Smart Growth in San Diego: a working model

"Simplify, simplify ..." -- Henry David Thoreau

by Gary Piro


f San Diego wants its Smart Growth program to be successful, it should do what any self-respecting engineer does when given a new design project: Find a similar design that works, then copy it!

On April 17, I was privileged to attend a "community design" workshop in Lincoln, Mass., a small town located about 12 miles west of Boston. Tiny Lincoln has been described by David Morine, a past director of acquisition for The Nature Conservancy, as the best example of community land use planning in the United States. The 9,500-acre community boasts 90 miles of riding and hiking trails, a rail commuter station, affordable housing projects and a thriving CSA (community supported agriculture) project.

Lincoln is located in an area rich in history and natural beauty. It lies within bicycling distance of Walden Pond, the Old Battle Road (where Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride) and the former homes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau.

Probably the most striking and pleasing asset of the town is the fact that, although it has developed at a density equal to or greater than surrounding communities, Lincoln has preserved approximately half of the town's area in permanent and protected open space. It's nearly impossible to drive one mile in Lincoln without seeing one of its public open spaces for wildlife, agriculture or recreation, or at least one of the trails that connect them.


One man's vision


Much of the credit for the successes in Lincoln can be given to Bob Lemire, a local land planner and former Harvard Graduate School of Design instructor, who has made Lincoln his "labor of love" since the 1960s. He has masterminded most of the forward-thinking community design concepts and, to my delight, was the featured speaker at the workshop.

Lemire is a brilliant but modest man who has a way of simplifying advanced community design concepts. When he speaks, it's impossible not to get caught up in his enthusiasm about creating livable communities that are in harmony with nature. He advocates designing projects by first assessing the land's natural features, then designing the homes in a manner that will enhance these features.

Lemire's mantra is "save what needs to be saved and build what needs to be built." His vision and enthusiasm have allowed him to convince local public officials to virtually "throw out" the conventional zoning standards which have destroyed other communities in the area. Instead, projects are referred to a private "Rural Lands Foundation" which works with the landowner and the local residents to utilize design criteria on each project that best preserve a property's historic, cultural and natural features. Lemire's approach to community design is most likely influenced by Lincoln's proximity to Concord, Mass., where Emerson (arguably the single most influential American thinker of his time) lived and wrote Nature, which inspired many other authors of the time to consider man's relationship with his natural surroundings. Thoreau, Emerson's contemporary, also wrote two influential books, Walking and Walden, based on his love for this area.


Making mixed use work


On paper, it would appear the random land uses would not work since they are so foreign to current planning and land use regulations in practice. There is a small shopping center next to an agricultural "co-op" farm; a seniors condominium with 70 percent open space in a rural estate area; a sewer treatment plant next to a conservation land. Although these unusual combinations would make a city planner "shake in his boots," this system works and it works very well.

On one of the projects we toured, we observed a 32-home estate development that had half of its land preserved in permanent open space including a historic farmhouse which dated back to the revolutionary war. When Lemire was asked where an on-site trail led, he quickly responded "that's not a trail, that's a piece of history." He then went on to tell the story of how five British soldiers were killed near the farm during the war in 1775 and afterward the bodies were carted along this trail alignment to the local cemetery (which is also preserved by the township).

One can't see these projects without realizing with a sense of sadness that they never could be accomplished in an area like San Diego. San Diego's conventional zoning restrictions would prohibit "mixed uses" like those in Lincoln without expensive and time-consuming rezones and special use permits. Lincoln is the type of town that Randall Arendt refers to in his textbook Rural By Design as one which utilizes the land most efficiently, allowing for the most open space and providing the best opportunity for social interaction among its inhabitants. Arendt goes on to state, unfortunately, this type of design is illegal by most jurisdictions' current design standards.

The most amazing thing about Lemire's design concepts is they were conceived long before there were political mandates for such concepts as agricultural preservation, wildlife conservation and affordable housing. His book Creative Land Development was written in 1979, but reads as if it was written this year to capitalize on all of the publicity about Smart Growth.

Lemire credits his successes to the fact he has incorporated an element in his design that is foreign to most city planners: the financial interests of the landowners. He states that no plan will work if it does not preserve the landowner's land value expectation. Therefore, the landowners in Lincoln usually opt for working with Lemire and the Rural Land Foundation when developing their estates rather than selling to outside developers. This makes each development a community effort.

What Lemire brings to community design is much like what Frank Lloyd Wright brought to architecture. Wright was a self-described naturalist who encouraged other architects of his day to reject designing repetitive traditional structures, while Lemire discourages production housing projects. Wright also said houses should be organic and should appear to "grow" from the site and be shaped to harmonize with their surroundings; Lemire has expanded this concept to community design.

In a political climate where it is important to find win-win solutions, Lemire proposes a Smart Design concept that benefits everyone. San Diego's Smart Growth Committee would be wise to consider using Lemire's book as their "how to" guide.

  Gary Piro is the owner of Piro Engineering in San Marcos and a former planning commissioner for the 5th Supervisorial District of the County of San Diego