A Savior for the Suburbs?

Image credits: Rick Harrison
Upper image: conventional cul-de-sac subdivision. Lower image: a Prefurbia subdivision. (Image credits: Rick Harrison)

by James A. Bacon

The conventional suburban cul-de-sac is a planning and architectural dead end, maintains Rick Harrison, a Minnesota designer of residential communities. But rather than abandon the traditional suburban development model, as New Urbanists and smart growthers advocate, he proposes to reinvent it.

Grid streets, the solution proffered by the New Urbanist movement is not a viable alternative, Harrison argues. They increase the ratio of street surface to housing, driving up paving costs and creating more storm-water run-off. A better option, he suggests, is a design innovation he calls “coving,” which organizes neighborhoods around around long, curvy streets.

Harrison may not have the name recognition of a Peter Calthorpe or Andres Duany, gurus of New Urbanism, but there is no denying his success in the marketplace. His Rick Harrison Site Design Studio has designed more than 800 projects around the country accounting for $50 billion in development. Eighty percent of all new development in the country is suburban, he argues. Why not make it more efficient?

He took his case to the American Dream Coalition annual conference last week. I am a big fan of smart growth and New Urbanism but I found his ideas fresh and intriguing. As long as millions of Americans prefer living in low-density, auto-centric neighborhoods and builders continue delivering what they want, it is well worth exploring ideas to make these suburban communities less expensive and more fiscally sustainable.

Harrison’s big beef with cul de sacs is that they they dedicate too much surface area to streets and they interrupt driving flow. His designs, he claims, can shave infrastructure costs by 25% or more (60% compared to grid streets). What’s more, the smooth-flowing layout of his streets allows residents to reach their homes without the repeated acceleration and deceleration that consumes time and gasoline, and it ekes out more premium lots that developers can sell at higher prices.

The best way to describe his concepts, which he details in his book Prefurbia, is through pictures. The top image above, captured from Harrison’s presentation, shows a typical suburban subdivision design with two entrances, 12 internal street intersections and four cul de sacs. The lower image reconfigures the layout with two entrances, only two internal intersections and one cul de sac.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Harrison’s design is that it requires roughly 25% less road surface. The savings can be used to lower the price of the lots, increase the developer’s profit margin or accomplish both. Less roadway also translates into lower ongoing costs for whoever is responsible for maintaining the subdivision roads.

Less evident is the fact that Harrison’s design allows faster travel times for residents driving between their houses and the subdivision entrances. A car travels 200 feet to accelerate from zero to 30 miles per hour, and another 200 feet to decelerate to a stop. In cul-de-sac subdivision, a driver would be continually accelerating and delerating, consuming time and gasoline. The continuous loop in Harrison’s design allows continual movement at the posted speed limit.

Harrison touts one other design feature that I find interesting.  He (or someone else who he has borrowed the idea from) has reinvented the cul de sac.


When you absolutely must have a cul de sac and nothing else will do, make it a small circle not a vast pad of empty asphalt. Fill the center with a landscaping — make it a small park. The layout yields higher-priced lots, requires less paving and creates less impervious surface. Oh, and it leaves room for fire trucks and snow plows.

I imagine that some people will criticize Harrison for trying to improve a settlement pattern that is beyond redemption. He may improve the driving experience within the subdivision, but he still displaces traffic to clogged collectors and arterials. He may design walking trails in his community, but a few paths don’t create complete streets, much less accommodate mass transit. He can dress up the sprawl, but it’s still sprawl. Those criticisms would be totally valid. Regardless, I like to see innovation. It forces New Urbanists and smart growthers to up their game.

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12 responses to “A Savior for the Suburbs?”

  1. Welcome to Virginia Beach, the home of curvy roads that should be straight. Curvy roads cause accidents. Curvy roads make people run stop signs. Curvy roads kill pedestrians and bicyclists. Curvy roads suck.

    1. Ah, but are they curvy in the same way as Harrison’s?

      Curvy roads with lots of intersections are worse than curvy roads with few intersections.

      1. Andrew Moore Avatar
        Andrew Moore

        Although I am intrigued by the idea of innovation in the suburban subdivision model, I think that this particular approach misses a few important design principles. Why is “faster driving times for residents” a worthwhile goal? Is anyone really concerned about being able drive quickly between one’s house and the subdivision entrance? In fact, this seems to run counter to one of the alleged selling points of suburban subdivisions – that children can play more safely in the streets. (A debatable point, but a common argument, nonetheless.) It is well-documented that pedestrian fatalities in pedestrian/car accidents rise dramatically with car speeds, doubling from 25 mph to 35 mph. We should be striving to make residential streets SLOWER in almost all cases.

        A more subjective argument is related to the character of the street itself. It may be possible to craft a “coving” street that achieves a sense of orientation, but in my opinion, the upper “conventional” image in the example is far more intelligible as a neighborhood than the “coving” image, despite the apparent lack of many of the elements that make a complete neighborhood (such as a center.)

        In the end, although this “innovation” appears to be an effective way to reduce pavement (a worthwhile goal), it stops short of actually improving the character of the subdivision in any other meaningful way. And, appears to create and environment that is more dangerous for anyone on the internal streets.

        Andrew Moore, AIA
        President, Partnership for Smarter Growth

        1. Andrew, I agree with all of your observations 100%. Harrison’s neighborhoods did not appeal to me personally. But they do represent an innovation in the traditional suburban model and warrant attention.

          Another disadvantage that you didn’t mention is that the Prefurbia design still funnels traffic onto connectors and arterials; they do nothing to address traffic congestion outside the subdivision. Grid streets provide far more alternate routes that reduce congestion.

  2. Main roads, neighborhoods, we got them all down here. Combine with Virginia drivers and it sucks.

  3. I think there is a bit of a disconnect here and it may show where Mr. Harrison lives because in 46 other states – the design of the streets in the subdivision is not such a big govt issue other than being able to get fire and rescue service to residents.

    In Va where VDOT is responsible for the subdivision roads – they’ve made it clear that a private subdivision road is one which does not connect to other subdivisions or streets and as such is not a candidate for public funding of maintenance.

    In states where the DOT – has not real role in subdivisions – what is the interest of govt?

    The developers would certainly like to have less roads and less runoff infrastructure but what else would be an interest of govt?

    Consider this – what if a developer was going to do a gated community. What would be the legitimate interests of the state or the state level DOT?

  4. I don’t want to be a buzz-killer here but the efficiency of a subdivision road network – where people live who work 50 miles away is a miniscule issue compared to the efficiency of roads that people commute to work on.

    in those cases, the subdivision roads are 1% of their use.

    the one thing I have noticed is that NoVa subdivisions tend to try to use every square inch of land they can for housing which in turn leads to more runoff issues whereas subdivisions in the exurbs tend to have more expansive yards and open spaces, even woods and wetlands left undisturbed.

    when it rains on a NoVa subdivision – all hell breaks lose on the runoff almost immediately… whereas in the burbs.. the runoff tends to take longer to develop and has less intensity (but still exceeds the desired levels).

    basically land is cheaper in the burbs and easier to dedicate it to runoff mitigation whereas in NoVa – land is a much more scarce commodity – even land that has difficult terrain.

    developers talk in terms of NET developable land – not the size of the parcel.

    In the burbs, land that has terrain issues is bypassed for easier to develop parcels. In NoVa – they “engineer”, more costly and harder to stay within runoff limits.

    when you look at a road layout for a subdivision, unless it’s flat as a pancake, there are terrain issues. large culverts may be needed and it may be cheaper to run a second road that putting in a massive culvert or bridge.

    so terrain drives a lot of the road decisions – and efficiency of the road may take a back seat to the cost of drainage structures.

  5. accurate Avatar

    I harbor an extreme dislike (or was that obvious) to multi-family dwellings let alone buildings that share common walls. Part of the grudge comes from a feeling that people just aren’t suppose to live that way (reminds me of rats in cages, where the cages are stacked one on top of each other and put right beside each other). The other part comes from seeing what fire does to common wall buildings, be they apartments or commercial buildings with common walls.

    That said, I truly believe that people should have the freedom to choose where they want to live. My suburb has no multi-family units and basically one way in and that same way out. The main road has only two places that a car stops, one is a sign and one is a light. Yes, once you get off the main drag, there are stop signs, but again, one street is basically a main road with stop signs on the streets entering the ‘new’ main street. The roads curve but maybe not as much as Harrison’s design. Overall, I’m VERY happy with the burb that I live in. Very happy to no longer (it’s been two years now) living in an apartment.

  6. Actually I share Accurates sentiments in paragraph one. I’ve lived in my life in apartments, rented rooms, duplexes, townhouses, and single family homes on 1/4 acre lots and homes on larger lots and I’m fine with the woods and when I visit folks whose neighbors are 10 feet away.. it feels odd.

    I do believe however that if you want to live on a de-facto private road that it should be your cost – not other taxpayers. You want it – you pay for it.

    people who live in denser circumstance with privately maintained parking lots – actually are paying gas taxes that go to plow and maintain private subdivision roads and that’s wrong in my view.

    that’s why I think the design of the subdivision road should not be a govt issue to start with (except for runoff standards).

    If the developer wants to save money by minimizing roads- they are actually computer programs that do that automatically – but the meta
    data must include terrain or else the design will be independent of terrain and that can lead to a lot of additional expense – cut/fill for grade and drainage structures.

  7. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    I suspect this land development scheme for residential subdivision can work spectacularly well because if it is done right in the right locale. That is likely a big if, including the question of how many land developers have Harrison talent and commitment to take best advantage of the land while also at the same respecting the land, its forms, topography, its unique opportunities and problems, and challenges.

    At the same time I suspect that their are trade-offs like Darrell suggests. And that they are very significant trade-offs.

    I do think Jim protests too much ( perhaps holds his nose too much) at the thought of improving a flawed product. I disagree. The suburban subdivision has long provided wonderful things and singular benefits. This has been proven over and over again. But like everything else too much of a good thing, or a good thing twisted the wrong way, does harm. So does a chocolate shake, too much exercise, or too much of most anything.

    I also suspect that at long last there is a good chance that free markets combined with innovations (ranging from Harrison’s land use curves to altered mating habits to growing alternative living, working, transport option), are not diluting the explosive outward sprawl inducing demand for new suburban divisions that has been going on since the 1950s.

    And I suspect that these forces of dilution will have a profound impact on how and where we live and work.

    If true, the task then will be finding ways to re-adapt worn out or obsolete subdivisions, making them into better subdivisions, rather than allowing them to fail. History proves that this will be a difficult task if only because the short term solutions is always cheaper – move on and throw away the failing community, gutting the changes of its renaissance , but putting more of the same or better of the same on yet another corn field farther out.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      I should have better proofed above comment:
      Strike “BECAUSE” from 1st sentence 1a para.
      Strike “NOT” from 4th line of 4th para.
      CHANGES should be CHANCES IN 3th to last sentence.

  8. I had forgotten – just a few years ago the above graphics would have been used to show the “wrong” way and the “right” way would be to cluster the houses together and leave the open space.


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