Why the answer to globalization is creating complete communities

Article By:

Principal | Chief Executive Officer

Globalization has made the world a smaller place. World events such as war, natural calamities and economic uncertainty have intensified globalization faster than anyone could have anticipated. As people consider where to live, they often think about issues relating to economic and social opportunity, quality of life, and the management of environmental resilience and natural resources. In emerging, marginalized or developing communities, these issues veer into darker territory (sometimes with basic survival at stake).

The challenges that face these communities—limited educational opportunity, the absence of social and economic advancement and severe environmental volatility—further exacerbates globalization as more people leave them to find opportunities elsewhere.

In response to globalization, the real estate development industry has the opportunity to become agents of positive change. The development industry must seek more efficient and compact community footprints that carefully manage fading resources as populations increase. Examples of this include the need for more inclusive, accessible and supportive physical and social infrastructure models for aging populations, more creative and renewable energy infrastructures for expanding energy demands and more community paradigms that celebrate diversity while supporting, or even inspiring, a heightened sense of global belonging.

What is a complete community?

The development industry can respond to these concerns through the planning and development of complete communities—designed to reduce economic and environmental costs and enhance community livability. Or as Alison Brooks, a prominent UK architect, defines it: “[the] “places where people can live, work, move and thrive in a healthier, more equitable, and more economically competitive way.” 

Of course, developing complete communities has its challenges too. Developers and their projects exist in complicated and competitive social and economic environments. Local, national and international migration encourages investors, individuals and families to research multiple quality-of-life indexes and socioeconomic realities as they search out and eventually decide on where to live, invest and work. Cities, municipalities and even specific satellite communities are more often speaking directly to a global audience about their unique qualities, the benefits they offer, and ultimately why they are a perfect choice.

As such, developers and municipalities, who are typically adversaries with very different development agendas, must start working together to attract residents and commercial investment on an increasingly global stage. Developers must find more creative and efficient ways of combating the growing costs of community development to meet today’s lifestyle expectations. Large and small municipalities must crunch through complex economic algorithms as they seek sustainable fiscal formulas for present and future generations of political operations. Municipalities need to understand what it takes to develop attractive, vibrant and complete communities in the short-term (the developer’s perspective), while developers need to consider the legacy that their projects will leave behind from long-term maintenance and operational (or municipal government) perspective.

The local context and the environment impact land and real estate development more than any other industry. In a world where standardized development and construction techniques create the opportunity for global sameness, the unique selling propositions and competitive advantage for many developments often lie within each project’s local context and environment. Urban designers and environmentalists have, for many years, sought the intrinsic value of the genius loci or the specific, authentic and unique attributes of each place. It’s the invisible weave of culture (stories, art, memories, beliefs, histories, etc.) that artists, writers and locals celebrate, along with a place’s unique physical aspects (monuments, boundaries, rivers, woods, natural resources, architectural style(s), rural crafts styles, pathways, views and multiple generations of human artifact) that form the genius loci. It’s clear that to create unique and memorable places, everything (natural, cultural and architectural) that makes each place unique, distinct and precious should be identified, preserved, celebrated and enhanced.

In addition to the myriad of typical development-related decisions and challenges that beset today’s development and municipal organizations, the response to the challenges of developing complete communities in a global economy require, to some degree, the following: 

  1. Acknowledging the cultural and philosophical values inherent to each place
  2. Articulating the indigenous architectural form in current translation
  3. Understanding ‘natural infrastructure’ and how this plays into building communities that are more resilient and sustainable
  4. Programming communities with the right ‘mix’—creating inclusivity in age, gender, socioeconomic strata, modes of transportation, and uses (commercial, residential, recreational, industrial and agricultural),
  5. Creating an economic pro-forma that is more holistic, evaluating natural infrastructure and rewarding the complete community developer for wholesome integration
  6. Planning for long-term financial community operations and maintenance realities that strive for long-term resilience and low impact development

In today’s environmental and developmental reality, all parties involved in the development or redevelopment of communities have a stake and a role to play that goes beyond historical or traditional models. Let’s consider the following three roles and their responsibilities for a moment:

The government or municipal regulatory body:

How does the civil authority (rural municipality, town, or city) describe itself? What does it stand for? What are its unique social, physical and economic attributes? How would it quantify the long-term value of all its assets (developed or undeveloped) holistically? Would natural infrastructure elements such as wetlands, forested areas, historically valued green space or significant lakes, rivers or streams be identified in the context of all forms of potential future development? Would the municipality take a robust and long-view approach to development that highlights what is most important to their community? What are the elements that form its genius loci? Districts are responsible for defining themselves in no uncertain terms. They must understand themselves well enough to articulate to the world precisely what makes them who they are. From there, they must use this knowledge to create a robust planning framework, identifying the long-term vision for the community, while transcending the short-term development activity. This vision will attract like-minded developers, and ultimately residents, tenants, employers and employees who identify with it. In today’s global reality, it is a case of ‘build it, and they’ll come’. Once we articulate the genius loci into the appropriate planning framework, the municipality is responsible for encouraging and supporting development that is in line with this vision, and penalizing or restricting development that isn’t. The municipal government’s responsibility is to regulate development activity with clarity and consistency.

The developer:

Who is the developer; what does he or she stand for? Like most companies that are good at what they do, the developer is typically a specialist in something. The developer should stand for something specific and must be able to articulate his or her mission, vision and values clearly. In today’s development universe, a clear presentation not only of what the developer creates but why the developer exists, needs to be made clear. More specifically, when put on the global, national and local stages, what is the developer’s unique value proposition? How does he or she situate themselves on critical global issues?

Identical to municipalities, developers are responsible for defining themselves in no uncertain terms. They must understand themselves well enough to articulate to the world precisely what makes them who they are and align themselves with municipalities that share enough commonality that together they can work in support of each other’s mandates. Developers should meaningfully adopt the municipality’s planning framework in an economically sound manner as their end goal. Developers should also profoundly understand and incorporate the genius loci of a place, and align their development objectives in such a way as to highlight, amplify and celebrate it. The development must feed off the unique attributes of each place, making its value evident to the world and beneficial to the municipality.

The planning and design professional:

The design professional (city planner, urban designer, landscape architect or architect) is effectively the lynchpin in the development process. Designers are responsible for the process of shaping the physical setting for life in cities, towns and villages. They are the creative individuals engaged in the art of making places. Their work involves the design of buildings, groups of buildings, spaces and landscapes, and establishing the processes that make successful development possible.

Municipalities and developers alike hire these professionals. The design professional is responsible for articulating and refining the physical expression of the community, deriving inspiration from the municipality’s planning framework, the developer’s development vision, and their own artistic, philosophical and socio-cultural bend. It is therefore very important for the municipality or developer to engage not only a competent design professional but also one whose philosophy, design style and cultural orientation mesh with theirs. 

Globalization is the natural, evolutionary end game for human and natural systems. The planet’s air, water, and natural resources know no national or political boundaries. We are all part of this one planet—the same in many respects, but unique in many others. A celebration of our oneness simultaneously highlights the individual uniqueness and the splendor of the tapestry that is Earth. As we move further into the 21st century, the development industry, municipalities and communities and environmental design professionals will all need to work more closely and collaboratively together to produce better and more harmonious complete communities that highlight their uniqueness and solidify the value of each city, town (or place) within a globalized world.

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