“there is a sense of community like that you kind of belong here like you're a resident of this, of this community. Whereas if you live in another city in Los Angeles, you're just a person living in that city. But here, I feel like I am a resident of Playa Vista, which puts me in a group of thousands of people."
– Casey Kasprzyk,resident, Playa Vista planned community
In this episode
Master or planned communities. From the minds of developers, these are places that have been intentionally designed to serve a subset of the population.
What is like to live in one?
What does it say about our society that we have these kinds of communities?
And how did they even come to be in the first place?
Join host Mariam Sobh as she gets answers to these questions and more from experts Emily Talen, an academic focused on key trends in urbanism and urban design, Peter Kindel, an architect working on Utah’s The Point planned community, and Casey Kasprzyk, a resident of Playa Vista planned community in Los Angeles, California.
- 6:31 Emily Talen shares how planned communities can help foster social fragmentation.
- 12:40 Casey Kasprzyk shares the experiences that led to his arrival at Playa Vista, a planned community in California.
- 26:16 Peter Kindel discusses how planned communities are moving away from a perfectly planned environment toward a more diverse community through its residents and buildings.
Click here to expand transcript
Speaker 1 [00:02] I am in Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan in New York. It's a great vibe here. There are kids playing volleyball, people walking their dogs, playing with their kids. There's restaurants around, a lot of people are out jogging. I'm right now on the waterfront facing Jersey City, and right across the Hudson River I also see the Statue of Liberty, and it's just a really nice atmosphere. I'm going to go and talk to some people and see how they feel about living in Battery Park City. Did you move here specifically because it is a planned community?
Speaker 2 [00:38] I don't want to say that. No. It wasn't because it was a planned community, it was just, I was familiar with it not knowing it was a planned community. I was like, "This is beautiful." Lived on the Upper East Side, I've lived in Sunnyside, Queens, but this is “I can't wait to get home”.
Speaker 1 [00:52] Yeah. What are some things you like or dislike about living in Battery Park City?
Speaker 2 [00:56] I like the location. I like the fact that it's relatively quiet. I love the fact that it's by the water. It happens to be very close to where I work. To tell you the truth we never really thought of it as a planned community. It happens to be, but we never thought about it that way.
Mariam Sobh [01:16] The first planned community in the United States, Riverside, was built in 1869, by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the designers of New York City's Central Park. This type of green affluent community quickly became a touchstone for other planned communities around the U. S. From Palos Verdes Estates at the most southern part of Los Angeles County to Celebration, Florida, and Poundbury in the United Kingdom, like it or not, planned or master communities are a part of our world. However, if we take a step back, what is it really like to live in these communities? What does the rising popularity say about our relationship to the existing world around us? And what happens when thousands of like- minded people abandon the cities and suburbs for their own slice of utopia? And by utopia we mean a place with limited housing supply, strict rules, and dues of all sorts, which can make it out of reach for mere mortals. Is it a bit like living in the Emerald City or something that simply boils down to choice? Disney recently announced it was building Cotino, a branded planned community in Rancho Mirage, California. Meanwhile, Latitude Margaritaville communities are expanding into Texas. In 2021, the New York Times reported that planned communities are the fastest growing part of the American housing market.
In this episode, I'll speak with Emily Talen, a professor of urbanism with a keen eye on planned communities as they relate to the built world. Throughout this episode we'll also hear from Peter Kindel, principal at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP, about The Point, a planned 15- minute community outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. And we'll hear from television producer, Casey Kasprzyk, a resident of Playa Vista, which is a planned community in Los Angeles.
So, let's go back to the beginning and discover how and why we got here. I'm Mariam Sobh, and this is Changing Places. In order to understand how we got here, I'm going to chat with Emily Talen, a professor of urbanism from the University of Chicago, who has a keen eye on the world of planned communities. Emily Talen, welcome to Changing Places.
Emily Talen [03:29] Thanks so much.
Mariam Sobh [03:30] Emily, if we go back to Riverside, the first planned community, located outside of Chicago in the United States, it was intended for a more affluent resident and still is for the most part. One of the most striking things is that Riverside and Central Park share the same designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. If we look at how a planned city park and a planned community sprang from the thoughts of these two men, who imagined these spaces which were not intended for everyone, it makes me wonder, and this question has two parts, so apologies. What do you know about the goals Olmsted and Vaux had for the original planned community and how significant was the shift in mindset towards planned communities?
Emily Talen [04:12] They wanted to provide a place where people could escape the industrial city, escape in particular the immigrant thronged city, and industrial pollution. So, the paradox there is that they're creating a world outside of the city for the affluent, who are in fact wholly dependent on that immigrant thronged, polluting, industrial city. So, that doesn't bode very well for the kind of- … In a kind of moral high ground kind of way. It really speaks volumes that these were park planners creating a world out there on the outskirts of Chicago that was to be the rural antidote to the city. So, a way to really get in touch with nature out there by not having to deal with the city. That's the negative side.
There's a positive side to it too, which is that it was a chance to really think through some design issues about how to plan the suburb. This was a railroad commuter suburb, so it was transit linked, at least it had that, that's saying a lot more than the typical American suburbia, which is not at all transit linked usually. And it was a chance to do some really innovative things design- wise. Riverside is beautiful and unique and iconic and I don't think we should lose sight of those kinds of important design lessons that he was able to explore out there in the rural part of America.
Mariam Sobh [05:45] Was it significant to have this sort of planned community idea pop up?
Emily Talen [05:50] Planned communities are a lot of different things, and have been around since the dawn of time. The Greeks did planned communities. The ancient world was all about planned communities and colonies. We have colonial settlements that were often considered to be planned communities. We have garden villages, we have neighborhoods. Those are planned communities of sorts. So, as I say, they have pluses and minuses to them.
Mariam Sobh [06:17] Right. And I think, as I'm thinking about different ideas of planned communities, military bases come to mind as a type of planned community. Is there some sort of divisiveness that happens where there's these places where only certain people get to go to and not others?
Emily Talen [06:31] Yeah, definitely. I think a planned community fosters social division by definition really. You are segregating out a certain segment of the population when you do a planned community. Unless you're incredibly intentional about wanting that planned community to be representative of society as a whole. And that doesn't happen very often. That requires interventions that a lot of developers aren't usually willing to partake in. Public- private partnerships, nonprofit sector getting involved, it can be fairly complicated. So, yeah, I totally agree that there is a sort of polarizing factor to the planned community by definition. There's a social fragmentation going on.
Mariam Sobh [07:18] I also wonder too, just in terms of divisiveness, it's like there's folks who are living, let's say, in a regular neighborhood, and then there's folks in planned communities. And it's they can come into the regular neighborhood at any time they want, but I can't go into the planned community. And does that seed any issues?
Emily Talen [07:35] Yeah. Again there's a polarization is just being baked into the whole system. Now, you can even have gated trailer parks. You can have gated communities of all kinds, and planned communities that are gated are a special category of things, and that's even worse in my opinion. One of the things it does is it shuts people off in a way that they somehow don't feel they don't have to have civic responsibility for the world out there and other people. And this is going on all over the world in places like India, there's just rampant gated communities and right outside the gate is incredible poverty. But if you're in this kind of sheltered world, in this bubble, you can kind of shut the rest of the world off, shut the social problems off. And I think it's a really awful way for human settlement to be.
Mariam Sobh [08:37] That's a good point. I'm just thinking that's probably something that folks want to do just to get away from what's happening in society. But if we look at the past, has a planned community ever successfully integrated into the space or community which it's built in?
Emily Talen [08:50] I think it needs to not be gated for one thing to be able to be successfully integrated. I do think that there have been instances of planned communities that are successful in the sense that they have a diverse population and they are trying out these design features as a way to do sprawl in a better way, do suburbia in a better way. But those cases are generally limited to places that have some government backing to them, that have some subsidized housing.
Because the minute you do a planned community where you're really thinking about public space and you're just designing it in a beautiful way, which is what a planned community usually does, you have ample sidewalks and you have great public space and you've thought about the architecture and you've thought about the cohesiveness of this physical form. Then you're going to create an incredible demand for such places and they're going to quickly be pricing out anybody with moderate means of income.
Seaside, Florida, is a really good example of that – planned community from the 1980's, which was trying very hard to initially be a diverse community. It was going to be diverse and walkable and an American small town open to everyone. Pretty soon it was so great and so beautiful and so well designed, you can't get in there for under a million. Again, what needs to happen for these to work is some kind of involvement by nonprofit sector or government. I think that's pretty much the bottom line.
Mariam Sobh [10:31] Let's hear from Peter Kindel, a principal at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP, about The Point, an innovative planned community outside of Salt Lake City.
Peter Kindel [10:41] The Point is quite a unique project in my mind because it is both an in- fill community and a new community, which makes it a little bit unique. It's on a 600- acre prison site, the site of the Utah State Prison, and as such it has had no access or very little access from the surrounding community. So, it is master planned in that sense in that it's a newbuild, but at the same time it's surrounded by infrastructure, so one of our primary ideas and goals was to reconnect the community back to the surrounding city.
I feel quite confident in the sustainable ideas that we brought to the project, not just SOM but also our team members and the client frankly have been very open. Our client is the state of Utah. Even though it is a blank slate, even though it's a newbuild, the fact that we're building a mixed use community, first of all, is inherently sustainable. The second major sustainable concept is this 15- minute model that you can meet all of your daily needs within a 15- minute walk or bike ride. We've also called it a one car community. We're not excluding the car from this project, but we're just saying you could live here and only have one car.
Mariam Sobh [12:03] Emily, I'm curious to get your opinion with the announcement from Disney that they're building a planned community while at the same time the U. S. is experiencing a dearth of affordable housing. I wonder what you think is up next for the future of planned communities. Is it all about the cost or even the literal buy- in to a community or does it go beyond money towards something bigger? Emily, before we hear your answer, let's head to Playa Vista to hear from Casey and then head back to Battery Park City.
Casey Kasprzyk [12:33] I'm Casey Kasprzyk, supervising producer for The Bold and the Beautiful, and I'm a resident of Playa Vista. When I was looking for somewhere to live I looked at different areas in Los Angeles. Playa Vista did not exist. Cut to 15 years later, I got in a lot of traffic and I was trying to get home, and I ended up winding through Playa Vista, and I saw kind of the commercial part of Playa Vista, where they have the YouTube offices and Google and a movie theater and all this stuff. And I was really just blown away by how it just developed. I was not aware that it was a planned community. I just felt like it was a place where they were building a lot of mixed use apartments, townhomes, and businesses.
Speaker 1 [13:23] Do you guys see any downsides to living there?
Speaker 3 [13:26] I guess the subway's a little far compared to other parts of the city, but now that we have the Oculus it's really not bad. I don't think there's many down-
Speaker 4 [13:34] It's a little touristy.
Speaker 3 [13:36] Yeah, it's gotten a little touristy I'd say.
Speaker 4 [13:37] Especially with the World Trade Center has increased.
Speaker 3 [13:41] And I guess the Oculus in a sense isn't what it used to be. That's pretty new and it's attracting a lot of tourists. But besides that I love living here. I feel like I spend a lot of time outside because I live here and I walk a lot. Yeah, I basically walk everywhere if it's near me.
Mariam Sobh [14:05] Stay tuned for the next part. And just a reminder, Changing Places is a podcast brought to you by Avison Young that continues to explore and question our complex relationship with the built world around us. I'm your host, Mariam Sobh. I hope you're liking the show so far. If so, please share Changing Places with your friends.
Before we get back to my conversation with Emily, let's go back to Battery Park City in New York City.
Speaker 1 [14:34] What would you say are some pros and cons of living here versus in a non- planned community so to speak?
Speaker 5 [14:40] The pros are summer especially. You can come out here and here. You can astral project yourself to any country just by overlooking the water and the sunset.
Speaker 1 [14:50] Amazing.
Speaker 5 [14:51] Some of the cons are the dogs. People who shouldn't own dogs do. That kind of louses up the community. There's very few cons, it's just brilliant. Again, all the amenities are back, the restaurants are back, post- COVID of course. COVID of course is a big con because of the small businesses and mom and pop businesses that had to close. So, very few cons.
Speaker 1 [15:14] Do you think planned communities like this is a way to bring together like- minded people in some way or is it just a place to live?
Speaker 5 [15:21] It could be a little bit more diverse, the ethnicity is missing down here. It could be mad white. But there's a lot of diversity, but it could be a little better.
Mariam Sobh [15:32] Disney recently announced that they're building a planned community, and at the same time the U. S. is experiencing a dearth of affordable housing. I wonder what you think is up next for the future of planned communities. Is it all about cost, buy- in to a community? Does it go beyond money toward something bigger?
Emily Talen [15:50] I think we'll continue to see a lot of planned communities. The question is can we get a better form of planned community? One that pays attention to all the good things, the public space, the sense of community, have a great quality of life, and also be open to everyone. And we can get there. The question is are developers, are institutions like Disney willing to be a little innovative here, willing to be a little creative on the financing side, and ensure long- term affordability? If I could ever talk to a Disney executive, I would say, " Why don't you do a community land trust?" Which is a mechanism where you just take land out of development in the planned community and you devote it to affordable housing. It's an age old model. It originated in the 19th century. It's been tried here and there and it's had success, but it just doesn't catch fire because it requires long- term thinking and often these kinds of developments have very short timeframes.
Mariam Sobh [16:59] I know earlier we touched on the divisiveness of planned communities and I was just thinking about I grew up on Saudi Aramco for a few years of my life, and that was an interesting experience because we had everything in the compound, school, grocery store, movie theater, library, all of that. You never really had to leave if you didn't want to. But there were things like Saudis couldn't go to our school at the time. Now I heard that things have changed. But I'm wondering do these types of planned communities create more social problems than what maybe people thought when they built it, what it was intended for?
Emily Talen [17:34] That's an interesting question because on the one hand, the planned community is all about inspiring sense of community among the residents. And often the residents are like- minded. If there is a diversity, there's a similar social strata. But it's not a sense of community that really has to do with civic responsibility. So, I think that this idea of the sense of community that's supposed to emerge from the planned community might not be a very deep one. It might be pretty shallow.
And the other thing that happens is people don't like to be controlled socially. So, even in a planned community where you're trying to have this sense of, oh, we all care about the community and we all are very much engaged in coming together to create our community, people- … It has been documented that people start to feel manipulated and they're not very happy with that sense of control. In that way it can break down.
Mariam Sobh [18:37] Again, Peter Kindel.
Peter Kindel [18:39] I think a criticism or a concern that often times people have about planned communities, that they may be perceived as exclusive or exclusionary. I think there are several ways we've tried to address this at The Point. I think, first and foremost, it will be a mixed use community, and that complements the idea of a 15- minute city is that you could actually live and work here. We have to produce or build housing types that are mid- market or oriented towards, say, entry level tech workers or entry level workers in general. We do have some single family homes in the project, but it's actually a very small percentage of the housing mix. We have higher density townhome, we have even higher density apartments, some of which will be rental, some condos for sale. These will be in the three- to five- story range.
I think the other idea is that you don't have to live in The Point to work in The Point, and you don't have to work in The Point to live in The Point. It's really a much more fluid idea that you could live at The Point and work in downtown Salt Lake or you could live at The Point and work in one of the neighboring communities, like Draper. So, it's not so regimented that the people that live there work there and vice versa. It's a much more traditional idea of what a city is.
Mariam Sobh [20:07] Are there any planned communities that you think are doing it right, that could be a positive model for the broader sector?
Emily Talen [20:13] As I said, the social diversity within a planned community is going to require some kind of intervention. Hope VI communities, which are government funded mix of all affordability levels, they have had some issues. They've had some problems, but the basic model is there to have planned communities that are part market rate, part just lightly subsidized, and part full on affordable public housing. The community land trust model, which comes from England in the 19th century, Ebenezer Howard and his garden cities. There were those developed planned communities that came out of that theory, we'll call it. Those could also be expanded and they are expanding those kinds of communities are here and there, but we need to ramp up. We need to ramp up.
Mariam Sobh [21:08] Emily, in a moment I'm going to ask you to look forward and think about what the future holds in store for planned communities. Will they continue to thrive or will they have to adjust to the new needs of our built world? But before we dig into that, let's go back to Casey in Playa Vista for a minute.
Casey Kasprzyk [21:25] So, the positives of living in a planned community are that there are a lot of amenities that is covered in the HOA fees that I don't have to maintain, such as a gym and the pool and parks and tennis courts and other sport court areas. So, for me that is a plus, so that I can utilize those things. Also just there is a sense of community, that you belong here, you are a resident of this community. Whereas if you live in another city in Los Angeles, you're just a person living in that city. But here I feel I feel like I am a resident of Playa Vista, which puts me in a group of thousands of people when you live in an HOA. You sign up to follow the rules and that's what maintains order. So, if you don't want to live somewhere where there's an HOA, then that's fine. But choosing that you're somebody that wants order and things maintained. I pay two HOA fees, and they're very expensive. So, I pay one for my division, and then I pay one for the overall community. And I think it's different for the different divisions that you live in, but it is a sizable monthly fee.
Speaker 1 [22:35] Tell me what you like or dislike about living in a planned community like Battery Park City.
Speaker 6 [22:39] It's relatively quiet. It is a community by itself. I've been here since 2005.
Speaker 1 [22:48] Did you move here because you knew it was a planned community or for any other reason?
Speaker 6 [22:53] What I did, I moved from another city and I had a few areas of the town in mind, and one of the things I did was I asked probably half a dozen taxi drivers because they probably know the city better than most. Every single one of them mentioned Battery Park City.
Speaker 1 [23:12] Wow.
Speaker 6 [23:14] No other place in town they all mentioned. So, that narrowed it down, and I go, " This is the place," after I did my searching. I saw bang for your buck. There's several newer buildings, maybe a little bit more space, but that's of course a relative when you're in New York City. But I think it has a lot of charm to it. We call it our little oasis. We still have access to the city, but when you need to kind of get away from it a while and decompress.
Mariam Sobh [23:49] What do you think the future holds for planned communities? Do you think they'll continue to thrive or maybe change in the way that they've been presented?
Emily Talen [23:57] I think they will continue to thrive because the more wealth inequality there is in the world, the more that's creating an incredible demand for planned communities. And there are profits to be made. And so that means there will be more of them, but I think I don't want to be all gloom and doom. I think as we keep working to publicize and make known the success stories of the diverse communities, of the planned communities that have all those good lessons about designing well and public space and if they can be transit accessible, and also diverse through these various programmatic and financing models, we need to just keep pushing that as an option, as a model. And I hope it will gain traction because there are benefits, even for the people who are wealthier in such communities. They have benefits from living in those kinds of environments too. They have better access to a range of different backgrounds and people, and people do value diversity. I still believe that.
Mariam Sobh [25:07] Before we wrap up on that note, what would you do if you created a planned community? If there was an Emilyville, what would that look like?
Emily Talen [25:15] I would take all the lessons from the great planned communities that we have, the design lessons, and I would put those together. The mixtures of housing types, the creative housing types, like courtyard housing, and I would take all of that good stuff and I would use that as the basis of my design. And then I would take a section of the community, and I would give it to a community land trust and I would say, " Hey, community land trust, nonprofit group, come in here and you guys make sure that 30% of this community is affordable to low income people forever and for all time. And I'll just give that to you." And I don't have to worry about it and I can focus on the design and the market rate stuff. That's what I would do.
Mariam Sobh [26:05] Well, I want to thank you so much, Emily, it's been a wonderful time chatting with you. Thank you for joining us on Changing Places. Let's hear from Peter one last time before we go back to Playa Vista to hear from Casey.
Peter Kindel [26:17] I think the future of planned communities is actually moving away from this idea of perfectly planned environments. I think people want a little less formality and structure. They want to live in communities that are diverse, not only in terms of the types of people that live there, but also the types of buildings that are there, the types of environments that are offered. So, that's positive.
We're also seeing a trend towards what I call localness, meaning that people don't want to live in anonymous gated suburban environments anymore. They want to feel like they're part of a community. So, we're seeing more desire to have walkable communities for instance, bike trails that are close and accessible to everybody. Because people are much more conscious of their living environment. So, that's great.
Casey Kasprzyk [27:18] So, sometimes living here though does feel a bit like the Truman Show because it's very maintained. The buildings are painted, the lawns are well manicured. It does feel a little like you're living in a Disneyland. If Disneyland built a neighborhood, this would be it. Again, that's your choice if you want to live in something like that. For me, to live in a single family home in a normal neighborhood and say, not a homeowners' association neighborhood, probably is not for me. But here I feel also a sense of safety too surrounded by so many other people.
Mariam Sobh [27:54] From Riverside to Levittown, Poundbury to Cotino, the world of planned communities is one which may be just down the street yet a world away. We can't force anyone to live in a place we choose for them, but when we're choosing where to live, what really matters? A community feel, the local butcher, an independent cinema. I suppose the big question is, does it matter if those three things are located in the East Village of New York or a planned community in Tempe? What we expect from our communities, planned or otherwise, is always the question we rarely consider, and maybe it's time we did. We all share this wonderfully complicated built world. Whether you're driving to your planned community or just walking down Main Street to get a cup of coffee. But should there be one world for you as well as a world for everyone else? I suppose that's a question for the ages.
I'm Mariam Sobh. This is Changing Places. On our next episode we're going into the world of abandoned houses. We've all seen the spooky house on the corner or the empty rowhouses downtown, but what do they mean to our neighborhoods and cities when they sit vacant for years or decades? Join me as we talk to thought leaders who have a lot of ideas on how to not only save one house at a time, but the soul of a city.
Changing Places is brought to you by Avison Young. Our producer is Andrew Pemberton Fowler. Our sound engineer is Patrick Emile. Our producer assistant is Hugh Perkic, additional production support is provided by JAR Audio.