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.

Moving Ideas to Start-ups in Master Planned Communities  David Twiggs AICP

Moving Ideas to Start-ups in Master Planned Communities David Twiggs AICP

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Micro Neighborhood Infill Concept Drawing By Dr. Yang Luo Director of Placemaking Hot Springs Village AR

The only way large-scale communities can move beyond their outdated and market irrelevant pre recession status quo is to become remarkable in a sea of mediocre competitors. This requires developing new ideas, programs, and facilities and taking them to startup mode quickly. Starting is the hardest thing for an individual to do in a bureaucratic, fearful, and hypercritical environment.

This typically is an environment that will debate an idea endlessly in search of perfection; seeking guarantees and prepositioned blame for anything less than a grand slam idea. This is not forward thinking and not applicable for running the nimble businesses we must be post recession market.

Startups aren’t about perfection. They are about taking an idea to the market while it can make an impact. We take an idea, put together a plan, put it on the market, evaluate, and revise. We continue to revise until the product succeeds or fails but we are in the marketplace while it can make a difference. Obviously the higher the cost of failure, the greater the preparation before launch but an idea that is never launched will not succeed and you will learn nothing. An idea launched to late, after it has been proven in other communities, does nothing to make you remarkable. That just makes you a follower trying to keep up with the bold communities.

I believe in due diligence but many start-up opportunities are lost by over caution and collective fear of failure. A start-up designed to make a planned community remarkable is by definition something that others are not doing. If you can find five of your competitors to compare how this idea worked for them, you are simply a follower behind the curve. You are not inventing or innovating anything.

Look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and determine what level need your community is supplying. The higher up the need you are satisfying, the more remarkable and marketable you are. You will not satisfy everyone as you reach for a higher level. You can never satisfy everyone. Timid community leadership will at best keep their head down and try nothing that is unproved. At their worst they will actively criticize those who will try saying it is not the responsibility of the association. Criticism is only aimed at the bold who standout.

Any manager can follow the manual and dodge criticism. Professional community leaders are paid to create bold new directions. Intuition and courage are the traits to seek in hiring people as game changers. These people will start things. Some things will fail, but fast cheap failures are part of the business process. If I have ten startups and two fail, the failing ideas will get criticized. Is my community better off for the eight new innovative programs and facilities I succeeded with or should I have protected myself by not launching anything that had a risk of failure. If you believe you are doing the right thing, be tough and take the criticism. Being bold is much more fun and in the long run the only way to create extraordinary places.

Ouachita Rod and Gun Club Launch

Thanks to my Village Placemaking Team for helping me take the Ouachita Rod and Gun Club project from concept to startup in less than a year. Placemaking is more than just buildings; it is bringing people together to create a sense of belonging.

Create a Destination Point of View Then Create your Team – David Twiggs

Me and Bob Marley in the Foxhunting Sub-culture

Me and Bob Marley in the Foxhunting Sub-culture

One of the easiest mistakes that we make in trying to create a destination service system is taking the wrong point of view.  It must always focus on conveying the sincere and authentic culture of the region in the point of view of the target market. It is not about us except to the extent that it is our passions that are attractive to this market and we would like to maximize the socio-economic benefits of serving it.  This can be very challenging in the rural / small town setting.  While it is these traditions and lifestyles that create the potential for handmade tourism.  There can also be regional and business practices that hinder destination development.

In the South, many small town businesses and resident based communities close there doors and roll up the streets on late afternoons and evenings.  This makes servicing a destination market difficult.  To look at building destination/tourism based economic development, we must educate our business environment showing the opportunities to serve this new market.  Not only do we have to be open and available for visitors.  We have to understand that the sub-cultures and values are the reasons our visitors come.  There is a myriad of subculture activities that can be the core draw but in all cases people come to have an enjoyable time.  Enjoyment is our deliverable regardless of discipline.

My philosophy for a destination community is that if visiting, living in, and working in the community is not enjoyable; no one will care about the place.  We want everyone, visitors, residents and the workforce to enjoy every experience, activity, interaction, conversation, and perception.  We want our colleagues, coworkers and ourselves to feel they are doing meaningful work and understand how what we do is important to creating the experience and lifestyle.

To do this we must create a community of belonging for our visitors, residents and coworkers.  People want to find their tribe not simply be a tourist.  Sure the tourist experience is fun on occasion but to attract quality growth in a region that will value and protect the assets and traditions important to a place, the ultimate visitor experience is a sense of belonging that creates a protective attitude about a place.

We must create an atmosphere of personal growth and a culture of helping others.  Hedonism is a nice place to visit but we all know the rest of that phrase.  It can be fun for short periods of time but it is not a sustainable or fulfilling lifestyle.  More and more research on the hedonic treadmill theory clearly shows that the conspicuous status seeking that many destination communities marketed successfully for many years is breaking down as the prevalent value proposition for in migration decisions. The industry so permeated a calibrated idea of the American dream that the expectation of the masses was that these stereotypes would make them happy.  Now isolation is one of the top problems facing communities of all types.

Janis Joplin once said that America should be looking for sincerity and a good time.  To me that falls into my philosophy that a community must be focused on being a collection of real relationships rather than simply a defined real estate space.  The consumer and hedonistic based stereotypes are breaking down in favor of meaningful involvement and service.  That is for all the residents, visitors, and those that work in these communities.

It does not really matter what types of values your particular destination is based on as long as it is sincere to you and your target market.  One whose dream destination is the Pennsylvania Amish country probably will not be lured to move to Vegas and vise versa.

Arts, heritage, nature based, sporting, adventure, gaming, and entertainment are just a few of the many types of destinations being created.  My point is they are becoming ever more unique and celebrate individualism while promoting a specific culture.

The Town of Saluda, in the Green River region of NC, is a good example. Complementary sub-cultures centering on a natural feature, the gorge and the river in this case, spins off many opportunities.  World class whitewater kayaking is a core lifestyle activity focusing on the Narrows for the obsessed, the Upper and Lower sections for the interested and curious. Trout fishing opportunities for all levels are throughout the region.  The obsessed set the tone for the region. The interested group supports the local outfitters with instruction on quality whitewater boats, standup paddleboards and rubber kayaks.  The curious and casual supply a market on the lower section with thousands of tubers floating the river supporting several tubing outfitters and campgrounds.  Visitors here for hiking, biking, zip lines and climbing mix well with those that simply come to enjoy the natural beauty and walk the quaint streets. With this visitor base, the 5.2-acre downtown commercial core of Saluda, population 711, has the opportunity for supplying more diverse activities and support services.  General stores, organic markets, and B&B’s are prime features. Several cafes and specialty restaurants are supported. My favorite restaurant is ”The Purple Onion.” Its concept value was creating a sustainable venue for a vibrant live music scene for many local and regional musicians. To do this they created an outstanding eclectic restaurant to support this goal.   Art shops, spa services, and ice cream stores round out some of the other services.

All this is in a tight sustainable setting that seeks to protect the nature of the community and the natural resources that draw the visitors.  They put controls in place to control growth.  It was economic development but not at any cost. So far they seem to know when enough is enough and have protected the very things that make them attractive. This makes Saluda a prime example of good planning so the area reaps the benefits of a tourism / destination community economy while remaining sustainable, livable and protective of there traditions and culture.

Regardless of the original motivation of your destination, you now must base it on a set of values and specific culture.  Staying authentic and sincere to those values is vital.  At a meeting a couple years ago and I was fortunate to listen to Bert Jacobs, founder of  “Life is Good,” tell the story of he and his brother living out their van on the road while starting up their tee shirts business.  Their R&D was drawing pictures on the wall of their apartment and having friends pick a favorite at a party to be the next design.

When the brand became so popular they were looking to get financing for expansion.  The bankers said they had to bring in management consultants in order to get the loan.  The consultants laid out a tried and typical marketing plan to expand the brand but it did not fit the core values or culture.   As part of the finance structure, there was 100K to advertise the consultants plan.  Jacobs got the loan, fired the consultants and rather than follow the canned business plan; threw the largest outdoor party ever held in Boston. Now that strategy drew national attention and has morphed into huge annual fundraisers giving away millions to their community.

I tell this story because by sticking to core values, Jacobs catapulted the brand into international attention building a company that was remarkable and unique.  Could he have followed the Madison Ave marketing strategy and grew the company? Probably, but it would not likely have become the unique worldwide brand it is now.

What is exciting about the post-recession destination community industry is that there is no longer a tried and true formula for creating these destinations.  You cannot succeed being generic or average anymore.  Even if a destination community could, I would not want to waste my energy to simply churn out another cookie cutter destination.  That eventually dilutes the livability and core culture of the region.  I want to build value-based destinations that are fanatical about their unique values, passions and culture.  That’s where the fun is.

Fun yes, but also serious business. In a destination system, there are many types of businesses required and supported by the destination economy. I break these into 4 key areas:

Core Activity

Lodging

Entertainment

Provisions

There is also the normal support business: hardware, building, trades, insurance, accounting, and cleaners etc.  Sounds much like the list required to support any type of economic development.

Creating a Team

The markets visiting these destinations are doing so because of an interest in the passions of the sub-cultures.  While learning our core passion activities may have taken us years of painstaking practice, study or research; the market is simply coming for an opportunity to belong and learn.  To create the conditions for belonging, one simply has to put our passions authentically out there.  There needs be no college degree, no special certification course or credentialing to be passionate about the cultures within your area.  There is no experience level required, just passion.  These are basic human interactions done well.

If you have an area with true quality of place that has real potential to be an authentic destination community, how do you start  to realize the economic development? You must put together a team. No one is going to be passionate about creating an economic system for a destination community unless they love the area, feel the need for economic growth, and they have direct benefit from the results of the process.  There will be many others along the process that will be lukewarm.   They may be pro or con.  They may or may not understand the potential benefits or detriments.  They may only see the negatives or not see the potential negatives of uncontrolled unplanned growth. A good core team is required to overcome and these impediments.

In building your team:

  1. Go through the cataloging process to find the private entities that will most directly benefit from the area becoming more attractive to in migration.  Community associations are often major drivers that already have marketing budgets that are often being spent on much less attractive or effective ad campaigns.
  2. Build out the Core Activity, Lodging, Entertainment and Provision matrix to identify smaller partners.
  3. The private professional community often can easily donate in-kind work that is vital to the start up if they are aware of the need. Be strategic.
  4. Look at necessary governmental partnerships.  You may simply be putting feathers in their cap rather than receiving any tangible support at first. These are your partners and can be great in expediting the project but raise your initial funding privately if possible.
  5. Find resources for land planning and development policy creation early in the process.
  6. Keep the team as small as possible and prioritize.
  7. To avoid political stagnation, it may be preferable to legalize the team as an independent non-profit or L.L.C.
  8. Only bring on passionate believers in the project willing to put in the time in the short run.

Pick your point of view: that will determine your team.

Changing Destination Values

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Who wants to be treated like a tourist?  We are now faced with creating and recreating destination communities to meet a new set of values that have rapidly shifted from the prerecession model.  Perhaps it was the financial reality check that accelerated the already growing shift in values into the mainstream.  Many have shifted from seeking a tourist experience to wanting to feel belonging and experience self-discovery when we travel, invest in a second home or look for a quality place for retirement.

In 2009, Kurt Anderson began the conversation about a great reset in American values.  He and others speak of a “new frugality” that has resulted from values being shifted away from a consumption-based mentality. Conspicuous consumption has lost favor as a value proposition and is being replaced with a value for simpler honest and authentic experience.  This includes a shift away from credit-based lifestyle, which will slow our traditional metrics for economic growth.  Those metrics do not clearly recognize the vitality that can come from formally marginalized places being rediscovered and appreciated.  It doesn’t directly show the benefit of the local shops, restaurants, cafes and services being supported by a shift from corporate destination tourism to destination community based tourism patterns.

When we speak of a value shift, it begs the question “from what.” Dr. Brene Brown (brenebrown.com,) speaks of moving away from a culture where being preoccupied, over scheduled and over connected has become a status symbol and into living wholeheartedly. Technology, industrialization and automation of tasks that formally were part of basic home economics has both created a lifestyle free of what many consider preindustrial “drudgery” but it has also a disconnected us from the basic human processes of thousands of years.

In the past many experiences were designed to allow us escape into artificial environments. Now destinations should seek to bring us into a different rhythm, show us another lifestyle point of view or seek to connect us to nature and the basic systems of being human. The common denominator in this value shift to more authentic experiences is a desire for greater understanding, physical and spiritual growth and renewal. Traditional destination activities such as golf will still be an important element but we must also create spaces for adventure, meditation, and learning.  In looking at how to grow tourism or relocation in your community, don’t worry about trying to satisfy this vast array of potential interests, remember you are not trying to attract everyone, you want those visitors and new residents that appreciate the authentic culture of your community.  Be who you are.

The 1950’s began major mind shifts for the boomer generation. It could first be seen in basic home economics.  This time period held the rapid expansion of processed industrial food distribution.  Prior to this virtually all food was whole food and slow food.  While not necessarily organic, it had simpler inputs and no genetic modification.  Most meals required cooking which meant planning and most homes had at least a kitchen garden in the backyard.  Until  recently the majority of the United States population lived in a rural setting.  That is no longer the case.  The 1950’s marked a clear turning point from the valuing of the agrarian home economics and self-reliant thinking into a consumer based lifestyle ideal. A new ideal was being set for the American Dream.  Gardening and putting food by was now considered only for the poor.  The prosperous Americans bought the wonderful new prepackaged foods in the new supermarkets.

Traditional urban evolution gave way to an auto centric planning mentality. The growth of air conditioning allowed America to move inside and the personal connections made on the front porch diminished, as it was no longer the most comfortable place to be during the heat of the day.  From the 1950’s through the 1980’s, the mainstream American dream became substantially based on an auto centric, industrial food, air conditioned consumerism. Within a single generation we went from totally analog to a  digital culture, from segregated to diversity, from the local paper to the Internet, and from agrarianism to urbanism.

All these “conveniences” created a great insulator. As a nation, we were rapidly losing knowledge of the fundamentals that were basic to the generations before us.  It insulated us from the rhythms of nature. We had not the need to neither produce nor prepare our food.  It insulated us from a requirement to live a life of face-to-face connectivity. As described by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, we are losing the “craft of being a creature.”

It wasn’t simply that modern conveniences made America feel that traditional knowledge and skills we irrelevant.  Popular culture created an urban and suburban contempt for the agrarian lifestyle.  Proliferation of television created new images of the ideal lifestyle as one of ease, convenience and sophistication. The popular media portrayed the hayseed farmer, the bumpkin and other stereotypes showing ignorance of the rural class even though most Americans had much of their immediate family remaining in rural or semi-agrarian lifestyles. This was reinforced with a viewpoint of the good life consisting of Ward Cleaver and June heading off to the Country Club, Tony Nelson taking Jeannie to the Officers Club, or Thurston Howell the III getting Gilligan to help build the island golf club.  While these were designed for comic relief, they all permeated the illusion of the Norman Rockwell perfect traditional family setting down for Thanksgiving dinner or the Madison Avenue sophistication as the norm.  These juxtaposed stereotypes created both an inferiority complex and dissatisfaction with the agrarian lifestyle and a false sense of what would be a satisfying lifestyle.

Developers used this model to create early generation lifestyle destinations and rightly so.  They we simply responding to the general desires of the market as it had been conditioned.  Many of these destination developers actually did good forward thinking community planning considering general lack of sophistication in the planning worlds at the time.   These early destination communities were completely new creatures and that made them unique and attractive in themselves.  The same basic model proliferated throughout the US because the capital market and bankers understood the model.  During the last housing boom, the model accelerated with even less creativity, imagination, and quality of place.

After forty plus years of destination development: generic is no longer unique.  Status quo is unacceptable.  With the current value evolution or reset, a large segment of the baby boomer and following generations are changing their value judgment to balance modern techno bombardment with an organic connection to the natural world.  The value of access is surpassing the need for ownership.  Commonality and diversity are overtaking insular isolationism.  Paths are replacing fences. Gates are welcoming concierge stations rather than roadblocks to check you papers.  Gardens are valued as much as golf courses. The local has become the exotic.  The attraction for commoditized monoculture is being rapidly lost to the value of the unique, the individual, the handmade and extraordinary.

I personally feel the most encouraging changes come shift from consumerism to stewardship as a key personal value. “Stewardship is simply the caretaking of gifts” said Wendell Berry.  We must build our destination models on the stewardship of unique resources in order to build extraordinary places.  The loss of perceived value in the consumption of consumer products or the depletion of natural resources for our convenience has not changed universally.  It has changed dramatically for the markets we are attracting and our development practices will have to be adjusted accordingly.

Changes in Values

  • Cultural evolution from the 1950’s created a false sense of what builds a fulfilling lifestyle.
  • Destination models based on inauthentic lifestyle expectations are now experiencing a loss of relevance in the face of changing values.
  • Recent shifts in cultural values are moving away from conspicuous consumerism, hedonic and luxury based value perceptions.
  • Modern destinations must create opportunities for real connection and belonging with others,  with nature, and with the authentic quality of place to be successful.

Exploring Community: A Look at Serenbe

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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.”

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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.

Riding to Hounds: Understanding Subcultures In Community Building – David Twiggs

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Handmade community building is a people business.  It is intensely local and personal. It celebrates individualism. It draws creative types: artists and performers, athletes and philosophers, poets and farmers.  To use an intentional oxymoron, there are several categories of individuals that are involved with the destination community.  Some are your authentic homegrown tourism assets.  Others become your visitors and often your residents.  We need to understand these classifications to see how a subculture builds community.

  • The Obsessed/Wholehearted
  • The Interested
  • The Curious
  • The Casual

While all of these are important to the fabric of the community.  It is the Obsessed/ Wholehearted individuals that create the subculture. Yvonne Chounard, founder of Black Diamond Climbing and Patagonia lovingly calls the  hardcore climbing folks the “dirt bags.”  Like all the Obsessed, they will do whatever it takes to be where they can pursue their passion.  They spend their money on necessity of gear and the simple costs of getting and being there.  There are these cores in all outdoor sports.  These folks create the lore of the area.

All my wholehearted activities have always aimed for some combination of physical or spiritual growth.  Many of our passions are such because they bring us to focus on the “now” while allowing us to express the values we feel adds richness to our lives.  Much of meditation and contemplative practices bring us to an appreciation of now.  Not dwelling in the past or worrying the future.  While relaxation is part of our leisure goals we rarely want to spend all our time in a soporific state.  We more often are seeking the peak flow experience.

In my family, riding to hounds is our sporting tradition.  We enjoy many other outdoor pursuits but hunting hounds is the avocation that focuses the family energy and dictates the daily lifestyle.  We are wholehearted to be fully involved in training hounds, helping puppies be born, holding old hounds as the die of old age, walking out puppies and having it all coalesce on hunting days.

Riding to hounds is a good representative example of the authentic core developed in the obsessed/ wholehearted category.  These are the root activities that become the basis for strong subculture based tourism economies given the proper resources. These activities go beyond the generic theme park type attractions. It also goes beyond the active participants.  It is also embraced by the surrounding community and visitors curious about the lifestyle. This is recreation at its root; re-creation. These activities exist purely for the physical and spiritual benefit of the participant. These may be spectator sports but they are authentic to a true sub-culture.  These can contribute greatly to developing the authentic tourism brand. Like rock climbing, mountain biking, expedition, surfing, kayaking, fishing, equestrian or skiing, these subcultures are specialized and expect top conditions for their activity. Beyond the specialized activity, these subculture visitors require the same tourism support assets that any other activity does. They need housing, food, provisions and entertainment.  All the same elements that make living in a destination community desirable for other sub-cultures.

I will use riding to hounds as an analogy of how a relatively obscure activity adds to the tourism brand of region. While attracting locals and visitors year round for hound shows and riding out for hound exercise, the tradition peaks with the opening meet in early November.  We organize hundreds of community members  and visitors into wagons, moving them through miles of farm and forest lands.  We organized public wagons for those coming without reservations, reserved wagons for local residents and out of town visitors, corporately sponsored wagons for corporations bringing clients and employees furthering their business  opportunities.  These wagons are loaded down with picnic baskets and ice chests with the provision for a day afield.  We even have a special wagon of with bathroom facilities.

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Bringing The Community Together for Connection, Fellowship, and Joy

After the pageantry of the riders and hounds jumping into the grounds surrounded by visitors for the Blessing of the Hounds. The wagons follow a carefully designed route, stopping at preselected vistas for the mounted hunters in the traditional red coats thundering by.  The visitors sensory experience peaks as a hundred horses pass by jumping fences and galloping after pack of 50 hounds giving full voice after a scent line that we have carefully laid for the benefit of our audience.  This happens repeatedly over the course of the day as community and visitors enjoy food and cocktails on their wagons while moving through the beautiful countryside.  All this culminates just before sunset on Champagne Hill where riders, horses, hounds and visitors enjoy fellowship in the gloaming of the day before riding back to fireside barbeque.

A purist could see this as staged tourism event and they would have a point were it not for the authentic sporting culture and lifestyle that exists year round  This event is both authentic and appropriate to the tourism brand.  It is a rallying point that create community pride and belonging.

Understanding your core tourism customer is very important in natural resource / obsession activity based tourism development.  My family is a good example of the motivation and phycology of a recreational subculture.  As I write this I have just spent an entire day on horseback.  First to work on a new thoroughbred my wife has been training for me as a whip horse. Secondly the entire family rode out for one of our twice-weekly hunts on which we followed the hounds following a coyote for 50 minutes before he tired of us and tucked safely into his den.  After hacking back in, we were joined by members of the larger community for a potluck dinner.  The surrounding community proudly bring visiting family to see their hounds.

It is of no tangible value to hurl yourself and a fifteen hundred pound horse though narrow rutted trails, over ditches and fences at full gallop simply to hear the cry of the hounds. There is no trophy, we are not out to kill the fox, coyote or bobcat; nor is there a winner declared at the end of the day.  It is simply the total immersion in the “now.”  My wife who is passionate with the care, training and general happiness of the hounds calls this total focus on the “now” Kairos time or God’s Time.

Foxhunting in Time – Ashley Twiggs

Lately, the types of time keep occupying my thoughts.  Perhaps it’s because we are always so accessible, and so aware of many things other than what is right in front of us.  Or maybe it’s because my girls are growing up so fast that it really is making me stop and think.  Regardless, chronos and kairos time keep coming to mind.

Chronos is the time we live in; the real day to day time.  It is the seconds, minutes, and hours that make up our days, weeks, and years.  It’s the “how many minutes do we have till we need to be there?”  Dressed properly, tack oiled, and horses cleaned. Well, that’s questionable.  Thank goodness for our dirt colored horses.  As a mom of young riders, I naturally spend a lot of thought in chronos time.

Kairos is known as God’s time.  It’s the special glimpses in time that often pass too quickly.  It is the wrinkles in time when we are fully aware and present.  Those instances become something special.  Kairos is time outside of time; those magical moments when time seems to stand still, etched in mind.  Those are the ones we truly cherish.

Foxhunting with children certainly embodies both types.  Often, I am  caught up in the tasks of getting four people and four horses ready for the days’ hunt. It’s easy to get lost in the small details of tack, saddle pads, gloves, garters, hairnets, etc.  There are many things to check and get ready, and then on to tack up our four horses.  Chronos is when I’m late and I snap at someone to bring the right girth, to find a clean pair of riding pants, and “why are you already so dirty?” I admit that sometimes, by the time we are all finally there and on our horses,  it’s hard to “let it go” and truly enjoy the experience that I’ve been diligently preparing us for.

But when I look back on years of hunting, I remember not the chaotic moments of making it come together; but the kairos time of the best of the day.  It is the other small, but special, details.  Those are what I cherish.  When we’ve stopped on a run and I look over to see Salem’s breath in the cold air, the pink of her cheeks, and I see the excitement in her eyes.  It’s when CeCe hears the hounds in full cry and tells me she has goose bumps.  I know she understands the significance.  It’s when I was whipping in with David and I stop the hounds at the right moment.  I can still see their faces looking up at me.  Kairos is being fully present and aware, and a part of the big picture; no matter where we ride that day. 

The gift that we’re giving our girls is being able to spend a day riding to hounds and to appreciate the quiet and wild beauty of nature and sport.  They are forming their own kairos moments. Thank you, God. Kairos. Whether hunting for ourselves or with our children, we all have our kairos moments.  It’s up to us to recognize and appreciate their gift; and to be ever so grateful.

To those who participate in obsession activities, the time spent is contemplative, meditative and yet has the physiological levels of stress response that make us feel exhilarated and alive.  I have described one element of riding to hounds as a focused nature meditation which is actually having your mind and body completely tuning in on every sound smell and movement in the forest and rivers, every shift in the breeze, and even feeling the changes in barometric pressure and ionization of the air.  Each of these refining your intuition of moment.

This is what ancient cultures called being in rhythm with nature. Ancient as in before we self-incarcerated ourselves to our air-conditioned television rooms. This comes from being exposed to nature to the degree that it changes your internal rhythms.  Not being in rhythm to the clock and schedules of chronos time.  This is the meandering of your brain synapses though the collection of experiences, knowledge, and the unconsciously received signals from being in rhythm with the nature.  All this  culminating into intuition and ideas.  It is that which creates that inate “I just have a feeling about this” where we are in tune with nature, engrossed in the “now.” The contemplative part of what Ashley calls Kairos time.

But most obsession activities do not simply strive for a zen soporific state of mind. A point of commitment is crossed. Beyond this point is only instinct, intuition, physical endurance and gut reaction.   That may be that first dropping of your ski tips over the steep lip of an untried basin.  It may be digging your paddle in to spin your kayak into that technical section of water.  The physiological stress and pleasure responses start firing. Adrenaline and dopamine flow; different areas of the brain engage.

The second element to Kairos time is just beyond the Point of Commitment.  You are in a meditative state soaking in the natural rhythms, when the first hound speaks, then another, and then the entire pack smells the scent trail of a coyote, bobcat or fox.  What ensues from here I liken to a combination of a horizontal free-fall on horseback and an abandonment of self-direction to the whims of nature, geography, landscape.  This is primal joy.

Fear evaporates; you are not even cognoscente of your horse.  You flow through the countryside instinctively picking your path based on the sound of the running pack.  On lucky occasions, you are blessed to run amongst the hounds galloping with the coyote in sight ahead of you but never knowing where the next direction may be.  It is not about what you want.  There is nothing under your control.  You are blessed to be a spectator of an ancient play.  The actors are the natural instincts and physicality of the animals and they have been playing out this scene for millennia. The coyote’s superior knowledge of his home area and the hounds drive to follow the scent. I have followed them on circle after circle in one square mile before the coyote ducks back into one of his dens.  I also have followed them on a 14 mile points never making a turn.  When that first hounds speaks, we know not what direction we may go, what duration we may run nor what obstacles we may encounter. We humans are not necessary to the play.   It is this state of flow that motivates the Obsessed / Wholehearted to create the lifestyle that draws others.

When my family decided to move to this region, we chose to live in an area where riding to hounds shared space with other complimentary subcultures that were also important in the lifestyle of the region.  In our hunting country, we coexist with golf, housing, shooting sports, farms, and a small airport.  The combination of all these activities created a diverse engaged community. The branding brings high quality visitors from throughout the United States and Canada.  These visitors bring a large lodging, rental and second home market with them as well as additional business for area retailers and restaurants.  Many of these visitors now consider the region their second home.  There is a diverse authentic lifestyle that creates the culture of the community.

When developing a destination community, having conditions that attract and engage the obsessed and wholehearted will attract the Interested, the Curious and the Casual. Where I say Riding to Hounds, insert your own combination of activities.  Sporting Clays, Golf, Trail Running, Paddling or any flow inducing activity conducive to place. Any activity that authentically fits into the nature of your landscape to create those unique lifestyle opportunities will help you create a more diverse destination community.