A Placemaking Journal

Unplug! Accommodating Our Need to Escape Each Other

Sense of community. It’s been a rallying cry of New Urbanists since the beginning and for good reason. For years leading up to the birth of the neo-traditionalists, it didn’t take much effort to realize that our surroundings had changed—a lot—and not for the better.

Our neighborhoods—subdivisions, really—were isolating us from each other and from the things we needed to get done. Despite the ample comforts we’d developed to help mitigate the separation, that’s simply not a good recipe for human productivity, much less fulfillment.

There was a hole to be filled, and the distinctly market-based New Urbanists stepped in to fill it.

We approached the job with an almost evangelical fervor. Without question, those looking for greater connection to their communities—estimated at somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of homebuyers—were a deeply under-served market hungry for something better. Something meaningful.

So what did we serve them? Well, together with decidedly better neighborhoods, we also dished up a whole lot of hyperbole.

Forget heaven. Nirvana is achieved in Kissimmee.

Though probably never stated exactly this way, the first wave of New Urban sales claims were akin to a cure-all—traditional urban neighborhoods create community—and, perhaps not surprisingly with the benefit of hindsight, it didn’t take too long before such overblown promises became the source of well-founded criticism.

We took an early beating because we oversold the product. But that’s not uncommon with exciting, seemingly new things and, by the early part of the new century, a second wave of new urban marketing had emerged in its place. I recall attending a New Partners for Smart Growth session where developer Joe Duckworth laid out the truth of the matter: New Urban design doesn’t create community, he said, and we need to stop claiming it does. However, for those socially inclined and yearning to connect with others, it does make it a whole lot easier. And, for what may be half the market or more, that’s still pretty compelling.

People are social creatures and traditional urbanism fosters that. Bam. Go sell. But now here we are, ten years later, and I submit we’re still a little off.

It’s time for the third wave.

Complexity reduction

To understand the challenges ahead of us, it’s necessary to take a look back at why we fled the cities to begin with. There’s little argument that we were served up all kinds of Federally-driven inducements to do so—summarized beautifully in David Wilen’s series for Capitalism Magazine—but that’s not really what I’m getting at.

Incentives need to connect with something. To satisfy unmet desires. And for post-WWII Americans living in cramped, deteriorating cities recently emerged from the Great Depression, those desires had a lot to do with leaving it all behind and starting fresh.

Me and Dad, retreating. Circa 1969.

A place to call our own. To be in control. To retreat.

Granted, we ultimately took the suburban promise of independence and personal space to some pretty ridiculous—and dysfunctional—extremes but, in attempting to correct them, we’ve since made the mistake of confusing the need with the manner in which we satisfied it.

Simply put, sometimes the last thing we want to do is experience another person. And that’s okay.

Very few (perhaps none) of us are on all the time. At times, we do need to pull back, to be alone or with intimate gatherings of carefully chosen people.

Community, for all its benefits, is a tiring endeavor. But that’s a hard thing to consider when the larger conversation, one often taking place here on PlaceShakers as well, is focused on all the measurable ways urbanism can help us solve our problems—from the environmental to the economic to the social.

In that realm, the rallying cry is “what gets measured, gets done.” But when it comes to the nebulous drivers of human fulfillment, it more often plays out as “what gets measured, gets dumb” because it applies analytical thinking to things that are innately emotional.

It misses the point of what we need to be happy.

Kaid Benfield takes a step in the right direction with this post on the NRDC Switchboard yesterday. In a nutshell, he’s pushing that design matters and we need to start acknowledging the connections between the quality of the details and the manner in which people operate and find fulfillment within their environments.

It marks the amping up of design in the larger Smart Growth discussion and that’s encouraging, but it still dwells largely on what’s happening outside—the ways in which the pieces relate to and interact with each other. And that’s where, marketing-wise, the new hole is.

Leave me alone, by design.

Between hordes of downsizing, empty-nesting Boomers and their equally numerous, city-loving children now coming of age, all the demographic indicators point to robust demand for urban living in the coming decades. They’re drawn to the convenience, the cultural amenities, the health benefits, the action and, yes, the easy connection to others. But when they’ve had their fill of that—and it happens to everyone, often daily—the only urban amenity they’ll be looking for is a good place to hide. Be it in the form of a backyard retreat, a lush, intimate courtyard, a modest balcony, a cozy reading nook a la Sarah Susanka, or any of the countless other endearing places people choose to hide away, they’ll need it.

So to those looking to capture the real estate markets of the new economy, remember this: Community is very appealing but our urban adventure doesn’t end there. It also requires better private space. Not necessarily more, or larger, or extravagantly pimped out. Just better.

Bam. Now engage a designer and go sell.

–Scott Doyon

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