The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Balanced Communities


Developing Balanced Communities is critical to achieving sustainable New Urban Regions in a globally competitive economy. Herewith is a primer on what they are and how to create them. 


The term “Balanced Community” is now used with some frequency. From time to time questions crop up and so it is time for a Backgrounder on the topic.


In "The Shape of the Future" we used the term “Planned New Community” throughout the book to identify the prototype of an Alpha or “balanced” Community. In the text we used the phrases “balanced community” or “relative balance of jobs / housing / services / recreation / amenity at the community scale” when talking about the Alpha Community, the community-scale organic building block of functional human settlement pattern.


With the publication of the first edition of "Handbook" in 2001 we introduced the term “Balanced Community.” We made this addition because it turned out that the word “new” in Planned New Community (PNC) led some to conclude that PNCs were only relevant in a “greenfield” context. As will be noted below, that is not a useful assumption.


Over the past 50 years the frontier of urban land use has expanded to the extent that now, in order to create functional human settlement patterns, most new urban land uses must be located on vacant and underutilized land inside this frontier.


In addition, at the time "The Shape of the Future" was written S/PI had not yet articulated the critical role of the Balanced (But Disaggregated) Community that exists outside the Clear Edge around the core of the New Urban Region.


Balanced (But Disaggregated) Communities are found in the Countryside. The Countryside covers (or should cover) a major portion of the land area of every New Urban Region.


In the Washington-Baltimore New Urban Region the percent of Countryside should be between 90 and 95 percent of the total land and water area for there are to be Balanced Communities inside the Clear Edge, and Balanced (But Disaggregated) Communities in the Countryside.


(For a description of the tax treatment of land inside and outside the Clear Edge that also provides useful illustrations of the role of the Clear Edge, see “Beyond the Clear Edge,” May 2003.)


We start the exploration of the Balanced Community with a refresher on the “Planned New Community” and then move to focus on key issues related to Balanced Communities


Planned New Communities


The following is how the section on Planned New Communities opens in Chapter 18 of "The Shape of the Future." (For this Backgrounder a few words have been added for clarification and the footnotes in the original text are emitted.)




“Planned New Communities are urban places created with the goal of providing a functional range of jobs, housing, services, recreation and amenity. What distinguishes Planned New Communities is that they represent the intentional distribution of human activity at the community scale. They are not agglomerated by a happenstance distribution of separate projects responding to individual interpretations of need, utility or ‘the market.’

Planned New Communities are intended to accommodate the anticipated economic, social and physical needs of citizens in their daily, weekly – and for many – their month-to-month lives. For some citizens, a Planned New Community meets most of their needs for months–and sometimes for years at a time.

(Prior chapters of "The Shape of the Future" deal with the evolution of urban form and note that historically, the word for “community” and the word for “city” were the same in the languages of the time.)


Although serendipity can make important contributions to civilization, happenstance human settlement pattern has not proven to be a viable alternative for urban settlement patterns. That has been especially true since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

“Few ideas in the civilized world are as old as the idea of the Planned New Community (or as they are sometimes referred to, planned new ‘towns’ or planned new ‘cities’).  Almost from the establishment of the first urban settlement, a preferred strategy for creating a new urban space in a separate location has been the development of a Planned New Community.

“Planned New Communities (PNCs) were the vehicle used to colonize of the Classical World by the Phoenicians and the Greeks. They were the primary urban form that the Romans used to settle and manage the Imperial World.  PNCs were the vehicle for the resettlement of Europe after the 8th century and again following the Black Death in the 14th century. They were also a commonly applied strategy for creating urban space in Asia, Africa and Mesoamerica before European colonization.


"Planned New Communities were used to create the urban places necessary for the exploration and exploitation of the Americas, Africa, India and Southeast Asia by the colonizing European nation states. This process was driven by the forces articulated in Jared Diamond’s "Guns, Germs and Steel." Except for Boston, every substantial settlement by English, French, Spanish, or Dutch colonists on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of what is now North America was a Planned New Community. Jamestown, St. Marys, St. Augustine, Williamsburg, Annapolis, Savannah, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Montreal and New York (New Amsterdam) each began as a Planned New Community.


“Further, planned community strategies were employed in the expansion of urbanized areas during the colonial period and following the Revolutionary War including plans for the National Capital. (We have noted elsewhere that the last plan that balanced land use and transportation in what is now the National Capital Subregion was the L’Enfant plan of 1791.)


“The creation of urban space—and thus Planned New Community design and implementation – was historically a governance function. It still is in most of the world. In the United States, new communities sponsored by the governance structure as the primary mode of urban development declined after the early 1800s. This reflected the spirit of individualism, speculation and exploitation that brought Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1828.


“The Planned New Community idea was not completely eclipsed in the United States by the Jacksonian perspective. Planned New Communities by religious groups, industrial and mining enterprises, railroads and some ‘sub’urban entrepreneurs made up a significant part of the new urban fabric created in the United States during the last two-thirds of the 19th century.

“Planned New Communities do not provide all the answers; they are not an end-all in shaping the human settlement pattern. Planned New Communities—and planned new Villages and Neighborhoods—do provide examples of how pattern and density of land use can support economic prosperity, social stability and environmental sustainability.”

[The sections of "The Shape of the Future" that follow the above quoted material in Chapter 18 outline the role of Planned New Communities in the 20th century.]


As transport and communication technology advanced and the demand for urban habitat accelerated, private sector “projects” replaced plans for organic, balanced additions to the urban fabric. These forces in essence eclipsed the central public role of developing urban fabric and masked the public responsibility for creating functional human settlement patterns.


As David Riesman has observed, the United States of America is the only major nation state in the world that relies primarily on land speculation to create human settlement patterns.


Balanced Community Imperative


Let us next consider the Five Critical Realities for the National Capital Subregion.


The first four are as follows:


1. There is already too much land devoted to, and held for, urban land uses in the National Capital Subregion.


2. The National Capital Subregion's jobs are center-weighted now and will be center-weighted for the foreseeable future.


3. Scattered urban land uses cause an irrational and untransportable distribution of trips which is the root cause of gridlock.


4. There must be an equitable distribution of the costs of services, not subsidies for those who create and profit from dysfunctional human settlement patterns as is the case now.


The same realities apply for every New Urban Region in the United States with some variation that reflects topography and other specific influences on the evolution of human settlement patterns in those locations. For a review of the data that supports these four realities see the Backgrounder, "Five Critical Realities."


The fifth reality is that “Without Balanced Communities within a sustainable New Urban Region, the future is bleak.” This statement reflects the conclusion from the first 14 chapters of "The Shape of the Future" and is articulated below.


The Imperative of Defining a Balanced Community and Setting Clear Parameters for It


There must be a clear understanding of what a Balanced Community is because “everyone” is selling “community.”  End Note One outlines this problem as articulated in "The Shape of the Future."


As suggested in End Note One, builders sell every conceivable grouping of dwelling units as a “community.”  Enterprises, institutions and agencies sell and/or promote almost every conceivable good and service as a way to promote, create and enhance “community.”


In all this promotion of “community” there is no definition of what a community might be, no scale criteria, no pattern criteria, no density criteria, nothing. The only thing that is clear is that community is not synonymous with any known municipal boundary. In spite of this, the national organization of municipal planners has changed its logo slogan to embrace its role in creating “great communities” with no definition of what a community is beyond the assumption that it relates somehow to the municipal boundaries of the jurisdiction where the planner works.


That is why we have included the brief review of the history of Planned New Communities above and why we stress the importance of “balance” in the definition cited in End Note One.


With an overview of Planned New Communities and an understanding of the need for a balance of jobs / housing / services / recreation / amenity, what else constitutes the basics elements of an understanding of Balanced Communities?


Balanced Community Location within the Organic Structure of Human Settlement Pattern


First, the context of the Balanced Community: What is the place of the Balanced Community within the New Urban Region’s organic structure?


The New Urban Region is the fundamental building block of contemporary First World (urban) society. The New Urban Region is the smallest organic component of human settlement that can achieve and maintain economic, social and physical sustainability. All other components, larger and smaller, are either agglomerations of New Urban Regions (or Urban Support Regions) or sub sets of these basic building blocks. (See End Note Two.)


Below the regional scale the picture is quite simple. New Urban Regions are made up of Balanced Communities. In other words the Balanced Community is the next smaller organic component of human settlement below the New Urban Region.


Balanced Community Basics - Scale


There is no specific size or scale to qualify as a Balanced Community. The scale is determined by the size of the urban agglomeration necessary to achieve a relative balance of jobs / housing / services / recreation / amenity within the regional context–either in a New urban Region or an Urban Support Region. (See End Note Three.)


Like the “sustainability” of a New Urban Region, the “balance” of a Balanced Community is a relative term. If a well founded, factual challenge can be made to the “balance” of a specific community, one has probably drawn the wrong boundary around the component.


There are many variables to consider in defining a Balanced Community. As society has become more complex, the scale of a Balanced Community has increased. As noted earlier, historically the trading village and then the “city” was a “community.”


As the urban complexes grew and morphed to become 19th century “Industrial Agglomerations” and then to become 20th and 21st Century New Urban Regions, the role and importance of the community-scale component did not go away. (See End Note Four.)


As one moves from the periphery toward the centroid of a New Urban Region the scale of the Balanced Community becomes larger. This scalar change is analogous to the relative gravitational pull of planets around a star.


Elements Necessary to Create a Balanced Community


Beyond an understanding of context and scale, what are the most important elements necessary to create a Balanced Community?


Land. Land is necessary but, as noted above, there is already too much urbanized land. This is where “new” in Planned New Community becomes a problem. Land is an important element -- but not open land that might provide a blank slate as it did for “garden cities” or post World War II “New Towns” in Great Britain, France or Scandinavia. Balanced Communities must be agglomerated from existing land uses plus new land uses on vacant and underutilized land. That is why catalysts such as station areas of shared vehicle mobility systems are so critical.


Money. Money is essential but “patient capital” is not the only requirement. In fact, interest eats up capital faster than value is created over the long term. The economics of this reality are beyond the scope of this Backgrounder.  However, this fact is the reason there must be a core role for the public in creating Balanced Communities and functional human settlement patterns in general.


A Real Partnership of Public and Private Interests. There must be a real partnership of public and private interests because the creation of Balanced Communities and functional human settlement patterns in an advanced, technology-based society costs a lot of money. One needs to keep firmly in mind that the attempt to create mobility and access or affordable and accessible housing, to say nothing of ensuring safety and happiness in dysfunctional human settlement patterns, costs exponentially more money.


An Understanding. More important than land, money or joint public/private commitment is the imperative for a broad public understanding of the need for Balanced Communities. There is no way to marshal the land, money and public support for Balanced Communities without broad public understanding. The significant federal support (and some state and municipal support) for Planned New Communities in the late 60s and 70s was not enough to maintain even the modest programs initiated at that time.


A Plan. A “plan” is necessary to create Balanced Communities but it is not the “pie-in-the-sky plan” or the “planners-pipe-dream” that is tossed up as a strawperson for “realistic” critics to hack down. These strawpersons are put forward by those who think they can make money or continue to make money from Business-As-Usual.


Every pattern and density parameter and relationship put forward for a Balanced Community by SYNERGY/Planning meets two criteria:

  • First, it is what the private sector has actually built over the past 30 years if the development entity is required to internalize at least some of the costs of the settlement patterns, including the cost of roadways, water supply, sewage disposal, storm water management and sites for public facilities (e.g. schools) as well as cluster-scale, neighborhood-scale and village-scale amenities.  These projects are market projects that have sold fast enough to make a reasonable return on investment.

  • Second, these patterns and densities are what citizens in an informed market are willing to pay the most to buy on a square foot and comparable unit basis.

These patterns and densities also consume the lowest levels of service and energy -- especially energy to provide mobility and access. That is why the default patterns and densities which land speculators, builders and real estate churn agents claim that citizens “really want” require vast public subsidy of mobility, utilities, facilities and services.


As we pointed in “Wild Abandonment,” Sept. 8, 2003, Balanced Community patterns and densities are the very same ones that have been the most favored and most effective in making citizens prosperous, safe and happy for thousands of years. They are the patterns and densities of land use that tourists spend billions of dollars to visit every year. This is true of San Francisco, New Orleans, Charleston, Georgetown, Boston, Toronto, Paris, London, Stockholm, Wien, Provence, Tuscany or the Cotswolds.


In a market economy, if a product is too expensive, the solution is to build more of it. This is a core problem because those who own the most highly valued property, e.g. Old Town or The Fan, do not want nearby new development to lower the value of their property.


While some NIMBY opposition is based on the fear that “lower standards” will drive down the value of property, much of it is based on the realization that new development will undermine monopoly pricing.


How Do We Start to Build Balanced Communities?


As outlined in "Handbook," potential Balanced Communities are not implemented by bureaucratic “Master Plans” or by draconian government controls. They are implemented by citizen and enterprise decisions in an informed market and supported by the full and equitable allocation of location dependent costs.


Citizen support for Balanced Communities will grow only where there is broad realization of these facts and an understanding that:

  • More money or more asphalt will not improve access and mobility without Fundamental Change in human settlement pattern.

  • Access to more land will not generate affordable, much less accessible housing and, thus, there cannot be a balance of jobs / housing / services / recreation / amenity without a Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns.

  • There will be no improvement in air quality, water quality and supply, land conservation or other goals unless there is Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns.

  • There will be no significant change in human settlement patterns until there is Fundamental Change in governance structure.

  • There will be no change in governance structure until there is a fair allocation of the total cost of location related goods and services from Wal-Mart prices to the cost of travel.

  • No existing cost of settlement patterns calculations are useful because of the reliance on municipal / state boundary-constrained data and because they are not compared to Balanced Communities or to Balanced Station-Area Villages which are served by balanced shared-vehicle mobility systems.

Citizens will not start to understand any of these realities until those who support Fundamental Change stop using confusing words (“suburban,” “city,” “local,” “rural,” etc., etc.) to describe these realities. Every time one of the Core Confusing Words is used it reinforces bad assumptions and misinformation wrapped around “The Myths That Blind Us,” Oct. 20, 2003. If one does not like our vocabulary, develop a new one. Using the old one just plays into the hands of Business-As-Usual.


We outline the process to create Balanced Communities in the "Handbook." There is a sketch introduction to a new way of thinking about evolving functional human settlement patterns and Balanced Communities in “The Shape of Richmond’s Future,” Feb. 16, 2004. A future column will outline what it would be like to live in a Balanced Community within a Sustainable New Urban Region.


-- August 23, 2005


End Notes


(1) The following definitions are taken from the APPENDIX ONE--LEXICON and APPENDIX TWO–Core Confusing Words of "The Shape of the Future" with footnotes omitted. In "The Shape of the Future," words defined in APPENDIX ONE–LEXICON are in bold throughout the book and New Urban Region is in bold and italics. The discussion in APPENDIX TWO–CORE CONFUSING WORDS is included first because it spells out why use of the word “community” is problematic.




The term community is widely used and wildly misused. The primary dictionary definition of community is:


“A group of people living in the same locality and under the same government.” Until 1850, this definition fit most citizens living in a city. With the emergence of the industrial agglomerations and now the New Urban Regions, this definition is no longer relevant and is the cause of significant confusion.


Because community is deemed to have a positive connotation, it is overused in advertising, journalism and literature. The core historic meaning has been completely eclipsed. Community is now applied in the best tradition of Humpty Dumpty; it is whatever the speaker intends. See use of community in President Bill Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union address.




In this text, community is an organic component of human settlement pattern. To ensure clarity, it is frequently used with the prefix alpha or beta. Alpha Community and Beta Community are defined below.


Alpha Community is an important organic component of the human settlement pattern. An Alpha Community contains a range of economic, social and physical attributes necessary to support a jobs/housing/services/ recreation/amenity balance. Functional New Urban Regions at least in part are composed of Alpha Communities. Alpha Communities are composed of Alpha Villages.


Other components of the human settlement pattern are Alpha Neighborhoods, Alpha Clusters and Alpha Dooryards.


Beta Community is used to identify those places that have the geographical area and location attributes that will allow them to become Alpha Communities. Also see Beta.


Uses of the term community in this text are limited to avoid conflict with the generic definition discussed in Appendix Two—Core Confusing Words.


(2) As those who have read "The Shape of the Future" know, the New Urban Region is most closely analogous to the Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area (CMSA) in the United States or the Urban Agglomeration in the European Union. Due to political pressure, the official delineation of the CMSA is always a decade or two behind reality. With the introduction of “Micropolitian Areas” following the 2000 Census, the situation has become even more clouded.


There is currently an ongoing search for a meaningful name for coterminous collections of New Urban Regions.   A term proposed by staff at the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech and others for a multi-regional agglomerations is “Megapolitian Area.” This is a new term for areas such as the one that stretches from North of Portland, Maine, to South of Hampton Roads, Virginia.  This area has been called “BoWash” or “Megalopolis.” A similar agglomeration stretches from East of Pittsburgh to West of Milwaukee. There are now a dozen or so of these areas in the United States. They are where the vast majority of the nation state’s citizens live and work.


New Urban Regions are coterminous (that is they are part of Megapolitian Areas by this or some other name) or they are separated by Urban Support Regions such as the DelMarVa Peninsula, Appalachian or Northern Rocky Mountain Urban Support Regions. An Urban Support Region supplies agricultural, recreation, amenity, or other goods and services to more than one New Urban Region but does not have the internal balance necessary to achieve sustainability. For further articulation of this distinction see "The Shape of the Future."


New Urban Regions and Urban Support Regions are also collected in subcontinental and continental agglomerations such as the European Union, NAFTA, etc. In the context of global competition and trade the ability to achieve “sustainability” at the New Urban Region scale is not absolute. Unless threshold tests of sustainability are debated and agreed to, global urban agglomerations are an unintelligible morass.


The location of municipal, state and often international borders have little to do with the establishment of organic components of human settlement which depend on economic, social and physical parameters.


(3) Somewhat more self-sufficient Balanced Communities are the largest urban components of Urban Support Regions. If the urban agglomeration becomes large enough to achieve balance, all or part of the Urban Support Region would become a small New Urban Region.


(4) The fact that the historical functions of organic components are still hard wired into human actions is the most important understanding with respect to the organic structure of human settlement patterns. The earliest physical arrangements to support social and economic human activities remain important. The family (unit), the extended family (dooryard), the multi-family grouping (cluster), the clan (neighborhood) and the tribe (village) all continue to have a function in contemporary urban life. For a further exploration of these relationships see "The Shape of the Future," especially Chapter 8.















Ed Risse and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


Read his profile here.