8 Rules of Successful Land Development Design

Happy owners. Happy developers. Happy users. Throughout our careers, we’ve found these three things to be the root of success when it comes to land development design. Although there are many different types of land development – including urban infill, residential and industrial/residential, to name a few – all projects have fundamental commonalities. Regardless of development type, we at SEH have lived by the following principles for many years.

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The Village of Sussex is in the midst of a downtown revitalization. Sparking the Village’s redevelopment was transforming a contaminated industrial site, a densely wooded quarry and abandoned canning factory into a thriving apartment complex (bringing 400 new residents to the downtown area) and commercial area featuring a local coffee shop, salon, dentist and more. This brief video captures the before and after, in addition to how SEH relied on the below principles to achieve happy owners, a happy developer and happy users/community residents.

Below, 8 simple land development design rules to build by.

1. Listen to the land. The sculptor shapes a stone in ways that complement its natural size, shape and form. Land development is performed in the same way. Listen to what the land has to offer, carefully take in the surroundings, and visualize what your additions will offer. Design a development that suits the land’s natural shape and form.

2. Use your space wisely. The old adage “measure twice, cut once” applies to land development. Look at ways to be efficient in design. Most designs look efficient but are littered with wastes of space.

3. Match talent with client and market needs. People. People. People. They make or break a successful land development. Put the right people in the right role on the right projects and you’re guaranteed to succeed. But don’t forget about the market — even the best people can’t beat that.

4. Design from the outside in. The two largest areas to influence development costs are earthwork and stormwater management. Start with the homes. From here, design back yards to the property’s boundary and front yards to the street. This reduces the need to move dirt and efficiently manages stormwater, which leads us to the next rule.

Related Content: 3 Tips for Identifying Waste in Land Development Master Plans

5. Save streets for last. Beginning with street design is an easy mistake to make: design the street layout, then fit the houses around it. But people don’t live in streets, they live in homes on lots. “Happy end users” hinges on designing the homes and the lots first, while saving the streets for last. This way, you’re keeping the focus on the people, who will be most impacted by your design.

6. Don’t ignore topography. There's an old saying among engineers, “stuff doesn’t run uphill.” What appears to be an efficient design for the first phase of a multi-phase project may not suit future phases. Gravity sewer is the lowest cost. Holistic planning allows for more gravity sewer and less reliance on lift stations.

7. Design each element for the greater whole. Take a holistic approach to land development design. Integrate stormwater by turning stormwater conveyance into amenities while minimizing piping. Connect residents to features and destinations by planning pedestrian flow. Lay out your lots to maximize view corridors. Everything should add up to a perfect whole. Be intentional about seeing the forest through the trees, which sometimes requires adjustments.

8. Explore creative ideas. Routines are great for efficiency. Efficiency often plays an important role. But we can’t forget to think outside the box. Every land development is unique, each with its own challenges. If we fail to incorporate these nuances into the design, we can miss opportunities to change status quo.

8 rules GIF


The market, housing trends, interest rates and consumer preferences – these among other things are often out of our control in the world of land development. But if we remember the fundamentals and stick to the rules, we can positively impact the components we do control, give ourselves the best chance for success, and achieve happiness for all parties involved.

About the Experts

Randy Jenniges

Randy Jenniges, PE, is a civil engineer, SEH Principal and project manager, and a specialist in maximizing ROI for developers. Contact Randy

Brian Depies

Brian Depies is a project development and client service manager specializing in land use planning, zoning code administration and development. Contact Brian

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