The Resource of We

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In 2008 I presented to the Congress for the New Urbanism’s NextGen conference. NextGen seeks to be at the vanguard of New Urbanists’ ideas and practices. In addition to providing a forum for new ideas, NextGen facilitated an open-source program which encouraged presenters to work with conference attendees to improve their ideas in small break-out groups.

At NextGen, I proposed a model for using open-source or Crowdsourced placemaking to make large master-planned communities more authentic. This tool would be a cost-effective counter-measure to the sameness that can result from a single builder or developer creating a large community out of whole cloth. Open-source planning would enable a diverse group to collaborate on a single project. In theory, residents of the community and others who would benefit from an innovative, inspiring, and exceptional neighborhood, would upload designs for plazas, parks, homes and buildings to a central idea bank where the developer could calibrate and build them. Well-designed communities attract a higher-than-average share of Creatives who would want to see their plans added to their community. Though my idea was well received, gaps in existing technologies made it unworkable. Fast-forward to 2012: the technology is available to allow for a collaborative platform of this scale. Where to start?

As proposed my open source planning platform would have enabled architects and builders to contribute existing designs to the group to be calibrated and built in their community. By sharing an  existing asset- a set of building plans, for example- the collaborator is providing something of real value to their community which can then be reused for the incremental cost of calibrating the design. By modifying that model slightly, I envisioned a platform that enables a diverse group to contribute successful social programs that would improve the eleven SA2020 vision areas. As with open-source planning, calibration of those programs would be a critical element to their success and sustainability. The scale of the model has changed, but so has the technology. Facebook recently reported that 483 million people used their site every day. Our ability to reach and harness the power of the crowd has never been greater, though we are still grappling with efficient ways to deploy the “resource of we”.

Social problems lend themselves to Crowdsourced solutions. We know that communities of disparate demographic and economic make-ups struggle with similar issues. Educational performance, transportation, and health and fitness levels are areas that virtually every US community is working to improve. We are all incentivized to find solutions to those problems by virtue of the fact that we are all paying for the programs and policies that perpetuate the status quo. Given the choice between funding success and failure, I choose success. There are places that are improving their performance on key quality of life issues. These are the bright spots that need to be replicated and calibrated en-masse across the country.

The Change Agents in Residence platform seeks to identify those bright spots and then systematically replicate and calibrate their successful programs here in our own neighborhoods. It is the act of replicating and calibrating that requires local understanding, involvement, and participation. An excellent example of the success of this replication and calibration system is the Smart Code. The Smart Code is an open source form-based planning code which is distributed by the nonprofit Center for Applied Transect Studies (CATS). Now in its ninth version, the Smart Code has been calibrated and adopted by over 100 municipalities nationwide. The code itself is excellent and free, what the communities pay for are the experts who work with local staff to calibrate and implement it.

There are plenty of bright spots out there and the technology now exists to identify and aggregate them on a national scale. What we need next is an entity, a funding plan, and a process for replicating and calibrating successful programs here in San Antonio. Eventually this program is going to need a staff and a home…anyone interested?

Courtyards Old and New

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Earlier this week while driving on a street adjacent to Fort Sam Houston I discovered a classic example of a courtyard neighborhood. An arrangement of homes oriented with their front doors facing one-another rather than facing a street. The cottages, built in 1950 according to BCAD, are tiny, 520 square feet each and the eight units, their 6’ common central walkway and a small 12 car parking lot fit neatly on a 65’ x 250’ lot.

The Whippoorwill Cottage Courtyard Community

The cottages are tidy and well-kept with small raised square stoops and porch lights and mail boxes. Small side-yards, some with garden sheds and BBQ grills populate the area between the homes. The minute scale of this little enclave is as fantastic to behold as the little cottages themselves. A low stone wall separates the public sidewalk along the street side of the courtyard from the shared central walkway and clearly delineates the public and private realms. Entering the courtyard, you feel instantly that you are in someone else’s space. Almost like you are standing in their living room. I felt immediately like an intruder, a feeling that is almost impossible to evoke when standing in so many ill-conceived public spaces. The very human and intimate scale of the cottages and the spaces between them leaves you with no doubt that you are somewhere. And standing there it is easy to imagine the community that must exist between the occupants of the eight little cottages.

The Whippoorwill Cottage Courtyard Community

If the sign out front is to be believed the units are available for rent and a google search of the address indicates that at some point in the not-too-distant past they were marketed as hotel rooms. One website referred to them as the Whippoorwill Cottages. If accurate, their vacation rental legacy would give them a bit of shared history with several of the early Pasadena, California courtyard neighborhoods. And that purpose would make sense, considering their location across the street from the old parade grounds of a large military base.

A Whippoorwill Cottage

I was thrilled to discover this little gem hiding there in plain sight, on a street I have driven down numerous times. ”Baader-Meinhof” is the name for this phenomenon, where once exposed to new information you seem to encounter it repeatedly. In this case I had been studying courtyards and pocket neighborhoods in conjunction with an on-going proposal to introduce courtyards into the Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND) community of Plum Creek in Kyle, Texas. And in driving around the Post I was hoping to find a classic courtyard tucked away in the historic neighborhoods that border Fort Sam, or at least to identify a few sites that would be good candidates for their reintroduction. And lucky me, I found both.

A view of the Whippoorwill Courtyard from the Parking Court.

Tweet Me When You’re Finished

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It’s time for action. No, strike that. It’s time to act. When you distill your Grand Plans into single actionable steps you will find the transition from innovation to implementation much much easier. Make it easy on yourself to be proactive by articulating each incremental step and set a time by which you will take that step, perform that action, make that phone call, send that email, ect. Creating accountability in the age of social media is as easy as asking. Post your goal and deadline as your status update and ask your friends to hold you to it. The odds are pretty good that someone you know would be more than happy to do this for you. If that seems like too much pressure then tell a trusted friend, or collaborator that you’re going to accomplish X by Y time and that you’ll text them when you’re finished. Offer to do the same for them in return. If you have not completed the specified task by the specified time, tell them when you will. Don’t beat yourself up, just get it done. There are lots of problems that are too big or complex to fix all at one time, but that does not mean that you can’t start acting on them incrementally right now. Really, right now. As in TODAY between Noon and 2:00, and go ahead and tweet me @LoomisBurton when you’re finished.

Great Real Estate Should Feel as Good as it Looks

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The built environment impacts all of us in innumerable ways. Sometimes in good ways, when we enjoy a walk in a well-designed public park, and sometimes in a bad way when we find ourselves trapped in the center-lane of a highway unable to turn or rejoin the flow of traffic, or lost in a maze of unmarked corridors in a poorly designed medical building. The built environment includes the public and private realm which is described broadly as “real estate.” And real estate values, or at least the discussion of them, drives endless conversation, sparks bouts of fear and envy, and influences buying decisions of other consumer goods both big and small. Real estate can be used to build, convey and protect wealth just as it can be an anchor that drags an individual or company, or country into bankruptcy.

Real estate is as much a construct as it is a thing, or a place; and constructs are assembled ideas, just as a house, or a shopping center, or an office building is made up of assembled materials. If you remove a key piece of the construction, or assemble the parts in the wrong way you can create wholly different objects altogether. Sometimes the differences between the properly assembled product and the improperly assembled product are miniscule, barely perceptible to those living or working within them; and sometimes the results can be catastrophic. It is an important and often over-looked fact that the physical design of the built environment (both public and private) impacts the feel and function of a place. How you design a community, the widths of streets, lengths of blocks, abundance or absence of landscaping and open space can have a much larger impact on how comfortable that neighborhood feels than the design, size (or price) of the houses that populate it.

Most of us encounter places each day where there is little regard for design at a human scale. Though we may not be able to articulate the feeling, we know we feel uncomfortable. This discomfort will ultimately discourage us from staying in or returning to that office, store, model home, restaurant, ect. The impact of place must not be overlooked when considering where and how to build, buy or lease your office, shop, home or school. So while the old real estate adage “location, location, location” still matters, make sure that great location feels as good as it looks.

LoomisBurton’s Peter French Profiled as a “San Antonio Creative” in the Rivard Report.

 

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Special thanks to San Antonio photographer Ginger Diaz http://www.hellodiaz.com/about/ for undertaking this cool project.

Ginger writes,”This project highlights people in San Antonio who are creatively following their passion, and making the city better in the process. Big thanks to The Rivard Report for asking us to do a photo project, and to each of the participants below. They’ve inspired us to push ourselves further for ourselves and our community.” Be sure to check out Diaz & Diaz and the Rivard Report for more great photographs and content.

And here’s the link to Peter’s profile http://www.hellodiaz.com/2012/09/14/rivard-report-san-antonio-creatives/#peter.

LoomisBurton is a proud member of Geekdom, San Antonio’s coolest collaborative coworking space. And here’s why.

Geekdom is a community, the members experience and build social equity through the relationships they make with fellow members. Those relationships are authentic and valuable. This means that when one member needs help, other members help them.
Geekdom is collaborative for many of the same reasons. It is also designed that way, the open nature of the space, the communal elements of the space, the shared nature of the space put people in regular contact with other members and when people bump into each other they tend to talk about what they are doing, working on, ect and they exchange ideas and they collaborate.
Geekdom is authentic and memorable because of the personal exchanges that the members have with one another and the social programming that brings people together to learn, have fun, and make cool stuff.
Geekdom is unique and special and valuable because building a place that nurtures relationships like that is hard to do.
Geekdom is happening, so don’t miss out.