TURNING SUBDIVISIONS INTO NEIGHBORHOODS    How to Retrofit Communities   for People, Not Cars,  

 TURNING SUBDIVISIONS INTO NEIGHBORHOODS How to Retrofit Communities for People, Not Cars, through Form‐Based Code by Jim Hall, AICP, ASLA, CNU VHB planning+design studio director America has a 100‐year tradition of land‐use planning that has resulted in sprawling, homogeneous suburban neighborhoods and auto‐dominated, strip highway commercial uses. Today, a new, strong emphasis is being placed upon the design and form of our built environment as a counter‐measure to the decades of land‐use guided development. There is a growing desire to design places for people instead of the cars – interesting streets designed for pedestrian comfort. Many of development principles that encourage walking and interaction among people – the highlights of a true neighborhood – can be applied to existing subdivisions. Some are very inexpensive, like reducing front‐yard setbacks to allow front porches or rooms designed to activate the street. Others require reasonable funds to provide minimum pedestrian essentials, such as sidewalks. By using alternative funding mechanisms, the costs associated with providing pedestrian improvements within subdivisions can be relatively low. Pedestrian orientation can be retrofit into most suburban settings, often with a small capital expenditure. But the land use codes need to be revised to allow the suburban form to become more urban to truly create memorable pedestrian spaces. The key is to design to pedestrian scale in lieu of the auto. Streets are more for people than vehicles. Narrow travel lanes, on street parking, broad sidewalks, parking to the rear of buildings, street furniture, building orientation and mixed uses all add to the pedestrian orientation and scale. Retrofitting Suburbia: Implementation Principals Most subdivisions have been developed in accordance with land use and zoning rules that promulgate an auto dependence and scale of development. Here are the primary design issues for suburban subdivisions as compared to New Urban design principles: Auto Convenience v. Walkability The auto is by far suburbia’s dominant design constraint. Wide roads with smooth curves cater to the auto’s efficient movement through the typical subdivision. The auto takes over the front of the house with wide driveways and garage doors that dominate the house’s architecture. The architecture further reflects auto dominance through the internal layout of rooms. Lightly used or less important rooms are located on the front of the house and active rooms oriented to the rear. Thus, the auto is even driving the decisions of how to live in the house itself. The New Urbanism counteracts this design principle by promoting the pedestrian as the most important design element. This significantly affects neighborhood design by taking the auto out of the front yard and designing the street for people. This requires narrow travel lanes, on street parking, ample sidewalks and tighter corners to slow traffic down and return the street to a pedestrian scale. Likewise, New Urban home floor plans have the active interior rooms at the front of the house further animating the street. Front Yard v. Open Space and Parks Conventional suburban front yards have little, if any, function other than to park a car in the driveway and provide a large, grassed window dressing to the house’s front façade. A typical suburban lot is 120 feet deep with a 30 foot front yard setback; thus, 25% of the lot is in front of the house with little functionality. The New Urban solution is to provide short front yards with common open spaces in front of homes. Private Amenities v. Public Amenities Suburban residents view open space areas as amenities and, for this reason, a home with open space adjacency costs more than one without the adjacency. Overtime, this has led to the suburban pattern of lining open spaces with the rear lots of homes and selling those homes for a premium. The amenity spaces are typically enjoyed by a select few. The alternative approach is to front homes on a common open space amenity. In this way, everyone in the community can enjoy the open space views and the price premium is paid by every unit. Low Density v. Moderate Density Suburban development of single family homes is a low density development technique. This causes huge additional cost implications for municipal services including police, fire, solid waste, water and sewer, not to mention the costly road widening to accommodate the auto priority. Further, transit opportunities are difficult due to the lack of development concentrations. The appropriate amount of increased density, within the right form, reduces the municipal costs in general and transit options in particular. Homogenous Land Use v. Mixed Use Suburbia is predominantly residential and, from all the possible residential products, consists almost entirely of detached single family homes. Further, housing price points are similar within each subdivision. Thus, large land areas of homogenous single family homes stretch across the landscape with little relief or distinction. There are often compatibility issues when different land uses abut subdivisions. Non‐
residential uses (four lane roads, the backs of commercial centers, etc.) are considered incompatible with single family housing. Typically, this issue is addressed by building walls and landscape buffers to create a “compatible” edge. In fact, the edge is incompatible even with the buffer treatment and the token wall does not make the disparate uses compatible. Pod Development v. Connectivity Suburban development typically has limited roadway connections. This concept culminates in gated communities with only a single way in and out of the subdivision. Since the subdivision traffic pours onto a few select roads, these “collector” roads inevitably experience roadway congestion. This, in turn, causes pressure to widen roads and, eventually, cause compatibility issues with homes abutting intense highways. Alternatively, subdivisions can be connected together with multiple connection points, both vehicular and pedestrian. This provides alternate opportunities to reach destinations. The need for expensive road widening decreases and correspondingly, so does the roadway compatibility issue. Design Principles for Retrofitting Subdivisions Walkability/Pedestrian Scale Distance provides an easy walking design parameter. A five minute walk is physically within the reach of most people. This area is a good prototype size for a neighborhood. Neighborhoods can certainly be smaller but should not be much larger. Sidewalks are essential for the pedestrian‐oriented neighborhood. The sidewalks need to be related to the street and be enhanced with street furniture and street trees. If there are not sidewalks on both sides of all streets, a phasing plan needs to be established to provide at least one sidewalk for every street with the long term goal of sidewalks on both sides of all streets. A pedestrian system needs destinations. These destinations should be some type of neighborhood amenity such as a small park, a seating area under a large tree, a garden or whatever the neighborhood felt helped best define itself. A destination can also be a connection to other pedestrian systems outside the neighborhood to allow other, farther destinations (school, larger park or a commercial area) to be in reach of the residents. Public open space can be incorporated into the neighborhood along the right‐of‐way edges. For example, corner lots, which typically have additional setback requirements, have room for small areas to locate a bench, a fountain, a street light or some other street furniture to define a public spot within the neighborhood. This brings diversity into the landscape and icons for the neighborhood to identify itself. Conventional subdivision streets do not meet the New Urban standards for pedestrian scale. This is due to the very deep front and street side yard setbacks. Homes should be encouraged to relate more strongly to the street with front yard porches and entry walks out to the street. Too often, the entry walk to the home is from the driveway to the front door demonstrating the dominance of the auto. Walkways to the front door should reach out to the street. Most of these ideas do not meet current zoning standards. Some type of zoning overlay will need to be implemented to allow the suggested improvements. However, extending architecture into the front yard, particularly architecture relating directly to the street like a front porch or Florida room, will greatly enhance the neighborhood by creating a better pedestrian scale while also putting more eyes on the street for security Neighborhood Identity Neighborhood identity is important to promote a common ethos for all the residents. Neighborhood name, identification markers and common plant materials are ways to instill a common neighborhood image. The identity helps define the neighborhood in terms of the neighborhood limits and life style. The neighborhood identity and image is enmeshed within the physical fabric of the streets and homes. The special neighborhood places like parks and pedestrian scale streets provide a neighborhood with as much identity as installing markers and signage but together they advertise the neighborhood to the community at large. Higher Densities and Mixed Use One tried and true historic model to increase density within a low density land use pattern is the accessory unit. Either as a standalone building or living space above a detached garage, a second unit on a lot significantly increases neighborhood density in a compatible manner. This also provides diversity to the housing stock with smaller units mixed in with the prevailing house size. Home businesses add a degree of mixed use. Professional office, home occupations, arts and crafts dealers and similar uses easily blend into a neighborhood. The businesses should be located generally together and should be required to have architecture that relates to the street. Connectivity Roadway connections to adjacent neighborhoods are a great idea but typically difficult to retrofit into a neighborhood. However, creating pedestrian paths between neighborhoods adds connectivity without the large physical area and cost needed for a road. The goal is a series of interconnected neighborhoods allowing walking and biking to become alternative transportation options. Neighborhood Implementation Florida municipalities spend significant revenues on growth management of new subdivisions. Little revenue typically is spent on retrofitting existing subdivisions, even though the vast majority of residents live there. A public/private partnership can provide the means for existing subdivisions to take advantage of these ideas to implement improvements to better their own homes, neighborhoods and the community at large. The initial effort begins with the local government. The municipality will need to establish the framework to assist neighborhoods achieve improvements. This should include a responsible agency to oversee the process as well as a predictable course of action for improvement implementation. The agency may already exist (such as the planning department) or a new department may need to be created. The head of the agency should have a design background as well as experience with consensus building group situations. This organization will lead to successful integration of obtuse public visions into tangible neighborhood improvements. The neighborhood needs to provide the catalyst to the process. A single person or a group of neighbors can initiate the process with the agency. It is important the neighborhood as a whole participates in the process, supports the conclusions and moves forward with implementation. To start the process, a neighborhood sponsor would apply to the municipal agency to investigate the subdivision’s needs and interest in neighborhood improvements. The agency will undertake an initial due diligence of neighborhood size, infrastructure inventory, current entitlements and housing stock. A preliminary assessment of neighborhood boundaries and characteristics are the initial work tasks for the agency. The neighborhood boundaries are based upon the pedestrian principal of a five‐minute or less walk. Within the described neighborhood, pedestrian facilities, vehicular flow pattern, typical zoning classification, housing types and ranges, existing non‐residential uses, nearby destinations, pedestrian facilities beyond the neighborhood and vacant or municipally owned property need to be cataloged and mapped. This provides the base data for planning the neighborhood improvements. The agency, with the sponsor, seeks to initiate neighborhood consensus by holding a neighborhood meeting to determine interest in the improvement program, outline the process and review the base data with the residents. A successful conclusion to the first meeting is neighborhood consensus to participate in the improvement program and pushes the process to the next step. The vision must be expressed first in general terms using the comments from the participants. After establishing a common vision, the group needs to be challenged to advance the vision from general goals into tangible improvements. This is best accomplished in smaller groups drawing maps with individual, alternative solutions. The alternatives are then presented and critiqued by the entire group. The best solutions are cited and listed. A map with the selected improvements and ideas is the final product of the charrette along with the priority of the improvements. The agency has the responsibility to collect the entire work product from the charrette and document of the charrette. The selected ideas and improvements are specifically mapped along with a prioritized schedule of improvement events. These will include detailed pedestrian route improvements, identified pedestrian destinations, required additional pedestrian infrastructure like sidewalks and street amenities, possible open space opportunities, neighborhood imagery with icon locations as well as zoning revisions for private lot improvements. Possible outcomes include: • A schedule of sidewalk installation or improvement. • Selected locations for pocket parks. • Imagery • for neighborhood identification. • Selected locations for street furniture and neighborhood identity elements. • Identification of a street tree program. • Proposed zoning changes to allow improvements which strengthen pedestrian scale like setback amendments to allow front porches. • Proposed zoning changes to allow accessory units or mixed uses. • A listing of financial sources to pay for common elements (MSBU, MSTU, Neighborhood ReNew grant program, other grants, etc.). The improvement list is prioritized for near‐term, mid‐term and long‐term implementation. Private initiatives often are near term due to private financing. Public monies or a combination of public/private funding must be established to fund the public improvements. This relegates most common improvements to midterm or later. A proactive municipality could budget funds for a neighborhood improvements program allowing more immediate installation of improvements. The sooner improvements are installed, the sooner the neighborhood improves with a likely result of more private improvements to continue to enhance the neighborhood. The intended outcome is for all neighborhoods to have at least the basic pedestrian infrastructure. This will, hopefully, spur private investment in neighborhood homes. By incentivizing these private improvements to the front house facades, homes fill in part of the front yard to create a better pedestrian street scale with porches or active rooms and a mandatory walkway to the street. This in turn recesses garages or carports on the house façade. The neighborhood character, property values and social interaction are all improved with this simple program. Great neighborhoods are a goal all municipalities should strive for. Retrofitting existing neighborhoods with pedestrian‐friendly design standards will improve neighborhoods physically, and people coming together to implement the improvements will strengthen the neighborhood socially. The overall outcome will be better neighborhoods, increased property values, safer living conditions and an improved community as a whole. About the Author Jim Hall is Director of Urban Planning, Florida for VHB. He has more than 20 years of experience in central Florida, and has successfully worked in 35 different municipalities. Jim’s client practice includes: • site design/master planning /urban design • permitting and entitlement attainment • land acquisition due diligence/site selection • expert witness services