What is Land Planning?

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Land Planning is the first step that a developer takes upon acquiring a site. Virtually everyone involved in Civil Engineering will experience being a land planner of sort. Try to find the definition of a land planner by searching the internet. What you will find is definitions of “Land-Use Planners” and “Urban Planners” and “City Planners”, but when consultants often list their range of services offered, “Land Planning” is often on their business cars, letter heads and web sites.

Who is legally a Land Planner?
In the USA, there is no registration or certification to be recognized as a Land Planner. So, who is legally a Land Planner? Anyone who claims to be.

What exactly does a “Land Planner” do?
Anyone who sets the location of buildings, streets, walks, open spaces, etc. is a Land Planner. That pretty much covers some, or most, of the tasks that Civil Engineers and Land Surveyors will encounter. If you are designing a utility to be built across a vacant undeveloped property, you are a Land Planner. That utility will restrict where buildings can be placed and likely to also restrict locations of streets and other improvements. You may have located the utility line in a way that conformed to the natural terrain but reduced the number of lots that must conform to regulations. In other words, an engineer thinking that their design saved $1,000 in construction costs may have reduced the net profit yield in terms of density by $100,000.

When an engineer sets the location of infrastructure without planning the total layout of how the ultimate land use is affected – they act as a Land Planner, but not in a good way.

Why do Engineers, Surveyors and Architects offer Land Planning?
Land Planning is the first step in any land development process (often before the actual land is surveyed properly). The firm that places Land Planning as a part of their services has bait to hook that developer client – securing the lucrative engineering work. The engineer that does not list Land Planning as part of their services will surely lose work to firms nearby that do list the services. To make sure the developer is hooked, the firm is likely to offer these services at no charge as long as the developer commits to the engineering contract.

The typical Land Planning Scenario:
Land Planners take their instructions from their client, the developer, who decided to hire the firm. If the developer comes in and says they want to layout 200 triplex units under the cities R-3 ordinance most Land Planners will unquestionably comply. The developer just purchased the land and is under pressure to figure out just how many of those triplex units can fit. The Land Planner thus assumes that the primary concern of the developer is to maximize the number of desired units and everything else is secondary. Under the existing regulations where R-3 zoning minimums are listed, shows it allows for a minimum 20’ rear yard, 10’ side yards, and 20’ front yard. The maximum density allowed is 8 units per acre. Searching the regulations, no other restrictions stand out. From the building foundation plan supplied by the developer the Land Planner determines that the total foundation with is 90’ and depth is 60’. A private drive allowed by regulation is 26’ wide and parking requirements are easily met by placing a 20’ depth drive (the front yard anyway) in back of the garage door. Assuming that the minimum dimensions allowed by regulation maximizes density the land Planner squeezes every possible fraction of an inch out of the design so the client is happy with the Land Planning services.

What is the Correct Use of the Land?
Of course this assumes that the developer knows actually the correct use of his land, so the Land Planner rarely asks why the developer desires the three-plex unit instead of something else. One reason nobody questions the developer, is that if the developer asks “why would you want to know”? The Land Planner better have some good answers – so most just go along with the developer’s demands even if the proposed use is not the optimum solution on that particular site. Many developers just repeat what has sold in the past, some hire market consultants to determine what is the best use.

How does a Land Planner differ from a City Planner?
City Planners regulate and rarely design. Land Planners design submitting to the City Planner for their recommendation (hopefully) for approvals.

What is the difference between architectural and engineering Land Planners?
The Engineering Land Planner will relate to the site as the primary focus with architecture secondary. The engineering Land Planner will tend to see the buildings as overall pads or rectangles. More effort is likely to be made in the positioning of the structures to reduce grading issues or decrease drainage demands. The Architectural Land Planner will use the site plan to frame the structures architectural strengths. Site Grading, drainage, and utilities are likely to be low on the set of priorities. Neither situation above creates a balanced solution that can be sustainable.

Is the typical Land Planning Scenario Sustainable?
No. It is not possible to create a sustainable neighborhood without a collaborative effort by all the consultants that are involved working together to create a balanced approach. As this series of articles progresses we will be teaching you new methods of design and collaboration leading to a balanced approach that redefines Land Planning.

What about Technology?
Technology alone cannot provide a solution, but combining education with dedicated technology can make a major difference. One story comes to mind on how dependence upon software to think up a solution can lead to failure. Twenty five years ago when aeronautical design software was first widely available, the most publicized innovative airplane was the beautiful Prescott Pusher. What had made this plane revolutionary was that it used software results to create the futuristic design and determine its flight characteristics (handling and manners). The Prescott Pusher would use a 180HP Lycoming 0-360 engine that would allow 4 passengers to cruise 190 MPH at 7,500 feet. While this seemed similar to the conventional Mooney 201 in capability, the tightly compacted cabin of a Mooney contributed to the performance, yet the Prescott Pusher provided a more comfortable cavernous place for people.

The promise of a new era had arrived, where computer generated scenarios run in seconds would replace years of expensive fine tuning of aerodynamic surfaces in the field. As the Prescott Pusher went from drawing board to reality, virtually every aviation magazine featured this new era of computer aided design – at least until those in the press had a chance to fly the actual plane. The promise failed to deliver, and few liked the flying characteristics, and the Prescott Pusher taught the industry that software cannot deliver “feeling” or the human experience.

This is also true with software. Those that act as Land Planners must understand this to create wonderful places for people to live, and that takes much more than to compress streets and lots to the minimum standards allowed by regulation.

The responsibility of the Land Planner:
Taking the above scenario of 200 Tri-plex units, assume the development will last more than a century. Let’s also assume each unit will house an average of 3 people. Statistics show that the average (American) home sells every six years. The development thus will affect the living standards of (100/6X3X200) 10,000 people each century it exists. How much attention to the “character” of the neighborhood is given when laying out the development solely to maximize density? How much design time was given to make sure there was the least time and energy consumed while getting to and from the homes? Was every business located to maximize exposure to potential customers? How about the views from within the living areas of the homes? Was the walks designed in a away to make it easy to stroll through the neighborhood safely, or do they simply follow the streets? Were the homes placed to eliminate monotony? Did the Land Planner take the time and effort to reduce any waste in the design?

There is much more to Land Planning than achieving a density goal. In fact over densification can lower the desirability of a development reducing the profit potential by reducing the value of the homes.
You take on an awesome responsibility when you put on that “Land Planner” hat.

We are thankful to Sir Richard Harrison for submitting this very useful information to us.

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