Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Are Master Planned Communities?

2 minute read

Now frequently associated with retirees and sprawling developments in the U.S. Sun Belt, master planned communities, also known as new towns or planned communities, were invented as an escape from the haphazard growth of urban areas in the mid-20th century.

A aerial view of Ladera Ranch, California, showing a variety of buildings and open space.

An aerial image of the master planned community of Ladera Ranch, California, which shows obvious design style and a variety of uses. | bonandbon / Shutterstock

Master planned communities are a form of development envisioned and delivered as a self-contained, unified community, with clear boundaries and a full range of land uses, employment opportunities, and public facilities and services. Master planned communities are frequently built on the edge of existing metropolitan areas, and are thus frequently associated with sprawl. Many master planned communities are also created specifically for adults over the age of 55 and retirees. 

There is no single, accepted definition to describe master planned communities. In fact, master planned communities have also been known by other terms over the years, most notably new towns, model cities, planned communities, and Planned Unit Development. Most master planned communities will have a consistent design character, while allowing for some varieties of design styles, home sizes, prices, and lot sizes to cater to multiple segments of the market and allow space for the diversity that can help create the feel of community. Master planned communities are frequently developed by a single-development entity, though many developers will allow separate builders to create these smaller subdivisions so that each one is unique and offers residents something different from the others. 

While some master planned communities embody the most controversial and troubled aspects of single-family residential developments such as the separation of uses and automobile dependency), many master planned communities are designed to incorporate multiple-uses, providing easy access and proximity to residential neighborhoods, commercial and retail districts, as well as shared community centers, park and open space for recreation, and the public facilities and infrastructure needed to support the community. 

Some famous examples of master planned communities include Celebration, FloridaSeaside, Florida; Sea Ranch, CaliforniaColumbia, Maryland; Reston, Virginia; and Irvine, California. Irvine, in particular, was designed and marketed as an escape from the congestion, pollution, and crime associated with the city at the time of its development in the 1950s. 

Master planned communities can be confused with another similar term in the lexicon of planning and land use: subdivisions. Subdivisions are usually devoted solely to residential land uses—often with a much higher degree of design uniformity and construction by a single development team. While master planned communities can contain one large residential area, they are usually broken down into multiple subdivisions and neighborhoods with a mix of land uses that contributes to a definable community.

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