Monday, October 18, 2010


Interboro is currently preparing a study of the marketing of private, master planned communities in the United States. For this, we are trying to collect marketing brochures from every master planned community built or planned in the United States between 2006 and 2008. (This hasn't been easy, for any number of reasons.) A preliminary analysis of the brochures suggests an astonishing diversification since the 1980s of both "product lines" and the marketing strategies. One of the newer, more interesting marketing strategies we have come across a few times is the questionnaire.

Private Mountain Communities is an Asheville, NC based company that describes itself as a "trusted authority on Western North Carolina living." A broker of sorts, Private Mountain Communities "matches families with communities that complement their personal taste and lifestyle." Two things stand out about this company. One, they have a storefront--sorry, a "state of the art Discovery Showroom"--in downtown Asheville where you can consult with "independent community advisors," preview community brochures, DVD's and "use interactive explorations tools" to find the community that is right for you. Second, on their website, there is something called a "Community Finder:" an application that "guides you through an easy questionnaire that analyzes your unique interests and lifestyle preferences, such as architectural tastes and preferred amenities, to produce a short list of communities that are right for you." A video on the website underlines the questionnaire's science, stating that the questionnaire is "an algorithm that really takes you down the right path so that you are getting into a subset where you fit. A concept that represents all the communities in this area in a unbiased way.”

The questionnaire is actually more benign than it sounds, asking questions like: "Which of the following area activities are essential to your decision to purchase property?" and "Which of the following on-site amenities are essential to your decision to purchase property?"

Something much less benign is described by Bill Bishop in his book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. Bishop--who was a contributor to the NAI exhibition--writes about a questionnaire that is given to prospective homebuyers in an Orange County, CA development called "Ladera Ranch" whose questions try to get at the homebuyers' values (for example Do you “like to experience exotic people and places?” Or, do you believe “extremists and radicals should be banned from running for public office?”). Here is Bishop: "The Ladera Ranch developers built one section of their subdivision for those who see the Earth as a “living system.” (It’s called “Terramor” and features bamboo floors, photovoltaic cells and, according to the developer, houses that 'might have a courtyard that conceals the front door...kind of cozy and nest-like.') Across the way is a community for those the developer labeled 'Winners.' In Covenant Hills, houses are more colonial than craftsman."

Especially in the second example, the questionnaire is one of those ingenious weapons that, like the "exclusionary amenity," creates a kind of self-sorting. It's one of those weapons that so clearly violates the spirit of the Fair Housing Act, but that seems to do nothing wrong.