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Urban Renewal

By Donald R. Leal

The suburbs are popularly identified with monotony -with "cookie-cutter" homes and streets and intersections designed for the automobile rather than the pedestrian. In addition, they have large paved areas and extensive utilities, which require costly maintenance and grow unsightly with age.

One way to address these flaws has been a new style of community called "traditional neighborhood developments," or TNDs. These communities are designed to reflect the style and patterns of development that existed in many small towns during the first half of the twentieth century. Such towns had tiny lots with homes close to one another; narrow streets that connected to form a grid pattern of roadways; commercial uses intermingled with residential uses; and virtually everything necessary for typical living- stores, churches, schools, homes, and jobs-within walking distance.

Traditional neighborhood developments, part of the "new urbanist" vision, are not likely to be widely adopted, however. For one thing, it is difficult to create an economically viable commercial town center when you discourage automotive use, as proponents of these designs do. And while many environmentalists embrace the compactness of TNDs as a way to save open space, TNDs often require as much as twenty percent more linear feet of paved road than conventional developments because of their alleys and collector streets (Harrison, 4). The Environmental Protection Agency considers paved roads a major contributor to deteriorating water quality.

The biggest challenge for traditional neighborhood developments is affordability. Higher design and construction costs and the costs of common-area infrastructure result in more expensive homes (Steuteville 1999, 12).

Two new designs for suburban developments offer a way to add distinction to suburban living while keeping it affordable. Designed by landscape architect Rick Harrison, they offer more open space, less costly roads and utilities, safer travel, and greater variety than traditional suburbs within the price range of a large number of potential homebuyers.

Conventional developments position homes parallel to the street, with specified and uniform setbacks (the distance from the street curb to home front). The problem with this placement is that building enough houses to achieve affordable density means building more paved road. Coving is a siteplanning method that creates coves of green space in front of houses through varied setbacks and winding streets (see figure).

Coving removes the assumption that homes must be parallel to the street. Homes are positioned to form a curve that is separate from the pattern of the streets, allowing more homes for a given length of road. Compared to conventional layout, coving reduces the linear feet of street by an average of 20 percent, sometimes as much as 40 percent.

Because home and street positions are not as rigid as they are with either conventional suburban developments or TNDs, they can conform more closely to the natural topography. So, while housing density generally remains the same as with a conventional layout, there is more open space adjacent to homes, and walking paths can follow a curvilinear route independent of the street. The combination of open space and independent walking paths increases beauty and safety at less cost, says coving’s inventor, site planner Rick Harrison (Bady 1999, 24).

Coving is appealing for a variety of reasons. It increases lot size by 15 to 20 percent without sacrificing the number of houses that can be built at a site. In effect, the extra land that is spared from use as roads is placed into front yards. Coving cuts maintenance costs for cities and reduces runoff and erosion to maintain water quality. And it allows houses to be positioned individually on lots so they don’t face each other. Not only does this enhance individuality among home sites, it adds privacy.

Coving makes natural amenities more accessible because open space is interwoven with housing. And it provides visual appeal without the expensive architecture or landscaping necessary for successful "new urbanist" designs. With coving, homes are more affordable. Furthermore, unlike government-prescribed setbacks, coving allows the distance from the street curb to the home fronts to be increased sufficiently to make even a modestly priced home appear estate-like.

A more recent site planning method by Rick Harrison is the bay home concept (see figure). Like coving, the bay home concept uses less infrastructure than conventional designs.

While a coved development is based primarily on single family ownership, with bay homes the land and all items outside the house are held in common through a homeowners’ association. Without the constraints of individually owned lots, bay home layouts can achieve even greater savings in infrastructure than coving.

Most bay home units front other units without having a dedicated street between the fronts. Instead, meandering walkways connect the fronts, creating a pedestrian-oriented community. Unlike coved developments, bay home units have an entrance and garage in the rear of the home, while the front entrance faces open space. Bay home units also have inviting open porches to create a more neighborly environment (Rick Harrison Site Design Inc., 7Ð8).

While the bay home concept has strong similarities with the traditional neighborhood design, including high densities, there are differences. Compared with the rigid grid pattern of streets of TNDs, bay home development cuts infrastructure by about 50 percent while creating a safer, pedestrian-oriented environment. Because bay home developments do not require expensive architecture, they can accommodate moderately priced units, including units in inner-city renewal developments.

The prospects appear bright for both coving and bay homes. By December 1999, three coved developments had been completed, 40 were under construction, and over 50 were in the approval process. The first bay home project was recently approved in Minnesota, and five more are in the approval process.

There are stumbling blocks, such as rigid restrictions on setbacks and streets and the approval process itself. However, for communities where zoning and planning is forward-looking, designs such as these offer promising alternatives.

Bady, Susan. 1999. Coving Creates New Site Design. Professional Builder, March, 24.
Harrison, Rick. N.d. Sensible Solutions for Smart Growth, a Publication for Municipalities and those Impacting Public Policy and/or Housing Funding. Promotional brochure. St. Louis Park, MN: Rick Harrison Site Design, Inc.
Rick Harrison Site Design, Inc. N.d. Achieving Sustainability with the Community Planning Techniques of Coving and the Bay Home Concept. Promotional brochure. St. Louis Park, MN: Rich Harrison Site Design, Inc.
Steuteville, Robert, ed. 1999. Nationwide Survey. New Urban News (Ithaca, NY), September/October.

Donald R. Leal is a Senior Associate of PERC. This article was excerpted from his chapter, "The Market Responds to Smart Growth," in A Guide to Smart Growth: Shattering Myths and Providing Solutions, ed. Jane S. Shaw and Ronald D. Utt. (Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation, 2000).

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