High on my list of must-read columnists is James Surowiecki of The New Yorker. His “Twilight of the Brands” piece in the February 17-24 edition provides a good example of how he takes apart outworn axioms of business success, then, from the wreckage, assembles a model better suited for the here and now.
Steve Mouzon’s much anticipated new book, New Media for Designers + Builders, releases today. This groovy user-intensive e-book is a road map for revising the marketing efforts of the design and construction community. The premise: Tired marketing budgets are antiquated and out of step with a post-recession world where values have shifted towards authenticity and frugality. The book is a how-to manual to jump start design-related social media savvy. It’s not just about starting a conversation and sharing ideas with your potential customers, but also about learning from the collective design community voice. Not for the love of the contract, but for the love of the conversation.
Last week I spent some time in the mountains of southern Virginia visiting my folks. That’s something I not only enjoy but find productive as well, as it affords me opportunity to further explain exactly what it is I do for a living.
For some reason, “telling the story of community placemaking” still leaves them scratching their heads.
No worries. Over the years I’ve found it effective to wait for an in — spending time talking about things of interest to them, then seizing serendipitous moments to tie the subject at hand back to something I’m working on.
Okay, so the headline here is a semi-inside joke. Last week, on vacation in Rosemary Beach on the Florida panhandle, I Facebooked a photo of the town’s Main Street, together with this comment:
The idea that a traditionally-planned community is somehow “fake” reflects a particular American pathology: the belief that incompetence is akin to authenticity. Or maybe we just prefer ‘keepin’ it real’ in the strip mall parking lot.
“Don’t dance, drink, smoke or chew, or go with girls who do.”
If you grew up in the south, it’s a good bet you’ve heard this one before. In short, reputation is a precious thing. You may show up in church in your Sunday best but, if your actions every other day paint a different picture then, well, that’s the impression that sticks.
Actions, especially over time, speak the loudest.
I’ve always found this reality fascinating in the aggregate. That is, what happens when all these people of countless reputations start living together, making the day-in-day-out decisions that add up to community? Reputation then transcends the actions of any one individual and comes to reflect collective actions, which no one person controls.
Leveraging your Town Center for Economic Development
So far, this series has taken on three of the essential components of a healthy walkable town center: hotels, retail and multi-family residential. But, traditionally, our town centers were not simply a collection of residences and shops. They formed the commercial and civic centers of our towns and cities — an economic development engine that attracted the industries that gave all those homes and shops a reason (and means) for existing in the first place. Of course — and you know the story — as we moved into the suburbs in the post WWII era, we placed our offices into “office parks” in our campaign to separate the activities of our daily lives and reconnect them through compulsory car trips.
Over a decade ago Andrés Duany of DPZ taught me that, more times than not, NIMBY opposition stems from a sense that proposed development is not of equal or greater value to what would be lost.
Residences: An Obvious Ingredient
One obvious yet undervalued ingredient of an effective mixed-use town center is the residential component. To emphasize its importance, I would go as far as to say that it is actually the substrate on which a healthy mixed-use environment is based. In a healthy, balanced region, with the exception of noxious uses, no land uses are set aside as a single use and all are integrated into a walkable neighborhood.
Shops: Everybody Wants ‘Em
Last week we started this series off with Hotels, a sometimes overlooked, value-adding addition to a walkable town center. This week we are looking at one of the essential ingredients of a town center: the retail shops. The retail component of a town center is the most visible component, often defining the character and pedigree of a place. It is also the biggest generator of traffic, an attractor of street life and pedestrian activity, and value-adding convenience for neighboring office workers and residents. But where it gets into trouble is the fact that successful retail spells m-o-n-e-y. It makes bucks for the developers and operators, it is often a key line item on municipal tax roles, and it can bring great value to surrounding neighborhoods. But the problem is that while everybody wants ‘em, there is only so much to go around.
While walkable mixed use town centers may not be the *easy* choice for the asphalt guy, the engineer, or even the developer who has to attract tenants to an environment they may not be as used to… they are certainly becoming best practices for sustainable community development. More importantly, they are quickly becoming a market favorite and a valuable amenity to their adjacent (and integrated) residential neighborhoods. Too often, however, municipalities and developers choose only to commit to this model halfway, viewing it as a niche market with limited potential where quaint mom and pops struggle away (you know, that one-off new urbanist development at the edge of town), while the “real stuff” happens in large conventional single-use centers down the street.
This lack of commitment allows many of the essential ingredients of a successful walkable town center to get sucked into car-focused single-use centers (the easy place to put them) so that everyone can make excuses as to why the poor mixed use village struggles and we still have to do the conventional stuff until oil hits $10 a gallon.