by Ethan Solomon, APA



Architecture and Urban Planning are related endeavors that focus on different geographic scales. Architecture works at the scale of the individual building and immediate site, while planning works at the scale of neighborhoods, municipalities, and regions. In addition, planning has developed many specializations that focus on different aspects of the larger built environment, such as affordable housing, transportation, economic development, protection of natural resources, land use planning, and community development.

Planning emerged from a need to overcome the disease, squalor, and poverty that were urban side effects of the industrial revolution. Planners therefore are concerned with a wide range of social, political, and economic factors beyond those that are the immediate concerns of building owners.

An important function of planning is to engage citizens in the process of developing a vision for how they want their community and its surrounding region to evolve over time, what attributes are important to protect, and where new development should be encouraged. The success of this process depends on listening, discovering shared values, and recognizing how the parts of a neighborhood, a city, or a region relate to one another and contribute to its overall vitality. Planners then work with a variety of partners in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to craft policies, land use regulations, and incentives to help the community achieve its goals.

The Planner's Role in Whole Building Design

The architect, if designing from a whole building design perspective, will be looking simultaneously at inside functional aspects, and how they might relate to the site conditions such as sun/wind/view orientation. Architects, engineers, landscape architects, and other design professionals will work in conjunction with the planner to ensure that environmental, social, and economic issues directly affected by construction or redevelopment are looked at. These include the building's effect on the natural environment (increased impervious surface, runoff, elevated water tables, preservation of wetlands and natural species, etc.), on the economy (increased tax base, more jobs, costs of schools generated by houses, etc.), community infrastructure (cost and timing of road and utility systems, different modes of transportation, etc.) and, in general, on all factors that affect the quality of life or residents of the larger area within which the individual building is situated.

Different constituencies within any given community often have differing opinions about community goals. Hence, an important role of planners is to help manage the process by which decisions can be made that best balance these differences. Planners are trained in the use of a variety of engagement and consensus-building techniques, ranging from interactive websites and electronic town meetings to more traditional public meetings.

Increasingly, planners and other design professionals are using more collegial and collaborative techniques to help community groups reach consensus on development issues. One such technique is the "community charrette." A charrette is essentially a design workshop where designers, residents, developers, city officials, planners, and other interested parties come together to envision and plan an area as small as a building site or as large as a neighborhood. It is a short-term, intense design tool to flesh out a community's vision for the future.

In all regions of the United States and in all sizes and types of communities, when citizens come together to discuss their hopes for their community, they often express a desire that it be a place that is economically viable, environmentally sustainable, and socially equitable. As they explore ways to achieve these goals and identify impediments to that progress, concerned citizens often come face to face with the regional dynamics that promote sprawl, use up irreplaceable farmland and open space, and undermine long-standing community investments.

Planners can assist elected officials, civic leaders, and a variety of other stakeholders, understand these dynamics and examine the costs and benefits of different development and conservation options. At the same time, they can elucidate how adhering to the principles of the Smart Growth and New Urbanism movements and employing many of the techniques they espouse, can help communities achieve their economic, environmental, and equity goals. In this way "whole building design" can become part of a holistic approach to neighborhood, community, and regional design.

Sprawl and the Built Environment

Throughout America, urban sprawl has been a major contributor to the degradation of the environment, increased commuting times, destruction of viable farmland, and loss of community fabric and social cohesion. An average of 45.6 acres of U.S. farmland is developed every hour, much of it for housing. In 1950, the average size of a newly built home in the United States was 983 square feet. In 2000 that number increased to 2,265 square feet. The result of our building habits is that metropolitan land consumption is vastly outpacing population growth. For example, between 1970 and 1990, metropolitan Chicago's population increased by 4% while the land consumed for housing increased by 46%.

Aerial view of two 85-unit developments in Ann Arbor, MI

Two 85 unit developments in Ann Arbor, MI

We can choose the way we grow. There are great social, economic, and environmental benefits to compact and sustainable design as an alternative to current sprawling development patterns. Often when cities try to stop sprawl, they encounter regulations adopted in the past that have been adverse to smart growth. Regulations such as minimum lot sizes, setbacks, and building footprints have had serious social consequences in communities.

Unfortunately compactness and increased density are still seen in many suburban areas as code words for mixing unequal economic or racial populations. Maintaining low density is still used as a device to keep up land development costs, increase values, and keep the "them" people out of an area. Smart growth is used as a tool for dismantling exclusionary regulatory barriers that prevent compact and sustainable growth from occurring and increasing environmental quality, economic development, and social equity.

Smart Growth

What is Smart Growth?

In contrast to conventional sprawling development practice, Smart Growth takes a regional approach to development and focuses a larger portion of growth in areas where development has already occurred. Smart Growth America defines smart growth as the outcome of six core values shared by the majority of Americans. Smart Growth communities promote:

  • Neighborhood Livability - Communities should be safe, affordable, attractive, and convenient. Smart planning can achieve all of these neighborhood goals, while sprawling communities can only achieve some.
  • Better Access and Less Traffic - This goal provides options for people and equal access for those without cars.
  • Thriving Cities, Suburbs, and Towns - Reusing and reinvesting in the communities that exist today is critical. Preservation and redevelopment of buildings can help improve existing neighborhoods.
  • Shared Benefits - Enable all sectors of society to benefit from economic prosperity.
  • Lower Costs, Lower Taxes - Building infrastructure for sprawl costs taxpayer money. Reinvesting in areas with existing infrastructure saves taxpayers money.
  • Keeping Open Space Open - Open space and natural features are community assets that are preserved through good planning and design. Developers can preserve these features through optimizing site developments.

The American Planning Association's Policy Guide on Smart Growth endorses these principles and guides its members to utilize smart growth principles in the planning process. APA also has a number of publications geared towards helping communities that want to revise state statutes.

APA is a member of the Smart Growth Network, a coalition of government agencies and nonprofit organizations dedicated to advancing smart growth. Other agencies and organizations participating in the network include the State of Maryland, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Association of Realtors, and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation.

Reinvestment in Our Cities

A key strategy for smart growth is reinvestment in our cities. Cities offer many opportunities and amenities that don't necessarily exist in outlying areas. These include:

  • Existing infrastructure
  • Historic Character
  • Access to public transportation, parks, schools, retail, and jobs
  • Pedestrian friendly streets
Photo displaying tree lined street with historical character
Photo of a street with traffic, stoplights, and construction

Photo Credit: Ethan Solomon

Also, many urban areas have reinvestment opportunities in vacant parcels and existing buildings, and some municipalities offer tax credits for brownfield redevelopment.

New Urbanism

The "New Urbanism" movement complements smart growth in many respects. New Urbanist communities feature compact neighborhoods that offer residents transportation options, open space amenities, and retail and live/work opportunities. New Urbanism can be new development or it can be integrated into an existing urban context.

The Charter of the New Urbanism highlights 27 principles necessary for achieving the objective of a new urbanist community. New Urbanist communities encourage:

  1. Mixed land uses, building types, and densities to promote diversity. Buildings should respect local and regional character to promote a sense of place.
  2. Infill and rehabilitation opportunities
  3. Community design standards in order to allow a neighborhood to maintain its local character to combat the "placelessness" associated with sprawl
  4. Neighborhoods that promote walking and public transit
  5. Neighborhood density coupled with regional preservation of farmland and natural features
Exterior of houses in Cherry Hill Village, a New Urbanist Community in Canton Township, MI

Cherry Hill Village - A New Urbanist Community in Canton Township, MI Photo Credit: Ethan Solomon

The health and character of a neighborhood are shaped by its diversity, walkability, and access to public transportation. Effective building design can support these objectives. A neighborhood with a wide range of housing options—with regard to cost, size, and style—can be inhabited by various demographic groups. For example, accessory housing and granny flats open a neighborhood to the elderly and others living on a small, fixed income. Walkability and access to a variety of modes of transportation makes a neighborhood accessible for more people, including people with disabilities and those who can not afford, or choose not to own a car.

Complementary Approaches

In striving to create healthier communities, planners and designers draw upon a variety of techniques including the following:

Historic Preservation—Cities may designate certain sections as "historic districts" and require adherence to special design guidelines so that the historic character of existing or renovated buildings is respected and new construction is compatible. Historic preservation functions such as designation, design review, and technical assistance may be housed in a separate public agency, but are often part of the planning department. Historic preservation enhances the aesthetic character of a neighborhood and can generate economic development in areas where tourism is a driving force in the local economy. This is particularly true in older commercial downtown areas that are unable to compete head-to-head with suburban, commercial strip development. The older districts have to transform themselves and attract a tourist or day-trip oriented customer with antique shops, restaurants, art shops, museums, entertainment, or other unique activities. (See also WBDG Historic Preservation.)

Transit Oriented Development (TOD)—TODs and other forms of development (transit corridors, station area zones, and transit districts) are high density, mixed-use and walkable areas built around transit nodes. TOD zones promote the use of many means of transportation. Special development zones are often created within a quarter mile radius of the transit stop, considered a comfortable walking distance for pedestrians.

The Federal Transit Authority has created the Transportation Planning Capacity Building Program, which serves as a clearinghouse for technical assistance and best case practices on effective transportation planning initiatives.

Building Design—Some jurisdictions now have urban design standards incorporated into their zoning codes. Elements such as window size, building materials, and lighting can be reviewed by a city to ensure that it is consistent with community character, promotes safety and security, and integrates the public and private realm.

An example of a town that has building design review is Apex, North Carolina. The town has done several things to ensure that Apex maintains its small town, walkable character. They have set up a Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND) district to promote higher density, walkable neighborhoods. Apex has required design review for all commercial and industrial uses within town limits, as well as for all residential development within the TND and other designated districts. Building design within Apex must be compatible with the architecture of the town and is achieved through techniques such as the repetition of roof lines, the use of similar proportions in building mass and outdoor spaces, similar relationships to the street, similar window and door patterns, and the use of building materials that have color, shades, and textures similar to those existing in the immediate area of the proposed development.

Street Elements

The aesthetic and social quality of neighborhoods can be improved through the layout of the streets and the streetscape elements that are provided.

Street Widths: Short blocks with narrow streets support walking, calm traffic speeds, and promote more neighborhood cohesion. Streets should complement the uses that are found on them. Neighborhoods with many pedestrians, bicyclists, and street activity, for example, should have slow moving cars.

Sidewalks: Sidewalks were once an installation that was taken for granted in neighborhood design. In some municipalities, sidewalks are not a necessity and are often eliminated in subdivision design. The result has been complete auto-dependency.

Planners value sidewalks because they:

  • Provide pedestrian safety - According to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2001 there were 78,000 pedestrians injured and 4,882 pedestrians killed by cars in the United States.
  • Support a healthy lifestyle by promoting physical activity - Walkability is increasingly important as obesity has reached epidemic proportions. Almost 59 million individuals in the United States are considered obese.
  • Promote social gathering - Wide sidewalks allow for benches, outdoor seating for restaurants, and activities that bring people together.

Lighting: Good lighting provides visibility along with a greater perception of safety. Streetlights can be at a pedestrian or auto-oriented scale. Lighting fixtures can reflect the aesthetic character of a neighborhood, particularly in historic neighborhoods.

Street Trees: Trees act as a buffer between pedestrians and automobiles. They provide shade in the summertime and are an aesthetically pleasing addition to any streetscape.

Parking: On-street parking slows speeds of through-traffic and provides a buffer between pedestrians and moving vehicles. Metered spaces generate revenue for cities while reducing the need for additional off-street parking sites.

Urban area with a favorable layout mixing retail and esidential along the corridor
Urban area with a depressing layout mixing retail and residential along the corridor

Photo Credit: Ethan Solomon

When combined, these elements convey an image of a neighborhood in which residents and building owners take pride. Both of the neighborhoods depicted here are in urban areas with a mix of retail and residential along the corridor. Which one of these neighborhoods would you rather live in?

Emerging Techniques in Planning

When cities and regions take the initiative to stop sprawling and embrace smart growth values, they often run into regulatory barriers to changing the physical landscape created by traditional zoning. As part of their larger efforts to help communities achieve the social, economic, and environmental goals of smart growth, planners and other design professionals have crafted several alternatives to traditional zoning in an effort to achieve more control over building and site design.

Example of ecozones on a continuum from rural (T-1 the natural zone) ot urban (T-6 the urban core)

Photo Credit: Duane Plater-Zyberk Architects

Among these alternatives are various "form-based development codes," which emphasize the design character of the area and allow greater flexibility in the range of land uses. Three types of form based development codes have emerged.

  • Form Based Coding—Form based coding is a regulatory approach designed to shape the physical form of development while setting only broad parameters for use. They are created through community participation and visioning that reflects the community character of a locality. Many cities are experimenting with form-based by adopting them for specific neighborhoods and districts.
  • Form District Zoning—Form District zoning incorporates a two-tiered approach combining the use regulations of existing zoning districts with form districts that regulate density and intensity and prescribe contextual design standards such as build-to lines based upon the established development pattern.
  • SmartCode—Smartcode is based upon the New Urbanist concept of transect planning. Smartcode sets up different "ecozones" on a continuum from rural to urban. These zones range in scale and intensity from T-1 (the natural zone) to T-6 (The Urban Core). Each transect has a different set of rules for building height, setbacks, street design, etc.

Enlarging the Collaborative Process

Using the techniques described above, planners can help communities achieve many of their social, environmental, and economic goals. However other elements of a successful community such as civic participation, affordable housing, environmental justice, and ethnic and economic diversity cannot be achieved through physical design alone. Planners and design professionals must work with a diverse group of stakeholders and disciplines to ensure that these issues are addressed in a holistic manner.

Additional Resources