Highlighting Problems and Successes in Sustainable Neighborhood Design

By Rick Harrison   

Comparing and contrasting New Urbanism and Coving.

No matter how good any idea is, there are ways to make things go terribly wrong. Take for example, New Urbanism, a design concept that seems so easy to implement, yet when stripped of just one or two of its basic elements falls short on its promise.

In New Urbanism, neighborhoods are formed around the theory to encourage walking and social interaction. The use of cars is discouraged, as well as the visual impacts of garage doors. Thus alleys are the norm or any form of rear yard car storage to keep the streetscape clean. Grand porches are connected to walks just in front of the home so passing residents can wave and talk about their day. Common areas throughout the neighborhood allow a congregation of residents.

New Urbanism promises employment, entertainment and shopping within a short walk from home. So simple, yet it gets bastardized on a regular basis. Even if everything seems to go well before and during the approval stages, after approval the city may have just a recorded plat with nothing in place to guarantee any critical elements will actually get built. Lots are sold and the builders may not be educated on the strict adherence of landscaping and architecture that must be held. If “after-approval” elements are not held, the formula for disaster exists. The same can often be true in before, during and after approval stages of coving.

Unlike New Urbanism the method of coving is a far more complex “plat” design, yet in some ways much simpler. For example, coving is not as much of an architectural or landscaping exercise as is New Urbanism, so those important character building elements are not a requirement. Walks, pedestrian connectivity and parks are not a requirement of coved design. The coved ordinance would require these character building traits, but basic coving could simply fall under PUD, as could New Urbanism and be designed to the whim of the developer and limited further by the builders who buy lots.

Rick Harrison, the inventor of the coved method has more than a decade of experience and has worked close with Steve Sletner of TEC Design, Inc. from Eau Claire (WI) on over 25 coved neighborhoods. Both Rick and Steve will discuss what typically can go wrong and how to put safeguards in place to make sure the neighborhood is built as intended.

With the coving specific ordinance that was published in the last issue, we have taken away the worries of staff regarding their workload. We no longer are reverting to minimums and have given planners the opportunity to exceed the expectations of the community. Staff can have a simple and direct method of reviewing the plans for compliance with the ordinance without the cumbersome process of multiple variance requirements.

Steve Sletner: Coving from an Engineer’s Perspective
Implementing the design of coved neighborhoods into platted subdivisions can be a challenge in terms of conveying the ideas of the land planner to stamped documents and recorded plats. The first step is to convince the rest of your professional team that the land planner “was not on something.”

Engineers and surveyors are typically extremely conservative and linear thinkers – “that is the way we have always done it” is their motto. To get this part of the team on board with “outside the box” thinking can be a real challenge. The charge of an engineer and surveyor is quite simple: take the land planner’s concept and make them reality. Too often it’s easier to fabricate as many reasons as they can to fight fresh ideas than to work towards making better neighborhoods.

Using Nike philosophy, engineers and surveyors need to “just do it.” The customer comes first – home buyer’s desire for something better has redirected what they design. Coving is not without issues in terms of complexity of design – varied and meandering setbacks add an extra layer, but those meandering walks also require easements to be defined.

As professionals find issues that need to be addressed (adjusting lot lines for utilities as an example) they must communicate with the land planner to make sure that any required revisions do not compromise the integrity of the plan. A single point source for plan revisions is required to maintain the vision of the planner.

Example: Holding the Setbacks
Coving is all about shape and showcasing the inviting front of homes along the streetscape. Coving does NOT stagger the homes as shown on the photo (next page). In this case, the engineer completely altered the design and set the homes in a hap-hazard pattern, with home fronts actually looking into home rears!

Settler’s Glenn, a wonderful coved neighborhood in Stillwater (MN) was showcased on our front page in the last issue. As good as it looks, there are two homes that the engineer took the liberty to change without consulting the planner, which detracted from the design – ever so slightly.

The original plan shows the front of the homes all facing the main street and the entrance to the cul-de-sac having the homes angled into the corners. The engineer changed the orientation of the homes at the entrance. As you can see (left), the side of the home lacks any architectural detail and windows. Worse yet, residents and visitors, as well as the home across the street, directly view into rear yards. While this is a minor infraction, it could have been eliminated had close communication been established between the engineer and planner.

If the coved ordinance regulations conflict with existing engineering standards then municipal engineering and emergency services staff may be reluctant to place their stamp of approval. If there are conflicts, changes in standards must accompany the ordinance so as not to adversely impact the efficiencies achieved with coving. For example, there is no reason that manholes for sanitary sewer have to be on the centerline of a street other than “if it were good ‘nuff for Grandpappy, it’s good ‘nuff fer me.”

Consulting engineers and surveyors are the key to convincing their municipal counterparts that changing standards does not compromise the integrity of the infrastructure. Typically the municipal staff will not believe the land planner and will only see any “relaxing” of standards as a ploy by the developer to save money. For some unknown reason engineers trust engineers and surveyors trust surveyors. Forming this level of trust with staff will make the approval process with commission, boards, and councils much easier when staff simply recommend approvals.

Once plans are approved and lot sales start picking up, now is the key time to make sure that the coved neighborhood comes to life. In many instances the plats are recorded and filed away and the building inspectors have probably never been informed of the setback requirements on individual lots needed to make coving happen.

Typically, builders and home owners come in with their plans to the building department to pay their fees and get the required permits without any knowledge by anyone that restrictions apply to the individual lots.

To bridge the gap from planning and engineering to building permitting we have found it very useful to simply create a binder for the direct use by the building inspector on each individual lot. Each lot is shown on a single sheet of paper, to scale, that is a blow up of the final recorded plat. The diagram shows all the pertinent easement information, building envelop size and location, as well as the recorded setback for the lot. The binder is a working document organized by block and lot within the subdivision so that all parties can understand the nuances of the lot they are building on. It is kept on file with the building permit department and we also suggest that real estate teams and builders working in the subdivision have copies so that they can share information early with prospective buyers.

Critical Items from Rick Harrison’s Perspective
The Titanic sunk because of a lack of leadership and communication – many could have been saved if communication with a nearby ship had not been miss-interpreted. The same holds true in any new development option that is not standard cookie-cutter. Just because a development sells fast and is profitable, does not mean it could not have done even better. For all the features, functions and benefits we explain to the city staff on these neighborhoods to get approvals, it is astonishing that when we visit the developments, the sales staff seem to be ignorant of even a single one of these many benefits!

So many developers go into “sell lots to builders” mode assuming that somehow the builders will know these benefits and then naturally communicate all of them to the sales manager, which will communicate all of them to the sales staff. In the end if the potential home buyer walks away, especially in the early stages of development where many of the systems are not constructed yet, it is because the neighborhood advantages were not explained. This we think is the most egregious possible error that can occur.

Another mistake is selling random lots. The consumer cannot visualize what a “cove” will look like until a series of homes in a row is built… to randomly sell lots and wait for the shaping to occur when perhaps 70% of the neighborhood sells out is a common and costly mistake. We have seen that those developments that cluster a series of lots along a deep cove as their first lots sell much faster than haphazard placement.

About the author: Rick Harrison is president and lead planning consultant of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio, a national consulting firm based in Minneapolis (MN) that offers cutting-edge design solutions that enhance quality of life with the beauty of the natural environment. The company works with land developers and related organizations throughout the U.S. to develop attractive housing for people at all income levels. Spanning more than 35 years, Harrison’s pioneering efforts and innovative land planning concepts have earned him a plethora of industry awards and is a regular speaker – including keynote presentations at the Land Development Breakthroughs Best Practices Conferences. Rick Harrison Site Design has designed over 550 neighborhoods in 42 states and 7 countries. Rick can be reached at 763-595-0055 or contacted through www.rhsdplanning.com.


Republished from January, 2007 issue of Land Development Today magazine.

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