Tools & Techniques>Neighborhood Design Elements

Neighborhood Design Elements
Designing Subdivisions
Open Space
Planting Natives
Vegetative Buffers
Impervious Surfaces
Wetlands & Floodplains

Designing Subdivisions

Design is a very powerful shaping tool. Architects, landscape architects, developers, and engineers have a great influence over the spaces we live, work, and play in. We feel differently when in different kinds of spaces; libraries tend to make us quiet, auditoriums focus our attention front and center, areas with plant life tend to relax us (as long as we are not allergic to anything).

Before the designer gets to work, however, they must be aware of and follow the guidelines set out by local governments. These guidelines exist in the form of Master Plans and Zoning Ordinances. A Master Plan gives long-term guidance on how an area should change over the next 20-50 years while Zoning Ordinances give much more specific rules about how a particular space can be developed or used and is the primary land use management tool for shaping the local environment.

In the next 20 years, 1.4 to 2 million acres of farmland alone will be converted to urban and suburban developments in the State of Michigan - this is equivalent to an area larger than four counties. Because of the tremendous impact this will have, it is crucial that designers, officials, and citizens alike shape these developments thoughtfully and with care.

This illustration shows a conventional subdivision design. This kind of design is showing up on our suburban American landscape frequently these days - you may even live in a subdivision that looks very similar.
Figure B shows a different design. While the units of housing remain exactly the same as Figure A, they have been clustered together to allow for more open space areas and greater access to the landscape. Though both designs contain the same number of units of housing, the way the two have been designed is very different. There are many other ways this particular patch of land could be developed, but these two examples serve to highlight some important design issues we should all be aware of.

Open Space

Natural systems often extend across boundaries, covering numerous parcels and jurisdictional lines. These corridors of habitat and open space are difficult to maintain and improve particularly as land use practices, policies, and ownership vary from one place to another. Cooperation is key to preserving and enhancing our natural spaces.

Because humans take up so much of the landscape, it is important to dedicate spaces for other species, plant and animal. Nature has developed diversity as a tool for sustainability. As environments change life needs to adapt, and this is easier done from a background of diversity. Diversity's balance is monoculture, when environments are static, monocultures can be very successful. However, our landscape is never static and when change occurs in areas of monoculture, drastic effects are more likely to occur (like the potato famine in Ireland).

Not only is diversity the choice for adaptable environments, it is also the choice for environmental health. There are a wide variety of plants, animals, and insects that maintain the fragile equilibrium of an ecosystem. As humans take over the spaces that were once dedicated to diverse habitats, we must also take over the roles that these areas were once responsible for, such as maintaining the quality of our natural resources - water, air, and soil. We build infrastructures to clean water, purify air, amend soil and so on. This is a lot of responsibility, and unsurprisingly, our methods are often less effective than the ones that have been in place for millennia before us. As we learn to leave spaces for other species, we will benefit from the diversity.

Planting Natives

Planting native means using plants indigenous to the area in which you live. Plants that have spent millennia adapting to the particular climate and resources in your location. In every ecological zone, there are a wide variety of such plants including interesting flowers and foliage of different heights, shapes, and textures. Many in this region remain interesting through the winter because of their bark , stem structure, or seed pods. Some native plants are historically interesting, playing a significant role in Native American culture, or European settlement culture. Many are useful as food, medicine, or other domestic purposes like textiles and dyestuffs.

Vegetative Buffers

Requiring setbacks can also include the preservation of a wide native vegetation buffer strip immediately adjacent to shorelines. Boat storage and dock facilities can also be regulated. These vegetated strips are another way to reduce soil erosion and maintain surface water quality. Because runoff water courses through them and infiltrates they too can reduce sediment, heavy metals, and other toxic substances. The root systems of native plants keep stream banks and wetland edges stable. The stems and leaves help return the water to the atmosphere through a process called transpiration - and in Michigan this is quite important as about 90% of all precipitation is given back to the atmosphere before it ever reaches a water body. The plant ecology supports habitat for fish and wildlife; this increases species diversity. The riparian scenery, while attractive, also helps keep surface water temperatures down. All these benefits can lead to increased recreational fishing opportunities, cleaner water for swimming in, improved drinking water, improved wildlife viewing, and an aesthetically pleasing landscape.


Lawn grass or turf grass is currently one of the largest agricultural crops grown. Over 20,000,000 acres are planted in residential lawns alone. This acreage was once a diverse array of plants, animals, and insects and is now bereft of all but a very few effectively creating large deserts in a sea of suburban development. The North American lawn is not native to most parts of the US and therefore can be quite resource intensive to maintain – from fossil fuels to valuable homeowner time. Growing a lawn is a big responsibility. To do it correctly,
  • Start new lawn from seed, choosing right mixture for climate and soil conditions

  • Test soil to determine specific products needed for your lawn

  • Minimize lawn use, use remaining space for gardening natives

  • Mow high, 3”, never cut off more than one third of blade. Taller grass has deeper roots tolerating dryer and hotter conditions requiring less water, shades weeds better, less mowing CFCs

  • Leave clippings on lawn for natural slow-release fertilizer rich in nitrates

  • If fertilizers necessary, choose low-phosphorus, slow release

  • Prevent fertilizer from washing off lawn into storm drains. Don't do it before a rain; sweep up spills on sidewalks

  • Consider safer alternatives for weed and pest control, herbicides are extremely toxic

  • Consider compost as alternative to commercial fertilizer, often offered for free
Mowing during the summer destroys grassland nesting birds by injuring incubating eggs and the adult birds guarding them. Species affected include pheasant, quail, meadowlark, and other grassland songbirds. Allowing native grasses to grow tends to crowd out noxious weeds. And, powered mowers contribute to noise pollution and hearing loss.

Impervious Surfaces

The way water moves through soil is called infiltration. Infiltration is the way underground water sources are replenished. Infiltration also helps maintain water quality because many soils and plants filter out certain pollutants as water moves through them. An impervious surface is one that does not allow water to infiltrate to the soil layer. These surfaces include roads, paved parking lots, blacktop, severely compacted ground, and buildings. On an impervious surface, instead of infiltrating, water is forced to travel downhill until it finds a place it can sink into soil or enter a wetland. As it travels - or runs off - these impervious areas, water can pick up potentially toxic substances (like oil or fertilizer) and carries these materials to the sources of our water.
In cities, we have been forced to deal with this water by building large sewer systems that channel this water runoff to lakes, rivers, and other surface water. Because of the toxins this runoff picks up as it travels, expensive water purification systems are often built to cleanse the water before it reenters the natural water cycle. As water is channeled to travel in straight paths, rather than being allowed to infiltrate into the soil and groundwater, erosion damage and the potential for flooding increase.

Wetlands & Floodplains

The upper Mid-west is blessed with remarkable wetlands. A wetland is an area where water is a controlling factor in the development of plant and animal communities, these areas include places of standing water like lakes, rivers, and ponds, as well as areas where the groundwater is close to the surface such as marshes, swamps, and bogs. Not only are these areas habitats for a wide diversity of plants, animals, and insects, they are vast storehouses and filters of water. As wetlands are destroyed and water is diverted the overall quality of water diminishes. What are the costs of poor water quality?
  • Increase costs to treat drinking water

  • Public health concerns

  • Lost recreational potential

  • Lost fisheries

  • Increased levels of contaminates that harm aquatic life

  • More nuisance algae blooms
Wetlands and floodplains (low lying areas adjoining to a lake, stream, river or pond that receive excess water from flooding) hold excess water, especially after large storms, until it may steadily percolate into underground aquifers or be added to surface water (rivers, lakes, etc.). This process maintains the quality of our water systems by naturally filtering sediments and impurities, preventing erosion damage and flooding, and by continuously refilling our vast water reservoirs. As these are destroyed and runoff water is channeled to travel in straight paths, rather than its natural meandering ones, erosion damage and flooding increase. Whereas water flowing through vegetated areas is slowed down allowing it to percolate steadily into the soil, channeled water gains velocity as it travels decreasing infiltration and increasing the amount of water dumped to one area. This channeled flow is more powerful and increases erosion. Water bodies are forced to receive a greater volume of water at one time, thereby increasing the odds of flooding, which, in turn, leads to more erosion and damage. This damage can include:
  • Loss of life

  • Expensive damage to property, loss of property, loss of frontage

  • Damage to stream banks, bridges, and road crossings

  • Stream channels scoured by powerful flood waters increasing erosion and destroying habitat for many fish

  • Loss of topsoil often resulting in increased fertilizer use
Some of the best ways to preserve and enhance these features include having setbacks and vegetative buffers between dwellings and shorelines, limiting accessory structures like boat docks, limiting commercial/industrial use permits, and the promotion of intergovernmental regulation coordination for corridors, conservation easements, and overlay zoning.

Wetlands are diverse and beautiful spaces. They preserve space for rivers and streams to expand during times of high water. They also act like a sponge cleansing the water that passes through them. They also provide vital habitat for many plant and animal species. Because of all their complexity, they make a fantastic education tool and setting. They belong in our communities and enhance our lives in many ways.
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