Maintaining and enhancing design quality of your community is one
of your chief duties as a planning commissioner. You will be
thinking about community design in almost all the work you do,
whether it’s reviewing a new plan or zoning regulation, or
considering a specific project for approval.
Discussions about “good” design often invoke intangible phrases
like “sense of place” or “quality of life.” These things are
difficult to define and can therefore be problematic when
Planning Commissioners review plans and projects. Yet there
exists a set of basic principles of community design that should
inform all plan creation and project review, and that can be
clearly articulated as the basis for community planning.
Planning for sustainability requires a comprehensive approach to
all elements, which allows for the realization of synergies and a
harmonious interaction of essential elements. The way people move
around, the infrastructure and the process by which all these
things are developed and come together are crucial elements which
must be taken into consideration. Sustainable community design is
a way of planning, building and creating places for living and
working that allows the community to contribute to the on-going
long-term health of the jurisdiction and the natural
The following list of eleven principles1 is by no means exhaustive, but
it is meant to provide you with a starting point to begin the
discussion of what constitutes “good” design in your
It is important to note that these principles do NOT qualify as
“objective design standards,” nor even as “design guidelines,”
both of which are described in detail in the Application Review section. Thus, these
principles cannot be used by themselves as a basis for
application review, nor should they be incorporated by themselves
as design guidance in a jurisdiction’s regulatory documents.
Design standards and guidelines need to be much more specific
than the principles shown here. That said, the principles listed
here can provide an important foundation for you as a planning
commissioner to use in reviewing both proposed regulatory and
planning documents as well as proposed projects.
Build to Human Scale. Good urban design is
people-oriented. This concept is often expressed as “pedestrian
friendly” and “built to human scale.” Buildings, streets and
open spaces should add to the experience of the individual.
People like places where they can walk comfortably, admire a
view, get a cup of coffee, see interesting buildings, meet a
friend or just people-watch. Large buildings with long,
unbroken walls create dead spaces that people tend to avoid.
Architectural features—like windows, doorways, balconies and
cornices—assure that buildings relate to the pedestrian. A
traditional retail block, for example, may have four or five
stores at a scale that is inviting to shoppers and passers-by.
New development can create additional spaces—like small plazas
or landscaped walkways—between buildings and wider sidewalks to
accommodate outdoor cafes and other seasonal uses.
Design for Comfort and Safety. To enjoy a
space, people need to feel comfortable and secure. Architecture
that isolates people—long, narrow passageways, for
example—creates a feeling of insecurity. Amenities like good
walking surfaces, shelter, shade and interesting things to look
at add to comfort. People feel more secure when they can see—
and be seen by—other pedestrians. This is sometimes referred to
as “eyes on the street” design. A good way to test whether a
place will be physically comfortable is to ask yourself whether
you would enjoy being there.
Create Places to Congregate. Places where
people congregate should offer a variety of activities. Choice
makes a place more interesting. For example, shopping areas are
a natural collection point. People will enjoy the space more if
they can also sit outside, walk, meet a friend or order a meal
in the same area. Good design provides such choices in order to
create and encourage neighborhood energy and vitality.
Provide Connections. Ensuring circulation and
accessibility involves creating safe, efficient passageways for
cars, pedestrians, bikes and other transportation options.
Excessively wide streets, intermittent sidewalks and poor
circulation plans can create confusion for pedestrians and
increase the chance of accidents. Creating separate paths for
different uses can increase safety and make our communities
walkable and bicycle friendly. In many cases, simple
devices—like curbs and landscaping—provide the needed
Connect Buildings to Streets and Sidewalks.
Buildings should be oriented to the outside, so they serve not
only their users but also their communities. Small setbacks,
interesting doorways and porches and large windows can help
create vital neighborhoods with lots of eyes on the street,
thereby promoting both safety and vitality. Large display
windows, detailed architectural designs, and parking lots
placed behind buildings allow commercial activities to “spill”
out onto the sidewalk. An active interface between building and
street creates vibrant areas that people want to visit.
Mark Transitions and Boundaries. Most people
like to know where one neighborhood ends and another begins. A
logical world with good spatial definition orients people.
Transitions can tell people when they leave and enter town,
what is public and private, where to sit and meet, where to
stroll and where to drive. Many towns are already informally
divided into districts or neighborhoods based on existing
landmarks. Reinforcing these boundaries—or creating new
ones—provides a sense of order. The design of a neighborhood
suggests what types of activities will take place there.
Variations in building shape, doorway design, paving materials,
curbs, landscaping, street furniture, elevation and signage let
people know where one area or neighborhood gives way to
Include Detail and Variety. Most people prefer
a degree of aesthetic complexity and variety. Murals,
attractive sidewalk designs and the occasional fountain make
public spaces more interesting. Architectural differentiations
in materials, textures, roof shape, trim and size also create
variety. Monotonous facades symbolize institutionalism. To
avoid this perception, make sure facades are broken into
smaller units with varying shapes, sizes, windows, textures,
colors and perhaps even balconies.
Build on Existing Precedents. New development
should reflect, but not exactly replicate, the design and scale
of existing buildings. Building height, size, roof shape,
doorways and materials are all design elements that can be made
compatible with existing nearby precedents, but without
stamping out originality. Repeating small but obvious
elements—like signage, lampposts and curbs—on a neighborhood or
district level also creates cohesion. Context is important – in
places undergoing major change or do not have a lot of existing
development it may be more important to rely on the vision for
the area as opposed to existing building stock.
Stay True to Function. Great design will not
make up for poor function. Buildings and design must serve
their purpose. People must be able to work, shop and move
efficiently through buildings and surrounding areas. For
example, a project that relies on heavy pedestrian traffic
should have wide sidewalks and places for people to rest.
Overlooking these features may endanger the underlying economic
purposes of the project. Urban design involves incorporating
the functional needs of the project and society into the
physical appearance of the urban environment.
Mix It Up. Mixed-use projects provide a
combination of a variety of uses in a single development
(vertically or horizontally), and may include housing, office,
retail and open space. This development pattern ensures that
there is activity around the property 24 hours per day. At the
same time, the proximity of people to multiple uses decreases
dependence on cars. Consider the ideas of a “fifteen minute
neighborhood” where most daily functions – living, working,
eating, entertainment, recreation – are available within a
fifteen minute walk.
Emphasize Compact Development. Compact design
means placing uses in close proximity to each other, and at
relatively high densities, so as to make efficient use of land
and allow people to easily move from one use to another.
Encouraging development to grow up, rather than out, is one way
to do this. Infill development—building on empty or
underutilized lots—is another. Building within an existing
neighborhood can attract more people to the jobs, homes and
businesses already there, while also making the most of public
investments in things like water and sewer lines, roads and
These principles provide only a starting point and are drawn from
a several formal declarations adopted by various organizations
that advocate for good urban design. These include the
Ahwahnee Principles (by the Local Government Commission,
1991), the Charter
for the New Urbanism and the Canons for Sustainable
Architecture and Urbanism (by the Congress
for New Urbanism, 1996 and 2009 respectively). The field of
urban planning and design is broad, and many other groups have
issued statements of urban design principles. You will likely
learn more about good design as your term on the commission
continues. However, the most direct way to gain more insight is
to visit and think about the places you like to go and note what
makes them work.
Crime Prevention through Environmental Design
Crime Prevention through Environmental Design2 (CPTED – generally pronounced
“sep-ted”) is a design philosophy based on the theory that the
proper design and effective use of the built environment can lead
to a reduction in the fear and incidence of misuse, as well as an
improvement in the quality of life.
CPTED is a process and a way of thinking about design. It is not
a program or system of ready–made solutions. CPTED emphasizes
understanding and changing the physical environment in an effort
to reduce improper activity at particular locations.
CPTED is effective because of the concept of “defensible space.”
This concept suggests that all space in the human environment is
defendable; a guardian can take responsibility for a given space
and take action to defend it from non-legitimate, criminal or
unintended use. Alternately, space can be undefended: when there
is no one who takes responsibility for the space, it is left
exposed to unintended uses.
To help defend a location, there are four overlapping CPTED
strategies that need to be employed: 1) Natural Surveillance, 2)
Territorial Reinforcement, 3) Access Control and 4) Maintenance.
Each strategy employs a slightly different method of sending a
clear message that a responsible person is nearby and
inappropriate activity is not welcome. These strategies are not
exclusive. They may be applied concurrently and will provide
greater benefits as a result.
Natural Surveillance. Natural surveillance is
the design of an area that places physical features, activities
and people in locations that maximize the ability to see what
is occurring in a given space. An example of natural
surveillance is a parking garage built with large openings
facing a major street. Windows allow pedestrians and motorists
passing by to see into the parking area and detect unwanted
activity. In the event that misuse does occur, there is a
greater chance that it will be seen and reported to police.
Other examples include properly trimmed and maintained
landscaping, which allows visibility, and appropriately scaled
lighting, which highlights the pedestrian environment.
Territorial Reinforcement. Territorial
reinforcement is the design of an area that clearly defines its
boundaries and ownership. All space can be defined as public,
private or semi-public/semi-private. The underlying principle
of territorial reinforcement is that the transition between
spaces should be clearly identifiable for both the user and
others in the area. Territorial reinforcement allows legitimate
users to develop a sense of ownership over a space and act as
guardians against unwanted acts. Examples of territorial
reinforcement are small decorative fencing placed around the
semi-private outdoor patio of a business and proper signage
that communicates the ownership of a space and the rules of its
Access Control. Access control is the physical
guidance of movement to and from a space by the placement of
entrances, exits, fencing, landscaping, locks and other
barriers. This CPTED strategy works because it not only limits
and guides movement, but it also causes improper access to be
noticed more readily. Some examples of access control are
well-marked pedestrian pathways through parking lots, which
give direction to users and alert drivers to the concentrated
presence of pedestrians, and bollards placed near the entrance
of a park to prevent vehicle entry while allowing pedestrian
Maintenance. Up-to-date maintenance
demonstrates that someone cares about a space, is watching and
will defend the property against misuse. A property that is
run-down or in disrepair is likely to attract non-legitimate
activities. Routine maintenance or clean-up can have a great
deal of impact in making an area unattractive to offenders.
This strategy works because it is based on what is known as the
“Broken Windows Theory.” The theory suggests that a neglected
space will elicit mistreatment, while a maintained space will
bring proper treatment creating naturally safe space that
requires less need for law enforcement. This strategy lessens
fear in a community by creating perceptions of responsibility
The State of California and local communities are increasingly
asking that public and private buildings be constructed using
“green” building techniques and energy conserving technologies.
Green building involves using energy, water, building materials
and land more efficiently than was often the case in the 20th
Century. It also results in healthier indoor environments with
cleaner air, fewer toxins and more natural light. Green building
reduces the overall impact of a development project on the
environment and can also reduce long-term costs for building
owners and for taxpayers. Some techniques involved in green
Siting buildings to take advantage of natural heating and
cooling and to encourage access by walking, bicycling and mass
Using existing landscaping and natural features where
possible and landscaping with plants with low water and pesticide
Incorporating energy efficiency measures.
Using construction materials that are sustainably harvested,
of recycled content and recyclable, durable and locally produced.
Using dimensional planning and other material efficiency
strategies. These strategies reduce the amount of building
materials needed and cut construction costs. One example is
designing rooms on four-foot multiples to conform to
standard-sized wallboard and plywood sheets.
Reusing and recycling construction and demolition materials.
For example, using inert demolition materials as a base course
for a parking lot keeps materials out of landfills and costs
less. Designing with adequate space to facilitate recycling
collection and to incorporate a solid waste management program
that prevents waste generation.
Designing for dual plumbing to use recycled water for toilet
flushing or a gray water system that recovers rainwater or other
non-potable water for site irrigation.
Minimizing wastewater by using ultra low-flush toilets,
low-flow showerheads and other water-conserving fixtures.
Improving indoor air quality through a variety of methods,
such as the use of construction materials and interior finish
products with zero or low emissions.
Utilizing pre-fabricated building modules, assembled in a
factory to reduce building waste and on-site construction
Some green building features may cost more upfront than
traditional building methods, but over the life of a building is
generally less expensive. Savings include lower energy costs and
operating expenses, improved occupant health and productivity
(office buildings), and reduced pollution and landfill.
The State of California, in addition to a number of communities
in California and across the country, have developed programs to
encourage green building in private development projects. Recent
updates to the California Building Code include many green
building features. Some communities offer technical assistance,
grants, streamlined permitting and other incentives. In a few
cases, communities are requiring private developers to meet green
building standards that exceed those found in the Building Code.
Many local agencies have also committed to using green building
techniques in new public buildings.
Design for Historic Preservation
Historic preservation protects historic buildings and other
cultural resources that have a unique heritage. Examples include
old homes, movie theatres, bridges, farms and even entire
neighborhoods. The benefits of historic preservation include
revitalized neighborhoods, higher property values and increased
community pride. Typically, a historic preservation strategy will
involve some or all of the following actions:
Authorizing a survey of historic resources.
Incorporating a historic preservation element as part of the
Adopting a historic preservation ordinance that provides
guidelines, standards, incentives and regulations to protect
Designating certain properties as local historic resources,
often in tandem with a “Mills Act” program to provide property
tax relief to owners of local historic resources.
Designating certain areas as historic districts.
Including historic preservation as a priority in development
Setting up a revolving loan fund to provide homeowners and
businesses with money to rehabilitate historic buildings.
Adopting an adaptive re-use ordinance to encourage the
sensitive rehabilitation of older buildings, by offering relief
from selected code standards such as parking or setbacks.
Developing an awards program to recognize property owners for
outstanding work in preserving or rehabilitating historic
Creating a Historic Preservation Commission charged with
overseeing the programs and initiatives identified above.
Successful programs will also find ways to engage the community
to support historic preservation. Many communities have a local
historical or preservation society that will be an immediate
constituency and advocacy group for historic preservation issues.
Federal and state programs protect many historic resources. For
example, the National
Register of Historic Places provides a national inventory of
significant historic resources. To be placed on the register, a
building must be determined to have local, state or national
importance by the U.S. Department of the Interior, upon
recommendation by the state historic preservation officer.
Buildings on the register are eligible for increased income tax
credits if rehabilitated and, for certain programs, grants and
loans. California has a parallel landmark certification program
with similar benefits. Learn more about the California Preservation
In addition, several state laws support local preservation
efforts. For example, the State Historical Building Code provides
an alternative set of building regulations that allows greater
flexibility in the restoration, preservation and relocation of
historic buildings. Local agencies may also issue bonds for the
rehabilitation of historic commercial and residential rental
properties. State law permits historic properties to be assessed
at present value rather than at “highest and best use” value when
uses of the property are restricted by an
enforceable contract. It is important to note that what is
considered “historic” will shift over time. Buildings that are
not currently considered historic may receive that designation in
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) also requires
local agencies to take stock of their historic resources (and
mitigate against their loss to the extent practicable) when new
development will destroy or significantly impact historical
resources. CEQA also includes a categorical exemption (meaning no
environmental review is required) for the rehabilitation or
repair of certain historic resources.