The Waters: Self-Selection and the Pioneer Effect

[I visited The Waters, a fledgling ”New Urbanist” community in Alabama, in early February. This is the last in a series of four articles about my visit there. The first three are The Waters: A Very Tight-Knit Community, The Waters: Kids’ Lives, and The Waters: How Town Planning and Architecture Help Create Community.]

This blurb is from The Waters' web site. They heavily market their community spirit, and their strongest marketing vehicle is the current residents' word of mouth.

Anyone who ever studied elementary economics can understand one of the primary reasons for the success of community spirit at The Waters: The supply of homes that are marketed for the great community around them is very low, while demand for these homes is very high. In fact, in the Playborhood survey we found that a large proportion of parents would be willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars, and many even hundreds of thousands of dollars, for a home with better neighborhood play prospects than their current home.

So, if a new development markets itself well as having great community spirit, it can attract lots and lots of families who want this. These families “self-select” by buying homes at this development. Thus, the development ends up with a bunch of community-minded families, and, voila!, a neighborhood with great community spirit is born.Of course, the marketing of community spirit should have at least some credibility, or else it won’t be believable. That’s where “New Urbanism” comes in. That’s the approach in urban planning and architecture that the creators of The Waters adopted. New Urbanists claim that attributes of design like high density, low or no fences, big porches, integrated retail, and narrow streets can help create community.

If homebuyers intuitively “get” how these attributes might create community, community-seeking homebuyers will want to live in a New Urbanist development like The Waters.

From what I observed, this is exactly what happened. Many of the first residents of The Waters I spoke with, who moved in two years ago, explained to me that they were looking for a place where residents would have close social bonds with one another, and they believed that the New Urbanist concepts described to them would result in a tight community.

These first residents have a very special feeling that also contributes to the community spirit at The Waters. I’ll call this the “pioneer effect” because these residents feel like pioneers. They came looking for community, but they came before there was any community. In addition, they all moved in there around the same time. So, they’re evangelists for The Waters, much like people who bought the first Apple Macintosh computers in the 1980s became evangelists for the Mac.

I experienced this pioneer effect firsthand in my visit at The Waters. These first residents were intently interested in explaining to me what makes the community spirit at The Waters so great. They are clearly evangelistic salespeople for their community. Twice during my late afternoon walk, people I never met before asked me if I was “the guy from Playborhood,” and then took the time and interest to their personal experience at The Waters.

In addition, in the videos about community on The Waters’ site early residents absolutely gush about how great it is there. Nathan Norris, the head of marketing who managed the creation of these videos, told me he was amazed at how overwhelmingly positive people came across in the videos.

The word of mouth marketing of these first residents is the best form of marketing because it’s highly distributed and inherently authentic. As Nathan Norris realizes, it’s The Waters’ greatest asset, and it gives that development a great opportunity to “scale” its strong community spirit from its present first village to the seven villages eventually planned for The Waters.

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4 Responses to The Waters: Self-Selection and the Pioneer Effect

  1. Suzy says:

    Mike,

    Ever since I first read your posts on The Waters, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head – such a paradise for children…. as we contemplate where to raise our own.

    Do you know of any similar “new urbanist” communities anywhere else in the US? One thing we really cherish about the Bay Area is divirsity, which seems to be lacking at The Waters.

    Gosh, wouldn’t now be the perfect time for a builder to create such a community around here? Cheaper raw materials, pick up another builder’s abandoned space, suck up all the on-the-fencers who crave such a community…like us.

  2. Mike Lanza says:

    Of course, I’m intently interested personally in finding a New Urbanist development in the Bay Area. One was proposed for Pacifica and lost in a contentious election back in November 2006. Apparently, the voters didn’t trust the developer. It’s a shame.

    One that is definitely happening, but is further away, is East Garrison outside Monterey, on part of the old Fort Ord army base. I recently spoke to someone who works for the company planning this development, and he told me that if *all* goes well homes there will start selling in the latter part of 2009. This looks like a very nice development, but we’ll have to keep a close eye on this to see if it fulfills its promise.

  3. Suzy says:

    East Garrison looks really promising! I will definitely keep my eye on it. I like that they’re so focused on diversity.

    Please let us know what else you come across. Too bad Pacifica fell through….I was even thinking Pacifica would be a good location for this type of development.

    Have you had any more thoughts about Arbor Real? How about pulling together a group and approaching some builders with the idea?

  4. Lisa Rampton Halverson says:

    How funny that East Garrison may become such a development. I lived in Fort Ord from ages 7-9 (1980-83), while my dad was in the army. He turned our yard into a child’s paradise: two pulley swings from “Fort Tree”, a jungle gym he’d made, and something we called the “rings” — looked like a maypole but with 4 large rings you could hold on to and swing round and round. When school wasn’t in we were outside, playing in our yard or shed-turned-playhouse , putting on musicals (as the oldest I got to be “Annie” and the other stars! :). I’m the oldest of 7 (5 of us were born by the time we left Fort Ord), but the neighbor kids were part of it all too. When I think of a perfect childhood, I think of Fort Ord. I have a poor memory for the inside of our house, but I remember the yard very well.

    I went back 6 years ago to see my old house and yard, and the place looks so dilapidated! I think the remaining base housing has been allowed to go to pot over the past 25 years. Still, in my mind it was the perfect place for a child.

    I don’t even know whether one could put up the structures my dad created for us today: would one fear being sued if a neighbor’s child got hurt? It’s not always safe to fly through the air on a zipline or “the rings” — but it sure was fun.

    I’m rambling, but my hope is that East Garrison will pick up some of the karma left from 314 Arlincourt, Fort Ord, and give children the chance to imagine and explore on their own!