A sense of community

by Rob Hartgers

Researchers and real estate experts are still undecided: are master-planned communities places where groups lock themselves away from the real world, or do they answer people’s need for a place where they can feel at home? One thing is certain: there are more and more of them. ‚The development industry now realises taht communities are a viable option.‘

Coffee shop Sherlock’s sponsors a ‘Teen Mic Nite’ where local teens can come together to share their musical talent. Participants in the annual 4th of July Parade are invited to come to the Water Tower Place to decorate their bikes. New Resident ID-cards will be issued to owners and renters. ‘Monitors will not only ask to see your ID card at the pools, but also at basketball courts, tennis courts and parks. This card will also serve as your proof of residency for any resident-only events.’

This information comes from the monthly newsletter for the residents of Celebration, Florida. The 4.900 acres (20m2) of Celebration directly border Disney World. The area was developed by the real estate branch of The Walt Disney Company in the early 1990s and remains to this day one of the best-known examples of a ‘master-planned community’. Celebration’s 9.000 residents are only a 15-minute drive removed from Cinderella’s Castle, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Celebration is ‘unincorporated’, meaning that it does not have the legal status of a city, town or village. In 2004, the Disney Company ceded control of the area. It is now administered by its residents and by commercial landowners, who are organized in several owners’ associations that are represented in a governing body called the ‘Joint Committee’. Just like a local government in an incorporated area, the Joint Committee is responsible for public amenities and safety.

Emancipation of Consumers.
In discussions about planned communities Celebration is a recurring reference point. To some, it represents a nightmarish vision of a future in which the well-to-do retreat into ever more controlled, ever more privatized residential environments. To others, it is a prime example of the emancipation of consumers, and of the trend towards the development of communities that offer a sense of belonging that is absent from most suburbs and inner cities.

Pieter van Wesemael, professor of Architectural Design and Urban Cultures at Eindhoven University of Technology and partner at Dutch consultancy firm Inbo, belongs to the latter group. ‘The way in which American developers combine high quality architecture, high quality urban development, community building, lifestyle and sales within a commercial context is inspiring’, he says. ‘Europeans tend to draw an unfair caricature of American area development, concentrated around moralistic misrepresentations of gated communities.’ Van Wesemael distinguishes between two traditions in community planning: ‘There is the European tradition, dating back to the nineteenth century and most strongly manifested in Scandinavia, of people with a shared ideology or profession who decide to live together. American communities are a more recent phenomenon. The motivation is usually not ideological, but pragmatic and financial. Since residents of a planned community are responsible for their own living environment, the value of the property is believed to be quite stable. In that regard, the growing popularity of planned communities can also be seen as a response to urban decay. People flock to communities to escape the downsides of the American Dream.’

Tipping Point.
As a director of town planning with Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, Tom Low has been designing planned communities for the past 19 years. Duany Plater-Zyberk is most famous for Seaside, an unincorporated master-planned community in Florida, often cited as the first of its kind and hailed by Time magazine as ‘the most astounding design achievement of its era’. In the early days of his career, Low spent a lot of time defending himself against critics. ‘It was the first generation of planned communities’, he says. ‘They still had to mature and we needed to get some of the bugs out. Five or six years ago there was a tipping point. People started to understand and appreciate how a community works. The development industry now realizes that communities are a viable option.’ For Low, Seaside and other newly designed areas are only part of the spectrum of planned communities. One-third of the projects he was involved in were situated in existing neighborhoods. ‘For a long time, urban expansion in the US meant pioneering into the greenfield’, he says. ‘Recently, things started to change. We are returning to the ideal of the compact city and are trying to find out how we can improve the existing cities.’

Clear Boundaries.
German-Italian architect Christian Kohl speaks with pride of Kirchsteigfeld, a residential development in the German city of Potsdam, southwest of Berlin. Together with Luxembourgian architect Rob Krier, Kohl designed a master plan for a multifunctional city district with 2.500 apartments, a central market square with office and retail space and a church. The project was completed in 1997. ‘It is the only district in Potsdam that is free of graffiti’, boasts Kohl. ‘That shows that the people of Kirchsteigfeld feel responsible for their living environment. This development was the first of its kind in Potsdam, which used to be part of East Germany. You have to understand that these people just came out of 30 years of communism. Almost two generations without any experience with ownership, yet they immediately, almost instinctively understood how the neighborhood “works” and what it means to live in a community. To me, it proves that you can stimulate social cohesion through architectural design.’

Kohl is a firm believer in the continental tradition of tightly knit, compact neighborhoods. He gets his inspiration from pre-modern urban designs, going back as far as the walled and moated cities of the Middle Ages. ‘People don’t want to live in anonymous neighborhoods without any clear boundaries’, claims Kohl. ‘They want a place that offers them a sense of belonging and possibilities of self-fulfillment. In medieval times, the walls protected those living within them from the dangers of the outside world. Those historic inner cities still feel like safe havens. You sense it the moment you pass the gates. The enemies outside the gate have been replaced by the challenges of modern life. The social fabric that used to keep communities together is wearing away. Individualism, fueled by demographics and technological inventions, threatens social cohesion.’

Kohl thinks the solution to our modern woes lies in the past. Together with Krier he promotes a return to traditional street plans and an emphasis on urban space. ‘Emotionally, we are not as far removed from the Middle Ages as we may think’, he says.

‚Carceral‘ State.
Both Kohl and Low are associated with New Urbanism, an urban design movement that started in the late 1970s. Rob Krier, his brother Leon, and Andrés Duany are among the most prominent theorists of the movement. New Urbanists advocate a return to historical model of the European city. The ‘charter’ of the Congress for New Urbanism calls for ‘the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban spaces should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.’

Not all communities are designed according to the rules of New Urbanism. Neither are all New Urbanist developments communities. In the US, a community can be anything from an unincorporated, master-planned development like Celebration or Seaside, to a lifestyle community situated around a golf course or a marina, or even a ‘security zone community’ created by traffic barricades within an existing urban area. Critics like the researcher Edward J. Blakely warn that the rise of gated communities may destroy rather than improve social cohesion, and may eventually transform the US into a ‘carceral state’ (a state modeled on the idea of a prison).

Kohl is quick to point out that he is ‘not inspired’ by American examples: ‘In the US, New Urbanism has a social and political background. Architecture is hardly part of the discussion. In Europe, it is the other way around.’ Low also turns to Europe and the ‘compactness of European geography’ for inspiration. Like Kohl, he believes in creating a community through architectural design and urban planning, rather than through experiments with self-governance. Low: ‘Privately run towns run the risk of becoming squeaky clean.’ Low feels that social diversity is crucial for a successful neighborhood: ‘there has to be diversity on all levels. If you create homogeneous blocks you may have diversity on the scale of the neighborhood, but that’s just statistics. People will still be terrified of each other. That is why we use the mixed form as a template. We do a lot of up-front work with clients to try to ensure a mixed-use area.’

Van Wesemael says developers, investors, and urban planners should learn from both the European and the American traditions. ‘We should try to translate these examples and trends to local contexts. That way we can create living environments that suit the needs of residents, and leave room for personal involvement. A community challenges people to regain control over their life and their living environment.’

from: STATEMENT – Magazine on real estate development – ING REAL ESTATE – Autum 2008, # 16 Oktober 2008.

picture: H. G. Esch