GOOD SITE PLANNERS WALK A lot. They eye parcels of land from every angle, inside and outside their boundaries, before ever picking up a pencil. They pace hills or city blocks five, six, or 10 times before settling on a concept. They look for ways to incorporate existing pathways, grade changes, and wetlands into their designs.

They wear out their walking shoes, because they know that well-researched, well-designed communities that fit with their surroundings sell. Award-winning and cutting-edge planners embrace a few other tenets of strong site design, too. Want to follow in their footsteps? Here are four themes that usually arise in any discussion of good land planning.

1. HONOR THY MOTHER Mother Nature, that is. Whether they're designing a small, infill project or a master planned community, many planners agree that the best developments stay true to their environments.

Alec Michaelides paid attention to surrounding, lower-density neighborhoods when he designed Bellewood of Dunwoody, a move-down community outside Atlanta of 34 detached homes, each on lots ranging from 3,500 to 3,750 square feet—small for the area. “As the consolation prize, we created more elaborate open park areas. They create a sense of neighborhood,” says Michaelides, principal of Atlanta-based Land Plus Associates.

Green space tops the list of elements buyers want in a community, Michaelides says, driven by increasingly smaller lots. His firm has begun substituting parks and open space for other amenities without any resistance.

David Jensen's research echoes those beliefs. The Denver-based land planner says buyers' top priorities are open space, trails, and parks, and so he gives those features top billing. Early in the design process, Jensen plots waterways, wooded areas, and hills and connects the natural features with open space. “That gives us what's left for development,” he says. “The last thing we do is run the streets to provide access. The structure of the community is the open space, not the streets.”

A WALK IN THE PARK: Start your work on an irresistible site plan with a long walk. Award-winning land planners say it's the best way to get to know the land and to incorporate existing pathways, wooded areas, and grade changes into their designs.
A WALK IN THE PARK: Start your work on an irresistible site plan with a long walk. Award-winning land planners say it's the best way to get to know the land and to incorporate existing pathways, wooded areas, and grade changes into their designs.

In Prince William County, Va., south of Washington, Comstock Homes combined a desire to keep existing trees and maximize nearby river views by going vertical. “We knew the river was behind the trees, but you couldn't see it. If you could get over the trees, you could see it. So we built six-story condominiums,” says Chris Clemente, Comstock's president and CEO. The project is the area's first concrete, mid-rise condominium development, but units are selling for as much as $850,000.

For Steinberg Architects, embracing the environment on an infill project in San Jose, Calif., meant bridging a well-established neighborhood of 1920s bungalows and an industrial site used to support a rail line.

Each side of the project, called Avalon at Cahill Park, was bordered by a different type of property, leading the designers to respond with a complementary mix of rental products. The edge facing city retail shops received a building with first-floor retail topped by three levels of housing. Opposite a cannery warehouse that stretches over two city blocks, the planners called for live/work buildings mimicking the scale of the warehouse building. Existing bungalows look onto new, two-story attached townhouses that boast gabled roofs and picket-fenced yards. A mix of the product types was installed on the border of a city park. “It was hugely successful in the marketplace,” says architect Rob Steinberg, president of Steinberg Architects, adding that all 320 units were leased quickly.

2. GIVE 'EM WHATTHEYWANT It seems designers assume most buyers crave open space. But what else do your buyers want? Some award-winning planners say researching buyer preferences is among the keys for designing an appealing community.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Jose, CA.