Using open space in project design

"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone." - Henry David Thoreau

by Gary Piro

hen Thoreau wrote the passage above, he and Ralph Waldo Emerson were the leaders of a movement in literature referred to as "transcendentalism." Not to be confused with "transcendental meditation" (popularized by the Beatles in the 1960s), transcendentalism was a philosophy that, among other things, closely examined man's relationship with nature.

The "nature" aspect of transcendentalism was in large part influenced by a renowned New York landscape artist named Thomas Cole. Cole extensively wrote and lectured about his views that progress must be tempered by careful and gradual development of a nation's resources. "Subduing the wilderness," he wrote, "must not mean rampant destruction."

When traveling through the New England area, one can't help but feel that these transcendentalist ideals have had an influence on the unique way the area has developed. For one thing, there appears to be a much greater emphasis on one aspect of community design that is often ignored in other parts of the country, the inclusion of "natural open space."

In San Diego, like most Southern California cities, natural open space is defined as "what you want to do with the other guy's property." In New England, however, it is often included as an integral and important part of a project design. An autumn vacation in Vermont or Connecticut would not be nearly as desirable if the commercial villages, streets and home sites were not neatly tucked between the trees.

Critics will undoubtedly say "it's different in New England because they have so many trees and Southern California is a dessert." Randall Arendt, author of the influential Rural By Design points out, however that individuals will always favor living in communities with open space incorporated into the design, even if it results in them having a smaller lot for their home. Arendt points out that homeowner's "thirst for open space" is evidenced by the fact that 40% of the owners of golf course fairway homes don't even plan golf!

In San Diego, one needs only look to the most desirable communities to see the common denominator is a connection with nature. It could be the eucalyptus and pepper trees of Rancho Santa Fe, or the sandy shores of La Jolla. Even though developers have shown resistance to preserving large portions of their projects due to endangered species, it is now common to see newspaper adds for these same developments showing only pictures of the required "natural open space" rather than the homes themselves.

Linda Romero of the State of California Urban Forestry Department testified before the Carlsbad City Council last September about the benefits of preserving and adding to woodlands in and around our cities. She pointed to studies showing improved real estate values, reduced automobile emission levels and other "quality of life" issues. One study she cited even showed that patients heal faster in hospital rooms that have views of wooded areas.

One fascinating approach to incorporating open space in project design is the tiny town of Lincoln, Massachusetts. Located just two miles from the town of Concord (where Thoreau and Emerson lived and wrote), 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. Much of the credit for Lincoln's success 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.

Lemire's formula is simple, "Save what needs to be saved; build what needs to be built." Through his enthusiasm and perseverance, Lemire was able to convince city hall to "throw out conventional zoning standards" and instead design around each site's natural features. This has allowed the community to preserve over 50% of the town's 9,500 acres in permanent and irreversible open space and create more than 90 miles of riding and hiking trails.

Although San Diego has completed a master plan to preserve more than 200,000 acres of natural open space (the Multiple Species Conservation Plan), virtually nothing has been done by local agencies to allow flexible design criteria for developers to incorporate this master plan into their projects. Unfortunately, our conservation efforts have primarily focused on trying to buy most of the property (which is not likely since it is estimated to cost in excess of $2 billion).

Lemire has said that his success in Lincoln is due to the fact that their approach is on a project-by-project basis, accounting for each landowner's land value expectation. "Without that consideration," Lemire says, "any plan will fail." Although some of the open space in Lincoln has come from charitable donations to conservancies, the vast majority of the open space was voluntarily created on each development project. This could happen because each landowner was given the leeway to design around the land's predominant natural features.

The Lincoln approach is definitely a "win-win" proposition and one that could work in San Diego. All that is needed is willingness for agencies to accept projects designed around a property's natural attributes, rather than some arbitrary set of outdated zoning regulations.

Mr. Piro is a former County Planning Commissioner and owner of an engineering and land planning firm; email him at