How to Build a Neighborhood(?) Part 2 "Traditional"

Jeffrey A. Gordon, M.D.

In a continuation of my article from last month, I will talk some specifics about how your town’s zoning and subdivision regulations can provide for and affect the residential (housing) make up of your town. In the early 20th century, communities undertook efforts to protect residential areas from the expanding presence of manufacturing and industrial land uses. Residential zoning districts prohibited those uses determined to be incompatible with neighborhood home living. As communities across the country enacted zoning/subdivision regulations, more and more such neighborhoods were built. This became a boom after World War II. Suburban areas, replete with rows of houses and streets, were planned and built. Many people have welcomed this separation of family living from the hustle and bustle of city centers, commercial districts and manufacturing/industrial facilities.

These “traditional” residential neighborhoods are familiar scenes in many places. They follow a straightforward approach to maximize the actual development of the land.

Here is a real world example:

1.) Sell or buy a land parcel for development: 120 acres.

2.) Identify the non-buildable parts, such as water bodies and watercourses, wetlands and steep slopes: 20 acres.

3.) Calculate the buildable land by subtracting the non-buildable acreage from the total parcel acreage: 120 – 20 = 100 acres.

4.) Know a town’s required minimum acreage per lot: 2.5 acres/lot.

5.) Maximize the number of housing lots on the developable area by dividing the required acreage per house into the allowed buildable acres: 100 / 2.5 = 40 houses.

6.) Build a street down the middle with driveways off it.

7.) Put in other infrastructure (water, wells, sewer, septics, utilities, etc…).

Any number of large or small lot sizes can be created, as long as the town’s required minimum house lot acreage is met.

Such housing lots are easy to map out for maximizing land development if they look like squares or rectangles. Thus, houses tend to be built in straight rows with a street running down the middle of the land parcel. All of this lends itself to getting the most economic use potential of the land. It is understandable that there are incentives involved in owning, selling/re-selling and developing land, as well as in home construction. These are not inherently bad things since most Americans have their land and/or their house as their main financial asset, and the real estate and construction professions are important parts of our local economies.

By having zoning/subdivision regulations that permit such neighborhood design and given the vast number of such types of neighborhoods built over the years, you can see (literally) how “traditional” neighborhoods have taken shape across the country and shaped our communities.

A potential negative about “traditional” neighborhood design is a decrease of undeveloped land, such as open spaces and woodlands, leading to a loss of conservation areas. Such a loss may not seem to be much when one looks at an individual lot of land, but taken in the aggregate, it can add up. This is what has happened over the years with many suburban areas around our cities. Once the land is developed, it cannot easily be reverted back to its undeveloped state.

For some people, the growing disconnection of people from where they live, work, shop, relax and obtain needed services, as well as the increasing number of streets and roads used for such travel, are concerning. The term “suburban sprawl” has been used to describe it all.

I am not saying anything bad about “traditional” type of neighborhood designs. I grew up in such a neighborhood. Many of you live in such neighborhoods. However, there has been and there continues to be a lot of planning and zoning efforts to incorporate better the needs of individuals and of communities not just in residential neighborhood designs, but also in community-wide designs. Several such design types in use today are “conservation subdivision”, “smart growth”, “mixed use” and “new urbanism”. In part 3 of this article series, I will talk with you about them. So, stay tuned.

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