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   ARTICLE   |   From Scotsman Guide Residential Edition   |   August 2004

Designing Master Planned Communities Take Equal measures of Creativity, Collaboration and Work

As with any creative enterprise, developing a master plan for a new community is a process, not an event. There is no “big bang” theory in community planning. It’s the result of a deliberate and collaborative process consisting of talent and inspiration and combined with knowledge, experience, hard work and team effort.

The following are key elements for planning a successful new community in today’s world:

The Visioning Process

It’s critical at the early stages of the planning process to have a complete appreciation for the lifestyles and expectations of the people who will be living in the community. Obviously a community intended for senior citizens will be different from one designed primarily for families with children. But, sometimes the differences are more subtle (i.e., a neighborhood of custom lots adjacent to a neighborhood of upscale tract homes). Regardless of the variance, these lifestyle differences must be fully understood and reflected in the community plan.

In the quest to understand market and lifestyle dynamics, conduct as much original research as possible. This includes visiting and staying in contact with local residents and other stakeholders, as well as government officials and agencies that will be involved in the planning and design process. Also, in many areas, endemic factors (i.e., history and the “legacy of the land”) are extremely important to local residents and government officials. So, it is in the best interest of the planning team to fully understand the role these factors might play in the process. 

It’s also crucial for the team to take a comprehensive tour of the site and surrounding area to gain a “boots-on-the-ground” understanding and appreciation for the environment, adjoining communities and the site’s natural/physical attributes or challenges. (These “challenges” are often known as regional context.) Understanding the larger opportunities and constraints associated with a project are also essential. As a result, any planning should take these factors into account and address them in a meaningful and actionable way. 

While original research is extremely important, supporting research (i.e., the developer’s market studies and the environmental impact report) is also very useful in comprehending the project and any issues impacting it. The more information the planning team can assimilate into the visioning process, especially at the beginning, the better the plan that will evolve from the collaborative effort. 

The Implementation of Community Design: Westridge of Valencia, Calif.

Still in development, Westridge is a planning showcase where strong vision has resulted in an exceptional new village within the master planned community of Valencia, Calif., a city located about 30 miles north of Los Angeles. The legacy of the land coupled with the area’s ranching history has played a pivotal role in Westridge’s village and landscape design, which pay homage to the area’s strong agricultural heritage.

The village represents state-of-the-art, sustainable design with only 250 of its 800 acres being developed for residential use. Westridge also encompasses an 18-hole, TPC golf course that serves as a recreational conservancy for many of the area’s native plants. The community’s hallmark is the Oak Preserve, of which 160 acres of native oak savanna will be protected in perpetuity. Several thousand trees were preserved within the Westridge site, and nearly 2,000 more were imported and planted. Westridge’s landscape design further integrates environmental sensitivity with contemporary water management and fire-fuel modification methods.

The village’s five neighborhoods embrace a variety of lifestyles, offering a rich mix of housing types from custom lots to single-family neighborhoods, townhomes and apartments. These distinctively designed neighborhoods are linked by verdant parks, paseos and trails set within a natural environment of oaks and native grasses, creating a cohesive physical and visual bond that effectively ties together the entire village with a distinctive and memorable sense of place.

Regardless of where it’s located, nearly every existing community (i.e., Valencia) has a history and legacy that the residents value. As a result, the plan for a new community that takes into account the heritage of the existing community in which it is located (or near) can go a long way to winning the hearts and minds of those people who must approve it. In fact, sometimes something as simple as visiting the local historical society or attending town meetings can open doors and establish relationships that provide insight into a community’s mindset and values, which essentially can help attain project approval.  

Anything that a design team can do to reduce barriers to entitlement (i.e., creating a community plan that local residents, government officials and other stakeholders will endorse) can provide significant value-added service to its developer client.

The Kit of Parts

Kit of parts is a term used to describe the importance of planning every minute detail of a new community—the visual and physical threads that esthetically tie a community together. Creating a true sense of place for a new community requires a thematic hierarchy of memorable icons and design statements ranging from large entry monuments to small landscaping details that complement and reinforce the sense of place at every turn.

The Westridge village is also an excellent example of the kit of parts concept. Reflecting the area’s agricultural and Spanish heritage, Westridge acknowledges the rural ideal by implementing features like white rail fencing along all major boulevards and streets; meandering paseos and trails; “aged” building façades that appear much older than the few years they have actually existed; and strategically placed trees that visually buttress existing plant life, creating a greater sense of presence and underscoring the community’s rural character. Even a golf course pump house that is visible from a primary marketing corridor has been built to look like a timeless stone and tile outbuilding.

At the main recreation center, the intricately woven stone detailing creates the feel of authenticity and texture that complements the Spanish ranch architecture. The building’s wood beams and façade have been painted to give them a patina of time while custom-made light fixtures illuminate the grounds for evening events. 

The Implementation of Community Design: Newport Coast, Calif.

Another project that reflects both strong visioning and the kit of parts concept is Newport Coast in Orange County, Calif. This coastal community’s architectural landscape includes the design of Crystal Cove, an 800-acre hillside enclave overlooking the Pacific Ocean. 

Inspired by California’s historic estates and classic beach towns, Crystal Cove’s seaside location is reinforced by such components as highly detailed wrought-iron entry gates. Subtle design statements highlight the community’s natural assets, featuring representations of native birds, flowers and shells. Gently curving streets incorporate rich, textural plant materials accented by stone clad monuments that establish intimate avenues lit by themed lampposts and highlight bold sketches of form and color. 

Among the most notable of Crystal Cove’s signature community designs is the dramatic entry pavilion where a sweeping tree-lined drive navigates through the decorative gates to the grand entrance at Crystal Heights Drive. 

In Conclusion

For a designer, the fun part is always working with a great design team throughout the creative process; yet, administration and maintenance are critical factors that can impact a master planned community’s success and longevity. In today’s world, the planning and development of master planned communities require constant vigilance by both developers and their design team in terms of formulation, scheduling, budgeting and implementation. This vigilance can only be achieved with a close working relationship and the professional camaraderie of those involved in the project.

Since master planned communities have longevity that can stretch over many decades, the maintenance of structures, landscaping and other community components are additional factors that determine a project’s long-term success. Consequently, as part of every community project, our firm compiles a comprehensive maintenance manual that provides important information and background to the builder and ultimately to the homeowners’ association.

Finally, world events impact the price of materials on almost a daily basis – local economic and political forces can change overnight. Staying abreast of these issues is key to the success of any master planned community, especially for larger community development programs where even small changes in directions or conditions can have significant consequences.   


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