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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

August 2007 Issue

Measuring the Shape of Change
Focusing on the nuts and bolts of planning successful suburban communities helps a small landscape architecture firm make a big impact.

By Linda McIntyre

Measuring the Shape of Change Thomas Comitta Associates

Working on an open space plan for the town of Barnstable on Cape Cod during his MLA studies, Tom Comitta, ASLA, decided exactly what sort of practice he wanted to establish. “I got bit by the municipal planning bug,” he says. “I saw that if you could win over a majority of officials, you could have a big impact and really change a landscape.”

Thirty-four years later his firm, Thomas Comitta Associates (TCA), is a thriving, 12-person operation based in West Chester, Pennsylvania, less than 30 miles east of Philadelphia and north of Wilmington, Delaware. Comitta, who decided as a high school student working in his grandfather’s landscaping business to be a landscape architect, has not only brought his youthful dreams to life, but in doing so, he and his colleagues have helped many towns in southeastern Pennsylvania, including their own, to grow in a more thoughtful manner. They have done this by working to revitalize neglected downtown areas, guiding development with local ordinances geared toward traditional neighborhood development, and working with developers and local governments to build new communities in the new urbanist manner.

Comitta and his firm have stayed true to his early ambition of a municipal planning practice. But in the early 1990s Comitta had two defining realizations that changed the direction of his practice. “In 1993 I got a call from the director of the North Central Pennsylvania Conservancy in Williamsport,” he recalls, “asking me to host a busload of local officials on a tour of good cluster developments in southeastern Pennsylvania. But after thinking long and hard about it, I realized there really weren’t any.”

At about the same time, Comitta’s father had become gravely ill. Despite entreaties from the family, his father refused to spend his last days in a hospital or nursing home, preferring to stay in Manayunk, the tightly knit small town in which both the senior Comitta and his son had spent much of their youth. While illness limited his mobility, he was still able to see his neighbors and keep up with the goings-on in the neighborhood. “I’m sure that if he had lived in a more isolated, suburban environment, he would not have lived as long as he did,” says Comitta.

These experiences drove Comitta to reassess the path he had taken in his work. “I wondered why I had not helped to produce great neighborhoods like the one I grew up in,” he says. “After all this time, I was still clueless about where and how to build.” Having focused on compliance with rules and regulations, Comitta felt he had missed the big picture—how well the residential and commercial developments he was helping to create were serving their inhabitants and the broader regional community.

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