Paul Smith: Place-Making

Among a small but growing group of developers who build lifestyle communities, an unusual land-visioning process is taking root.

By Patrick L. O’Toole, Senior Editor | January 31, 2002


Thought Leaders
John Knott: Holistic Development
Leslie Dashew: Succession Strategies
Michael Pyatok: Neighborhood Building
Claes Fornell: Customer Science
William McDonough: Eco-Effectiveness
Randy Jackson: Grayfield Villages
Tom & Caroline Hoyt: Exit Strategies
Paul Smith: Place-Making
Joe Lstiburek & Betsy Pettit: Better Building
Verne Harnish: Growth Formulas
Paco Underhill: Shopping Behavior
David Weekley: Human Accounting
Andres Duany & Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk: Home/Work

Among a small but growing group of developers who build lifestyle communities, an unusual land-visioning process is taking root. Before they map out a plan for a new and particularly important parcel, one of the first calls they make is to Paul Smith, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based marketing consultant who describes himself as a professional storyteller.

Smith and his team at Envisioning & Storytelling Inc. create the big ideas and themes that serve as a guide to all subsequent planning aspects — from architecture and amenities to marketing and sales. Their work has spurred the success of Whistler/Blackcomb, a resort community in British Columbia; Terrabrook’s San Miguel community in Puerto Rico; Hillman Properties, a builder of golf course communities in Florida; and Vancouver-based Intrawest.

More recently, Smith’s storytelling has begun to cross over from vacation destinations to mainstream, lifestyle-oriented, master-planned communities. Last year Terrabrook hired Smith to create a unifying vision for 850 waterfront acres 20 minutes from Tampa, Fla. When complete, the story of the community, called MiraBay, will be a fictional account written in the year 2012 from the perspective of a MiraBay homeowner.

“We strive to create a storybook place,” Smith says. “If the person who is going to end up living there is inspired by it enough to want to build their own story there, then we have created a truly magical place.

“This has nothing to do with marble countertops or 2,800 square feet of living space versus 3,000 square feet. It is about how people will experience the place you are about to create.”

What separates Smith’s work from that of other real estate marketing firms is an extreme level of collaboration involving input from every member of the development team. For 21/2 days, Smith leads a creative envisioning process in which finance and operations leaders swap ideas with team members who specialize in sales, interior design, architecture and community management. Twenty-one individuals are required to participate. Seven come from the development company. Seven are professional consultants. Smith selects the seven others for their expertise in related areas. These typically include a local historian or archaeologist, or a planner from local government — whoever seems to fit well with the substantial body of research about the property and the area around it.



“This has nothing to do with marble countertops or living space. It’s about how people will experience the place you’re about to create.”

“It is not enough to overlay an idea with a particular style of architecture,” Smith says. “It has to be an integrated story, and it has to have authenticity.”

For MiraBay, which is adjacent to a mangrove wildlife preserve, this authenticity will result in the creation of the Discovery Center, a sales center that will house exhibits about local flora and fauna, including endangered manatees. The idea is to make the sales center a destination in itself.

But aside from creating compelling and authentic stories to attract home buyers, Smith’s process produces several real-world benefits to the development team as the project plays out. First, the considerable commitment of upfront time by key players is a crucial ingredient. Smith says it creates a group of disciples who know the story forward and backward and are the starting point of a word-of-mouth campaign.

The second benefit, says Smith, is that the experience unifies the development team and helps team members more effectively execute and manage a consistent sales and construction process. He concedes that some “type A” executives get a little nervous during the first day of the envisioning process. But when it is all over, the response is overwhelmingly positive. “At the end we ask them what they are leaving with,” Smith says, “and universally they say how refreshing it was to have all the players together in one room.”

Lastly, Smith argues, a more authentic and consistent story adds real value to a project and, eventually, more money at the bottom line.

“We are able to change the perception of value,” says Smith. “Our projects typically sell for up to twice what the current prices are. We bring projects to the point that our clients no longer simply sell a community, they sell an experience.”

After the two-day envisioning process, the story is written from the ideas generated. From there, an enactment process merges the story with a business plan that often includes value engineering. At this point Smith and his team teach every person involved in the process how to become a better storyteller.

Smith says the genesis of Envisioning & Storytelling was a career writing radio and television copy. He realized that what he enjoyed most was telling stories about places and events, not just in print, but in film and video.

Smith sees an increasing value and role of storytelling in the realm of visioning for land development. “Resort real estate is about making an emotional purchase,” he says. “People buy for escape, sanctuary, a spirit of place that urban developers now dream of.

“It is going to begin happening in urban and suburban settings. It is going to be up to residential builders and developers to rethink what it is that they are doing. The development industry is really locked into a time-tested way of thinking: formulas and systems. They have to break out of that.”


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