Sunday, August 7, 2011

Suburban Follies Quick Update

It would be easy to devote an entire blog to chronicling the absurdities and occasional successes of contemporary American surbuban development.  Whereas only 20 years ago, subdivisions generally held to a predictable form, today's developments have begun to vary in interesting and unpredictable ways. 

A couple months ago, I ran a post on the "folly" of the rear alleyway in suburban developments, noting how the presence of an alley, in combination with an HOA prohibiting parking on front streets, makes the front streets functionally redundant.  Well, perhaps it was only a matter of time, but one developer in Franklin, Tennessee, has, I guess, noticed the same thing, and is building a subdivision without fronting streets, except where connectivity demands it:

The right of way where the street would normally run has been left what appears to be a common park-like space with footpaths:

Since the architect is designing under the assumption that the green space is at the "front" of the houses, in the sense of the side of the house intended for presentation to the public, the side facing the alley receives commercial loading-dock aesthetics.  Note that although the alley is the only paved way abutting the houses, its width is only about 25 feet.

Despite the elimination of the fronting streets, this plan again makes virtually no provision for private outdoor space.  The only such space is a tiny patio wedged in between the shed garage and the rear of the house, barely visible in the aerial view.  In this respect, this plan is no better than the Orlando subdivision I looked at previously. 

Overall, is this plan much of an improvement over the standard setup of garage-fronted streets and private backyards of most late 20th century suburbs?  It may be a slight improvement over the Orlando design, but while eliminating one of its drawbacks it retains most of the same limitations.  In the meantime, I'll keep looking.

Related posts: Suburban Follies: The Rear Alley


  1. Hey,

    It seems to me that the 'prettiest' side of the house should face the outside space that is actually used. This makes a good argument for this configuration.

    Whether the outside space is a community space or a private space seems to me a separate issue. Although I can make arguments for and against both types of space, it seems to me that the market should resolve this when people choose how much they are willing to pay for an equivalent house with either a private garden or a shared community park abutting their house. Or more densely packed housing at a lower price.



  2. This is really interesting. First, we have finally lost the 70ft wide "19th Century Hypertrophic" street altogether. At last we have a 25ft wide street, without sidewalks. The treatment of parking is rather pathetic, and the "grassy area between houses" is dubious at best. Still, I see real progress here. For the most part, developers are much more willing to experiment than most people think. The main problem is that developers are not architects -- they have a hard time finding architects that can deliver a successful result.

    I note that we have a "carport" solution here, not an enclosed garage. This can be incorporated into a housefront more easily than a garage, in my opinion. For example:

    This is a dramatic house, but look at the outdoor parking at street level.

    This is a two-car garage but I think the treatment is nice.

    This house is just amazing in many ways. Once again, "carport" style parking.

  3. Franklin, TN, is one of the more innovative towns in the US in terms of land use, and a number of new urbanism and cluster developments have been built there. The town's zoning code incorporates elements of the new urbanist SmartCode, including the Traditional Neighborhood Development, Transit Oriented Development, and Hamlet designations.

    The development in the photo is located in the Residential Variety zone which allows a mix of attached, detached and group homes. My guess is the property is a Planned Unit Development; those are allowed to use nonstandard setbacks and lot configurations. The zoning code also promotes interconnected street grids, and the absence of cul de sacs in the street layout is probably related to that preference.

    In my opinion, the character of the development is nearly identical to a generic suburban subdivision. And in some segments, the streets double in width to accommodate visitor parking. However, the layout is certainly better than some and some buyers will view the shared green space as a great amenity.

    The general point, I think, is that innovations tend not to occur in a vacuum. The city of Franklin, TN, is actively promoting alternative patterns of development, and developers are more likely to experiment in a jurisdiction that supports and encourages it.

    More info about the city's zoning code:

  4. If you squint, this looks like the first step toward a revival of the traditional Mediterranean urban dwelling that has existed for about three thousand years: front flush on the street, private space enclosed inside. Instead of a shopfront there's a carport.

  5. The difference with traditional urban dwellings is that traditional urban dwellings are not hideous. The development here doesn't have an enormous amount of useless road space, but it still looks like your average blindingly ugly postwar cookie cutter suburb. Surely we as a society can do better.

    Also, here's some traditional Mediterranean urbanism:




  6. "The difference with traditional urban dwellings is that traditional urban dwellings are not hideous."

    I couldn't agree more.

    Who cares whether the green space is commons or privately enclosed? The community will likely figure that out for themselves. I, personally, would love to live here rather than on the East Portland suburban grid I'm currently living on. My daughter would have full run of the place!

    "Instead of a shopfront there's a carport."

    Awesome observation. I'm turning my garage into a workshop. I have a friend who has done the same, and its a major trend across the country, of course. I would love to work out of a shop that fronted the street like this. I could envision a street of work shops turning out all sorts of products. I could also envision another street where garage sales evolve into perpetual markets. Sweet.

  7. Also, this development doesn't seem to differ too much from this style: apartments in a garden/park,+OR&hl=en&ll=45.50236,-122.614583&spn=0.001502,0.002642&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=39.235538,86.572266&t=h&z=19

    It's close to where I live in Portland, OR. Big difference is that parking is centralized in my example. But if you made a few blocks worth of these adjacent to one another then you'd have something very similar to your Tennessee example.

  8. This development is like a hypertrophic version of the Radburn variant shown in this design. It's an improvement over the Orlando Unurban Airlites, but it still looks horrid. And the sun in the Google captures definitely doesn't help.

  9. Laurence: your comment inexplicably got caught in the spam filter -- apologies for that. Thanks for the interesting background. I lived in Nashville for a couple years and never would have expected that of Franklin, although I was aware of at least one large New Urbanist project that was underway around that time. I agree that the character of this particular subdivision is not dramatically different from others, but losing the front street is a rather striking development, and one which I'd not seen or heard of before. It shows a certain willingness to rethink basic design choices, and that in itself is refreshing.

    The comments from Jon, Vince and Cambias are making me think that I may be overestimating the true demand for private outdoor space. If suburban homes with little more than patios are selling well, does that indicate that the desire for the ample backyard is overstated? The one particularly nice thing about this plan is that it takes the formerly useless, but private, front yard, and transforms it into a useful and public amenity -- to the benefit of both the developer and the residents. With that change, the loss of the full backyard doesn't feel quite so bad.

  10. In developments like this one, there is no private outdoor space anyway. You're probably forbidden from fencing your yard, so there's just a couple of dying tomato plants in a planter and a barbecue you never use. Most residents are short-timers or retirees and the few with kids are too paranoid to let them play outside unsupervised.

  11. That's likely the case, Cambias. I think this is a better design for an intentional community, which are still pretty experimental. As a wider urban pattern, it definitely fails, just like the typical suburban pattern. I like this one better, of the two.

  12. Charlie,

    Instead, what I am seeing here is perhaps that the "pretty front face" of the American suburban house is not that important. People have mentioned the Mediterranean model, where the streetfront face of the house tends to be a blank white wall. There isn't that much difference between a blank white wall and a blank white wall with a two-car garage door.

    If I were to develop these ideas a bit more, I would a) make the houses attached, since the space between serves little purpose; b) make the "shared green space" into a proper park or "square" (not a paved "square" but one with trees, which is really a park by a different name), probably more like a square or rectangle than a long strip. There is really no need for "green space" here, as "green space" is really a new innovation that was intended to make two to eight lanes of automobile traffic a little more bearable.

    Among the nice things about a shared park are a) it's really big; b) you can meet your neighbors; and c) you don't have to maintain it.

    One of the problems of the big carport/garage at street level is that there's nothing above. If you have a garage/carport as part of a three-story or four-story building facade, it is a lot less domineering than if you have a carport alone.

    For example, here's a townhouse streetfront that is almost entirely garage doors. However, because it is integrated into the multistory facade of the building as a whole, it is a lot less ugly. Of course I would get rid of most of the front setback

    If you had something like this with a shared park/square in the back, the combo might be quite nice.

  13. Nathan:

    Speaking of facades and garages, this example from Houston is only two stories, but if you attached all of the units and reduced the street to 16-feet with no curbs the result wouldn't be so terrible:,+tx&hl=en&ll=29.7825,-95.389228&spn=0,0.005509&sll=32.767934,-96.798048&sspn=0.041499,0.083256&vpsrc=6&gl=us&t=k&z=18&layer=c&cbll=29.782504,-95.389016&panoid=jzgrsLOTn8C6JhR1Y6nvxg&cbp=12,221.33,,0,-7.24

    The architecture strikes me as having a certain simple urban dignity that's rare in new developments. Even though the garages take up most of the facades, they're not unpleasant to look at.

    Or even more intriguing, and also from Houston, this example of a true really narrow street (with no curbs, apparently) fronted by three story houses with balconies overhanging the street:,+tx&hl=en&ll=29.772438,-95.37473&spn=0,0.001377&sll=32.767934,-96.798048&sspn=0.041499,0.083256&vpsrc=6&gl=us&t=k&z=20&layer=c&cbll=29.772438,-95.37473&panoid=Qs2Fkz_IfJy4HPHinM8FXA&cbp=12,86.86,,0,-14.11

    One more:,+tx&hl=en&ll=29.751545,-95.387881&spn=0,0.001377&sll=32.767934,-96.798048&sspn=0.041499,0.083256&vpsrc=6&gl=us&t=k&layer=c&cbll=29.751547,-95.387796&panoid=-fsuu8SRbTBEi9E4iNhH5w&cbp=12,17.38,,0,-3.51&z=20

  14. Nathan, the Mediterranean blank wall is very aesthetic, if you ask me. I like it much more than the faux brick style common in the US Rust Belt. The issue I have with the subdivision depicted in this post is that it looks like prefab hell rather than like any traditional urbanism.

    There are aesthetic ways to build detached houses out of wood. For example, my current neighborhood (Fox Point, Providence) has wooden houses dating back to the 1800s, with a few from the 1700s; because they were built individually, the styles are different - a few houses have balconies, different houses have different colors, the window spacing is not uniform, and so on. There are no carports jutting out of houses - instead, people park behind buildings or in spaces in between buildings. Overall it looks like a neighborhood built by individual rather than by a factory. In other words, it's the exact opposite of the subdivision in the post.

  15. Hi Charlie,

    Those are quite promising examples. I was planning to do an item on the "gated community townhouse," which is exactly what you are showing here. The result is overall quite successful, or at least it has the core of something successful which could be made a little better depending on how things like local parks/squares are treated. I agree that there is a certain "simple urban dignity." Many of the buildings in places reknown for their urban beauty (like Florence) are actually very simple boxes with windows.

    It is much easier to design something nice when you don't have side-by-side parking and the resulting wide garage door or carport. However, if people feel that this is desirable enough that they don't want to give it up, I think it is possible to produce a decent result even with this element.

    At this point we are looking at densities well beyond the 40x50 plot size previously proposed, more like 25x40. But, 25x40 can be perfectly adequate with no front setback and attached buildings. That would mean a 25x30 townhouse and a 10x25 backyard.