Moving Toward Community: Creative Community-Centric Architecture and Planning

Creative Planning and Architecture is Best Achieved through Collaboration

The homebuilding industry today is missing out on a tremendous opportunity. Sure, houses are sold every day, but what people really crave are creative communities with design and architecture that tell a compelling story. Subdivisions have houses, but great communities have homes on walkable streets, neighbors who know one another, and a coffee shop with a barista who remembers your name. Today’s buyers place more importance on community amenities now than perhaps ever before, and developers, architects, and municipalities must unite to respond to this changing market.

My main concern for us all is how we respond to the changing realities of land development and creative design and architecture. What is coming to light now is that our industry has not focused on providing land plans that speak to the needs of current homebuyers and their need for a creative community. Today’s projects have so many stakeholders, often with competing interests. The likelihood for success is exponential when we can get everyone involved and invested early in the creative planning process through visioning sessions and charrettes. The sooner we invite these stakeholders into the process, the sooner we create great communities, and the sooner a new generation of homebuyers can become interested in new homes instead of resale.

The things that helped us get to our current level of success are the same things that keep us from getting to the next level of success. While we’d like to think there is an eternal formula for success, we all know that isn’t true. You can’t keep doing the same things and expect different results. Today’s buyers are not just looking for an investment; they are looking for a home in a creative community – and a community is more than just a duplication of the ubiquitous suburban model. The building industry must evolve to meet the changing needs of today’s (and tomorrow’s) buyers.

Cultural Creatives

Who are these buyers? They are the people that sociologist Dr. Paul H. Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson have  identified as “cultural creatives.” Cultural creatives are the percentage of the buying market that most new home builders are missing. That’s right: the majority of builders today market to a fraction of the buyers. The great thing about cultural creatives is that they transcend traditional demographic lines. A cultural creative is not a demographic – it’s a psychographic. They are aligned based on values, wants, and needs. Cultural creatives can be 20 years old or 70 years old. They are socially conscious, well-read, and well-informed. They care about cultural infrastructure, the arts, and politics. Values and quality of life issues dictate their behavior; the values of these buyers drive their decision-making more than their concern about checking the box of a traditional station in life. The result is that these buyers see the disconnect between typical planning and architecture a mile away, and it doesn’t inspire them. What inspires these people to buy is a sense of place, an authentic story, a strong identity, cultural infrastructure, and the sound fundamentals of a neighborhood responding to its surroundings through creative planning, design, and architecture.

Cultural creatives are people who are willing to trade on the established ideas of luxury and privacy to get more of what they want. They will choose to live in a well-designed smaller house on a smaller lot in a great location or thriving community. This cohort fits the buyer profile for agrihoods, traditional neighborhood development, and unique projects in locations ranging from rural to quasi-urban. And in the end, these people are great homeowners and neighbors who make up a lot of the resale market. New homes simply do not inspire them! They would rather live in a fixer-upper in a neighborhood with established charm, character, and tree-lined streets than attempt to live on a barren cul-de-sac where they have to press their garage door opener and wait to see which garage opens to find out which house is theirs. But with a little work, we can tap into this segment of new homebuyers. The bad news for the building industry is that a great house isn’t good enough; the good news for builders is that a good house in a good community is.

The critical point that people in our industry tend to forget is that first-time buyers may not have a lot of money, but they still have taste. The homogeneous lot-and-block solutions are obsolete. Great communities can borrow (and in some cases, steal wholesale) tried-and-true elements of well-known successful communities. And they are not focused on product or lot size; they are focused on how people will use spaces, within the home and outside in the community. 

A New Model for Success

The mainstream process of developing a land plan and then developing architecture to conform to a land plan results in the kind of ubiquitous, bland solutions inherent to a typical suburban solution. Our industry has learned to produce houses as a product very, very well. We have spent an inordinate amount of time researching, attending conferences, and speaking about residential architecture and how to create solutions that sell. We have not done a great job of providing land plans that speak to the needs of buyers and communities. We need to evolve the model if we want to stay competitive and attract new buyers. This new model begins with a story and a vision, followed by the evolution of the land plan, creative design and architecture, meaningful open spaces, the Red Bench, and the Third Place element, as described in Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place.

The vision and story-telling aspect of the new building model might sound like blue-sky jargon, but it is really quite simple and logical. All we have to do is take the basic premise of due diligence and apply creativity. We can extrapolate the significance of a site and, through better planning, create an alignment with the goals of the project. I am not suggesting that anyone fabricate a story of the land like something out of Disneyland; I am suggesting we do the research and unearth true stories or regional significance about the land we build on. Every parcel, every town, every region has a story. And by discovering it early in a project, the entire project team and all stakeholders can rally around the vision. The story is authentic; it can be carried through from the community’s name to the layout of the roads, the design of the signage, and finally the architecture.

A community’s name should not be chosen arbitrarily. We don’t have to patronize buyers by calling their community or home something it’s not or naming it after the amenity that was destroyed in order to build the community. (How many times have you seen a project called something like “Oak Meadow Estates,” but the homes were built on the meadow, there’s not an oak in sight, and the lots are 40 feet wide?) Many of today’s buyers are champions of Sarah Susanka’s “not so big” theory, either consciously or subconsciously. They’re not looking for an estate or a McMansion; they’re looking for a bungalow, cottage, row home, brownstone, townhome, loft, or flat with character and authentic feel. Today’s industry professionals must consider these real issues if they want to capture this alienated share of the buying market.

Silos and Baskets

Our industry has the tendency to isolate its creative resources into separate silos – containers of resources and talent that do not touch at any point. These silos are very tall, very deep, and very strong, but they stand alone. Even so-called multidisciplinary firms have these silos within them – they’re called departments. In the typical multidisciplinary planning and architecture firm, you may find the land planning department, the landscape architecture department, the design department, and the drafting department. This compartmentalized corporate structure emphasizes individual abilities only. Despite the fact that each silo can have an amazing amount of talent, the talents never collaborate.

More firms should consider a studio environment, which is a community of design professionals. A studio environment operates more like a basket filled with spheres of talent. As the basket is jostled around, the spheres rub against each other, touching a variety of other talents and generating creative sparks and tension. The studio environment allows concepts to develop with the full knowledge that the planning and architecture process has changed dramatically. We need architecture and land plans to be closely-knit. Higher-density solutions work best when there is an understanding of architecture, and vice-versa. It’s a balanced neighborhood approach that must place equal weight on the land plan and the architecture. This can’t be done without collaboration.

Creating Community 

Part of the cultural need for community is being addressed with the re-emergence of the front porch on many of today’s homes, along with alley-load garages. This combination emphasizes living in the front of the house instead of at the back of the house, away from the neighborhood. There is a definite desire in today’s communities to move away from the trend of cloistered enclaves of exclusivity to a more connected, integrated community environment.

One of the constituents of the balanced neighborhood approach is what we call the Red Bench. The Red Bench is a community icon – a meeting place that is known without a geographic coordinate. Instead of telling a neighbor, “Meet me at the corner of Maple and Main,” a resident might say, “Meet me at the Red Bench.” It’s a place where people can gather, use as a jumping off point, or run into each other serendipitously – and it’s not necessarily a programmed space. It’s imagination space, or meaningful open space. It’s not only a place to meet but also a destination in itself. It can be a fountain in a park, an antique light post, or a wide spot in the path with a trellis and some potted plants. The spaces that come to mind as you ponder this concept are probably unprogrammed spaces you have encountered over the years. You might think of that special orchard that you played in as a child or the field that had the tall grass. These unprogrammed spaces evolved into Red Benches over time, and we have found that by thinking creatively about the spaces we design, we can speed up the evolution process and plan for Red Benches to appear intentionally in the communities we create.

Another aspect of the balanced neighborhood approach is creating what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls the Third Place. The Third Place is the place you go apart from home and work. It’s a place where people can relax in good company on a regular basis. It represents the essence of community, and it’s something that our industry, until now, has just about designed out of existence by using every available square foot of land for housing or other structures. The need for the Third Place has emerged over the last generation because it’s been taken out of society. In previous generations, there would be time at the start of the workday and start of the home life at night to congregate with friends and neighbors. The local Starbucks is the new living room of today’s communities. Have you ever noticed how much people-watching goes on at your local Starbucks and how many connections people make? Look around next time you stop in for a latte. People need human connection, and people need a Third Place to make those connections apart from the given work and home locales. Ray Oldenburg posits that all you have to do is provide unprogrammed open space to create the Third Place (no Starbucks required).

Start Your Engines

We have all the right resources within reach to get the job done well right now. All that needs to change is our creative plan of attack. We need to get out of the tall, individual silos, and into that basket with many talented spheres rolling around in it, bumping into each other. Don’t be afraid of creative tension! Disagreement and challenge are much-needed parts of the creative process.

By changing our approach to community planning, we get the opportunity to learn what needs to go into the design. By responding to the community, we offer respect to everyone involved in the project. By extension, builders demonstrate that they have responded to the buyer’s needs. We win back the trust, loyalty, and commitment of those who have been fleeing from every other type of developed community our industry has been building. The intangible, natural soul of a community is restored. I can tell you from experience that if you take the time to do this, people will seek you out. And your well-built, well-designed, and contextually responsive product will sell itself on the merits of the space it occupies and the story it tells.

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Jeffrey DeMure + Associates Architects Planners is an award-winning architecture firm in Roseville, CA. To start your project or learn more about the firm, click here.



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