Conscious Development: Creating Places Where People Thrive

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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.

Accelerating My Social Media Learning Curve

One of my obsessions over the last several years has been seeking ways to maximize the impact of my passions, theories and concepts to create meaningful work. I have always been one to read the books of design thought leaders in efforts to keep on the front of the curve.  In the past 2 years,  this has drawn me into an evermore connected system of blogs, tweets, and photo services,  Seeing how well this information flowed and constantly connected me to new information sources, I took my first steps into the New Media.  This has been daunting to say the least but I think I am getting a handle on it.

I just read New Media for Designers + Builders  (www.nm4db.com.) It’s a new book from Steve Mouzon, architect and author of one of my favorites: The Original Green: Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability.  This book breaks from Mouzon’s eclectic discussions of design philosophy and dives directly into the tools we design professionals need to be remarkable in today’s world of new media.  We are deluged with “how to” books on marketing, but to say this is about marketing would not do this work justice.  This is much more a users manual for creative folk like myself that understand their process but are seeking a new perspective on communication and making meaningful impact.

“If you are willing to remake yourself, instead of just your marketing, then these principles can be used to accomplish remarkable things for your business.”

The overriding theme is that the mindset of how we do business must change for design professionals such as architects, planners, and builders.  I would include many more knowledge and creativity based professions as falling into this category; making the information in the book relevant to a much wider audience. The fact is that the environment in which we work has changed, we simply must decide if we will individually adapt to be relevant in this environment.

Unlike many books I have read on how to tap into social media, New Media For Designers + Builders gives a pertinent point of view in a context I understand. Being written from the perspective of a design professional, it speaks directly to real world strategies and applications in my field.   It would also apply to any ideas base organization looking to be effective in communicating their message and being relevant in the marketplace.

Reading this book through to the end takes a tremendous amount of discipline.  I could hardly go a page without finding pertinent information that I could utilize.  The temptation to drill down deep into a subject before finishing the entire book was mighty. This was my first experience with an electronic book so highly interlinked.  The links intuitively pull you deeper into each strategy.  In my case, I spent a day and a half down the blogging rabbit hole to unpack ways to  improve my own blog before moving on to the rest of the book.  Being a digital format book, every strategy, reference, or example is instantly accessible with examples and tips.

As easy as it is to drill for specifics, the real value for me was a guide into a framework or philosophy for the use of all these tools.  Exploring the “Age of the Idea” takes some of the concepts touched on by other forward thinkers such as Seth Godin and focuses them on the design and building professions. I can now see how to take my dabbling with my blog and twitter into a strategy to drive real business.

Having finished reading the book, my time with the book has just begun.  Each media node has a manual that explains how to start, refine and connect the system. I used to be concerned that putting my ideas out for others to see would be the worst possible business decisions. That is an old way of thinking.  I agree with Mouzon’s concepts that “patience, generosity, and connectedness” are valid business virtues for our new economy. With the enormous amount of energy we spend creating our passions, it is a shame if our platforms and practices for communication almost guarantee your voice not being heard.  This book is a manual for taking ideas to the audience where the ideas resonate.  Our business environment has changed, only we can decide how to adapt.  I will be using this book daily as I refine how my message can best be communicated.

I recommend New Media For Designers + Builders to anyone who has considered using the new medias to drive ideas.  In my case, I have been attempting to use social media for several months never realizing that each media (node) can feed the others, multiplying the content and connectivity drastically.  Another great aspect of the book for those of us into socio-spatial design, is a glimpse into the new media systems of some of the top thought leaders in our industry.  I found many ongoing resources that really exemplify generosity as a business virtue.

You can find the book at www.nm4db.com.   Steve Mouzon is an architect, urbanist, author, blogger, and photographer from Miami. He founded the New Urban Guild, which helped foster the Katrina Cottages movement. The Guild hosts Project:SmartDwelling, which works to redefine the house to be much smaller and more sustainable. Steve founded and is a board member of the Guild Foundation; it hosts the Original Green initiative. Steve speaks regularly across the US and abroad on sustainability issues. He blogs on the Original Green Blog and Useful Stuff. He also posts to the Original Green Twitter stream. While looking at Steve’s stuff be sure to explore The Original Green website at www.originalgreen.org.

Community Builder or Consumer – David Twiggs

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To build an extraordinary destination community, we must realize our residents and visitors want to belong to a community rather than simply be a consumer.  We must create the seeds for citizenship.  We are often faced with a culture of community consumers not a group of contributing citizen community builders.

I spent 18 years living and working in the North Carolina High Country in the Blowing Rock, Beech Mountain and Linville triangle.  In this area, there was a proliferation of communities being built to meet the in migration, second home and rental housing demand.  Many of these were very well done creating a community personality that added to the cultural richness of the community.  While these were clearly defined areas they were relatively porous allowing exchange of communication, ideas, and commonality.   These communities were generally considered to be good engaged neighbors.

Other communities developed into isolationist monocultures that were generally considered unwelcome even after many years of existence.  These fostered the” Us vs. Them” mentality.  While they were successful real estate development projects in that they sold through and made the developer a lot of money.  They were not necessarily successful in adding to the long-term health of the larger community.

Consumers are like investors in a stock.  As long as the community is thriving, they receive their dividends in the form of quantity of amenity per dollar paid in taxes, dues, or fees and in increased property values when they decide to sell their investment.  Just like in stocks, owners change on a daily basis. If their dividends are not what they expect, they sell the investment. Since a community’s major dividend has been the lifestyle and perceived quality of life, the same dividend may leave one investor unimpressed while going beyond another’s expectations. A community cannot be all things to all people. It must enhance its unique qualities and values and seek those to whom the lifestyle resonates.  The one constant is that the people will eventually change.  With this come two schools of thought.

The American zeitgeist on what is considered of value is now shifting towards a citizenship point if view.  In response, we had better set up policies, governance and traditions that foster the unique authentic value in our community.  While enhancing and preserving, we also must celebrate individualism within that framework.

From a consumer point of view, there had better be something to attract the next purchaser for their business, home or property; the next “investor.”  While recent years has seen a decline in the investor mentality as a primary motivator for choosing real estate purchases, the change model holds true.  It is the value proposition that has changed.  People are looking for authentic lifestyle and an atmosphere that helps them become a contributing part of the community.

The mindset of a destination community being simply a marketable amenity delivery system has to change if a community is to thrive. In funding new development, the purchase and flip investor mentality made pre-construction sales to investors a reliable funding option until about 2008.  This has changed particularly if a destination wants to attract in migration in the second home and retirement markets.  We are now focused on an end user, a citizen, which is much more concerned with the authentic community values than the marketability of the real estate in the future.

Community must be defined as collection of human relationships rather than as a defined real estate space.  Many of the early pioneer destination communities were built with these more humanistic goals in mind.  In the 90’s and 00’s, many designs strayed for these values.  Creating fortified islands of monoculture did much harm to the traditional meaning of community.  The truly extraordinary places designed the governance structure to add value and enhance the region’s authentic nature.  This goes beyond the physical design of the neighborhoods.  There are many extraordinary places that have technical design issues that they continue to deal with as knowledge on neighborhood and civic space design evolves.  These places are extraordinary because the citizens are part of the positive regional dynamic rather than a separate protectionist subculture.

Now that some of our early pioneer associations are reaching 30 to 40 years old, we are starting to see some multigenerational ownership beginning.  Up until recently no current owners where born and raised in their community.  It was a created environment based on a theme that was quickly put in place rather than slowly evolving with the nature of the area.  There were no roots to speak of that would build a sense of citizenship as opposed to walking into a readymade ala carte consumer environment.  Mixed generation communities have faired much better over recent years than age restricted or retirement type communities.  Mutigenerational populations tend to vest much more quickly into the total community environment, both within and outside the association scope.  This is beginning to alleviate some of the challenges faced due to a transient consumer mindset that has been prevalent in community associations.

Boomers are not necessarily joiners.  The value of being a “member” is not nearly as prevalent as with prior generations.  There is much more value placed on being an individual engaged citizen.  This does not mean that the Boomer will not use the amenities of a community.  They may very well be more active than prior generations but the do not want any part of their “parents retirement community.”  They want to live in a community that engages their children and grandchildren as a family unit and individuals.  They want a “cool” factor.  There must be a new mental narrative about the community. They envision their grandchildren saying “let’s visit grandpa, he lives in the coolest place”. This is what the successful community of the future will be conjure in the mind.

A primary challenge is developing a real sense of citizenship.  Consumers look at the cost/benefit now and seek to extract as much product as possible for the least cost.  Citizen community builders have a longer look as they take responsibility in growing their community.  The sense of being a builder not simply a consumer is what builds community within our members.

Habersham Community Beaufort SC

Habersham Community Beaufort SC

Village Center at Habersham. Nice little village that is walkable and protects the most valuable land for public spaces. Designed by DPZ and is maturing well. Worth a look.