Rethinking the Indelible Lines of Subdivision

The subdivision process imposes rules that result in a lack flexibility, convoluted urban design, and diced up landscapes.

2 minute read

August 27, 2020, 6:00 AM PDT

By Camille Fink

Suburban Subdivision

Nelson Minar / Flickr

Ray Dubicki argues subdivision and the parceling of land should get as much attention as zoning when examining how cities are shaped. "Once a lot is created through subdivision, it never gets unmade. Subdivision leaves a paper trail burdened with the weight of the past and creating a significant barrier to change. That barrier gets higher and higher as we shred city land into the tiniest possible atoms."

Dubicki says the decisions related to subdivision can create less-than-ideal results that are permanent. "There is a reason that the building industry refers to the results of subdivision approvals as 'entitlements.' They are court enforceable rulings on the intensity of development and limits to what the city is asking for. Builders plug this into their accounting to figure out profit and loss. The jurisdiction’s hands are then tied."

Subdivision also hinders denser developments by creating smaller and smaller parcels that are then more difficult to consolidate for larger multi-family buildings. In addition, parcels such as "flag lots," requiring long, shared driveways for access to a public road, create "puzzle piece subdivisions," says Dubicki.

"Perhaps our challenge is to move our subdivision mindset away from the simple parceling out of land and entitlements. The flat, indelible lines of subdivision are just as inflexible as the old flat LEGO baseplates. We are developing newer ways of thinking about layers of space in our cities, including different methods of ownership and the ways they impact our communities," adds Dubicki.

Update: At the end of his article on subdivision, Dubicki asked readers to nominate the strangest lot lines in the Seattle areas. He has compiled the most bizarre lot winners, including the Olympic Hammerhead, Sammamish Crop Circles, and the Land Meander.

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