The Age of Exceptional

The Age of Exceptional – PCBC 2017

At Greenhaus, we never shy away from an opportunity to engage in a thoughtful discussion about a place – offering up our point of view on what makes it great, or providing advice on where it has opportunities to improve. We don’t just love going places, we love decoding them, studying them, breaking them down, reconfiguring, learning about them from various perspectives – all to uncover what makes a place a crowd-pleaser, or not.

But what exactly does that mean?

That’s the question I was honored to answer as a guest speaker at this year’s PCBC “The Re-Think” Conference. PCBC (Pacific Coast Builders Conference) is an annual gathering focused on “the art, science + business of housing,” drawing thousands of attendees from around the country. Greenhaus has a long history with PCBC, developing the conference theme each year.

This year’s theme was The Age of Exceptional, providing the perfect setup to what great placemaking is all about, and how we can achieve it, leverage it and in the end, reap the rewards. Presenting alongside Steve James, AIA, Founding Principal of DTJ Design in Boulder, Colorado, our session focused on Urb Appeal: Bringing urban touches to suburban developments. While that might sound like a simple concept, our presentation navigated its complexities. The first challenge we outlined explored the need for a planner and developer to determine what type of urban they wanted, the elements and contributing disciplines, and where to begin.

The “Appeal” portion of Urb Appeal did not require decoding – clearly meaning attractive, fascinating and desirable.  However, determining the “type of urban” required that we deconstruct two juxtaposed versions of what the word means, develop a proposition and from that, arrive at a plan of attack that could be employed in suburban and fringe developments.

We deconstructed “urban” in two ways:

#1 Urban = idyllic:
Diverse, dense, walkable, safe, inviting, high-energy, makes you want to stay and is filled with open-ended possibilities.

#2 Urban = unpleasant:
Dirty, congested, not car-friendly, dangerous, scary, hectic, makes you want to leave and can be restrictive and confining.

We then proposed that the unpleasant form of “urban” is the by-product of most major urban areas.

Our concluding Value Proposition of Urb Appeal is to “mitigate all the elements of the unpleasant attributes of urban #2 and simultaneously maximize the idyllic characteristics of urban #1.

From a Greenhaus placemaking point of view, we encourage going beyond simply adding elements and touches of urban environments into suburban and fringe community development, but going deeper with thoughtful, meaningful and purposeful elements and programs, combined with “happenstance placemaking” to truly arrive at something uniquely indigenous to a place.

Our collective presentation provided examples of inspiring and insightful placemaking, but as I explained (and cautioned) to our audience, there is no “secret recipe” for making a location great. No two places are the same, and every place has its own unique challenges and opportunities and will, therefore, have its own unique appeal.

Perhaps the most beneficial advice we shared, based on Greenhaus’ 20+ years of experience, was to understand that the path to achieving great placemaking is not a process, but rather a culture – an ethos that must be adopted by all involved, and permeate every aspect of a project, to achieve success.

Great placemaking takes time, research, insight and education to understand the DNA of a location. Being “authentic” is not simply mimicking the past, or plunking down an old object in a park and self-declaring “we are authentic!” Rather, it’s being true to the heritage of the place, and appropriate to the current users and crafted with sustainability in mind for future users.


[Tom Stender-Custer is a Senior Account Supervisor at Greenhaus and is the living embodiment of successfully exporting urban characteristics to the suburban landscape.]

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