Smart design: Bring back the neighborhood

“Community is a beautiful thing; sometimes it even heals us and makes us better than we would otherwise be.”
Phillip Gallery

by Gary Piro

he term “Livable Community” describes a national trend of urban planners to stop designing neighborhoods for automobiles and make them more people-friendly. As Peter Katz, a leading proponent of urbanist reform points out, “we've been building great houses but lousy communities.”

    This national movement is known by many names. For instance Portland, Oregon refers to its approach as “smart growth.” In Florida, it's known as “the new urbanism.” In Davis, California, Michael Corbett's “village homes” community is described as that areas most desirable neighborhood. In the New England area, planner Randall Arendt of the Natural Lands Trust has received wide acclaim for his “conservation subdivision” approach.

    There are also other terms used to describe the movement, such “sustainable development,” “healthy neighborhoods,” “Main Street USA” and “organic development” (drawing from Frank Lloyd Wright's organic architecture approach). Though the terms are different, they all describe the same approach narrow, tree-lined streets, pedestrian safety, open spaces and enhancements to foster community activities. As Arendt points out, these newer communities are better because they use land efficiently, allowing for the most open space and providing for social interaction.

    Like the ancient messenger who gets executed by the Chinese emperor for bringing bad news, developers usually get the blame for the predicament we are in. Where the problem lies, however is with the outdated, automobile-oriented standards we have been using for the past thirty years.

    Planners have pointed out the following problems with these outdated standards:

  1. We have streets that are far too wide and straight. Consequently, drivers are speeding through residential neighborhoods.
  2. Developers are required to construct continuous parking along both sides of the roadways giving homeowners a disincentive to put their cars in the garage and making it more difficult for drivers to see children at play.
  3. Sidewalks are constructed adjacent to the curb so that drivers can easily exit their parked car. But this places pedestrians closer to the speeding vehicles.
  4. Street trees are aggressively being removed to avoid potential liability, even though studies show that they have a “traffic calming” effect, mitigate urban runoff and increase property values.
  5. Developments that cluster to preserve natural open spaces are discouraged by agencies that require expensive and time-consuming special permits and hearings.

    All of the country's successful livable communities had to first convince governing agencies that development criteria needs to be changed “from the bottom up” by amending outdated standards. Wallace Tucker, chairman of the San Diego Land Conservancy Coalition has ingeniously labeled this “smart design.”

    We've done such a bad job of community design that everyone has become a planner and has an opinion of how to correct this complex process. Unfortunately, most focus on the Portland approach, and only on the portion that relates to down-zoning rural lands. What people fail to realize is that Portland has also significantly changed its urban development standards, with programs encouraging skinny streets, community open space and riding and hiking trails.

    Without changing development standards, we will continue to churn up land for development at a rate of consumption per resident unprecedented in human history. When housing shortages occur, lands outside the urban limits will be acquired at bargain basement prices, rezoned, and developed in the same manner.

    To provide workable solutions, the Local Government Commission (LGC) was established in Sacramento to help local governments and community leaders be proactive in adopting ordinances and policies that lead to more livable and resource-efficient land uses. They point to studies done by Rutgers University that showed that fifty-percent want to live in village-style neighborhoods.

    The LGC also cites an extensive marketing study done by Walt Disney Corporation before it built its successful “new town” in Celebration, Florida. They found that one out of every two Americans wanted to live in a village-style or traditional neighborhood, whereas less than one percent of new developments meet these criteria.

    So by using “smart design” concepts, we truly can achieve a win-win situation. Developers can achieve allowable densities with reduced development costs, clustering will allow for open space dedication of sensitive areas at no cost to the public, cities have reduced maintenance costs due to efficiently designed infrastructure, and we can provide home-buyers the types of communities they most prefer to live in.

    There is a sense of urgency in changing these standards since it is estimated that, of the 360,000 units that are needed to accommodate our growth over the next 20 years, over half are on the drawing boards today. Before significant investment in design studies are done on these projects, we should at least allow developers the choice of using livable design concepts.

    Groups like the Citizens for the Preservation of “Olde” Carlsbad and Fallbrook's Rural Coalition support “smart design” concepts and are starting to make progress in changing outdated standards.

    Let's all fight to “Bring Back the Neighborhood.”

    Mr. Piro is a former County Planning Commissioner and the owner of a civil engineering and land-planning firm in San Marcos. Email: