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Subdividing And City Planning

( Originally Published 1924 )


What points of view are common in real estate practice regarding the purpose of city planning? Indicate the wastes that arise from untimely subdividing. Is it desirable to have vacant lots within the area of a city? What factors in a city's growth should the subdivider carefully determine before he makes a subdivision? What influence has transportation upon the selection of the site for a subdivision? What should be the relationship of cost to the selection of the site for a subdivision? What aspects of finance should be provided for before a subdivision is undertaken? Indicate some of the features of a good plat. What restrictions are usually desirable in a subdivision? How is the type of building to be erected best controlled? What are the purposes of city planning? What does zoning a city intend to control?

SUBDIVIDING means dividing a unit into parts. It may properly be applied to any real estate operation that involves breaking what has formerly been handled as a unit into a number of different units and improving or selling it as such. But in practice, subdividing more frequently consists of buying by the acre land adjacent to the built- up section of a city, platting it as city lots, and selling or improving the original lots. It is in the latter sense that the term is used here; while the practice of replatting areas and regrouping lots in the built-up section is by no means negligible, the suburban subdivision is much more common. It is by this means that our cities grow. As soon as the occupied area in a city becomes fairly well built up (and sometimes considerably before that time), progressive real estate dealers reach out for property adjacent to the city, plat it, and add its area to the residential area of the city.

This action is not always wise. Frequently it comes before its time, and the newly platted and newly sold lots, instead of receiving improvement and forming the basis for other homes and business centers, lie vacant and become a mere monument to the mistake of the sub-dividers. Thousands of our medium-sized cities bear the earmarks of such unwise development, while every "boom town" possesses an extent on the map that would make it exceedingly difficult to recognize in reality.

In such unwise developments there is a tremendous amount of economic waste. The land before subdivision is used as truck patches, or in some other way it is producing an income; but after subdivision it can no longer be used for any other than city purposes, and is forced to lie idle. Further economic wastes are introduced where such a tract is added to a city and only partially built up. One author' mentions the following losses incident to such haphazard development : (1) Increased costs of such administrative expenses as police, postal delivery, and the public utilities. (2) Increased cost of development of the tracts, for the part of a tract which is utilized must bear all the expenses of developing the whole tract instead of just its proportionate share. (3) By throwing income-producing agricultural land into idle city lots the price and rent of land are increased.

A certain amount of vacant land in a city is, of course, desirable as a source of sunlight and fresh air; but wide stretches of vacant property that will not be improved for a decade are needless burdens upon the financial resources of a community. Doubtless the waste which they cause reaches into millions every year. In some countries this fact is plainly recognized and methods of controlling subdivisions are enforced.' In some German cities improvements in advance of the approved plans for "city extension" are prohibited, and Canada discourages premature subdivision by a low tax rate upon unplatted agricultural land, with a large increment tax assessed upon all land that is platted and changed from agricultural to urban.

The only check upon subdivisions in this country, generally speaking, is the operator's estimate of his probable profit. Some operators take nothing else into consideration. So long as they can see a profit for themselves in the subdivision, the considerations of economic justification and social welfare are completely lost sight of. Other subdividers are as much concerned with economic considerations as with profit. The two points of view stand clearly in contrast; the latter is that of a man who wants to build up his community and make a contribution to its welfare. The opportunity to do so is evident; it is as persistent as a man's need for a home. The sub-divider who takes the point of view of increasing home owning of providing anchorage for a drifting home-less population contributes largely to his community and reaps a profit. He who subdivides purely for profit and by high-pressure salesmanship, thrusts ill timed and idle lots upon a community innocent of any conception of values in real estate, lives a parasite upon the life blood of his community.

Preliminary Considerations. The man who wishes to subdivide wisely must plan his subdivision so as to meet a certain need. There are a number of preliminary considerations which will lead to a correct analysis of that need and to the success of a subdivision. The first of these is the growth of the city. The day of the "fly-by-night" boom town passed almost with the passing of the frontier. Today practically all of our cities of any size are based upon factors which are more or less permanent. Of course, the shifting of larger industries or the building up of new ones, like the automobile and tire industries, may bring abnormal growth to a city; but, by and large, the subdivider who depends upon such unusual conditions, unless they are actually in sight, gambles on slight hopes. The more scientific basis for subdividing is that of actual statistics of growth of the city in the past. A careful check of the tendencies in this growth, together with data on vacant available lots in the city, will indicate very clearly when and where a subdivision should be made.

For the direction of the growth of a city is as important as the growth in numbers. The tendency of the growth of a city is along the lines of travel in and out of it. In former days the village grew up along the sides of the main path or roads leading to it, or along the banks of the stream or lake upon which it was located. Villages located at the intersection of two or more road-ways followed out along each, with subsidiary streets being added later. In places where a railway station was built at some distance from the village, houses and then business places string out along the route from the center of town to, the station. The same tendency is less strongly asserted along the route of automobile roads.

This tendency arises doubtless from the advantage of display and advertising to passersby in the case of business, and from the attractiveness of a site for residence where there is activity. In the selection of a site for a subdivision the element of familiarity with the plat and the recognition of the fact that people are already passing that way in large numbers, offer selling arguments that are well worth securing. The good auto-mobile road contributes to the solution of the transportation problem, which will be taken up later.

It is not difficult to determine the direction of a city's natural growth, and it is an easy thing to follow that growth. The path can be changed, but it is very difficult, and unless a man is able to measure his own strength and the strength of the forces he will have to overcome in changing the path of a city's growth, he should not attempt it.

The character of the city's growth is also important. In most cities the industrial section is divided more or less distinctly from the residential, and a residential subdivision would be seriously handicapped, either when it was laid out, or later, by the proximity or the encroachment of industry. The whole character of the lots and of the restrictions placed upon them should be adapted to meet the demands which the natural growth of the city, as manifested by past tendencies, will call for.

This analysis of the growth of the city will enable the subdivider to determine the extent and nature of the demand for lots in a proposed subdivision, just as the knowledge of the demands of his community enables the merchant to purchase goods to meet that demand. A sane analysis of the number of possible buyers and of the nature of their demands in many of our smaller cities could not fail to reveal that the subdivisions which have been laid out are not planned to meet any possible need except that of the subdivider for funds.

The analysis of the city's growth and of the demand for lots enables the subdivider to determine the needs; his other problems arise in trying to meet those needs as nearly as possible. One of the first of these is that of finding a piece of available ground adapted for use as a subdivision of the nature that his analysis has shown is needed in that direction. Topography is sometimes a determining factor at this point. The problems which it presents may be practically insurmountable if of such a nature as to involve too heavy an expense of preparation for subdividing. Low-lying land is too difficult and too expensive to drain or to fill if as good land can be found where that expense can be spared. Later the expense may be justified when the land can be used more intensively. Higher ground is also to be preferred be-cause of its good drainage and the common connection of healthfulness with high ground and the broader out-look which it affords. Usually the heights about a city command considerably higher prices than lower parts. A somewhat broken surface is further preferable be-cause of the opportunity it gives for attractive platting, as will be seen.

The next consideration is that of transportation. No subdivision can succeed without proper provision for this need. As a matter of fact, the very limit of the city is fixed by the provision of transportation facilities; a subway or an elevated railway, a street car or a suburban railway line, by extending the radius of communication, extends the possibilities of the utilization of land for residence purposes, and the lack of such facilities precludes the possibility of success. The relation is a reciprocal one. The subdivision is dependent upon transportation, and any transportation system, in order to be successful, requires considerable patronage. Usually subdivisions are laid out along existing transportation lines. But if transportation facilities are absent, pro-vision must be made for them. In such cases, since the transportation system can never pay until the community has grown large enough to afford large patronage, the subdivider usually has to subsidize it for the first few years of the subdivision. The subsidy sometimes takes the form of laying tracks for a street railway system, and giving them to the company operating the system, with sometimes a cash subsidy for a few years ; and in recent years, with motor buses growing in popularity, cash subsidies are frequently given to put and keep them in operation. In many respects these buses offer a more attractive form of transportation than street cars. Their service is usually more rapid than that of street car lines.

Other public utilities for which provision must be made include light, water, sewage, and gas. Subdivisions have been made and sold without these conveniences, but their provision is generally considered the function, if not the obligation, of the subdivider. Unless they are provided, there is likely to be an element of deceit in the sale of lots. The ordinary customer is easily induced to buy without counting what the additional cost of the installation of these conveniences is likely to be, and is easily deceived as to what the total cost of the improved lot will amount to.

There are other considerations of a social nature which must not be overlooked. Schools, churches, playgrounds, etc., must be provided for. The establishment of a school has been known to become a decisive factor in the growth of a community, and the presence of other civic institutions insures stability and desirability. People cannot afford to make their homes beyond the reach of these advantages ; the successful subdivider must make provision for them.

In addition to these internal considerations, it is wise policy for the subdivider to take precautions in connection with adjacent property. The finest subdivision could be ruined by the erection of obnoxious factories or other nuisances near it. When a subdivision is being platted beyond the limits of city control, that danger is sometimes present and should be guarded against, if necessary, by the purchase of easements. A careful selection of the site for a subdivision in the direction of residence growth of the city rather than business or manufacturing growth will do much to obviate this danger, but it is not a sufficient safeguard; constant alertness is necessary to guard the interests of the subdivision properly.

The last consideration regarding the plat itself is its cost. This is purposely put last, for while it may be a deciding factor, if all the other requirements are met, any cost which is within reason should not eliminate the plat. The plan can seldom be a success if the plat is chosen because it is cheap, and it can hardly fail completely on account of original cost of the land if the other requirements are fulfilled. This fact was put into an aphorism by a real estate dealer of long and successful experience when he said: "Never buy a piece of land merely because it is cheap." The consideration of cost should include not only the cost of acquiring the land, but also that of improving it and developing it. Some tracts are much more expensive to develop than others, and their original cost price should be proportionately lower. In these costs must also be included that of providing the services which have been mentioned in this section. If a plat is too low, or too hilly, or very rocky, or too far from transportation and other public utilities, the extra costs involved in making it an integral part of the community are ignored with great danger of failure.

An estimate of the expense in connection with the development of a one-hundred-acre tract has been pre-pared by a man of large experience in this work.' These figures are merely suggested ; they will naturally vary greatly from community to community and from time to time, as well as from tract to tract. But they are highly suggestive and helpful.

The next big problem of the subdivider is that of financing his undertaking. Money must obviously be provided for purchasing land, for improving it, and for the expense of selling the lots carved out of it. Later expense, it is frequently thought, can be provided for out of sales. This policy is not sound, for it can never be told with accuracy for just what length of time the lots may have to be carried. If conditions should make it necessary that many of the lots be sold under great necessity, the subdivider might be embarrassed and have to take a heavy loss. He would be in a condition similar to that of a merchant who is seriously overstocked with seasonal goods.

There is a feeling on the part of many real estate dealers that the subdivider, as a constructive agent for building up the community, ought to provide a large part of the finances necessary to enable purchasers of lots to build. Such an attitude, it is pointed out, both makes for success of the subdivision and contributes to the community. The subdivider then becomes a community builder instead of just a purveyor of lots.

In this connection there are others who go still further and question whether a subdivider should sell vacant lots in the subdivision for speculation, and some dealers take the attitude of distinctly discouraging investment in vacant property for speculative purposes, whether it be in new or old subdivisions. These argue that an investor is nearly always likely to underrate the elements of cost which vacant property must meet, as well as interest on investment, and as a result he is likely to be disappointed in his returns. Moreover, in the subdivision values can only rise if the property is improved. If a large part of the subdivision is sold to speculators who do not intend to build, the value of the lots will not ordinarily be increased, and disappointment is inevitable; while the other policy, if it fails to bring increase in value of property, cannot fail to bring satisfaction in the ownership of a home. Improved property, also, is constantly bringing in some sort of return, but vacant land, though it is constantly incurring costs in the form of taxes and special assessments, yields no return.

Platting the Subdivision. With the preliminaries carefully guarded, the subdivider is ready to proceed to the development of the subdivision. The first step in the process is that of platting. This is distinctly an engineering problem and the technical aspects of it must be left to the civil engineer or the professional planner. But some general considerations may be pointed out here.

In the first place, the old gridiron arrangement of blocks in uniform row upon row is obsolete because it is ugly, inconvenient, deadening, and sometimes expensive. The easiest and most natural plan to use in platting is the one suggested by the contour of the ground. This will be recognized as a mere rule of thumb, which must be applied with distinct limitations. Streets should be gracefully curved and varied both as to width and direction. Open water gives an opportunity for attractive parks and parkways. Abundant playgrounds and trees must be provided. The old plan made all lots similar, put them upon the same basis of value, and gave no opportunity for the expression of individuality; the other plan gives ample room for variation and character in the different lots. One man prefers a lot that commands a view of a larger sort than another, or a little more seclusion such as may be offered in a closed "place," and consequently no dead level of values is attached to all the lots.

Another error which was almost universal a few years ago, follows from that mentioned above. All streets, regardless of the amount of traffic which they were designed to carry, were laid out the same width. The evidence of the error can be read in congested traffic in some cases and wide unutilized pavements in others, useless in winter and blistering in summer, when they might as well be covered with cool grass. The effort should be made to adjust the width of the street to the traffic which it will probably have to carry and to use the area thus preserved for purposes which will add to the value of the plat. In some instances short residence streets are laid out very narrow, while the main traffic arteries are made broad and roomy. In large cities it is the section and half-section lines that are usually laid out especially wide, for traffic seems to concentrate upon them.

In the laying out of the lots, it should be borne in mind that the size of the lot may affect its uses. The most common size for residence lots is probably 40x100, though in many places the 30x125 lot is preferred.' The business lot varies more in width than residence lots, but the depth is probably more uniformly one hundred feet.

After the platting is completed, it should be filed with the proper authorities and its acceptance secured. This precaution is taken so as to assure that when the sub-division comes to be incorporated into the city limits (if it is outside) the layout will conform to the requirements of the city code.

Desirable Restrictions. In a subdivision of any significance it is highly desirable that a number of restrictions be imposed upon the lots. This is the simplest method of controlling the character of the subdivision and stabilizing values in it. While the nature of the restrictions imposed will vary in accordance with the desired character of the subdivision, certain general limitations should at least be considered in any subdivision. Among these are : (1) A building line should be established. This is a line drawn at a certain distance from the street in front of which buildings may not be erected and is known as the "setback." It insures a front yard with the pleasing aspect of green grass and open space along the street and privacy for the residences. The exact location of the line will vary according to the width of the street and the provisions necessary to guarantee privacy. (2) Some sort of restriction should be placed upon buildings. This restriction takes two forms ; namely, a restriction regarding the nature of buildings, and one concerning the appearance. The first is intended to protect residence streets from the invasion of such nuisances as corner groceries and noisy garages. Recognizing, however, that these public services must be rendered, the subdivider usually provides a limited area in the subdivision to which they are restricted. The second provision is designed to protect the subdivision from the appearance of unsightly shacks. Sometimes the restriction takes the form of a minimum cost of residences to be erected ; a better protection is probably the blanket provision that building plans must be approved. This will eliminate buildings which, though meeting the mini-mum financial requirement, are architecturally undesirable.

(3) It is highly desirable that a strip be reserved on each lot for public utilities in order that the streets may not be cluttered up with unsightly poles and a tangle of wires. If sewers and water mains are laid along this strip, the common tearing up of pavements for repairs may be obviated.

Another problem that presents itself in this connection is the maintenance of areas set aside for public use in the subdivision, such as parks, etc. If the subdivision is inside the city limits, the city undertakes this maintenance when it accepts the plans, but if the subdivision is outside the city, arrangements for separate maintenance must be made. Some subdividers have provided for this by establishing a fixed charge against all property sold, which acts as a lien against the property for the neglect of the payment of which possession may be taken. Others, failing to make any such provision, must provide for maintenance out of the proceeds of sales, a drain upon profits which may continue for an indefinite number of years and amount to a handsome sum in the end. The contribution by owners in the community imparts to them a community spirit, a very valuable asset to the subdivision. More and more attention is being paid to, this point. Community singing, parties, house organs, and community club and improvement associations are used to develop an esprit de corps so that the subdivision will be considered a good place in which to live.

City Planning and Zoning. City planning and zoning seek to do for the city as a whole just what careful planning does for the subdivision. The same principles are applied for the same reasons. In the past our American cities have simply followed the line of least resistance in their development. Wherever there was a vacant lot or an available piece of ground that suited any purpose whatever, it was likely to be used for that purpose. Streets were laid out in any fashion, but usually in gridiron pattern, and no attention at all was paid to the unification of the city's structure. In other words, our urban development was simply an undirected, hit-and-miss growth. The result has been a promiscuity and in some cases a hideousness in appearance and in-convenience and social waste in utilization.

Eventually the mistake became so evident and the waste and inconvenience so burdensome that our cities began to take steps to control the development and utilization of their own areas. Some European cities had long before adopted regulations for this purpose, and the movement in America followed for some time the lead of these European cities. At the present time a considerable literature has appeared on the subject, national organizations have been formed to promote planning, and scores of cities, including many of the largest as well as many of the smaller, have adopted the idea completely.

Objects to be Attained. Speaking broadly there are three major purposes which a city seeks through adherence to a city plan : (1) the protection of the community as a whole from hazards of fire, health, etc., caused by unrestricted, uncontrolled development ; (2) the unification of the city community by placing the direction of its development in the hands of a directing body; (3) stabilization of land values by protecting certain districts from untimely invasion by undesirable features which would bring with them a cheapening of values. The first object furnishes a legal basis for city planning and zoning activities.' Society has certain interests definitely at stake in the development of cities. Crowded tenements, skyscraping office buildings, narrow, congested streets where the sun never shines—these all involve unhealthful and even dangerous conditions to society as a whole. Under the police power of the state, cities are legally justified in prohibiting such development, and in taking steps to correct it where it has already developed. City planning would do as much toward preventing it as toward correcting it, when started in time. The scope of the powers of city planning authorities, therefore, is usually very broad, enabling them to control future development as well as present.

This unified control leads naturally to a unified development, the second purpose of city planning. So long as cities "just grew," there was no opportunity for unification of the city plan. Under centralized control, the development of the city can be directed so that it achieves the characteristics of a unit in place of those of a hodge-podge. For the best interests of society, economically and aesthetically, this object is desirable. Inevitable waste and confusion arise from undirected growth; order and beauty can both be realized from planning.

The stabilization of land values is one of the objects to be attained by city planning and zoning. One of the great sources of instability in city land values is found in the untimely invasion by undesirable elements of districts whose character has been fairly well fixed. This is seen, for example, when an odious factory or a noisy garage invades a high class residential district, or when the ubiquitous grocery store appears on the corner opposite an aristocratic residence. A loss arises here not only from a fall in the value of residential property, but most frequently from the failure to put the property thus damaged to a new use as a result of the invasion. Business and factory areas naturally expand. If this expansion is properly controlled, and is timely, there is a rise in values rather than a fall. Thus not a single obnoxious factory would appear isolated in a residential section, but when there was sufficient demand for industrial sites to justify it, a complete limited section could be taken for that purpose and values again be stabilized rather than thrown into confusion. It is evident what significance this has to those who lend money on land as security. In every way, it is a desirable purpose.

The Content of the City Plan. Regarding the features to be included in the city plan, Williams says: Content of Plan—What, then, should the plan contain?

The complexity of city life is great, the factors of its physical development, numerous. In order to secure unity, planning should include and harmonize as many as possible of these factors, public, semi-public and private, such as the systems of streets with their building lines or setbacks, the waterfront and its improvements, the parks and other public open spaces, the public and semi-public buildings and their sites, the transportation systems, both local and long distance, with their respective freight and passenger stations and terminals, the gas, water, electric and similar public utility systems, the subdivision of building land and the regulations of the height, area with relation to the size of lot, and use of structures on it. There is more or less adequate precedent for the inclusion of all the above features in a city plan in this country.

The entire urban area, however, need not be planned in detail. Thus spaces for public buildings and parks should be reserved, to be devoted to more specific uses and laid out as required ; in the newer parts of the city only the principal streets need be fixed, leaving the minor streets to be filled in from time to time, as the necessity for them arises, and beyond the present city, the city of the future may be left unplanned except for the laying out of the main thoroughfares connecting the city with the cities and villages outside and, perhaps, the imposition of provisional buildings and zoning regulations for the areas between them.

Zoning Regulations. Zoning regulations are of two kinds, those designed to control the use to which property may be put, or use zoning, and those relating to the size of buildings, or bulk zoning. Use zoning is involved in the laying out of the city plan; the advantage it gives in stabilization of land values has already been mentioned. In operation it divides the city into sections and designates what shall predominate in each section. Thus in the Class A residential section, only one-family residences are permitted; in B residential section, apartments may be erected, but no business structures, while in Class C residential section, certain types of less objectionable businesses may be conducted. Other sections are designated for light manufacturing only, and particularly obnoxious factories are banished as far as possible from residential sections.

Bulk zoning aims to control both the size of buildings in proportion to the lot upon which they are located and their height. The necessity of the former is seen from the observation of our city "canyons" and congested tenement districts. It is put thus by Williams :

Every building, whether a residence, a store or a factory In which human beings remain for any considerable time, requires a certain amount of open space appurtenant to it, to furnish access of light and air. Direct sunlight is also most valuable. This need the public street supplies only partially, the supply from this source becoming more and more inadequate as the city grows. The bulk of buildings must, therefore, be regulated with relation to the lots on which they stand or an increase in fire hazard, anaemia, disease, accidents especially to children playing in the streets, and juvenile delinquency, inevitably follows.

The same considerations lead to the regulation of the height of buildings. The need for this regulation has become especially urgent in America since the use of steel for construction has developed the mania for the tall skyscraper. These buildings create high fire risks and are difficult to protect. The congestion of population in them increases an already large. hazard. Their immense height shuts out air and sunlight from the streets and from their own lower floors and those of adjacent property. The only condition under which this practice can be successful is that the owner of the adjacent property content himself with a low building and allow the tall one to appropriate the air and sunlight that rightfully belongs to his property. The regulation of height is commonly based upon the width of the street, but it is not infrequently fixed at a definite number of feet or stories. Sometimes the two bulk regulations are combined and the height is fixed according to the proportion of the area of the lot occupied.


1. Subdividing may be carried on from the point of view of building up the community or that of reaping the largest amount of profits without consideration of the future of the project or the benefit of society as a whole.

2. Wastes in subdivisions that are made before their time consist in : (1) increased administrative expenses ; (2) increased cost of lots in the tract which are sold : (3) idleness of land that might have been used for agriculture. In some countries means are employed to prevent untimely sub-dividing.

3. A careful analysis of a city's growth, its nature, extent, direction, is necessary to assure the success of a subdivision and to indicate the type of subdivision which should be laid out.

4. In studying the locations available, topography, transportation, public utilities, social factors such as schools and churches, and the cost of the land and of developing it should be taken into consideration.

5. The financial aspects of subdividing must be carefully studied and provided for before the project is undertaken. Adequate or inadequate finance may determine the success or failure of the plan.

6. Platting is the function of the architect or landscape architect. Plats should be made with consideration for the natural features of the subdivision, cost of the lots, beauty of streets, and attractiveness of the subdivisions as a whole as well as the individual lots.

7. Restrictions are usually made as to (1) a building line ; (2) the nature and appearance of buildings which may be erected; (3) reservation of a strip for installation of public utilities, and (4) provision for the upkeep of public spaces such as parks.

8. The purposes of city planning and zoning are : (I) to protect the community from unsanitary and undesirable conditions; (2) to unify the whole aspect of the community, and (3) to stabilize land values by protecting desirable sections from invasion of factors that would render them undesirable.

9. The city plan should include all factors which go toward making the city a unit, such as public parks, waterfronts, public buildings, transportation systems, the public utilities, and so on.

10. Zoning regulations aim to control the type of structure allowable in the different sections of the city and the size and height of buildings constructed in any section.

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