Saturday, August 20, 2011

Craving Community: In all its imperfect forms

I bought this pottery mug YEARS ago on Galiano Island at a quaint potter's cottage. To this day I remember following the rustic hand-painted wooden sign nailed to a tree down a windy gravel road to the cottage where the artist lived and worked. I love it and hope I never break it. I was in university at the time and this mug is one I have always reached for when cherishing a quiet morning with good coffee and a good read, whether that be the Sunday New York Times or a good book, like this morning.

This morning I finished reading Craving Community: The New American Dream by Todd Mansfield,
Ross Yockey and his daughter Beth Yockey. Mansfield was President of Disney's Celebration Company for years, and also with DMB, the famed development company behind iconic Verrado and DC Ranch in Phoenix. The Yockeys are from the Seattle area and have a lot of experience with successful planned communities there including Issaquah Highlands and Northwest Landing. So as you'd expect, these oft written about communities feature heavily in this very thoughtful review of community life in America today.

Their book was great. Part memoir, part a historical review of planned community development and all its pitfalls and challenges, and part sociological journey. Those in the business will enjoy the familiar references. I loved the metaphors of "community" throughout. The greenways where annual picnics occur. The community intranets where babysitting services are shared. The "pioneering" ideas that today are the price of entry, like free WIFI in public parks and gathering spaces. But most of all I loved the chapter called "Technicolor Dreaming" and how it bravely addressed the notion of diversity in planned communities.

The authors interviewed residents in many communities about who lives there with them. The conclusion? Most said they wished there was more diversity, and not just ethnic, but people of different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. And most realized this would not be the case in planned communities as we typically know them today, because as these places to live became less affordable, they became closed to all but those who share the same economic status ... and that makes them less, not more, diverse.

While there are divergent opinions on this idea, those presented by the authors are firmly planted in the camp that more diversity is better, is more authentic and is sustainable longer term. We all start somewhere, and are at one time in our lives that young person or couple stretching to afford a home in one of these great places to live. And at the other end of it, we all become those older people who eventually need more care and have less income. The point this book makes is that communities today are not protecting against the sameness that limits this.

Seems like a HUGE white space to me, for developers and builders who can create community in all its imperfect forms, in a more inclusive and authentic way. Just like the great neighborhoods of old, where the old lady with the cat lived next door to the single mom with two kids, who lived across the street from the large Italian family, and down the block from the working professional couple with no kids and a dog.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

It all comes down to space

I love this photo. It's from a planning workshop I participated in today for a new community we are creating called Waterset in Tampa, Florida. We've looked at and re-worked land plans on this site for the past number of years while waiting for the right time to bring this new community to market. Small scale land plans. Large scale land plans. Different configurations of the same land plan. Color ones. And others in black and white.

We've studied the product mix and changed it to evolve with changing buyer needs, re-re-re-drawing the land plan based on what the market and buyer research told us. All the while, we had assumed the siting of homes on one of the main connector streets, adjacent to what could be either model homes or potentially builder spec homes. All the while, assuming the houses lined up a certain way along the block.

It wasn't until today, when our team of architects and planners gave us the to scale model and little wooden houses that new ways of looking at this piece of land we've studied over and over emerged. The simple "tweak" of a few homes creates a special place at the end of a block. This creates a special view and sight lines that make what we've been working on without it all make sense.

Just like back in the day when much of my time was spent creating marketing collateral and I would make myself a smaller scale paper mock-up (hand-folded and held together by simple staples most often) before I wrote a word of the copy, today I was reminded again about the power of space, and the things we can see when we play with real models in the physical world.