Monday, July 2, 2018

Virtual Reality Will Enable Better Land Planning Practices

By Richard Harrison, Rick Harrison Site Design Studio

In any space planning process, there is the actual space that can be measured on a plan, and also the perceived space to consider.  

Suppose you were in a 15 foot square room with an 8 foot ceiling and walked into a 15 foot square room adjacent with a 12 foot ceiling.  The second room would feel much bigger, yet the footprint is the same.  When considering perceived outside spaces, perception of space can also be completely different than actual space. The greater the line of sight before being limited by a barrier, the greater the space.   Structures (typically buildings, walls, fences, etc.) and thickly grown vegetation are the main culprits in limiting a space.   

Let’s compare two different developments.  Both have a street right-of-way of 50 foot wide with front yard setbacks of 25 feet each side.  One has 70 foot wide lots and the other 85 foot wide lots.  Both developments have the same actual space along the street because both have structures (barriers) 100 feet apart, even though the 85 foot wide lots are 20 percent larger. 

Now let’s compare two developments both with the same right-of-way width and lot sizes, but one has a front yard setback of 25 feet and the other 35 feet.  So, one has a visual corridor of 100 feet wide and the other 120 feet wide.  In theory, the extra 20 percent of width should feel 20 percent larger, but it’s not likely to make that much difference.  Why?  1)  The sameness of a consistent setback does not provide any sense of scale or reference point.   2) Unlike interior architectural spaces where a wall moved just a foot can make a major impact in the feel of space, a significant increase in distance is needed to be felt for outside spaces.

What if cities rewarded developers and builders who did a better effort at meeting open space requirements?  Suppose the current minimum for open space is 15 percent of the gross area - no other criteria.  Under the new rules, minimum open space requirement for all development would be 30 percent, but up to three credits could be applied from the following options:

A.      5% Credit for coordinating home living spaces, wall, and window locations on the preliminary plat (essentially merging architecture and planning) along every unit directly along or overlooking the space.

B.      5% Credit for opening up the streetscape so that the street itself takes on a park-like setting using aggressive meandering or staggering to enhance sense of scale. 

C.   5% Credit to demonstrate a functional open space that serves a greater function than simply area.  For example, if all the open space is connected by a convenient trail system and is easily accessible with landscape features that exceed minimum standards, this credit can be applied.

D.   5% Credit for expanding the ‘experience’ of the space.  For example, if it is visible while driving or strolling along the streets, and can be seen by more homes than just those backing or siding the space, benefitting at least 50% more lots than those abutting the space, then this credit can apply. 

While the current “minimums based” system of land planning is severely flawed, past attempts to create a “points system” or “smart code” complicate everything and rarely solve anything.  But the future is now here!  Virtual Reality programs open the door for land plans to be delivered in a virtual format that can  provide a better sense of the actual feel of a space and easily illustrate and calculate the impacts of some of the strategies discussed in this article. 

Rick Harrison is president of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. His career spans more than 49 years in land planning, civil engineering, land surveying, and land development and over 40 years in computer software development. He is the author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of LandMentor. His websites are and

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