The Challenges of Creating Authentic Communities

Creative thinking and detailed research are crucial for effective community planning

By Patrick S. Duffy

While traveling recently in the South American city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, I spent an afternoon walking around the city’s newest and most glittering neighborhood called Puerto Madero. Widely considered a huge success given its rather rapid redevelopment from decaying, urban wasteland to high-rise utopia in under 15 years, I couldn’t help but notice the complete lack of people walking among its perfect sidewalks, sitting outside its attractive restaurants or driving along its manicured streets.

It felt like an early morning at Disneyland before the park opens, and yet just two blocks away alongside the 865-acre ecologic reserve (built on the remains of a failed real estate redevelopment project), there were people strolling, skating and cycling while stopping to snack at the multiple food stands dotting the wide sidewalk. As I looked at this stark contrast between this seemingly perfect yet sterile Land of Oz and the disorganized yet lively scene just blocks away, one important question emerged: How does one create authenticity from nothing?

In the case of Puerto Madero, this sterility is apparently just what the residents, office tenants, restaurants and retail stores wanted. Desiring to be close to but not in the middle of the big-city chaos which surrounds it on three sides, its residents are mostly foreigners, businesspeople or Argentine natives with higher incomes who can afford the (relatively cheap) luxury lifestyle. Yet for the casual observer who visits the city precisely for the unique European-Latin American mix which makes Buenos Aires a tourist favorite, Puerto Madero stands out as an EveryCity which could be anywhere. It is basically a compound for the moneyed class.

So if Puerto Madero is a deliberate exception to the rule of community planning, the tricky challenge for land planners and developers is to create something from nothing that feels both organic and authentic. According to industry veteran Randal Jackson, president of PlaceWorks (a leading planning, design and environmental firm based in California), and Chair of the Orange County/Inland Empire chapter of ULI, potential problems often start with a market study which calls for great specificity in product design, yet fails to consider neighborhood character and fit.

Consequently, although a typical market study might include many data points on the existing resale market which surrounds it for purposes of pricing and positioning, it rarely includes detailed commentary on qualitative attributes such as community history, architecture and character. Early in my own career, I used to include this commentary in my reports, but was quickly told that most clients were mostly interested in the pricing and absorption summary, which would tell them whether or not their projects would be financially successful.

At PlaceWorks, they take a different approach. Explains Jackson, “When we work on a project, we take a lot of time upfront to understand the surroundings, and instead of separating them out, we inventory those things which create a great community.” This inventory usually includes looking out three to four miles from the subject site to identify the parks, schools and shopping centers serving the area. Jackson calls this “being a partner to the community,” and within a mile radius, the inventory gets even more detailed, focusing more on the primary gathering areas, whether it’s a church, a pub a restaurant or even a museum.

In order to get new projects to adhere to neighborhood character, PlaceWorks also looks at the existing green cover, even researching the age of the trees and the species. Moreover, if there’s a great park or school within a quarter-mile of the subject site, providing safe and clean access to them can negate the need for an on-site clubhouse, saving money while also freeing up valuable land for other uses. Dubbed ‘virtual amenity tracking,’ Jackson adds that such details can help develop great stories to be included as part of the sales package to investors, lenders and residents.

So how do you get new residents and visitors to mingle once they’re in the community? Jackson says it’s about flipping what’s traditionally hidden onto the street to make the development more interesting at a human scale. This could mean having the work-out room or pool for an urban multi-family project facing the street to including color and form standards from the surrounding area into the building design. For individual homes, swapping what is traditionally in a backyard onto the front – such as a BBQ or a patio area – can immediately spark new friendships in the newest of communities, creating its own type of authenticity in the process.

Patrick S. Duffy is a Principal with MetroIntelligence Real Estate Advisors, authors The Housing Chronicles Blog, and contributes to BuilderBytes. He may be reached at pduffy@metrointel.com
or at
310-666-8288.

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