COUNCIL REPORT III, Members of the Congress for the New Urbanism
Psychosociology of the Cotton District
by Brian Herrmann
In recent years the Cotton District has garnered the attention of a number of professionals and media outlets working in fields related to planning and architecture. Often, those expressing initial interest find it necessary or beneficial to make a personal pilgrimage to visit this atypical neighborhood. In return, both the Cotton District and Dan Camp have received national acclaim.
I have completed an internship in which I lived with, worked and studied under Camp at the Cotton District in Starkville, Miss. As a result of my own visits and studies, I became interested in a concept I deemed the "functioning of a neighborhood" - true diversity of daily routines. I chose to focus my attention on the potential impact that planning and architecture might have on this concept. If a casual relationship between the two existed, then I felt the Cotton District had the potential to demonstrate it.
The Great Conflict
Many older neighborhoods and newer subdivisions are considered to be works in progress. So too is the Cotton District. Yet, it has more in common with the former than the latter, as progress here entails transforming a conventional subdivision into a multifaceted functioning neighborhood. The Cotton District neighborhood appears to be a bastion of American civic life, and may very well be. Its slow transformation from residential neighborhood to mixed-use institution or town (in function, not incorporation) certainly resembles the pre-sprawl growth patterns of yesteryear. On the surface, the potential town seems the perfect throwback to the way things were. Herein lies the great conflict. Everything related to the beautiful exterior is really the creation of one man. In essence the idyllic all-American town is actually a privately owned real estate (rental) business.
Dan Camp, the man behind the operation, is every bit the determinist planner, authoritarian ruler and successful capitalist. The real Cotton District is by definition a capitalist success story. Yet, it took determinist planning and authoritarian rule in the presence of a larger democratic government to create this façade. Camp is the ultimate capitalist. He uses authoritarian rule as a means for creating his "all American" neighborhood that, through its very existence, scoffs at many federal and local government regulations that promote a type of development not adhered to in the Cotton District. In so doing, Camp exposes the fact that many of these land-use "regulations" disregard true democracy and purist notions of freedom from government regulation. One is left to question whether or not the ideal American town-building model is still realistic, or whether it now requires overwhelming private control and determinism to counteract an equally laden and burdensome system of government regulation, codes and zoning. There are a number of new urban projects underway that will either provide answers or change many of the "regulations" in the process of attempting to find answers.
Pride of Ownership
Quite often, Camp and his family perform the same tasks as his workers, yet the family views the entire district as their home. Though family members are aware of the outside attention given to the Cotton District, this is not their motivating factor. The pride that the family displays is not atypical of ownership, especially home ownership. Because they view the entire district as their home, Camp and his family apply this attitude to the neighborhood. Conversely, the attitude that the majority of Camp's workers conveyed was no different from that found at many construction sites. They lacked this "ownership connection." While they displayed individual pride in their work, the fact that it occurred in the Cotton District seemed to have little impact.
Design and Age Diversity
The cotton District is a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood in which structures demonstrate a variety of architectural styles and types. Diversity takes on an added dimension because of the large student population and students' varied routines. Students' interests, routines, and levels of spontaneity are in constant flux. A neighborhood containing a large student population will have more diversity (daily routines of its inhabitants) than a neighborhood void of such a population. In the Cotton District I found age rather than income to be more critical to obtaining a psychosociologically diverse neighborhood. "Economic diversity" does not necessarily result in true neighborhood diversity and the typical day of the $180,000 household is often not that different from that of the $1.4 million household, in terms of the 9 to 5 routine. By incorporating a student population, Camp presents an alternative method of achieving constant circulation. He averts the risk of creating a neighborhood with little psychosociological diversity despite the fact that the district lacks a great deal of economic diversity.
Design and Behavior
The Cotton District was built with students in mind. Interior and exterior circulation patterns demonstrate this. So too do the higher than normal density levels (over 20 dwelling units per acre) and fewer square feet per individual unit. Students and young professionals gravitate to these efficient, friendly and aesthetically pleasing designs that are geared toward their lifestyle. This observation furthered the need to explore critical questions concerning behavioral attachment and design influence. Design can influence choice, but does it have the ability to affect behavior? Is the same type of pride in one's neighborhood that the Camp family demonstrates also found in the general population, and does it translate to changes in behavior?
Many students indicated that they feel and act as if their behavior impacts their own neighborhood. They view the district as a neighborhood rather than a large housing complex. I believe that this particular neighborhood carries with it a sense of pride dictated by surroundings. It arises from the design and architecture of the district. These feelings have the power to impact behavior, and in the Cotton District they do influence behavior.
A number of well-rounded and highly successful (older) adults who also live in the Cotton District or have a second home there espoused similar views. These adults love the vitality that the students offer, but it is the quirky architecture, layout and pedestrian-conducive location that promotes the feeling that those living elsewhere in Starkville are missing out on something special. All residents seem to agree that the "student-oriented" design and resulting age diversity make the Cotton District a truly unique "functioning neighborhood."
The Economic Generator
Camp's business will not run if his obligations and duties as a landlord cease to exist. Despite the presence of a number of privately owned structures, it is rental units that make up the Cotton District's economic nervous system. These provide Camp's district with a constant economic generator. As with towns of yesteryear, Camp's approach to building is market driven. Time provides stability and allows him the opportunity to finesse certain variables. Timelines are not essential to Camp. He is surrounded by his life's work. The next project will only add another dimension to the main project.
Traditional design principles extend beyond the built environment and into Camp's philosophy on growth as a whole. He has established a situation - much like pre-automotive towns - where the next closest lot is the most logical lot for development (for any use). This is rare. Even rarer is the type of control and patience necessary to see such an approach to growth through.
Dan realized many years ago that students, faculty and certain professionals were willing to pay a little more to live in an environment that was not only conducive to their lifestyle, but also beautiful. This approach puts his buildings in high demand, constantly generating a monthly return, and allows him to have the majority of projects paid for in seven years. Two typically non-economic factors prove to be essential. Design influences both demand and price point, and Camp is able to foster a design advantage because of his accumulated knowledge in many building related activities. He knows how and where to be creative so as to cut overall costs. The money that is saved is devoted to design. Eventually it is returned in the form of higher payments from higher price points than those found in the surrounding market.
The "All-American" Ideals of an Authoritarian
My impressions of the "district as a whole" are vast. The related and intrinsic elements that are often relevant to forming such impressions almost always trace their genesis to some aspect of the Camps' private life. Their actions stimulate or suppress how life in the Cotton District will initially function. They are running a business; therefore they have years of experience in gaining customer allegiance. They are quite realistic as to what living with students constitutes. This fact is critical to the district forming its own character and becoming a "functioning neighborhood."