after the riots in Detroit that caused one of the strongest explosions of suburban growth this nation has ever seen. Suburbs are now more diverse, but they are still far from the egalitarian ideal they could envision.

I learned about suburb-building firsthand under Don C. Geake and Calvin Hall. The firm was well known to achieve the density while working within the existing regulatory minimums. Don and Cal taught me loopholes in the regulations to comply and squeeze ever more homes and I discovered more over the 6 years employed there. Our beautiful renderings along with Don’s talents that could convince planning commissions and councils of the wonderful utopian projects gained us business.

The truth is many of our resulting suburban developments were very nice for the upper income strata. But those built for the low to middle income subdivisions were nothing special. Upper income neighborhoods will always look better because of the increased architectural and landscaping budgets along with most having far more space than those at the mass market income levels. Given the demands of the market, and those of the planning profession, a small lot back in those days would be considered a large lot today.

So now, it is 2021 – and Suburbia is hot again. The fact is in many opinions (not just mine), our new suburban developments and living standards have gotten much worse over the past ½ century on the lower to middle-income mass-market levels.

Some of this comes from the planning community and their allies in the architecture profession. The politically embedded organizations like the Congress of New Urbanism ( made up mostly of architects have fought suburban sprawl convincing many cities to adopt itsy-bitsy setbacks that have resulted in over densification of development. High density is all and well, but only if the architecture and the landscaping is incredible. If the architecture lacks character and the landscaping is minimal the results is often an instant slum – suburban or urban.

Great architecture requires great talent – which does not come cheap (architects charge a percentage of the construction costs) – IT, and huge consulting fees. The agenda of the CNU is walkability – no argument there, a great goal. However, their solution to create walkability is to have short blocks which creates more street and less area for homes – demanding even smaller lots.

The idea of building streets for walks is fundamentally irresponsible. The excessive street (length) equals excessive construction costs, excessive environmental impacts, and huge cost of maintaining all of this infrastructure, all of which comes out of the consumers pocket (i.e., you people). Excessive infrastructure has two large benefactors: The Civil Engineering consultant (who is also charging a percentage of construction costs) and obviously the paving contractor. Cities are responsible for maintain the public infrastructure – if that infrastructure is designed, intentionally or not, with 25% to 50% waste the taxpayers’ burden is increased with no way to avoid the costs – forever.

In an urban setting where the lot sizes are already minimal, typically the density is vertical – not horizontal. Social distancing waiting for an elevator does not make vertical living attractive which is one factor driving people to lower density horizontal growth. The other factor is urban unrest which is a repeat of six decades ago.

These twin developments --- one cannot see a quick reduction in urban crime and memories of the pandemic will remain with us for a while --- make it more imperative to solve the challenges of suburban development, particularly for middle- and working-class people. Here are a few:

Narrow lot widths

In the 1960’s lots and homes were lower density (wider) than today, and the average square footage of the home smaller. Two car garages were the norm. Today the average home is larger, but the lot is narrower, and demand is for more garage space. The mass market home (attainable prices), thus, is both narrow and deep with little (or no) views onto the miniscule front and/or fear yard space. Garages and parked cars dominate the street with little view of the actual façade – all at the same short setback.

With higher density the short front yard setbacks behind the garage, presents additional problems. Cars have less room on the driveway often parking over the sidewalks rendering them unusable encouraging residents to use the streets to walk. Alleys are not the solution as they rob density (decrease land available for homes), increase costs, and now you have cars parked in both front and rear of the homes. And do not forget, more paving = more environmental impacts – for all you Tesla drivers and tree huggers. Since a 40’ wide and 70’ deep home with a two-car garage has 220 feet of perimeter with only 60 feet of that perimeter potentially viewing out into the front and rear of the lot. The results? The typical narrow home is unlikely to have any views from ‘living’ space to the front yard. Typically, the master bedroom is placed along the rear, often only 10% of that home perimeter is left for views from living area. In the 1960’s the typical home was wider than deep, so most of the perimeter and living areas could overlook the front and rear yards – not directly into their neighbor’s windows just 10 feet away. The larger problem is that we are continually sacrificing home width and livability. Progress?

City Regulations:

We have found past ordinances from the mid-1930’s that have essentially the identical wording as the typical suburban regulations of today! The regulations begin with purpose and intent, then have a set of minimums to accomplish those goals. The only thing a minimum’s based regulatory system does, is guarantee someone like me (a designer of development) shoehorns as many people as close together as possible to maximize the profits of the client who pays me. ‘Smart Code’ (CNU again) is a singular way to guarantee increased architectural fees and monotony where everything is the same and innovation is halted.

Planning Commission and Council:

Normal everyday people from various backgrounds and professions are crazy enough to sacrifice their personal time to sit through (often) boring presentations on why they should vote ‘yes’ on a land developers and builder’s submittal. These people are not educated nor are they properly trained to make proper decisions other than to get the opinion of the City Planner hired by the city. If the City Planner is a member of the CNU, we know the agenda will likely be more social engineering gentrification. Some City Planners will not support anything other than what is written in the regulations as if the wording came in biblical form. This leads to the next problem because cities have not materially changed their submittal requirements for decades, and in some cases centuries...

Submittal standards:

Most cities require the same submittal (drawing) standards as those required when I began my career in 1968. Those standards from 1968 were not much different than those of 1938. The geometry of subdividing land from which all of todays regulations are written around are the same as 1868 – which are similar to 1768 and centuries before then.

Using VR (Virtual Reality Headsets), I simply cannot use a rendered drawing to falsify space or claim that seven story building being proposed near the street will not be claustrophobic. With newer technology, we can make changes interactively during a public meeting to reduce the chance of being tabled or delayed. This is nothing new – we have been using this technology since 2015! Cities have spent many billions of dollars on GIS (geographic Information systems) that have done nothing to improve the quality of the plans being submitted, and land development consultants have spent billions on their CAD systems that have done the same nothingness about advancing the quality of living for suburbanites...

Software Suppliers:

The top three software vendors Autodesk, ESRI, and Bentley (the multi-billion dollar big 3) automate known processes to ‘knock out the door’ (quicken) the maps, plans, and information used to build and rebuild the worlds growth. I’ve been in the software business serving these industries since the late 1970’s and it’s always been about speed, which at the beginning of tech was important. A hundred lot subdivision along curved streets before computers would take me a month to calculate the geometry accurately. If that same subdivision were along a grid of straight streets, the calculations would take a day before automation.

Time and effort was the only reason why grid growth occurred. As one of the leading software suppliers in the 1980’s we started to see a dangerous trend: software was being used for faster – not better plans. This is why we spun-off our land planning firm as a research entity to discover new methods that would improve suburban development design and then develop new technologies to make those methods more practical. The combination of new methods and technology have resulted in a demonstrated average reduction of street length compared to suburban convention of 25% and upwards of 50% compared to the CNU methods without a density loss. These methods create more beautiful neighborhoods with safer and better connectivity for both cars and people with far less economic and environmental impacts.

The Land Planner:

When I began my career there were specific land planning companies who designed neighborhoods. Today, the ‘land planner’ is pretty much just any consultant. The architect, civil engineer, surveyor, and even your real estate broker needs to be licensed. Land planning is the rare profession that requires only the word that one identifies themselves as a planner. Since land planning is the very first step that is done after a developer targets their land (and before closing on the site), the architect, engineer, or surveyor designing that next subdivision (often for free) will get their lucrative architecture, engineering, or surveying fees! So where do they learn how to be the expert in laying out suburban subdivisions? Well...

Educations Specific to Suburban Planning:

Since the growing political power of the CNU and their sprawl is evil rhetoric, today, there are virtually no suburban planning degrees – only high density urban social engineering planning degrees in which many (most?) don’t even teach actual design, and certainly nothing even close to do with suburbia, where the vast majority of development takes place. So how do all of the new generation of ‘land planners’ know how to design a small subdivision with 25 million dollars of housing? They simply follow the regulatory minimums and create a street pattern parallel to the property, rather than think creatively how to make a development more attractive and sustainable.

In this, it is the consumer who is the ultimate loser. It is not just higher home costs. and increased taxes, but all of those intersections and excessive short streets (and stop signs) that consumes a tremendous amount of vehicular expensive energy – but also your time just to get home. Want to go out for a walk? The only requirement for pedestrian connectivity is for a walk to be parallel to the curb, so that is why the CNU solution for walking is simply to build more streets instead of a more logical solution to create dedicated walking and trails as a separate system to the vehicular system. That is why you use your car more than the walks. The views from within your suburban subdivision home – honestly are they that special? They could be, but a mindless CAD automated platting system could not possibly think of quality views from within your home, nor is it taught. All of this makes the potential worth of your home less, and sacrifices living standards.

Now that suburbia is no longer evil – it is about time the industry as a whole start thinking differently and stop supporting technology that has done nothing but making matters worse.

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 LandMentor. His websites are and

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This view seems to me fundamentally at odds with the expressed desires seen during the pandemic:
The idea of building streets for walks is fundamentally irresponsible.