Conscious Development: Creating Places Where People Thrive

IMG_0020

Density and Intensity of Eureka Springs, AR

David Twiggs

When is development good?  Many projects and developers took a bad rap over the past few years as projects slowed or were abandoned in the wake of the real estate bubble bust.  I have found this a very interesting time as we have been able to really see the wheat separated from the chaff.  Real value became evident from the sales prices. Some communities held and even grew in value while other stagnated and declined. We can read endless statistics on trends in housing types, square footages, amenities and governance structures.  We can study the different margins offered by new construction techniques. Even after sorting through these, I can find clear examples of  communities that remain great places and seem to defy much of the statistical logic.  Exceptions to the rules so to speak, with varying degrees of buildout, widely different amenity focus and different community personalities.

After looking at hundreds of communities from the most successful to the worst failures, I believe that the communities that have sustainable success are those disciplined enough to keep a conscious focus on creating relevant value during initial planning and as the community matures throughout the years.  Often when we think of value in real estate, perceived value is top of mind.  This seems to stem from a bias to the sales point of view.  A marketers creation of urgency and desire to purchase a specific property is creation of  perceived value in the mind of the potential owner. Property must sell for developers to get return on investment and everyone to paid. Nothing wrong with getting paid for working hard.  I wouldn’t use a marketer who did not know how to create perceived value.  In common usage the term perceived value is used generically to say how a resident feels about their property.  However, as creators of communities, we need to sharpen our vocabulary and be specific in what is created and evolved over time.

Truly successful communities have a different vibe going on. The success of great places comes from the sustained satisfaction of the dynamic population overtime. I call this Relevant Value because it evolves to prove or disprove the perceived value at the point of sale. As our products are typically the most expensive purchase our customer will ever make, we have the responsibility to assure that our marketing promises will not only be kept, but actually create inherently satisfying place to continue to evolve where individuals can thrive.

I believe life is happiness based.  Perceived value can be true or false for a potential owner, was it based in reality or just hype.  A property purchase is typically as aspirational as it is functional. Even more so in second home or retirement based real estate purchases.   Perceived value creates sales.  Some promises even when kept turn out to be hollow. The are not inherently satisfying.  Relevant value creates happy people over time.  It does not matter if our development is for  starter homes, a major tourism destination, or a mix of lifestyles and stages; being conscious of creating places that meet the higher happiness needs of the subcultures we attract is our responsibility.  We must focus on the nature of the different subcultures we want to attract and be sure they are complimentary.  We must be specific not generic.  One community model will satisfy everyone.  Yet for years, the second home and retirement market has basically supplied a single model and cast questioning glances at anyone wanting something different. We must make the right promises and keep them.

Recently, I was having a conversation with Todd Zimmerman of Zimmerman/Volk Associates who is doing a market study for a project I am putting together. After discussing the holistic approach I was planning for this project, Todd gave me the language to describe the elements I was trying to influence, a new framework for the terms of  “density and intensity.”  While Todd was much more eloquent and nuanced in his explanation, I simplified it to fit my need.   Density is how the built environment engages people. Intensity is how the mix of cultures engages people  To create relevant value, we must be conscious to address both to these elements. Exactly how we do this varies with the nature of the place we seek to create and the subcultures we seek to serve.  The quality of place we create impacts the happiness and wellbeing of those we seek to attract. That is a fundamental  responsibility of Conscious Development.

Exploring Community: A Look at Serenbe

Image

Serenbe: Rural Based New Urbanism

I met Richard Louv in Huntington Beach, California in 2006. He was discussing his then new book, Last Child In the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.  We were in a general discussion of agriculture replacing golf as the amenity impetus for future community development and the need to connect to nature as part of your daily experience. His book resonated with me, becoming part of my canon on what should be the products of our community leadership.

With my upcoming project to reimagine Hot Springs Village in Arkansas looming, I was rereading Louv’s 2011 book The Nature Principal and was intrigued by his description of Serenbe as a “restorative” community.  At first glance this community just SW of Atlanta is a mixture of conservation community ala Randall Arendt and New Urbanism principals of the CNU. It fits in that mold as seventy percent of the open space is preserved, homes are in higher density concentrations, and the community is designed to be pedestrian oriented. As my passion is creating  places where conservation, creativity, and gentleness can thrive, I decided to spend a couple of days in Serenbe.  This was a great experience.

One of my favorite poets is the late Irish mystic John O’Donohue. Much of his poetry pertained to connection to place, landscape and how the natural environment is part of our being.  Shortly before his death in 2008, he discussed our interface with the built environment saying “an awful lot of urban planning particularly in poor areas has doubly impoverished the poor by the ugliness which surrounds them. And it’s understandable that it is so difficult to reach and sustain gentleness there.” In my earlier “Community Builder or Consumer” post, I wrote “Community must be defined as collection of human relationships rather than as a defined real estate space.”  With that being my goal, creating a space where thoughtful living flourishes must be in the forefront.  The Serenbe community is showing what that type of space can look like.

Serenbe connects you to nature and people in a gentle but intimate manner.  You can feel the intentionality to design on the scale of the individual.  This allows you attunement to the landscape you traverse. I believe that your attention subconsciously adjusts to the ambient level of opportunity for natural and interpersonal connection.  This is why people maintain a closed off protective shell to ward off the harshness of daily life in many places. Serenbe has created the environment that makes us forget that shell.  Rather than being on guard, you feel connected to those around you and are pulled into conversations.  You begin to notice detail in nature and craftsmanship.  The quality of place, both natural and built, shines through.  Ashley, my wife, continually referred to Serenbe as thoughtful.  Both in how specific values permeate the community and how it fosters attunement to nature.

Without the connection to nature we lose the rhythms and understanding necessary for thoughtful living. We take our natural environment for granted and do not see the interconnectivity of systems as basic as getting our food.  Serenbe fosters an understanding that the world around us is teaming with interconnections and relationships.  O’Donohue said “it makes a huge difference when you wake in the morning and come out of your house. Whether you believe you are walking into dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you but in a totally different form. And if you go towards it with an open heart and a real watchful reverence, that you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you. And I think that was one of the recognitions of the Celtic imagination: that landscape wasn’t just matter, but that it was actually alive. What amazes me about landscape, landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence where you can truly receive time.”

Image

Fine Grain Planning Creates Spaces of Value

Ester Sternberg, Director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, in her book Healing Places: The Science of Place and Wellbeing cites several studies on the benefits of the interfacing with natural environment.  One, environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich’s Hospital Window Study, clearly showed the impact of the natural quality of place on wellbeing.  Simply put, surgery patients recovered quicker and with less pain in rooms with a view of nature than those with a view of parking lots and brick walls.  As in Louv’s description of Serenbe, the interface of the natural and built environments can be restorative.

My personal theory takes this a bit further.  If visiting a unique environment, fostered by places like Serenbe, is restorative, living there on an ongoing basis must be preventative and preparatory for ongoing wellbeing.  I feel that walking out on our farm in the morning before entering the world of screens, phones and meetings.  Where we live is one of our most important decisions.  Can I thrive here?  I want my chosen quality of place to be the primary impetus for thoughtful physical and spiritual growth. If it is not, I did not choose well.

“The human soul does not merely hunger for beauty, John O’Donohue believed; we feel most alive in the presence of what is beautiful. It returns us often in fleeting but sustaining moments, he said, to our highest selves. And a neglect of beauty, he believed, is at the heart of our deepest modern crises.” Krista Tippet, talking about John O’Donohue for “On Being.”

Visit Serenbe.  As a community leader, look at the websites, serenbecommunity.com and proudgreenhome.com and see how this can be implemented in your community.  There are many scales on which these concepts can be implemented. As Steve Nygren, founder of Serenbe, put it in an interview with MNN, they focus on “developing in relationship with nature rather than imposing what we are doing on nature.” It is a new look at a very old model of community.  From homes, wastewater treatment and storm water systems to livable design and human scale planning; Serenbe is informed by quality of place and intelligent policy.

With all my planning nerdery aside, there are rare places you can profoundly feel community, wellbeing, and connectivity to the environment.  Serenbe is one of these places.