It should surprise no one that the Great Recession would mark the threshold of a new era in real estate development, an industry that suffered some of the downturn's most severe effects. And while the contours of any new era take time to discern, in the field of master planned communities, a salient theme has emerged: connectivity.
Post-recession home buyers value digital connectivity, of course, but they are equally interested in connections of a more literal sort—with community, between home and work, across generations, and with the natural environment. Developers and builders attuned to this shift are responding with master planned communities that represent a significant step in the evolution of the species.
In an era that prizes authenticity, they make a convincing case for the proposition that a planned community can become a real community.
Connected master planned communities differ from their forebears most obviously in their infrastructure, which is designed for walkability, bikeability, and convenient access to work, shopping, and transportation links.
"Everything is pointing to the fact that we want to make fewer car trips a day," says Eric Osth, managing principal at Pittsburgh-based planning firm Urban Design Associates. "We want to maximize our time. If you can bike to work, you can get your exercise while you're commuting. If you can do some errands along the way, you can do even more than that."
In its master plans, Osth's firm observes "the 5-minute rule"—putting shopping, schools, and outdoor recreation within walking or biking distance—while also opening two-way links to the region beyond. "Direct connections to work and comfortable connections for pedestrians are what make cities work," says Osth, who applies the same planning paradigm to suburban and exurban settings in the form of denser, alley-loaded plans, mixed-use development, and an integrated variety of housing types.
It takes a relatively large community to support a significant commercial component, Osth says, but smaller infill developments can accomplish a similar result by linking to existing amenities and services nearby. "There are these principles that you can build into a little pocket neighborhood as small as 20 to 25 units," he says. "They have to do with making complete places that feel connected to the community around them, and also to the community within."
The shift in emphasis from the private domain of house and yard toward the public realm has been advancing since the 1980s, led by New Urbanist towns like Seaside and Celebration, both in Florida. "Seaside was the Petri dish," Osth says. "Before that, you were selling either views or golf. What Seaside did was [establish the value of] new communities and urbanism. Then Celebration took those values to the mass market. It helped builders understand how to actually build a town."
The approach continues to gain acceptance in the marketplace, says real estate industry consultant Ken Perlman. "There's this movement toward balance. The most successful new communities are the ones that offer not only a great house, but also a great place to live. The built amenities are still there, but it's also about experiences."
Perlman points to Willowsford, a successful Northern Virginia planned community centered on a functioning organic farm. "There's this interaction with nature, with healthy eating, with sustainability," he says. "The communities that are successful are creating these kinds of amenities to get people to interact with each other."
Osth notes that exactly how "a community becomes a real place is something that evolves over time." But programs that foster connections among neighbors are one way to prime the pump. "We've been working with builders on starting traditions in the neighborhood," he says. "A little bit of seed money for, say, a neighborhood barbecue can help a community find its own traditions."
Connected communities turn the gated-community model on its head by also actively seeking visitors and participants from the surrounding community. At Willowsford, that takes the form of a farmer's market and workshops with celebrity chefs; other communities host concerts, festivals, and athletic events.
These trends are driven by the preferences of two principal demographic groups: millennials and baby boomers. "The millennials are sharers," interested in group activities and a sense of common purpose, Perlman says. "In master planned communities, you see that in the types of spaces and the types of homes: more great rooms, indoor-outdoor spaces, public gathering places. It's more about bringing people together and letting them interact."
As for baby boomers, now that they're aging out of child rearing and careers, they're also becoming more communal—especially where their grandchildren are concerned.
"Our research has told us that only 20 to 25 percent of people that age want an age-qualified community," Perlman says. "They want to be close to their kids, grandkids, and friends. What that can mean is an active adult or age-targeted [neighborhood] as a component of a larger master planned community. The old model of a giant age-qualified community—that's going away."
The mix of housing types that supports generational diversity—including single-story houses, in-law units, and rental apartments—lends neighborhoods a more authentic look than the Villas at Fill-in-the-Blank. But an authentic look isn't enough, Perlman cautions. "The challenge with authenticity," he says, "is that, by its nature, you can't really create it. It evolves over time." Supporting a family through multiple generations, which allows a community to develop continuity and a collective memory, can help that process along.
The shortest path to authenticity, however, may be just that—a path. "Walking paths and trails are the No. 1 thing people are looking for," says planner Peter Crowley. His firm, Alexandria, Va.–based LandDesign, currently is at work on a 20,000-acre community that will include some 30 miles of multi-modal trails. "It will give us the opportunity to create events like half marathons, marathons, bike races, and Saturday morning ride-arounds," he says. "And it's a way to get kids out of the house, on bikes, and out into the country."
He adds that community gardens have been "wildly successful. They become a social place, and they return people to parts of their heritage that have been missing for generations." The popularity of birding also has influenced the way Crowley's firm designs landscapes. "We can do wildlife habitat that is simple and inexpensive, and it really works," he says.
It's all part of what some are calling New Ruralism, a term—and a trend—that Crowley endorses. "It suggests creating places that replicate traditional forms of development," he says. But instead of a public square, "the open space is a meadow, or an orchard, or a maze made of blackberry bushes." The key is to create links to a particular piece of the outdoors.
"The challenge is that a new place has no history," Crowley explains. "By maintaining [the land's] natural history, we're creating a connection to the past." The resulting sense of place can feel genuine enough to impress even home buyers who typically are drawn to older, more urban settings, he says. "They don't feel like they're selling out their core values."
Establishing a human community is a far cry from creating a bird habitat. But as the master planned communities shown here demonstrate, developers, designers, and builders may be approaching a consensus on how best to tackle the challenge. While representing different regions and responding to local conditions, all employ the principles of connectivity in an effort to build places that live in people's hearts. Time will tell whether they succeed, but Osth and other planners believe they've cracked the code. "If a community is designed correctly," he says, "at some point it will become what I think everyone will recognize as a very, very real place."