Is It Real Planning, Or Is it Merchandising?

Stephen Svete on
Apr 1, 2004

Society’s historical pursuit of utopia has resulted in two parallel and sometimes intersecting movements in physical planning: new urbanism and sustainability. These agendas spring from different impulses, but both are reactions to the form and effect of 50 years of suburban sprawl across the national landscape.

New urbanism, the now popular name for what was originally called neo-traditional planning, is rooted in aesthetic nostalgia that rose along with post-modern culture during the 1980s. Its focus is recreating the look and feel of early 20th Century America. The sustainable development movement is sourced in the environmental movement that took root in the 1960s. Its focus is on resource consumption and preservation of the natural world.

Developers being developers want to capitalize on fresh building ideas. Too often though, when they develop new urbanist projects from scratch, the result invariably has an ersatz, artificial feel. And why wouldn’t it? Recreating an ideal is never is as good as the ideal itself. That is why so many new urbanist communities feel like stage sets for "The Truman Show" or knockoffs of Disneyland’s Main Street. Sustainable developments also carry baggage because no matter how much energy and water is saved compared with conventional projects, new developments consume land and require energy and water.

But as humans, we yearn to build. And the search for sustainable building cannot be anything other than noble. A pair of master planned communities – one Tucson and one in Orange County – illustrate distinctions in the way developers have responded to the desire to build green.

Civano is a master planned community in Tucson that arose from a civic impulse during the 1970s to address energy consumption . An 818-acre, mixed-use community, Civano endeavors to serve as a model for the next generation of housing and community development. Civano is a planning hybrid: It incorporates new urbanist-influenced neighborhood design by combining southwest vernacular architectural styles with walkable, skinny street neighborhoods. The design themes combine with extraordinarily high standards of resource conservation, including a rigorous use of native plants and water harvesting for landscaping purposes.

The community, which lies within and is therefore regulated by the City of Tucson, takes its name from a Hohokum word meaning a period of time when the native people of the Sonoran Desert lived at their greatest harmony with the environment. After years of planning, the project broke ground in 1999 in the southeast urban edge, an area replete with master planned communities. Today, 300 dwellings of the initial 550 are occupied – a slow start by California standards. But the focus on sustainable building has paid off. A pair of independent studies completed in 2002 showed that Civano has delivered the green goods. Dwellings in Civano consume 50% less energy than conventional houses built during the same period in the desert city. Even more impressive, water consumption was found to be 65% less than in other master planned communities in the Tucson.

In March, with great fanfare in the real estate press, Orange County’s first "green" master planned community – billed as the largest in the country with 1,260 units planned – debuted. In contrast to Civano, the Terramor Village project turns out to be more the product of highly sophisticated merchandising than a result of real planning initiatives. In fact, when only 28% of targeted respondents said their home choices were motivated by environmental values, the developers chose to use avoid the use of the term "green" and replace it with the inexplicable "360° Living." The community is a sub-unit of the sprawling Ladera Ranch development, which, in turn, is a unit of the Mission Viejo Company. Without a hint of embarrassment, promoters of Terramor admit they are targeting "cultural creatives," a segment of the population identified by market demographers as trend setters with a hybrid of values.

A glance at the site plan for Terramor reveals nothing other than the typical spaghetti-style street patterns that made Orange County famous during the 1960s – without the streets. Instead, in a surprising anti-new urbanist swipe, houses face greens. Envision Clarence Stein greenbelt towns with tract homes. Unlike Civano, the home designs have no apparent theme, and all homes are built by standard developers. Terramor does offer a laundry list of energy and water saving devices, and performance standards are required of the merchant builders who construct the projects within the planned polygons. But Terramor includes turf lawns for most houses, a notoriously water–consumptive choice in arid Southern California. So despite the claims about environmental responsibility, Terramor reads more like an experiment in new-age marketing than a exemplar for sustainability planning. Orange County Weekly journalist Nathan Callahan dismissed Terramor as an example of "greenwashing," misrepresenting a product so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.

As a kind of validation of the power of combining the best features of new urbanism with a genuine commitment to sustainable building, Civano won Sunset magazine’s "Best New Community" award in January. The accolade is worth noting for planners and developers, for it reinforces the notion that careful planning to promote authentic values will always deliver more than crass merchandising.

Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.