How is it possible to develop land that is "close to sacred" to the landowners and yet preserve both the beauty that has always existed in the land and also the family's stories that date back there almost a hundred years? I'm on a charrette this week in Niceville, Florida where we're contemplating that question. Niceville is bounded on the South by Rocky Bayou and on the North by Eglin Air Force Base. The 1,100 acres we're working on at the Northeast corner of town is the last large parcel of developable land in Niceville, which unlike almost the entire rest of the country, is experiencing substantial growth.
The Ruckel family's roots here go back to the 1920s, when James E. Plew, great-grandfather of today's landowners, moved to the area from Chicago. Plew was an inventor, with inventions to his credit ranging from the nose inhaler to the "banana seat" for bikes. He was also an aviator and friend of the Wright Brothers, and donated the original land for Eglin. His children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren have developed most of Niceville and Valparaiso out of what was once family land. The 1,100 acres has long been preserved as a family retreat for fishing, hunting, camping, and yes, aviation: there's a grass landing strip to the West. The recently deceased Walt Ruckel (Plew's grandson) painstakingly mapped out every detail of the land in a hand-drawn map we're using this week as we work with Marion and Steve, his daughter and son, to lay out new places here.
With all this beauty and history embedded in a place, how do you go about developing it? We're trying a few techniques that we believe may work:
Preserve the Old Paths
We are painstakingly following the old paths Walt Ruckel laid out on the map. There is wisdom embedded in an old path that a newcomer can't often know. Sometime's it's obvious, like when a path dodges around an enormous live oak. But more often, the reasons the path runs there have to do with things that can only be known if one has observed subtle nuances of the land for a long time.
We give high value to the places the paths intersect. As a matter of fact, many of these crossroads are becoming the centers of the hamlets, villages, and towns that will one day populate this land. Most of these intersections already have names (more on the names in a moment) which means that there are likely many stories embedded at these crossroads.
If you really want to preserve the character of a path as it becomes a road, it's important to do so in three dimensions. In plan, preserve every little crank and turn rather than straightening them out. Do the same in the third dimension, moving as little earth as possible so that the new road hugs tightly to existing land forms.
Keep the Water Pure
A beautiful sand-bottom creek of crystal-clear water runs through the middle of the land from headwaters at a spring nearby, with fingers branching up into hollows on each side. The water is so clean that Marion stooped down and scooped up two handfuls to drink on our first site tour recently. We plan on using Light Imprint techniques to handle stormwater from the new development in hopes of keeping the waters as clean as they are today.
Build Compact Hamlets, Villages, and Towns
The normal inclination of conventional planning is to carpet the land from edge to edge with development, but then the original character of the land is irretrievably lost. Instead, we're taking the number of homes that have been approved by the city and building them more compactly so that we can preserve over half of the land, with most of it being left completely untouched and some converted to agricultural fields to raise food for restaurants in the hamlets, villages, and towns embedded in these woods.
The outer edges of these settlements will be crisp, like the edge of an Italian hill town, going from urban to wilderness across the twenty-something feet of the drive bounding most of these places. This means that everyone in town can walk easily to the edge, since the edge isn't someone's private back yard, but belongs to everyone instead. In hamlets, you won't be further than a block from nature. In villages, the furthest distance to nature might be at most two blocks, and in the two towns, the greatest distance to the edge will be less than three blocks.
Save the Stories
It's important to use the names that already exist for any places in the land. These don't sound anything like names that a PR department might come up with, and they make salespeople cringe. But they sound real places: Tin Can Junction, Hidden Springs, Five Points, and Two Shot Meadow.
Next, find stories in the natural elements found in the land. Here's an image of the deer moss that carpets much of the high woodland floor. It gives way to the palmetto shoots above as you descend toward the stream. Unlike conventional development, where Fox Run is the subdivision where foxes will never run again, we hope the deer moss carpets the forest floor long into the future… so it's likely that there may be a Deer Moss Crossing somewhere in the woods.
Finally, find ways of memorializing the stories themselves on monuments throughout the place before they're lost to the next generation. There are several hunting towers, for example, most of which are located near intersections. We plan to rebuild these towers in a more substantial fashion where they sit just at the edge of the village green or the town square for futures as observation towers anchoring those civic spaces. Somewhere on these towers, there should be an opportunity for the story of that place to be written.
More soon… I've gotta wrap this up now because the charrette day begins shortly. What other techniques do you have in mind? What else should we be considering?