Americans have always been enamored with owning their own home — a huge component of the “American Dream.” Too often, though, aspiring homeowners must settle for houses in monotonous developments with no real sense of place. These developments often have little to no interconnected open spaces. For builders and developers, this lack of open space leads to missed marketing opportunities to better position their investments in a highly competitive marketplace.
Thoughtful incorporation of open space into residential communities makes for more livable neighborhoods that are highly marketable and help improve sales velocities and increase lot premiums. Specific and easy-to-implement solutions exist for suburban, infill, and rural subdivisions.
Incorporation of open space into residential developments has a rich history in the planning and design of communities throughout the United States. The General Plan of Riverside, Ill., developed by Olmstead, Vaux & Co. in 1869 — arguably the first planned community in the country — includes significant open space throughout its design. Other historic examples include Savannah, Ga.; Shaker Heights, Ohio; and Radburn, N.J.
The New Urbanist and Conservation Open Space movements of the 1980s and 1990s also have played pivotal roles in showing how thoughtful incorporation of open space into residential communities can lead to more livable and market friendly neighborhoods. Adding open space to neighborhoods is not pioneering new territory, but instead is a tried and true method for creating livable communities that people desire.
To capitalize on Americans’ dreams of home ownership, builders and developers have provided — and continue to provide — eager customers with new dwelling units. Often though, these products are provided in cookie cutter fashion; that is, the similar settlement pattern of a house on an individual lot situated within a large-scale, self-contained development known as the modern-day subdivision. Its roots can be traced far back, but they generally became ensconced in builders’ (and buyers’) minds during the building boom following World War II. Cheap land away from city centers, affordable mortgages, a booming economy, and soldiers returning home starting families in need of affordable housing provided the necessary ingredients for a large housing boom.
Developers such as William J. Levitt, with his famous Levittown communities, provided mass produced homes in large subdivisions with little more than the necessary streets and home sites. These subdivisions are marked by homes of similar style, few trees, minimal landscaping, close neighbors, and lack of any park or open space. This pattern of development, even with the advent of the New Urbanism and Conservation Open Space movements, continues almost unabated to this day.
While the modern-day subdivision has filled a crucial need in the marketplace, it has come with a cost. Our landscapes are filled with neighborhoods that generally look alike in their uniformity, have removed natural resources that cannot be replaced, and do not provide integrated connections to shared open spaces, which are critical for successful and healthy communities.
On the business side, the developers who build these non-descript modern-day subdivisions have few marketing angles but for the actual home itself. When the economy stumbles, or when competition increases, they have not done all they can to stand out in the marketplace. They are simply another modern-day subdivision competing among many.
Combating monotonous developments can involve many solutions, but the one often overlooked may be the easiest — thoughtful incorporation of interconnected open spaces — think parks and bike/trailways — into new communities. A recent survey by the National Association of Homebuilders revealed two community features that would seriously influence a buyer’s decision to purchase a home:
- 60 percent would be attracted to a community with walking/jogging trails, and
- 54 percent would consider purchasing a house in a development with a park area.
A National Association of Realtors survey found that 50 percent of respondents would be willing to pay 10 percent more for a house located near a park or protected open space. It also found that 57 percent of respondents would choose a home close to parks and open space over one that was not.
Demographics also play a role in the incorporation of open space in residential developments. Active adults — those 55 years and older — are often looking to downsize not only their home, but also the property they must maintain. Incorporating open space into developments generally requires the shrinking of lots, so this aligns well with the active adult home buyer. These active adults are seeking residential developments with walking trails, open spaces, and other amenities that help them maintain a healthy lifestyle.
At the other end of the spectrum are first-time homebuyers. In 2016, the average size of homes decreased, in part due to the emergence of millennial buyers and their housing expectations. Typically, millennials are seeking mixed-use communities with character, smaller homes, walkable neighborhoods, and accommodations for bicycles. Another group to consider are “move-up” buyers who often have growing families with limited time for taking care of larger lawns.
Marketing residential neighborhoods to these two buying groups is simpler by providing communities with interconnected open spaces, bicycle and trailway networks, and tasteful homes on smaller lots that require less maintenance.
To better understand how open space can be designed into communities, evaluate the three following types of development:
- suburban neighborhood,
- urban infill neighborhood, and
- rural neighborhood.
Developers perceive that incorporation of open space will severely impact total unit counts and overall density. Add to that a lack of precedents in the marketplace where open space has been successfully incorporated into residential communities and this results in developers sticking to tried and true conventional development models that they feel best position them in the marketplace. But are they doing all they can to stand out apart from their competition?
Kettering Estates, located in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, started off as a conventional suburban development with all lots the identical size and the only open space in required detention areas. In addition, the original plan called for the removal of an 8-acre, old-growth oak woodland with trees dating back to the early 1800s.
Once the developer was convinced to slightly reduce lot sizes and incorporate open space (without severely impacting density; see Table 1), the community took on a completely different look. The revised “hybrid” site plan incorporates elements of conservation design, where open space is located behind homes, along with hints of traditional neighborhood design where open spaces are provided on the front sides of homes.
The side-by-side comparison of the plans clearly shows the differences between the two development options (see Figure 1). The original plan, if constructed, would have become a standard development with no real identity and no inherent marketing advantages. The revised plan, which is currently under construction, creates a community with strong marketing advantages, including:
- 75 percent of homes are adjacent to common open space.
- Homes adjacent to open space sell for a premium compared with homes not on open space within the development or in nearby developments.
- Total open space increased from 20 acres to 48 acres. Homeowners are not just buying their individual lot, but access by right to 48 acres of interconnected open space.
- The 8-acre old-growth oak woodland was preserved, with homes abutting it being the most sought and with the highest price points in the community.
- The original plan accommodated one lot size, while the revised plan offers three lot sizes, allowing for a variety of price points and homes ranging from 2,000 to 4,000 square feet.
- The model homes are located on the highly visible and prominent entry roundabout, creating an ideal sales setting.
In addition to various marketing advantages, the revised plan also provided the developer with substantial infrastructure and development savings, including:
- Total roadways lengths were reduced by 500 linear feet.
- Total area devoted to stormwater management was reduced by almost 4.5 acres.
- Significant clearing and removal costs were avoided by preserving the old-growth oak woodland.
- Overall site grading costs were significantly less than the original design by increasing the open space by 28 acres.
Kettering Estates began construction of Phase I in 2014, with the first homes sold in 2015. Phase II opened for sales in 2016. To date, sales velocities are far outpacing those of nearby single-family communities. Brisk sales, in a still relatively soft Chicagoland real estate market, are occurring in all three of the product lines. To keep up with demand, Phase III infrastructure has been completed with home sales set to occur in late 2017 and early 2018.
Urban infill neighborhood
Open space can also be integrated into urban infill developments to help distinguish them in the marketplace. This was successfully done at Lake Avenue Cottages, a narrow 4.5-acre infill project of single-family homes in Peoria, Ill. The site, with easy access to Interstate 74 and conveniently located within walking distance of two shopping centers and many restaurants, was quickly identified by the developer as a wonderful opportunity for a higher-density development that utilizes the “Not so Big House” concept.
The result is a charming pocket neighborhood of traditionally inspired single-family homes that have approximately 1,200 square feet of living space with a two-car garage. The site plan successfully incorporates open space through a series of neighborhood commons and preservation of a wooded ravine. A private drive located along the property line provides vehicular access to four narrow alleys that service the backside of the homes (see Figure 2).
The front of the homes and their traditional porches look onto the various neighborhood commons — the largest being approximately one-quarter of an acre in size. These commons are linked together with interconnected sidewalks, which combined with the porches on each home, create a sense of community and fosters social interactions between neighbors.
Rural subdivisions can also effectively incorporate open space into their site plans, but often must be handled differently than suburban residential developments. Most homebuyers purchasing homes in rural subdivisions expect to have a larger tract of land for their home. Shrinking lot sizes and converting that to open space (as was shown in the suburban case study) is often not a viable solution for rural developments. So, how can the site plan satisfy larger lot sizes but still incorporate open space features that can become a marketing advantage?
Walnut Creek Estates in unincorporated Woodford County, Ill., is a unique site plan that effectively preserves and incorporates open space features throughout its design. All lots within the development meet the minimum required lot size of 2.5 acres. The nine home sites, which were laid out with the sites’ topography carefully in mind, all have required frontage onto Mount Zion Road. For marketing purposes, each lot also has frontage onto scenic Walnut Creek, thus creating “double flag” lots of irregular shapes. Vehicular access to homes occurs either by the Mount Zion Road frontage or by two shared driveways (see Figure 3).
Open-space elements include a five-acre conservation easement on each side of Walnut Creek, and three-quarters of a mile of 10- to 20-foot-wide trailway easements that provide direct access to Walnut Creek. Carefully written language in the Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions cover both the trailway and conservation easements to ensure they exist in perpetuity with no development of any kind occurring in them. Mown pathways within the trailway easements provide a low-cost solution for the trailway infrastructure.
There are a wide variety of options to effectively incorporate open space into residential developments to create more livable communities that are unique in the marketplace. In addition to the distinct marketing advantage these communities have, they also provide the developer with faster sales velocities, which leads to reduced overall carrying costs. The use of open space can also lead to significant costs savings by reducing overall infrastructure costs.
Creation of new residential neighborhoods that successfully incorporate open space requires a builder/developer who understands, or is willing to understand, the strong marketing advantages this type of development can provide in an ever-competitive real estate market. It also requires the builder/developer to rethink existing marketing strategies that traditionally focus just on marketing the interior spaces of the homes. A better strategy is to focus both on the interior of the homes and the thoughtful organization of streets, private lots, and open spaces, which turn an ordinary development into a charming, memorable, and highly marketable neighborhood.
Jeff Martin, PLA, is landscape architectural manager for Farnsworth Group (www.f-w.com) and an award-winning land planner who has been designing highly creative, successful, and marketable residential and mixed-use developments throughout the Midwest and Upper Midwest for more than 25 years. Examples shown in this article are his designs. His clients have included national homebuilders, local developers/builders, institutions, real estate brokers, and private property owners. He is highly skilled at creating successful neighborhoods that have a sense of place and stand apart in the marketplace. Contact Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.