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Implementing New Urbanism – Chapter One – Results of Land Use

Implementing New Urbanism – Chapter One – Results of Land Use


As a result of homogeneous suburban neighborhoods and highway commercial sprawl, a strong emphasis is being placed upon the design and form of our built environment. One of the driving influences is to design places for people instead of the car. Vast seas of asphalt in front of stores or a line of barren garage doors on a residential street is vehicle based design. Interesting streets designed for pedestrian comfort is today’s vision of placemaking. This article will first look at land use growth management, its beginnings and the resulting urban form. Then an alternative growth management technique using the form of development will be examined.

Chapter One; Results of Land Use

Land use controls began in New York City in the 1870’s with the Tenement Acts and have been the primary growth management method in this country ever since. Like any system, there intended and unintended consequences inherent in the application of a process. In the case of land use growth management, the results have created many soulless places oriented to the auto. This chapter explores the history of our current condition and examines our behaviours and thoughts as a consequence of land use growth control.


1916 New York; the Equitable Building

The Equitable Building was constructed and its significantly large scale caused a public outcry. Opponents of the building were outraged at the unprecedented volume of the building which cast a 7 acre shadow on the surrounding streets. In response, the city adopted the 1916 Zoning Resolution which limited building height and required setbacks for new buildings to allow the penetration of sunlight to street level. Specifically, new buildings were required to withdraw progressively at a defined angle from the street as they rose, in order to preserve sunlight and the open atmosphere in their surroundings for the good of city residents.

Zoning Codified; Euclid v Ambler Realty, 1926

Ambler Realty owned 68 acres of land in the village of Euclid, a suburb of Cleveland. The village, in an attempt to prevent industrial Cleveland from growing into and subsuming Euclid and prevent the change in character of the village, developed a zoning ordinance based upon 6 classes of use (residential, industrial and commercial), 3 classes of height and 4 classes of area.

The property in question was divided into three use classes, as well as various height and area classes, thereby hindering Ambler Realty from developing the land for an industrial use. Ambler Realty sued the village, arguing that the zoning ordinance had substantially reduced the value of the land by limiting its use, amounting to a deprivation of Ambler’s liberty and property without due process. The Court decided that the zoning ordinance was not an unreasonable extension of the village’s police power, the ordinance did have a rational basis and did not have the character of arbitrary fiat and thus the zoning ordinance was not unconstitutional.

Colors on a Map

At the time of Euclid, zoning was a relatively new concept, and indeed there had been rumblings that it was an unreasonable intrusion into private property rights for a government to restrict how an owner might use property. The court, in finding that there was valid government interest in maintaining the character of a neighborhood and in regulating where certain land uses should occur, allowed for the subsequent explosion in zoning ordinances across the country.

Results of Land Use Control

Planning has long been dominated by land use issues which are an awkward means of growth control as evidenced by our miles of highway commercial sprawl and auto dominated life. The main consideration with land use control is that adjacent land uses need to be compatible with each other. As a result, vast stretches of similar land uses have been developed all in the name of compatibility. This has then caused a total reliance on the auto to travel from remote suburban homes to jobs, shops, schools and entertainment.

Suburbia begins

The word suburb was first used in the 14th century to describe a residential area outside the wall of the city; between the city and the countryside. These first homes outside the urban area were for the underprivileged and the agrarian workers outside the safety of the town. With the advent of the industrial revolution, cities not only became denser but less healthy and dirty with primitive sanitation. The rich were the only ones who could afford to escape these early urban conditions by moving to the country in the original suburban developments. The first suburbs consisted of large lots designed in the English Landscape School such as Riverside outside Chicago and Llewellyn Park outside New York. Preserved open space systems, curvilinear roadways, emphasized view sheds all in a natural setting become the suburban design model for these early subdivisions all in a very park like setting.

A Better Suburban Model?

In 1929, Clarence Stein and Henry Wright designed Radburn, New Jersey twelve miles outside New York City. Known as the first “Garden City” in America because of its open space system, Radburn promoted itself as the “Town for the Motor Age”because it was the first community that planned for the automobile. Radburn broke with the established low density suburban practice by offering small lot sizes. Average lot sizes were forty-five hundred square feet fronting on a street and on an interconnected open space system to the rear. The open space system connected to commercial or civic uses providing a strong community pedestrian circulation system which was separate from the vehicular circulation system. The primary technique for separating pedestrian and autos was known as the superblock; a large block of land surrounded by main roads. Houses are grouped around small cul-de-sacs, each connected to a main collector road, introducing the cul-de-sac concept to suburbia.

Suburbia HO!; 1945

After World War II, there was a dramatic, national housing shortage. The lack of housing construction during the war coupled with the return of millions of young men, many who were starting families, created a critical shortage of housing. Between 1950 and 1960, new suburban developments on the outskirts of America’s cities drew 20 million inhabitants. One response to the suburban housing demand was to develop new communities of primarily single family homes. The development pattern of these new subdivisions borrowed from the historical suburban antecedents; unfortunately, most of these suburban design ideals were lost in translation while preserving only the design techniques.

The war effort had caused industry to be more efficient (production lines) and produce much more cost efficient products; particularly true for automobiles and housing. While the suburbs had historically been the exclusive domain of the wealthy, they were now open to the working class. Thus, cars and the freedom they provide opened up the now suddenly affordable new suburbs to middle America.


Abe Levitt built mass produced housing for the war effort. He translated this affordable product to a potato farm on Long Island with Levittown. It became a 14,000 home community loosely based upon the historic suburban model; however, lost in the translation were the open spaces, preservation of natural systems, pedestrian orientation and emphasized views. All that really remained were the curvy streets.

The houses were small two bedroom, one bath homes with the kitchen on the street side, no garage or carport, on a quarter acre lot. The price was affordable, breaking from the elitist past of earlier communities. It became a sign of status for the working man to be “admitted” to the heretofore unaffordable suburbs. To conjure up the vision of the exclusive, high priced suburbs of the past, streets were laid out in the English Landscape School’s curvilinear pattern. However, because it had been flat farm land, there were few natural features to provide a basis for site plan organization. The curvilinear pattern of subdivision design was for mere effect without the design purpose of Riverside or Radburn.

The Ranch House; 1954

Levittown also introduced the ranch house (wide not deep) illustrating the suburban mantra of cheap, abundant land. The rearranged floor plan moved the kitchen to the rear for a backyard view while adding a carport to the front. This built upon the Radburn model of making the backyard the family’s private retreat while the front yard was the domain of the auto (the primary transportation option) which was proudly displayed in front of the home.

Resulting Suburban Form

By coupling the lack of a strong pedestrian orientation with mandatory carports or garages, the Leavitt’s refitted suburbia for the auto. Curvy streets were for autos. The front yard had no purpose other than parking the car and ceremonial aesthetics while the family retreated to the private sanctity of the backyard. The new and prevailing suburban model had emerged. Vast stretches of mono land use (which are thus compatible with each other) all connected by a dendritic system of roadways (arterial, collectors, locals) which are incompatible with residential use. This leads to a linear configuration of commercial uses along major roadways and then leads to the scale of the car being the dominant development theme for the highway commercial strips.

Results from Colors on a Map

Land use compatibility requires different land uses to be physically separated as a mitigation measure. This in turn causes similar land uses to cluster together thereby separating housing from jobs from retail from civic uses. The only means to get between land uses requires travel; usually by car. This exhibit is an example of “compatibility” from a land use/zoning perspective. In the adjacent aerial photo, single family homes in the background are “buffered’ from the commercial use by a wall and physical separation. However, the only way to go buy a quart of milk at the nearby store is to drive your car out onto the collector streets to circle around to the arterial street and reach the commercial uses which are actually proximate to the housing. Because similar land uses are considered compatible, vast areas of a community end up with the same land use. With little diversity of use, basic needs are excluded from residential areas. The classic example of this homogenous land use pattern is single family sprawl stretching across the landscape. Adjacent land uses all being similar causes far greater problems than the mixing incompatible uses; poor and expensive public services, expanding carbon footprint, increased fossil fuel consumption and wasted time in traffic all result from this development pattern.

Colors on a Map Epiphany

Colors on a map do little to nothing for compatibility. I learned this when homeowners were arguing with me that the proposed 75 foot wide lots behind a wall with landscaping were still incompatible with their 90 foot wide lots. Land use compatibility is all a sham.

Auto Dominance; Commuter’s Behavior

The only possible land use compatibility measures are physical separation or similar land uses being grouped together. This has led to vast stretches of homogeneous land use which created a complete reliance on the auto for everyday activities like getting to work, shopping, school or entertainment. Listed below are commuter behavior patterns:

• About a third can be classified as aggressive drivers.
• Six in 10 concede they sometimes go well over the speed limit.
• Sixty-two percent occasionally get frustrated behind the wheel.
• Four in 10 get angry.
• Two in 10 sometimes boil into road rage.

As a commuting mitigation action, the following behaviors occur:

• Take a less direct route 68%
• Leave earlier or later 60%
• Skip a planned stop 40%
• Changed work schedule 24%
• Moved closer to work 20%
• Changed/left a job 14%

If transit is available, Americans still choose to drive their autos even at significant cost:

• Six in 10 Americans have public transit available
• Just 10 percent use it regularly.
• Ninety-three percent call driving more convenient.
• Eighty-four percent drive alone to work.
• 80 percent of solo drivers aren’t interested in car pooling.
• Switched to transit 4%

Auto Dominance; Roadway Design

The auto dominance is so complete that development codes are written to ease the use of the auto at the expense of people. Development engineering standards geared to vehicles is now the standard for our communities. Wider roads need wider safety margins so buildings are moved away from the street as a development requirement. Roadways become congested and need to be expanded. The increasing number of travel lanes allegedly can move more cars faster but the homogeneous development pattern only creates more and longer trips. Typical development standards are as follows:

Orange County, Florida Building Setback Standards

Principal arterial, urban   70 ‘ from the right of way

Minor arterial, urban 60 ‘ from the right of way

Collector, urban   55 ‘ from the right of way

Auto Dominance; Development Standards

With the heavy dependence on the auto for mobility, roadways and the surrounding development evolved to match the scale of wide, high speed roadways. The scale of roadways was “improved” to better fit the maneuverability of the auto and as such the orientation of development also switched to parking lots on the street side with buildings at the back of the lots out of view. Lack of visibility was resolved with large, attention grabbing signs scaled to high speed.

Auto Dominance; Compatibility

These roadway development standards have resulted in creating an environment for the auto. The roadway is a noxious use from a compatibility standpoint so line it with similarly noxious uses (auto dominated commercial) all designed to non-human scale. No wonder residential uses need to be physically separated from this “place” in the name of compatibility. Roadways only become more noxious; thus the land use option is to line roadways with similarly noxious uses such as commercial all in the name of compatibility. The suburban model is dominated by the need for autos with resulting suburban design standards based around the dimensions and maneuverability of a car and the human is relegated to second class standards.

Land Use and Auto Use

Land uses are categorized by trip generation and uses are then more or less intense by the number of trips generated by that use. The auto is the common denominator in all land use equations. This can be witnessed with trip destinations as well. The shortest average trip destination is 6.9 miles due to homogenous land use pattern.

Trip type % Miles driven

Commute 18 11.9
Shopping 20 6.9
Recreation 27 11.0
Other 38 9.3

Auto Dominance; Wasted Time and Money

For the nation as a whole, the average daily commute to work lasts about 24.3 minutes; thus, Americans spend more than 200 hours commuting to work each year. This far exceeds the two weeks of vacation time frequently taken by workers over the course of a year. The average commute costs $6.00 a day or $1,500 a year. Over the course of a working lifetime, this would equate to $800,000 if invested wisely.

Predominant Housing Choice

Single family subdivisions have evolved in the last 100 years from the domain of the wealthy to the predominant housing choice for most Americans. In 2002, the National Association of Home Builders stated “American homebuyers prefer large houses and large lots and are willing to live in distant suburbs and accept longer commutes in order to have more space inside and outside the home. 76% prefer a conventional single family detached community.”

Time for a Change

There is a growing sentiment to resolve the ills of suburbia and its absolute reliance on the auto. There needs to be an alternative to land use based growth regulations and one such alternative comes from the New Urbanism development model.


Humans have been gathering in urban areas for thousands of years; from early Greek cities to mid-evil fiefdom towns to pre-auto industrial revolution cities in the US. These cities were for people prior to the introduction of the auto. Yet there are many examples of successful urban places which conformed to the auto yet kept the original human scale.

The food bounty from organized agricultural practices allowed people to start living together in hamlets, villages, towns and, ultimately, cities. These were the first urban places as, prior to this time, all life had been in a rural setting. These urban places became denser as the population grew and the cities were organized around the street as a place for multi-modal transportation including walking, wagons and rail.

Savannah, Georgia 1733

Historic antecedents for city planning are found in Savannah, Georgia. This City was planned from scratch with a different motif than today; placemaking. There is a balanced land use program with the emphasis on creating great people oriented spaces for the residents, workers and guests.The city of Savannah was founded in 1733 by General James Oglethorpe based upon a repeating pattern of squares. Each square sits at the center of a ward. The lots to the east and west of the squares, flanking the major east-west axis, were considered “trust lots” in the original city plan and intended for large public buildings such as churches, schools, or markets. The remainder of the ward was divided into four areas, called tythings, each of which was further divided into ten residential lots.

Washington, DC 1791

Pierre L’Enfant developed a Baroque plan for Washington that features ceremonial spaces and grand radial avenues while respecting natural contours of the land. The result was a system of intersecting diagonal avenues superimposed over a grid system. The avenues radiated from the two most significant building sites that were to be occupied by houses for Congress and the President.

Chicago 1891

In 1891, Daniel Burnham was the lead planner for the 1893 Columbian Exposition World’s Fair in Chicago. Burnham’s concept called for a plan suggesting permanent buildings of a monumental scale; a dream city. Burnham used classical motifs as the general aesthetic of the fair grounds and structures so as to better blend with other architectural styles.

Garden Cities by Ebenezer Howard

Howard designed a prototypical city on 6,000 acres with a town center of about 1,000 acres and a population of 30,000. On the outer ring of the town there were to be factories, warehouses, etc., fronting on a circular railway. The remainder was to be an agricultural estate developed for agricultural purposes.

Historically, city design was form based to create memorable, endearing places. Land uses were an issue but the primary design principle was form. Older cities have had to deal with retrofitting the urban fabric to make room for the auto. Greenfield development has taken the opposite approach; development acknowledges reliance on the auto and is scaled to the auto with a corresponding loss of places for people.


A Dramatic Change; Seaside 1982

The history of Seaside began in 1979, when developer Robert Davis inherited 80 acres of oceanfront land. Davis hired Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk to make his vision come true. They toured communities like Key West, Florida; Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia and the adjacent Grayton Beach to reveal the physical fabric that produced both the visual comfort and social interactions that made these communities famous.

New Urbanism

Traditional Neighborhood Design or New Urbanism was a reaction to the state of suburban development. In the 1980’s, designers started to question sprawling suburbia. Multiple car dependent residents living in single family homes spread across the landscape has placed an increasing demand on roads and the resulting roadway congestion has proved irresolvable. Other public infrastructure, such as schools and parks, fell below acceptable levels of service. TND was a modern adaptation of the historic pattern of development from small town America’s past; compact development with a full mix of compatible uses oriented to the street with a strong pedestrian orientation.

The most dramatic New Urban factor is the change from auto dominated design standards to human and pedestrian oriented design standards. Couple this with regulations geared toward the form of development (not land use) and there is an entirely different mindset on growth management. This new thought pattern is being implemented as evidenced by Miami 21; Dade County’s Form Based Code adoption in September 2009. There are now entire New Urban communities offering the advantages of New Urban design principles as compared to land use controls. One of the key differences is that compatibility is handled through the intensity of development and not by use. Denser areas of the community transition to less dense areas. This is greatly enhanced by controlling street design with two lane streets. By controlling the size of roadways, there are less noxious uses needing significant compatibility measures. In fact, the scale of New Urban communities is for the human; the pedestrian. The auto is still easily accommodated but not at the expense of the person living in the community.


According to National Association of Realtors and Smart Growth America; 2004, 61% of soon to be home buyers would prefer to buy in a Smart Growth community with following community characteristics:

• Mix of housing types
• Sidewalks
• Shopping and schools at a walkable distance
• Public transit available

A recent study by RCLCO (the Market for Smart Growth; 2009) found that “Due to their compact design, pedestrian friendliness, protection of natural features and other smart growth approaches, it is significant that consumers not only prefer New Urban communities, they are willing to pay a premium to live in such communities.”

In 2004, the National Association of Realtors and Smart Growth America concluded the following 61% of soon to be home buyers would prefer to buy in a Smart Growth community with the following:

• Community characteristics:
• Mix of housing types
• Sidewalks
• Shopping and schools at walkable distance
• Less than 45 minute commute
• Public transit available

RCLCO finds a correlation between life stage and the desire to live in a New Urban community as follows:

• Empty Nesters
• Singles
• Over 60 years of age
• Under 40 years of age
• Over 50’s for close shops and restaurants
• Baby Boomers
• Health conscious

Recently, public opinion has swung from conventional suburban development towards a New Urban life style. This has caused the development industry to investigate conventional practices and examine other approaches to the housing marketplace. This ties into other current trends such as green practices and long lasting sustainable initiatives.

Planning Today

Today’s planning emphasis has rightfully shifted from land use controls towards these goals:

• Sustainability
• Low Impact Development
• Multi-Modal transportation
• Urban Design
• Form Based Code
• Mobility

All these concepts are inherently about compact development. With increased densities and intensities, compatibility is the paramount concern. Thus, land use control is the wrong model to use for compatibility. New Urbanism with its form of development approach is much more in tune with compatibility measures.