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For Successful Communities — Just Add Open Space

Open space has the power to transform developments into successful communities and neighborhoods, according to leading community planners and landscape designers.

Speaking before an educational session, “Community Design: Placemaking, Open Space & Amenities,” at the International Builders’ Show in January, they said creating and utilizing open space in a community’s design adds appeal, value and sustainability and can save the developer money.

“Open space gives you an unfair advantage over your competition,” said David Jensen, of the Denver-based David Jensen Associates, Inc. “It demonstrates how you use land in the community, it instills pride in your residents and it generates good referrals.”

Jensen noted the growing appeal of communities containing open space among potential home buyers. According to a survey conducted within a recent 10-year span, the number of respondents who wanted to live near open space, or in a community that contained open space, increased from 16% at the beginning of the survey to 48% 10 years later.

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He also said that builders could expect to see a 57% increase in home prices near open space versus the price of comparable home in a community with no proximity to open space.

“Builders don’t sell houses. Builders sell neighborhoods,” Jensen said. “No true neighborhood exists today without open space. Open space is the structure of the community, its unifying element.”

Jensen also said that open space communities were the most resilient communities to sell during economic downturns. “They are the last to enter these economic cycles, and the first to come out.”

Open Space Can Reduce Development Costs

Developing communities with open space can cost less than similar communities without open space. Open space reduces the need for, and costs associated with, subsurface drainage and the amount of impervious surfaces. Open space also allows for the preservation of natural areas and promotes environmental sensitivity and “green development.”

According to Jensen, open space:

  • Provides a buffer between different housing types.
  • Provides a sense of place.
  • Gives residents a physical and psychological release by providing an opportunity to get outside and walk in the sunshine.
  • Affords developers design flexibility.
  • Can serve as natural drainage and filter areas for storm water.

“Open space can eliminate as much as 80% of the subsurface drainage and the costs that go with it,” Jensen said. “Developers can take the costs associated with underground storm drainage and put them into quality of life amenities that will appeal to buyers.”

When planning or designing a community, Jensen said to: 1) put open space in the community; 2) develop a trail system; 3) drop in roads; and then 4) fill in with product.

Open Space Can Add Texture

Steve Gang, of The Lessard Architectural Group of Vienna, VA, noted that designing communities with open space enables the developer to provide variety and a framework for the community.

Open space can be incorporated into both urban infill and suburban communities, Gang said. Within urban sites, he added, developers should incorporate the existing open space opportunities nearby. “The open space fabric is there and will add value to your community,” he said.

Suburban communities are more automobile-oriented, he said. Providing opportunities to interact with neighbors will make for a more successful community.

“Communities should have a pedestrian orientation with neighborhood-scaled streets and buildings close to the streets,” Gang said.

He recommended that planers and community designers provide a variety of open space opportunities and “layer” the open space to meet a variety of needs and appeal. This would range from private back yards to semi-private gathering areas for small groups to neighborhood- and community-scale open space for gatherings and activities.

“Every home should be within five minutes walking distance to a community center,” Gang said. “No home should be more than two blocks from open space.”

He also said that communities should offer a variety of housing types — such as first-floor master bedrooms, lofts, attached wide units, etc. — as well as have a variety of housing types on the same block.

Connect Residents to Open Space and Amenities

Chris Moore, of DTJ Design in Boulder, CO, said prospective home buyers are seeking opportunities to connect with their community. One way to foster that is to create a community identity using open space and community amenities.

“A community has to have a story,” he said, such as the community built around a pond where then President Dwight D. Eisenhower went fishing. That history added to the appeal of the community and was woven throughout the community into unique and identifiable amenities.

“Draw on relics from the past,” Moore said. “History can be demonstrated in old buildings that become new places of activities for current residents.”

Moore also recommended that different open space amenities be spread throughout the community so that each amenity — a pond retreat, an overlook, a cottonwood grove, etc. — can be its own destination and experience.

“Most people want to take vacations,” Moore said. “Provide people with the opportunity to vacation in their own communities.”

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