Community Planning: Making Planning Work

Casestudy 02USA
How to make low density suburbia more sustainable, attractive and profitable

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This case looks at a form of development and land use planning that is widely thought to work against sustainability – low density North American suburban subdivision. The case study shows how a shared understanding of the natural environment – and the property market – can change routines and create more sustainable outcomes

Randall Arendt is a powerful advocate of landscape conservation planning. His skills are sought by councils and by developers across North America because his designs are ‘twice green’ – delivering environmental quality in developments that sell well.

The secret of his success has been his ability to challenge creatively the mechanical land subdivision process that has rolled out hectare upon hectare of American suburbia. Normally homes and garages sit on standardized plots regardless of the nuances of the landscape and its ecology. Arendt has been able to persuade planners and developers to depart from the uniformity of ‘cookie-cutter’ layouts and to use the land that is ‘saved’ to protect trees, views, vernal pools, or the myriad other features that bring visual rewards and protect wildlife. As the population ages, those people with large plots, worn out by years of mowing lawns the size of football pitches, provide a growing market for the trade-off between private and public green space. The quality of the conserved green areas adds a premium to the property price, and more imaginative lay-outs also save on costs for streets and utilities (and help to recycle water).

He advocates a step-by-step approach to designing neighbourhoods: 'believe that one should begin by determining the open space first. If this is done, and if the regulations also require that a significant proportion of the unconstrained acreage be designated as conservation land, it is nearly impossible to produce inferior or conventional plans. The second step, after locating the preservation areas, is to select house locations, with homes positioned to take maximum advantage of the protected land that forms the neighbourhood squares, commons, greens, playing fields, greenways, farmland, or forest preserves. The third step involves ‘connecting the dots’ by aligning the streets and trails to serve the new homes.'

He is passionate about site detail and the need to walk sites before judging designs: ‘It is impossible to completely understand properties only by examining two-dimensional paper documents inside meeting rooms’. He takes members of planning boards (the US equivalent to planning committees) out on site, helping them determine those features that are most worthy of ‘designing around’.

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Randall Arendt
+31 (0) 317 460067

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This special feature sponsored by the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI)


Last updated on:08 April 2009