Residential developments in small-town America: assessment and regulations
© The Author(s) 2017
Received: 14 April 2017
Accepted: 19 September 2017
Published: 29 September 2017
This study is part of a comprehensive process in the City of New Bern, North Carolina aimed at drafting a subdivision regulatory framework that promotes sustainable residential developments with a heightened sense of community and vitality. The aim is to develop an objective assessment tool for new subdivision plans. Issues considered in this assessment include intra-and-inter-neighborhood connectivity, walkways, open spaces, the environment, and home architecture. The study highlights the transition from the traditional, open-grid street network and porch-fitted homes to modern suburbs with disconnected streets and garage-dominated homes. It draws on five planning and design criteria (accessibility, walkability, community, sustainability, and variety) to develop a performance-based rating system for development proposals. The rating system allows planners and architects to assign points and identify failings and changes required to encourage the development of well-planned residential subdivisions that complement the small-town appeal of traditional American urban centers.
A unique sense of small town urbanity is one of the most desirable aspects of life in New Bern, North Carolina. The city (City of New Bern, http://www.newbern-nc.org), Swiss Bear (http://www.swissbear.org), the historic preservation commission, and other organizations have worked long and hard to protect New Bern’s charm and character (New Bern Historical Society, http://www.newbernhistorical.org). The aim has not been to create a repository for historic architectural styles, but to encourage the development of a livable city that maintains its past and integrates new developments. Like other US cities, New Bern has its share of new suburban developments that depart radically from their traditional counterparts. The latter are more car-oriented, and many lack the small-town charm and architectural refinements typical of traditional neighborhoods.
This study is part of a comprehensive process aimed at drafting a subdivision regulatory framework that not only thwarts poorly planned developments, but also encourages well-planned ones with a sense of sociability and physical quality that complements New Bern’s small-town appeal. The objective of this process is not to propose ‘True Urbanism’ popularized by Jacobs (1961), Alexander (1977), Krier (1979), Carmona et al. (2003), Carmona and Tiesdell (2007) or the international making cities livable conference (Crowhurst and Crowhurst 1995; IMCL 46th 2008). The study certainly benefits from the extensive literature associated with these prolific urbanists and other popular planning movements such as the ‘urban villages’ (Aldous 1992; Neal 2003) and the ‘new urbanism’ (Katz 1994; Duany and Plater-Zyberk 1991, 2000). However, this study approach to developing better suburbs is primarily configured as an adjunct to existing Euclidean zoning context typical of most American towns. Extended discussions with various community groups and conversations with New Bern residents indicated that a mixed-use or transit-oriented development proposal for New Bern suburbs would be an exercise in futility; it would only add up to the list of previous studies shelved in the city’s archives with little or no hope for implementation. Hence, the pragmatic focus on the planning and design elements that can be implemented and would improve development practices in the city.
The paper is mainly divided into three parts. The first part provides a historical context for American urban development and alludes to the forces that transpired a major shift in the American town from the mixed-use compact urban grid to the sprawled curvilinear suburbs that were exclusively zoned in separate residential, commercial, office, and industrial enclaves. The second part contrasts two clusters of New Bern neighborhoods; one cluster incorporates three traditional districts with homes primarily built before the 1940s; the other cluster incorporates two constellations of newer subdivisions built in the 1980s and beyond. The purpose is to highlight the transition from the traditional open-grid street layout and porch-fitted homes typical of traditional neighborhoods to the modern suburb with closed curvilinear street networks and garage-dominated homes. The third part of the paper outlines the five planning and design criteria (accessibility, walkability, community, sustainability, and variety) utilized to develop a performance-based assessment tool and rating system for new subdivision plans. The rating system allows planners to assign points and identify failings and changes required to satisfy sustainable growth provisions. It has been used experimentally to evaluate new subdivision applications in New Bern. Results and feedback from stakeholders have been very encouraging and the system will continue to be refined pending its final adoption in the New Bern’s zoning.
Historical context for American urban/suburban development
The urban/suburban development changes outlined above affected big cities and small towns alike. The City of New Bern underwent through the same process; the bulk of new developments took place on the urban periphery and was mostly planned as low-density mono-zoned suburbs. Home architecture and massing went through massive reconfiguration to accommodate the car and modern life amenities. Porch-fitted homes that used to face the street started to give their back to the public realm and most living spaces were oriented to grass lined backyards. Most importantly, car garages were designed to occupy the bulk of home facades, thereby isolating living spaces from the street environment. The following part of the paper contrasts two sets of neighborhoods, the first was built before the 1940s and more or less fits with the ‘porch house’ era while the second group was built in the 1980s and beyond and is designated in this paper as ‘garage house.’ developments. The purpose is to highlight the transition from traditional open-grid street layout and porch-fitted homes to modern suburbs with closed curvilinear street networks and garage-dominated residential developments. Discussions include a preliminary assessment of environmental and physical planning implications of each pattern of development.
New Bern traditional neighborhoods (1940s and before): the porch house
Three neighborhoods were examined: The Downtown Historic District, Riverside, and Ghent. Traditional neighborhoods in New Bern boast pedestrian friendly built environments with different size homes and economic tenures allowing a healthy social mix and providing a model for sustainable urban living. They are characterized by fine grain built forms with active street/building interfaces that potentially enhance social encounters and encourage walkability (Kashef 2009, 2011; Duany and Plater-Zyberk 1992). The presence of landmarks such as churches and civic buildings permeate these traditional districts and help orient pedestrians and enhance the city visual identity (Lynch 1960, 1981). A large number of windows open onto public spaces (eyes on the street) engendering a heightened sense of safety and community (Jacobs 1961).
The downtown historic district
The riverside neighborhood
New Bern contemporary residential developments (1980s onwards): the garage house
Two constellations of subdivisions are used as representative of newer suburbs in New Bern; the first one includes mid-and-upscale subdivisions; the second constellation encompasses low-to-mid-scale subdivisions in northwest New Bern. Unlike the traditional neighborhoods that offered a wide range of home tenures within a walkable distance, newer suburbs are more or less divided along home values. Accessibility depends largely on the automobile and each subdivision tends to create homogenous social enclave and less articulated built environment.
Planning and design criteria
The previous examination of traditional and new subdivisions in the City of New Bern depended largely on five planning and design criteria: accessibility, walkability, community, sustainability, and variety. Design criteria were used somewhat loosely to develop an understanding of the differences between traditional neighborhoods (pre-1940s) and the new subdivisions (post-1980s). In that sense, the criteria were not totally developed a priori before examining New Bern neighborhoods. Understanding and assessment evolved simultaneously in order to develop a pragmatic performance-based approach to guide new subdivision development in New Bern. This process and the urban design criteria presented below were also informed by meetings with various stakeholders that included planners, elected officials, developers, and community representatives in the City of New Bern.
Accessibility evaluates both internal and external connectivity of a subdivision, i.e. the physical linkage between different parts of a subdivision as well as the relationship between contiguous subdivisions. As shown earlier, residents of New Bern’s traditional Neighborhoods could move from street to street and one neighborhood to another within an open-grid street network with small size blocks that assured a high level of internal and external accessibility. The grid offered a flexible street network and a clear mental map for motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists. The very high level of accessibility afforded by the grid may not be attainable within a new subdivision context. In addition, the sweeping character of the later curvilinear street design added a picturesque dimension that most people in New Bern seem to appreciate in suburban design and planning. It created a series of blocked or changing vistas and generally enhanced the visual image of neighborhoods (Kashef 2009, 2011; Trancik 1986; Bacon 1976). The looping nature of modern suburban streets also resulted in private and less navigable streets, thus discouraging excessive through traffic and speeding, a quality favored by New Bern residents. Local surveys generally indicated an overwhelming preference for curvilinear streets over straight ones. The latter were consistently described as conducive to speeding, unsafe for neighborhood kids playing or biking. Straight residential subdivision streets were also perceived as visually less attractive than curvilinear ones.
Unfortunately, the proliferation of dead-end streets and excessive compartmentalization of modern subdivisions exacerbated accessibility problems and created dysfunctional suburban regions. The result was not only decreased car travel along subdivision streets but also diminished walking and biking opportunities. Pedestrians or cyclists can hardly access modern subdivision different sections without having to backtrack from dead-end streets. The desire to eliminate foreign traffic and limit movement on subdivision streets created highly underutilized internal subdivision streets and unnecessary traffic problems along major arteries. The accessibility criterion advanced by this study is grounded in a balanced understanding of the merits of traditional neighborhood planning and the nuances of modern suburban development practices. Developers commonly cater to prevailing buyer preferences.
Three strategies can be used to enhance accessibility while maintaining the curvilinear street pattern. First, street connectors between neighbouring developments can be planned to facilitate low-speed travel across suburban regions. This could potentially reduce congestion along arterial roads and provide more route options when some links are blocked by traffic. Despite concerns about safety and increased car travel along suburban roads, transportation studies indicated that improved connectivity in suburban regions would provide a much needed flexibility of movement, especially for emergency vehicles. Building some redundancy in road networks is also critical to generate a rich modal split between motorized and non-motorized transportation (Crane 2000; Ewing and Cervero 2002). Various traffic calming strategies have been successfully deployed in cities across the US to slow motorized traffic and ensure pedestrians and cyclists’ safety. The use of humps, visible pedestrian crossings, road constrictions (bottle-necks), roundabouts, among other techniques have been invariably noted as effective strategies to slow cars and create safer streets for non-motorized traffic (Burden 2000). Pedestrian and cyclists would be encouraged to travel along low-speed internal suburban roads rather than venturing into high-speed regional transportation corridors. A number of empirical investigations have shown that inter-subdivision connectors increase walking and biking across development boundaries (Crane 2000; Ewing and Cervero 2002; Handy et al. 2004; Alba and Beimborn 2005).
Second, small block sizes can enhance accessibility especially for pedestrians and cyclists. A number of statistically-supported studies indicated that smaller blocks (< 1000 ft. long) and higher connectivity indices tend to generate more pedestrian movement (Krizek 2003; Cerin et al. 2007; Frank et al. 2005; Badland et al. 2008; Chin et al. 2007). The ‘connectivity index’ is commonly used to measure the directness and availability of alternative routes between different locations within the road network. It is derived by dividing the number of roadway intersections and nodes (cul-de-sacs included). A higher number indicates a well-connected street system (Ewing 1996). A link in the connectivity index is simply a stretch of road between two nodes. A node ranges from a dead-end cul-de-sac to a three- or-four-way intersection. The more links available in comparison to the number of nodes, the higher the connectivity and the potential of the street network to generate more pedestrian movement (Schmidt and Wells 2005).
Third, Hillier’s space syntax (Hillier 1996, 1999, 2002) can be used as a design framework to locate important public functions along subdivision streets. A neighborhood space syntax shows the neighborhood streets as a series of intersecting lines creating a network of links and nodes. Each street or line on the map has a different level of connectivity with the network based on the number of other streets that intersect it. Streets that generate more intersections hold higher value as elements of integration in the network. Important public functions such as parks, shops, playgrounds, etc. tend to catalyze more pedestrian movement and should be located on streets with the highest integration value in the street network (Kashef 2009, 2011).
The aim of space syntax is to optimize the spatial allocations and connections between human functions so as to produce the most effective configurations and circulation networks. The assumption is that movement through space is a key organizing element in the social functioning of human settlements. Hillier contends that socioeconomic forces shape the city primarily through the relations between movement and the structural layout of local districts. A mixed-use strategy that brings homes closer to retail cannot generate movement unless shops are selectively located on integrating lines that carry the most movement in relation to surrounding spaces (Hillier 1996).
Hillier’s work sparked the development of a large volume of research around the world that used space syntax logic to examine spatial configurations of homes, offices, neighborhoods, cities, metropolitan regions or movement networks of entire countries (Baran et al. 2008; Hillier 1999, 2002; Bafna 2003; Jiang and Claramunt 2002; Nophaket and Fujii 2004; Raford and Ragland 2003; Peponis et al. 2007).
The presence of sidewalks is commonly touted as a critical component of walkability in residential developments (Jacobs 1961; Krier 1979; Trancik 1986; Barnette 1995). Systematic observations of various suburban areas with sidewalks in New Bern did not yield sufficient evidence indicating that sidewalks on their own generate pedestrian movement. Furthermore, a host of recent empirical investigations from the public and environmental health fields, pointed to the lack of causality between neighborhood sidewalks and walkability. Most of these studies noted that the presence of sidewalks is positively correlated with walking. They generally explained such associations in terms of the market self-selection process, i.e., people who like walking commonly choose to live in places that support their way of life (Cervero and Duncan 2003; Atkinson et al. 2004; Reed et al. 2006; Oaks et al. 2007; Lovasi et al. 2008; Nagel et al. 2008).
This study argues that poor internal and external connectivity diminishes the value of sidewalks to nothing more than cosmetic or landscape elements. Space syntax considerations are also critical to the walkability potential of street networks. This study argues that accessibility is a precondition for walkability, which requires both sidewalks and destinations of interest to pedestrians. Destinations of interest would differ from one subdivision or suburban region to another; some would have parks, natural forests, observation points, or waterfronts and others could offer playgrounds, sports, recreational facilities, shops, or public libraries. In order for destinations of interest to enhance walkability, they should be located along streets with the highest integration value in the network, i.e. streets that carry most of the movement within the network (Hillier 1996, 1999, 2002; Kashef 2011).
Sustainability concerns include various environmental, social, and economic aspects (Kashef 2016). Contemporary subdivision planning and design practices seldom consider environmentally sensitive areas; land is generally divided into private lots with streets paving over wetlands, creeks, and other natural features. The loss of natural systems not only endangers wild life habitat but also deprives residents from nature-based recreational and social opportunities. Forests, creeks and wetlands could be effectively integrated with neighborhood sidewalks, bike lanes, and parks to create destinations or points of interest. This may encourage walking and biking as alternative modes of transportation, create possibilities for social interaction and hence more socially sustainable development. Therefore, increasing the percentage of open space in new subdivisions is critical to conserve natural habitat and provide recreational opportunities and public meeting places within suburban communities.
This criterion deals with ways to enrich the image of subdivisions including buildings, streets, sidewalks, and public meeting places. The New Urbanists expressed a renewed interest in traditional building practices. They contended that attention to architectural details and visual stimuli can encourage civic engagement (Duany and Plater-Zyberk 1991; Katz 1994; Dutton 2001). In this respect, traditional neighborhoods in New Bern juxtapose a successful combination of elements that create a variegated and attractive built environment. Most significant is the variety in home designs, sizes, roof slopes, colors and architectural details that make each home or group of homes stand out and present a unique image along the street or curb line. Sidewalks are well-designed with plant strips and trees that define the sidewalk space and buffer pedestrians from cars parked parallel to the street. The chance to change directions and see other streets and buildings due to small size blocks and seamless connectivity with neighboring areas enhances the experiential quality of public space. On the other hand, typical suburban subdivisions display standardized built forms. They generally adopt a cookie-cutter approach that produces less articulated built environments; streets function as conduits for car traffic with little or no social functions. This trend should be reversed; subdivision ordinances should be revised to encourage architectural variety.
Sense of community is a value that can hardly be quantified or legislated in subdivision ordinances. It can be cultivated by providing certain features and social possibilities that engender positive interaction among residents. Place attachment is another term that is commonly used in conjunction with sense of community. It is a complex and equally pertinent construct that figured in most design and planning literature as both a by-product of and contributor to the sentiment of community. Place attachment is often described as a “positive affective relationship between people and place” that occurs because of people’s satisfaction and identification with a specific place (Bonnes and Secchiaroli 1995). Identification with a place results in emotional connections with its physical attributes that people often associate with social events. Place and associated emotions and events become inseparable or interchangeable in people’s minds (Giuliani and Feldman 1993). The meaning of place here encompasses built environments as well as natural and cultural landscapes (Hidalgo and Hernandez 2001; Herzog et al. 2003).
Designers have generally maintained that certain spatial configurations, built forms, and design elements can play a significant role in promoting sense of community, safety, and place attachment (Kashef 2008). The most significant design theme arising from the design and planning literature and potentially affecting neighborhood sociability is the interface between the private and public realms (Kelbaugh 1997; Jacobs 1961; Alexander 1965, Alexander 1977; Duany and Plater-Zyberk 1992). It is essentially about the articulation of the outer skin of buildings or homes and disposition of buildings in space. Various studies indicate that increasing the interface between private and public realms tends to heighten the level of activity around the edges of buildings (Newman 1972; Whyte 1980; Bentley et al. 1985; Bentley 1999; Moughtin et al. 2003; Duany et al. 2003; Neal 2003).
From a residential design perspective, elements that contribute to increased private/public interface include windows of active living spaces, transitional spaces such as entryways or porches, as well as the availability and distribution of common spaces. As long as home privacy is maintained, the presence of such elements creates opportunities for walking and social interaction among inhabitants (Duany and Plater-Zyberk 1992). The interaction referenced here can be characterized as passive or active. The passive social interaction falls under a category that Bill Hillier calls ‘social or spatial co-presence.’ Hillier contends that co-presence and therefore co-awareness amongst the individuals living in and passing by an area can be considered a raw material for social interaction. Whilst co-present individuals are not a community and may not know or acknowledge each other, they in fact form a social resource for communal behavior. Co-presence is a very important psychological resource in and of itself and can be brought about by design (Hillier 1996, pp. 129–214).
A preliminary rating system for subdivision applications in New Bern
The proposed performance-based rating system for subdivision applications in New Bern stems from a balanced understanding of the planning and design criteria discussed above. These criteria are not mutually exclusive. For example, improved accessibility would encourage walkability and enhance sustainability; delightful physical environments would promote walkability and encourage residents to patronize public spaces, which create possibilities for social interaction and hence increased sense of community. The criteria form the basis of the proposed design standards that New Bern developers would comply with to get development permits. The design standards are incorporated into an objective, performance-based assessment tool that allows planning staff in New Bern to assign points and identify failings and changes required to satisfy sustainable growth provisions. Ideally, developers should work out subdivision plans that reflect a comprehensive consideration of the five criteria. A more realistic expectation is that development plans would manifest differentiated emphases on these criteria. Some might score higher on architectural variety and open spaces, but lower on accessibility; others would satisfy accessibility and walkability provisions, but fall short of addressing energy-efficiency and conservation requirements. The overlap and built-in redundancy between the criteria ensures that successful developments would encompass a sufficiently reasonable mix of sustainable growth requirements. One of the major objectives of the proposed system is to provide a level of flexibility that allows developers to work out sustainable subdivision plans while achieving their economic objectives. This has been an integral consideration in devising pragmatic and potentially implementable design standards. Another important consideration is that development locations, site characteristics, economics and target market specifics, etc. would influence developers’ selective emphasis on some criteria versus others to satisfy the passing score. Each of the five planning and design criteria was deemed equally important. Hence, the total weight of 100 points was divided equally among the criteria giving each 20 points on the rating system. The passing score was generated by methodical reviews of various subdivision applications submitted over a period of 2 years to the City of New Bern. Subdivisions that satisfied the bulk of the planning and design criteria scored 70 points or more on the 100-point rating system. The subdivision rating system has been used experimentally to evaluate new subdivision applications in New Bern. Results and feedback from stakeholders have been very encouraging and the system will continue to be refined pending its final adoption in New Bern’s zoning ordinance. A preliminary checklist of planning and design provisions and corresponding scoring weights are presented below.
Accessibility: 20 pts
Connectivity with neighboring subdivisions (street and/or sidewalk connectors) Road connectors that provide access for cars, pedestrians, and cyclists qualify for 10 pts. Walking and biking connectors qualify for only 5 pts. Subdivisions that are surrounded from three sides by wetlands, conservation areas, lakes and other natural features that preclude the possibility of connectors with neighboring subdivision are exempt from this requirement.
Connectivity of subdivision blocks, connectors between cul-de-sac streets. Road connectors that provide access for cars, pedestrians, and cyclists qualify for 5 pts. Walking and biking Connectors qualify for only 3 pts. Subdivisions with a narrow frontage and a single access road to building lots are exempt from this requirement.
Flexibility of movement; small-size blocks, 600 ft. or less qualify for 5 pts. Subdivisions with a narrow frontage and a single access road to building lots are exempt from this requirement.
Walkability: 20 pts
Sidewalks on both sides of a subdivision street qualify for 10 pts. Sidewalks on one side of a subdivision street qualify for only 5 pts.
Open spaces and destinations of interest (excluding home fronts and backyards). Walking and bilking trails, lakes and promenades, parks, landscaped common areas, observation points, etc. 5% of subdivision area is a minimum requirement and qualifies for 0 pts., 10% qualifies for 5 pts., and 15% or more qualifies for 10 pts.
Community: 20 pts
Public amenities such as picnic shelters, park gazebos, playgrounds, sports fields, etc. qualify for 5 pts. These amenities are physically developed with subdivisions or an exchange value paid to help support and build public recreational facilities throughout the city.
Porches mandated by subdivision covenants qualify for 5 pts. 40% or more of homes in a proposed subdivision must be provided with porches to qualify for 5 pts. Covenants must be attached to subdivision sections and/or building lots designated for porch homes.
Entrances and active windows facing the street; garages and storage rooms are not considered active spaces. Active spaces include living rooms, bedrooms, kitchen, dining, etc. Home entrance and windows of one active space must face the street to qualify for 5 pts. This requirements must be mandated by subdivision covenants to qualify for the points.
Concealed garage doors; side, rear, or back alleyway garages qualify for 5 pts. Garage doors facing the street but recessed backward 10 ft. or more qualify for 3 pts.
Sustainability: 20 pts
Adherence to low impact development (LID) standards as defined by US EPA Office of Water 104b (3) Program (lowimpactdevelopment.org) or subdivision conservation standards qualifies for 5 pts.
Subdivision conservation designs and protection of environmentally sensitive wetlands, ponds, forests, creeks, etc. qualify for 10 pts. Must provide opportunities for residents to enjoy natural resources and integrate sidewalks with forest trails or lake promenades.
Energy-efficient and green building practices mandated by covenants qualify for 5 pts.
Variety: 20 pts
Lot width variety; a size variation index of 30% or more for lot width every 600 ft. along the same road qualifies for 10 pts.
Architectural variety; variety among contiguous properties mandated by covenants qualifies for 5 pts. This includes, but is not limited to height, roof slope and façade, and window treatments.
Continuous planting strips and trees qualify for 5 pts.
The built-in redundancy and overlap between some criteria would ensure that passing developments would help the City of New Bern change the growth trajectory from standardized and fragmented subdivisions to more integrated and sustainable urban and suburban regions.
Over 30 years of professional practice, public service, and academic experiences. Practiced architecture, urban planning and project management and led the planning, design and development of large scale urban regeneration projects. Advised several cities in North America in drafting performance zoning and urban design guidelines. Combined Architectural and planning education and practice.
This research has been facilitated in part by the information shared by Mr. Michael W. Avery, AICP, Former Planning Director at the City of New Bern and Mr. Bernard George, AICP, CZO, Planning Division Manager, City of New Bern, North Carolina, USA.
The author declares no competing interests.
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