Sitting Lightly on the Land

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Avenue of the Oaks at the Waters, in Pike Road, Alabama

Avenue of the Oaks at the Waters


   Civil engineers are spending countless millions of dollars and clear-cutting untold trees needlessly because they have forgotten one essential point of sustainable design: Roads and other infrastructure should sit very lightly on the land.

mass-graded development site with raw dirt and erosion control fence

here's what a mass-graded site can look like

   Left to their own devices, engineers will usually "mass-grade" a site, which means that they first cut every tree on the site. Next, they remove all of the topsoil, piling it in a huge mound somewhere. Next, they move many truckloads of dirt around all over the site, cutting some areas and filling other areas by a dozen feet or more on some sites. After they've put the storm sewers and other utilities in, they pave the roads and spread all the topsoil back out over the land. During this entire process, they must install erosion control all over to keep the soil from washing away. They go to all this expense in order to make the streets less humpy, so you're able to drive faster.

porches of houses along the Avenue of the Oaks at the Waters, in Pike Road, Alabama

another view of how things look more natural when a neighborhood
sits more lightly on the land

   See the top picture? That's at a place called the Waters that I planned while I was a partner with PlaceMakers a decade ago. I had to fight tooth-and-nail with the engineer for weeks on end so he would sit the streets more lightly on the land. Engineering "best practices" say that you should fill in the dips and cut down the high spots along streets so that you have greater "sight distance." But wait… that's a stop sign at the intersection in the top picture. Once you get there, you can see further. You don't need to see all the way to the end of the road from the point where I took this picture. Fortunately, the civil engineer at the Waters was a good guy, and I was able to convert him to sitting more lightly.

   One of the benefits was the fact that by not cutting and filling so much, we were able to preserve the majestic oaks along this avenue leading in to town. The trees grew up along a fence that had been built a century ago, and by saving them, it appears that the avenue might have been there that long as well. With normal engineering practices, they would have all been cut.


chapel on Chapel Hill at the Waters, in Pike Road, Alabama

   Here's another example at the Waters. When Nathan Norris and I first met the landowner, the land had already been planned by a conventional planner, but the landowner was having second thoughts about the plan. He pointed to a hill and said "where would you put all this dirt? The other planner said it won't work with his plan." I said "you mean the hill?" "Yes." "Leave the hill exactly where it is," I replied. "Line a street up with it, and build a chapel on the hill. We'll call it Chapel Hill." And so we did, as you can see.


existing grading plan of new neighborhood

existing grading plan


   I'm working right now with the Town Founder of one of the places where I'm Town Architect. He's about to build the next neighborhood in his town. The drawing above shows how the engineer has graded the first part of the new neighborhood. I'm not sure how accustomed you are to reading grading plans, but this land is mass-graded, so they'll have to cut every tree on the site and move many truckloads of dirt. Much of the land will be either cut or filled by 5-10 feet, and the really steep stuff on the right side will be filled by substantially more than that… think about fill taller than a two-story building in places!


proposed grading plan for new neighborhood

new grading plan


   Here's an alternative grading plan I did yesterday. My contours are all in red, so as you can see, most of the site is left untouched. The greatest amount of cut or fill on the alternative plan is four feet, but many areas that I've disturbed have less than a foot of cut or fill.

   Taking this approach will likely save the Town Founder (and therefore the lot purchasers) over $300,000, and this is just one phase of one neighborhood of one new town. And the Town Founder gets to sell wooded lots instead of raw dirt. And the streets will cause people to drive slower, making them safer, especially for the kids and the old folks who walk there. Which would you rather have?

   For almost all of human history, sitting lightly on the land was the only choice for most of us because moving dirt around was really hard work when you did it by shovel and wheelbarrow. Diesel-powered heavy equipment has given us the ability to push countless tons of dirt across the land, but should we do things just because we can?


   ~Steve Mouzon


Legacy Comments


Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Civil engineers could save millions in each new neighborhood and avoid the loss of countless trees by respecting existing topography... why won't they?

Aug 27, 2012 5:03am


Patrick Pinnell · Owner and Principal at Patrick L. Pinnell AIA / Architecture & Town Planning LLC

Very nice post, Steve, and I could not agree more. You can always feel it when land has been homogenized. I once helped the neighbors stop a new golf course the designer of which claimed to be "respecting the old New England landscape" despite proposing to move a million cubic yards of soil.

Aug 27, 2012 5:33am


Gil Lopez · Green Worker Cooperatives

I remember learning about grading in University. It was a two prong approach. How the engineers would do it and how a good landscape architect would do it. It's a shame more LAs aren't out there sending the engineers packing on this one.

Aug 27, 2012 6:03am


Denny Daikeler · Author and Speaker at Interior Design Workshops

I think the thing that bothers me the most is the value involved. Caring saves trees, creates better topography, more appropriate streets, dollar and beauty. What are we missing here. Hopefully there is goiNg to be that moment when everyone SEES the truth and moves to better choiceS. IT'S TIME.

Aug 27, 2012 2:34pm


Denny Daikeler · Author and Speaker at Interior Design Workshops

WHAT I WOULD BEG IS ALL OF US WANTING TO MAKE BETTER CHOICES, AND ALLOWING THE "TIME" TO DO SO.

Aug 27, 2012 2:36pm


Larry Hanrahan

If developers are willing to reduce density to save trees (e.g., lose a couple of lots where a tree exists; cluster units where there are no trees); if volume builders can spend a few thousand extra per slab not to "pad" a site to preserve a tree next to the house; if regulators would allow a lower design speed on a road; and if attorneys wouldn't sue me when a wreck occurs on a "substandard" road, this civil engineer could wag the dog.
In the Waters photo above, the Avenue of the Oaks takes up a lot of real estate, and amounts to a "single loaded" street. Beautiful and desirable, and I'd love to do something like that. I've worked with very few developers who would sacrifice a number of lots to plan that. The ones that do, "get it". To suggest that a civil engineer is dictating the layout, though, is simplistic. In our situation, we are given a layout, or told to maximize the number of lots; with these constraints (physical, economic, development scheduling, regulatory), it's difficult to do anything creative with grading. If we all had the luxury of more time in the planning stage of a project, better designs that live lightly on the land would result.
Oh, if I truly had the ability to call the shots, as this article suggests...

Aug 28, 2012 6:45am


Rod Ballard · Franklin, Tennessee

Great article. Speaking of the Waters, looks like the Crescent "Point" is going to be platted for residential construction.

Sep 1, 2012 9:50pm


Roland Beinert · University of Idaho

Great post, Steve. I think respecting the topography also helps bring about a greater sense of place. 
And isn't a little bit of uncertainty for drivers is a good thing, anyway. It keeps them on their toes, and when your driving a several ton vehicle at high speeds, especially through a residential neighborhood, you should be paying attention. Isn't that the idea behind the dutch woonerf and the work of designers like Hans Monderman?

Sep 4, 2012 12:48pm


Mihir J Soneji · Divan Ballubhai School

Looks great. Currently, I am designing sub division. I am agree on intersection concept. However, your lots need to be graded to have sustainable drainage system MIHIR J SONEJI email: mihir.soneji@rmit.edu.au

Feb 20, 2014 10:12pm


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