In the beginning, there was land.

For designers of planned communities, land is the canvas of creation, the palette of predetermination. Thomas W. Kopf, a planner and landscape architect who works at DTJ Design, in Boulder, Colo., describes the art and science of planned communities in “Building Community,” a how-to guide published by the National Association of Home Builders.

“Subdivisions no longer cut it,” Kopf said.

To understand planned communities is to understand how different they are from traditional subdivision developments, he said.

View a slideshow of planned community site maps.

“The subdivider kind of plans for today, and the community builder plans for the future. The subdivider is excited about the sale. The community builder is excited about the buyer–that’s a huge difference,” he said. “The community developers are not competing on price, they are competing on reputation,” he added.

While some subdividers may view such community amenities as open space preserves as burdensome costs, planned community builders realize the value of such amenities, he said.

“The whole notion that building community is less profitable is, I think, wrong,” he said. “In the long run you do make more money.”

The intent of the book, Kopf said, is to educate the community designers of the future and “to help them understand that they need to raise the bar.”

Company towns born of industrialization in the United Kingdom during the early and mid-1800s were a predecessor to modern planned communities, Kopf noted in his book. And planned developments appear to be here to stay. A study the Public Policy Institute of California released in March noted that planned developments have surged in popularity since 1960 and represented more than 40 percent of new single-family home sales in that state in the 1990s. Kopf said planned developments typically range around 50 acres, though he has seen projects as small as four blocks and as large as upwards of 3,000 acres.

Good planned communities, in addition to making financial sense, shouldn’t unduly tax the environment and should facilitate the social aspects of community, Kopf said. As stated in the opening chapter of his book: “Excellent community design encourages people to move beyond the comfort and safety of their house and enjoy other people and the environment around them. Together, the physical design and the community life bring people together in a way that makes a house a home and a neighborhood a place of friends.”

Kopf said he has revisited completed projects to find out what worked and didn’t work from a physical design standpoint to enhance a community’s social environment. He is currently researching a new book that will focus on building “soft infrastructure,” such as intra-community governance and programs that bring residents together.

A successful planned community will have a variety of different home designs and colors, Kopf said, and will appeal to a range of buyers. “When it’s done right you get all sorts of people. When you have a variety of different income levels and family types, the community is a lot more vital,” he said.

Homes should be in character with the existing architecture and natural features of the community, he added.

“Our goal is to make a project feel like it’s been there forever, so that it doesn’t seem out of place. There is the whole idea of context, communities being rooted in the history of the place. The communities that don’t do that are the ones that seem totally out of place,” he warned.

For example incorporating a native stand of trees in a development could help to preserve a piece of the community’s character. “I’m very keen on working with natural land forms and existing vegetation,” he said.

Kopf worries that some municipalities are severely restricting new developments down to the paint color, which can hamper the natural evolution of a community.

“One of the charming things about older communities is that they’ve evolved. There needs to be a vehicle where communities can evolve physically over time. I’m not sure that happens today as it should,” he said.

Open space, and especially water, is one of the most alluring amenities for residents of planned communities, Kopf said. Golf courses, on the other hand, are losing favor among planned community residents, perhaps because of the noise of groundskeepers and golfers alike. Instead, people typically want to live in a home away from traffic and congestion.

“They want to be part of a neighborhood but they want to be able to retreat,” he said.

In designing communities, short street lengths “are absolutely critical,” Kopf said, as this can “visually break the orientation of the street from a long visual line to something smaller.” He said a fellow architect described the desired effect as “street music,” where the building and street designs create a visual melody, he said, rather than a choppy cacophony or a rhythmless monotony.

Kopf is not an advocate of gated or fenced communities.

“I don’t think they’re necessary. They isolate people instead of bringing people together. There are (other) ways to integrate all income levels and create safe environments,” he said.

Proponents of zero-growth policies are the most frequent opponents of planned communities, Kopf said. The best strategy in getting a project approved is to meet with neighbors and local residents at an early stage, and to talk with them early on about any potential worries.

“We’ll be honest with them. We try to make neighbors a part of the process,” he said.

The reality is that the nation’s population is growing, “we need to find places” for people, he said, and while building must continue “with that comes the responsibility to do it in absolutely the best way we can.”

Send tips, feedback or a letter to the editor to or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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