Designing Rules: Making Room for Different Tastes

By Postrel, Virginia | Reason, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Designing Rules: Making Room for Different Tastes

Postrel, Virginia, Reason

IRVINE, CALIFORNIA, IS the epitome of tightly controlled urban design, a squeaky-clean edge city of office parks and master-planned neighborhoods. The Orange County town is so tidy that when my husband started teaching at the University of California campus there he couldn't find a gas station.

I've come here to talk with Steve Kellenberg, who creates master plans for large-scale developments that sell more than 1,000 homes a year. These "high-production, high-velocity" businesses represent the present and future of American home construction, supplying the booming suburbs of the Sunbelt. I'd heard Kellenberg tell an audience of developers about survey data showing that 63 percent of buyers in master-planned communities want more diversity while only 32 percent want their neighborhood to look consistent.

That was what I wanted to hear. Like many variety-loving city dwellers I'm leery of master-planned communities, even though I know they're extremely popular. It's bad enough that even my little 18-unit townhouse complex has ridiculously conformist rules--no plants by the front door, no non-neutral window coverings, no door decorations except around Christmas--but at least our homes are literally connected to each other, making the cost of spillovers high. I can't imagine wanting to live in a whole neighborhood of similar uniformity.

But people really are different.

During the last two decades, master-planned communities with standardized styles and prescriptive "pattern books" have become the norm for large-scale home developments. These communities sell predictability. While old-line suburbs started out fairly uniform to keep down construction costs, owners could (and did) dramatically transform their properties over time. Master-planned developments, by contrast, seek to control changes. Buyers are bound by contract to abide by rules designed to preserve a certain look and feel.

The Highlands Ranch community in Colorado, for instance, limits house numbers to no more than six inches tall and kids' backyard clubhouses to no more than 24 square feet. No white picket fences are allowed in most neighborhoods. An enforcement team cruises the streets looking for such offenses as deviant home colors. (A light purple house got neighbors particularly riled up.) A competing community, Prospect New Town, takes a contrasting tack, going so far as to require striking colors on its houses--no Highlands Ranch neutrals allowed. Prospect, too, tightly regulates its environment. The developers require changes on 95 percent of the new house plans submitted for their approval. "It sounds harsh," says one developer. "But somebody's taste has to prevail, or else it would be anarchy."

In this case, the taste enforcement occurs within a voluntary, profit-sensitive development that has to compete with nearby alternatives offering radically different design philosophies. Homebuyers select the design regime that fits their personalities and lifestyles, and business success depends on design rules that please potential residents. But such restrictions aren't limited to competing contractual communities. The public sector has jumped into the act, bringing similarly uniform standards to property owners who don't necessarily want them.

Building appearance is getting the sort of government scrutiny once reserved for public health and safety. A 1993 survey found that 83 percent of American cities and towns had some form of design review to control building looks, usually on purely aesthetic (as opposed to historic preservation) grounds. Three-quarters of these regulations, covering 60 percent of cities and towns, were passed after 1980, an adoption rate survey author Brenda Case Scheer compares to that of "zoning in the 1930s." The trend appears to have accelerated in the late '90s.

Some communities prescribe design rules in detailed dos and don'ts. Others use general terms like appropriate and compatible, illustrated with drawings showing acceptable and unacceptable examples. …

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