Placemaking, Wellbeing, and Choosing the Harder Path

Real Estate, Development & Investing #2

Hi! I’m Austin. Welcome to The Building Culture Playbook where I explore real estate, design, construction and investing from a liberal arts, humanist perspective. I’m also founder of Building Culture, a holistic real estate development company that incorporates urban design, architecture and construction — with an emphasis on health, beauty and traditional design and masonry. We are embarking on our biggest development to date, a $33MM urban infill, mixed-used neighborhood breaking ground later this year.

Table of Contents

MAIN ARTICLE

If you read my post on changing demographics, you’ll know that household sizes are getting smaller, and people have different priorities than what the housing market is delivering.  

According to the Census Bureau, 63% of American households are 1 to 2 person, and 79% are 1-3 person.  The car-dependent, isolated suburban subdivision with 3+ bedrooms simply doesn’t serve these demographics very well.

 A recent poll from the National Realtor Association reflects as much:

 “79% said being within an easy walk of other places and things, such as shops and parks, is very/somewhat important.”

In a typical suburban subdivision, there may be sidewalks but there is nowhere to actually walk.

You can choose to walk for exercise, but that is very different from living within the context of a complete neighborhood, with varying housing options and at least some daily needs within walking or biking distance, such as schools, shops or work.  

Sometimes peoples’ minds jump from a large single family detached house with a big yard in a spacious subdivision to big apartment buildings near downtowns when you start talking about increasing density.  I don’t blame them as those are essentially the two options that are built today!

But it doesn’t have to be.  That’s just the easiest way, and the easy way attracts institutional money. 

But if we were willing to engage with doing harder things, we could have SO much more beauty and richness in our built world.  

The monolithic suburban subdivision and institutionally funded multi-family apartment buildings are the extremes – there is a whole world in between to build more beautiful, convenient, safe, and human scaled neighborhoods.  

Carlton Landing in Oklahoma is a great example of what is often referred to as Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND).  It has a wide range of housing options – detached houses that range from $400k to $4,000,000, as well as duplexes, condos, and commercial buildings – along with an abundance of parks and shared civic spaces. 

But it’s comfortable, safe, and homely! 

If you want to live by the restaurants or amenities, you can.  If you want a quieter part of the neighborhood, you can do that too.  It’s a real neighborhood with a diversity of options.  

Carlton Landing

This is one of our early projects in Carlton Landing, The Bend, a six-home pocket neighborhood.  

The Bend

It’s a place within a place.  Christopher Alexander, an architect I greatly admire, talks about the importance of centers. 

If a neighborhood is like a mosaic, that mosaic tells a story, and the overarching story is made up of a bunch of smaller stories.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  That concept can be scaled up or down, even to a single room.  

But at the scale of a neighborhood, we want a rich mosaic of centers, places within places and at different scales, that enable life and all that comes with it on a day-to-day basis.  

Poundbury, a newly built neighborhood in the UK is another good example.

Poundbury, UK

Kids can walk or bike to school, visit friends, and even practice independence, going to a store to run an errand for mom.  You can swing by and say hello to grandma in the assisted living unit a few blocks over for a quick chat,, or pick her up for a school recital or sports game.  You can grab a coffee at the local shop and visit with the barista on your way to work, perhaps bump into a friend, rather than shuttling through the corporate drive-through.

Sound like an idyllic pipe dream? It’s not.  It’s practical, and eminently easy, all things considered. We know exactly how to do it–we’ve been doing some variation of it for thousands of years.  And I’ve personally lived in neighborhoods where this is exactly what happens.

The truth is, we don’t build real neighborhoods anymore.  Instead, we take all the ingredients that make up a neighborhood, and rather than mix them together in a proper recipe, we isolate those ingredients and spread them out over vast distances.  

Eggs, sugar, butter, salt, flour and filling are all ingredients that make up a pie.  But you have to mix and arrange them correctly–otherwise it’s not a pie! Can you imagine eating all those ingredients individually? It would be terrible. 

But when it comes to the built world, the human habitat, that’s exactly what we do, at least for the past 80 years.  It only seems normal to us because we have no memory of anything different – but our ancestors did.

Another useful lesson from the pie example is that there are near infinite ways to make a pie.  There is tremendous creativity and opportunity for exploration while still mixing the ingredients in such a way that it’s an actual, coherent pie.

Meaning: neighborhoods should be different! They shouldn’t all look or function like Poundbury or Carlton Landing or anywhere else. 

But we can take lessons from successful neighborhoods and apply those principles elsewhere, incorporating new technologies and trends while still adhering to the principles we know make thriving places and people.  

Instead, early 20th century industrial thinking deconstructed the concept of a neighborhood, of what makes a city, and in hyper-rationalistic fashion reduced that holistic concept and complex nature of a neighborhood down to a list of ingredients, and then imposed this deconstructionist vision through force and subsidy.  It’s how we ended up with this:

Anywhere, USA

We are the wealthiest, most technologically advanced city in the history of the world, and this is the world we’ve built.  Does this look like Civilization?  I need to emphasize how insane this is.  Just 100 years ago we were still building great cities and neighborhoods: think Charleston, Savannah, Boston.  500 years ago? We were building this:

Florence, Italy

Clearly our ancestors knew something we do not.  How is it we cannot even fathom building this today?  Why do we think we are at the height of all human civilization because it’s 2024?  Progress isn’t linear. As amazing as the modern world is, we’ve clearly gone backwards in some areas.

And here is the thing: we know how to build these places.  We’re not having to invent a rocket to get us to Mars.  That’s hard and requires new knowledge.  This?  We have everything we need, and thousands of references around the world! 

No, we don’t need more knowledge. We need belief and the will to do it.  We need to choose to do harder things.

Why?  Because what we build matters.  It reflects and reinforces our values, our culture, and shapes our everyday lives.  

Did you know that:

  • 74% of Americans report a sense of non-belonging in their local communities?

  • Teens spend on average close to 5 hours on social media per day

  • Depression, substance abuse and anxiety are skyrocketing in kids and adults?  

  • 60% of Americans live with at least one chronic disease?

  • 136 MILLION Americans have diabetes or pre diabetes? 

  • We spent $413 BILLION on diabetes in 2022 alone and will soon cost the country over 1 trillion per year for one condition?

Can all of this be attributed to “how we build our neighborhoods”?  Of course not.  There are other factors, particularly our food and toxic environment, at play.  But ask any doctor, psychologist or health practitioner: lifestyle and relationships play a massive role in human health and wellbeing.  

And our lifestyle is unhealthy because we’ve built our cities to function more like dehumanizing factory plants than centers of human activity, culture and connection.

On the occasion we do build more coherent urban places, it tends to be entertainment focused. Lots of shops and bars. And all the housing options cater to singles and couples without kids.  Think your average Midtown.  

There is nothing wrong with that. We want entertainment districts.  But we still need complete neighborhoods that serve families, kids and elderly.  I’m 35 with two young kids and have no interest in living in a Midtown-like environment.  But I would love to live in a neighborhood where my kids could have more freedom, where my parents could age in place nearby, where there are third-places to interact with my community and neighbors like a coffee shop, where at least some daily needs could be within a short bike ride.  And yes, I still want to own a car.  

To me, that is the stage from which me and my family can live a richer and more integrated life.  And so can you.   

This is not intended to be a conclusive or in-depth examination of all the implications and externalities of different building patterns. But I do hope it gives you an idea of what I mean by the term ‘placemaking’, and how our built world has profound effects on our everyday experience because it’s the hardware that runs the software that is life.  And like a piece of technology, the hardware sets the limits and parameters of what kind of software can be run on it.  

If we want to run better software – live more holistic, integrated, connected lives – we must build better hardware.  

That is what we are working on at Building Culture, and why I believe real estate development, not just designing and building individual buildings but complete places, is essential to fulfilling our mission to build a more thriving world for people.

It’s not just about the individual buildings, it’s about the recipe of how all those buildings fit together.  The spaces in between the buildings.

That’s why our developments aren’t focused on strip centers or big multi-family buildings.  We want to be builders of dynamic and complete neighborhoods designed to facilitate human life and flourishing.

CONTENT

I really enjoyed my recent conversation with Devon Zeugel on The Building Culture Podcast. She comes from a tech background, takes a multidisciplinary, human-centered approach, and is working on building a new town from scratch — Esmeralda.

I must admit: I listened to this one (I do not listen to many after recording), and noticed I interrupted a few times and talked 25% more that I would like to — largely from being excited, but it made me realize I want to work on my podcast manners a bit :) Thankfully she was a gracious and amazing guest, and I highly recommend checking out here.

SUMMER PLANS?

Devon is also putting together an incredible month-long popup village in California during June called Edge Esmeralda. From the website:

Edge Esmeralda is a "popup village" for people who believe the future can be better and are actively working to make it happen. It is taking place in Healdsburg, California, June 2-30.

We aim for this to be the healthiest and most productive time of your year — a place to go deep in your work and learn from fellow experts in other fields while incubating novel technology and ways of living.

This gathering is also a prototype for a permanent new town, Esmeralda. The lessons we learn will be carried forward to build this long-term vision.

I wish I could go! It’s family friendly too, by the way. So much cool programming, a lot of interesting people, and you can attend for however long you can. I highly recommend checking it out!

EXPLORATION

Health: I’ve mentioned a number of times I struggle with sleep. After listening to a sleep expert Dr. Matt Walker talk about how important it is to drop your body temperature to fall and stay asleep, I decided to try out this $200 bed-cooler. I’m a few weeks in and so far really like it! No more bed-sweats. And it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than an EightSleep.

Favorite Newsletter: I keep forgetting to put this in, but I really enjoy Justin’s newsletter The Next on health, wellness and business. He’s the founder of Kettle and Fire bone broth, which my family drinks regularly. I learn a ton reading it each month, and the whole Building Culture team reads it as well. This recent one on Ozempic was…disturbing.

Quote of the Week: I’m a sucker for quotes and actually find them quite useful. There are many variations on this one but I believe David Goggins said this: Everything you want is on the other side of suffering. I think he is dead right, and I’ve been reminding myself of this a lot recently as I am slogging through some things.

INVESTMENT

If you want to see some information on our Townsend deal, hit reply and I’ll send you some information.

That’s it for today!

If you have a thought, comment or resource, I’d love to hear from you. Just hit reply and it’ll land in my inbox.

And if you’ve read to this point, I assume you like this newsletter and I invite you to share with you friends! Or even become a premium subscriber for $5/month.

Thanks, and catch you in a couple weeks!

Austin

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