How Do You Grow While Avoiding the Master Planned Community and Tract Home Effect?

"How do you create a large scale real estate development yet dodge the master planned community and tract home effect?" Experts weigh in


The following question was recently posted on Quora:

"How do you create a large scale real estate development yet dodge the master planned community and tract home effect?"

Experts offered the following answers:

Don Johnson:

There are a number of strategic approaches - and clever tricks - that will let you create a large real estate project that doesn't feel huge and impersonal.

  1. Break the overall development into neighborhoods of (help me here Chad Cooper) around 40 acres/16 ha; while many developers do this, it's common for each neighborhood internally to be a monoculture of nearly identical units. Instead, each neighborhood should be a coherent place with a higher density neighborhood center, a middle with a healthy mix of different housing, and an edge of lower density development and natural space.
  2. As implied above, provide a mix of uses, target markets and price points in the development as a whole and in each neighborhood. There is increasing evidence that this makes good financial sense as well as good design sense. It is not necessary for every home on the block to be architecturally significant - most people are not looking for home that screams "I'm different," but a comfortable and gracious place to live that fits in.
  3. Use different designers for different neighborhoods! This may be impractical for cost or (more likely) hassle reasons, but having a variety of hands will give different areas very different characters.
  4. Have a master plan that makes good use of existing landmarks (hills, streams, ponds) and creates new ones (public buildings, parks, public art) to give the development a framework of memorable places. These don't have to be big or dramatic, just places that people can use to easily orient themselves and make the development feel accessible.
  5. Use infrastructure to create amenities. For a very small additional cost, stormwater detention ponds, equipment sheds, utility boxes, etc. can be made attractive focal points. See the Minneapolis "Witch's Hat" (a water tower) which is now a city-wide landmark. But it works great at small scales too.

Do these techniques cost more than paying a land planner to squeeze as many buildable lots onto a particular landscape and then providing only four different house designs for people to choose from? Yes. Permitting and design costs will be higher, and (more importantly) it will take longer to do a decent job. If you're competing on price, you'll lose. But if you're competing on value - and who wants to live by competing on price only? - you'll win big.

Chad Cooper, former town architect:

If you're talking about avoiding the conventional planning methods... "suburbia"... look into form-based codes.

The SmartCode is wonderful source material for form-based coding. It can be calibrated to meet your needs. It's far more flexible (overlays, for ex.) than conventional planning, and provides the critical foundation necessary in the creation of memorable places... enabling higher land and building values.

Google SmartCode (I believe 9 is the most current version). You can view the manual free online.

Google "DPZ" and "Dover Kohl"... both are planning firms noted for their implementation of form-based codes... so check out their portfolio of conceptual and built developments.

.  .  .  .

Regarding the note about architectural significance:

Good question. I like to think of a place, whether existing or new, as a fabric.... wherein each building/house adds to and supports the "fabric of place".

There's a hierarchy within the fabric of a place, and houses are not at the top.

- At the top are the civic buildings... a town hall or a church are examples.

- And, at the bottom are detached garages and shed buildings, for example. These secondary buildings likely front or face secondary roads... alleys/lanes.

- In contrast, civic buildings are sited more prominently, such as at the end of terminating roads, at a higher grade, and/or on a larger site surrounded by more green space, formal landscaping, etc.

- In this manner, houses occupy a middle zone within the hierarchy. So that, even with a variety of housing types throughout, individual homes are never the prominent building(s).

Form-based codes provide the tools to establish the hierarchy and ensure the above.

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