Point of Beginning

Surveying GIS: The Subdivision Model: A Historic Perspective

May 23, 2011


There is no hotter topic in the surveying community today than the change that is going on in our profession. Advances in technology have been the driving force behind most of it. Many modern tools have supplanted the need for skilled operators. Of course, this phenomenon is hardly limited to surveying. But one of our guiding principles has been that we “follow the footsteps” of previous surveyors. This, in turn, raises a somewhat profound question: What kind of footsteps are we leaving for the surveyors of the future?

Along with this theme of change has been some discussion about the concept of subdivision redesign. Typically this discussion centers on ways and means to improve existing subdivision planning models. Most of these proposals are simply modest reconfigurations and amount to little more than “Band-Aid” remedies for profuse bleeding. About 4,000 acres of farmland are being converted to suburbs every day, according to some estimates.1 That is clearly not sustainable.

The Detroit area during Henry Ford’s time.

Urban traffic congestion is an indicator that the community planning concepts of the 20th century need to be rethought, perhaps desperately. They have to a great extent failed to accomplish what they set out to do. This raises another question: How will future surveyors be affected by changes to land development practices that have all the appearances of being inevitable?

It is often posited that the best way to see into the future is to take an occasional glance back at the past. Perhaps it is time to examine the events and processes that produced the conditions we labor under today.

It is remarkable, if not genius, that William Levitt, considered the father of modern American suburbia, used the identical premise to design his community that Henry Ford used nearly 50 years earlier.2 Levitt’s premise was to build a home quickly and cheaply using the assembly line method and make it inexpensive enough that the assembly line workers could afford it. More than 60 years after Levitt enticed the parents of the baby boomers into suburbia and about a century after Ford made personal transportation affordable, we are beginning to identify a few cracks in this once seemingly utopian model.

In the circa 1905 map of the Detroit area shown on page 42, the transition from the early French settlement period to the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) clearly evident. In the early French period, lands were divided at right angles from a waterfront purchase. In the northwest quadrant of this plat, the classic rectangular pattern of subdivision can be seen merging and intersecting with the historical colonial boundaries.

Metro Detroit as it appears today.

In the second map, we see the same area as it appears today. The geometry is still much the same as it was depicted in 1905. The subdivision pattern followed the rectangular shape established from the base line begun in 1815 that can still be seen as State Route 102, Base Line Road.3

The rectangular system is brilliant in its simplicity. But geometry is, in many cases, constrained by geography. Early subdivision models were often haphazard. Blocks and lots were at times created in land offices far away from their location without benefit of reliable surveying and mapping information.

The raison d’etre for the PLSS was to subdivide agricultural land and raise revenue for the fledgling U.S. government. Those rectangular sections were a perfect vehicle for establishing growing and grazing lands in the 19th century agrarian America.

Then along came Ford and Levitt and their contributions to the American Industrial Revolution.

So how did we get from “40 acres and a mule” to the modern reality of urban congestion? The short answer is that we created something professional planners call “auto-oriented density.”

The cities or urban areas of the 20th and 21st centuries are conceptually different from earlier layouts. The colonial cities of the East Coast and the pueblos of the West were structured around the “horse” mentality. The subdivision model was generally some form of rectangular grid blocks. The spatial relationships were based upon the types of transportation available, which were the horse and the “iron horse.” The automobile and its ability to increase the distances that could be traversed in the business day changed the mindset of early developers.

The PLSS subdivision of San Diego County, as completed by the GLO circa 1890. California began licensing land surveyors in 1893.

In the past, residential areas were often built adjacent to industrial and commercial centers or public transportation facilities. Schools were constructed within walking distance of residential areas. And subdivisions rarely deviated from the “grid” patterns of the PLSS unless a natural boundary, such as a watercourse or a mountain range, was encountered.

Cheap personal transportation ushered in the advent of the bedroom community. And with the Levittown model and its derivatives, urban sprawl mushroomed, leaving urban blight in its wake.

Community planning can be referenced as far back as ancient Greece. It began its life in America in the late 19th century as an attempt to create a more perfect community, indeed a utopia. But it didn’t gain any real traction until the 1960s. In1967, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) held its first urban planning event in Rapid City, S.D. By the late 1980s, planning curricula had been established in many major universities. Subdivision laws were about to be rewritten, and the land surveying profession would become more complex.

A key component in the model of the new planned community was zoning. It was a departure from the corporate town mindset. The primary idea behind zoning was to locate residential areas at a relatively safe distance from noisy industrial areas and exposure to the typically higher levels of various pollutants associated with industry.

San Diego County as it appears today.

But it didn’t stop there. Commercial ventures of many types were “zoned out” of residential areas, and green belts were established as additional buffers. Historically, only those who lived in remote rural areas needed to travel any distance to shopping areas and haul their purchases back home. Commercial zoning moved the corner grocery market and corner drug store farther away to the shopping mall.

Urban areas have been wrestling with traffic problems for decades. Eighty-two percent of us in the U.S. now live in cities and suburbs. Many have suggested mass transportation as a likely solution. And it might be. But the way we went about constructing our communities hasn’t often lent itself to mass transit solutions.

Light rail and bus route staging areas need to be located reasonably close to residential areas to be attractive alternatives. But most modern subdivisions rather deliberately short-circuited that approach by employing the “collector road” model. As its name implies, this model routes all traffic to central arteries.

One of the prevailing theories of land development is this: If improvements to the infrastructure are needed to provide services to the residents of a future subdivision, the developer should be assessed appropriate fees to pay for those improvements, such as roads and utilities. But the reality is that most infrastructure improvements lag far behind the pace of development.

We can see in the two cases shown in the maps how development practices evolved to adapt to our changing lifestyles. But rising fuel costs and environmental concerns are portending new changes. We need to prepare ourselves for them.

A land layer in San Diego County shows lot configurations in typical subdivisions.

In 1987, the United Nations released the Brundtland Report, which defines sustainable development as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Land surveyors were the instruments of the PLSS. We are still the stewards charged with preserving its integrity. But few would argue our role has changed since “$3 a mile” was the going rate. Change occurs. How we respond to it says a great deal about our character. Surveyors need to get serious about making the transition from expert measurers to land development consultants. We need to be intimately familiar with the best tools of the current millennium. There is little doubt that the role of surveyors in the land development community is undergoing even more change. For us, it is a matter of whether we see the glass as half empty or half full.

One of the things that has changed in the last few decades is the emergence of some powerful new tools that never existed before. GIS is loaded with immense databases. Recent aerial imagery is available for virtually the entire planet. Trends can be tracked and analyzed in ways that were not possible only a few years ago. GIS has already become the most powerful tool for planning and configuring where and how future development will occur. Surveyors of the past provided us with a rich legacy. We can see where we have been. But our changing role demands we take a broader, more comprehensive view of our responsibilities to see where we are going. If we can accept that challenge, our successors will be as proud to follow our footsteps as we are to follow those who came before us.

References

1. Leopold, Ellen, “The Levittown Legacy” (a review of Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened, by Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen, New York: Basic Books, 2000, 352 pp.), Monthly Review, Nov. 2000, http://monthlyreview.org/ 2000/11/01/the-levittown-legacy.

2. Keller, Edward, “Mr. Ford--What Have You Done?” 1993.

3. Williard, John, “Surveying Michigan’s Land – Part 1,” Farmington-Farmington Hills Patch, http://farmington-mi.patch.com.

Author’s note: Portions of this article are drawn from research in the Subdivision Statutes of Arizona, California, Colorado and Washington; the Planning Manuals from San Diego County; the BLM Manuals of Surveying Instruction, 1947, 1973 and 2009; and C. Albert White’s “A History of the Rectangular Survey System.”