What Makes a Place “Real?”

Creating a sustainable community out of nothing is tough. Making it real is even tougher.

I spent a couple of days at Babcock Ranch last month, 17,000 acres of “planned community” in the hinterlands of Southwest Florida. My mind is awhirl with observations and questions that go deeper than the sticks and bricks of homebuilding. I’m wondering what drives people like project creator Syd Kitson to burn their life’s candle for so many years on a vast and sprawling epicenter of mixed-use living.

I wanted to sound off about Babcock, because it relates to bigger questions about housing and “place,” in keeping with our annual homebuilding awards issue. 

Creating a “town” from scratch is an incomprehensibly complex feat. It’s also controversial, with no guarantees of success, let alone completion. It may require a special strain of insanity. 

As I sat down with Kitson, I mentioned that on the long drive through the scrub brush of Southwest Florida to Babcock. I thought of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of meetings and interactions he must have taken before he poured the first foundation here. 

That process took years.  A meeting for every road, bridge, stormwater catchment, school, streetlight and restaurant.  

But what if that was the easy part? What if the hard part is yet to come: making Babcock a place where people want to live full time.

what makes a place real

Homes, including rentals, are selling briskly at Babcock Ranch, Florida, but the development is still very much in its infancy with regard to whether it will become a self-sustaining city.

He’s done all the obvious stuff: pushed for greater integration and real-life interactions. There’s a small town center, along with a few blocks of commercial buildings. A “B-street” section of commercial space should break ground soon. He’s built schools, and opened them up to the poor County in which Babcock nests. They filled up immediately. 

Working against him, however, are Florida’s cranky old white guy politics, big builder formulas, and human nature. Some neighborhoods in the community by Lennar and Pulte, for instance, feel like fortressed enclosures. Kitson says those gates are a sticking point, but they don’t hurt sustainability—which is his red line. 

Other builders in the community haven’t installed them. He hints that gates may one day be phased out. He wants people to live and work here, he says, not think of Babcock as a suburb of Ft. Myers.

Kitson is quick to admit that Babcock isn’t perfect. At this phase of its buildout (about one-fourth complete), It’s more an interlinked collection of separate neighborhoods than a “town.” Acreage has been carefully plotted and drained. Rental housing is under way. An adjacent eye-popping sea of solar panels, owned and operated by Florida Power and Light, can easily power every foreseeable structure. Condos and homes are selling fast. 

But soon comes the real test: letting go.  

Here’s the thing. Real cities have to work out their own story. They may have graffiti, domestic disputes, unruly teenagers, corrupt cops, and political friction. Lawns are not always well groomed. An alligator occasionally eats somebody. 

I’m not suggesting Kitson doesn’t know this. He’s a smart guy, maybe a brilliant one. But he faces the greatest test of his life: Can he steer the ship through the rocks, at the same time letting natural currents flow? 

“I looked around at what was available, and I thought, ‘Where would I like to live?’” he says. “I had no interest in one of those 55-plus communities. I want to be in a place with kids and families and life.”

To actualize the Babcock dream has meant years of compromise with builders, County and State politicians and utilities, but also with buyers. He has to sell homes. Many in this first wave demographic want “Theme Park” Babcock, and may not be on board with “real world” Babcock. 

Theme Park Babcock has cameras at every corner, strict rules about parties and house styles, Christmas tree lightings, a church (currently under construction) and country music concerts. What if Real Babcock wants rap music and a mosque?

“I’m open to anyone who wants to live here,” Kitson says, “as long as they’re not jihadists …”

That’s just a taste of the kind of deep social and cultural tides Babcock will navigate as it evolves into a place people want to stay, not just a resort town like Seaside. Even Epcot started out as Disney’s New Urbanist dream of becoming a real city of the future, only to be “lost” to the theme park zeitgeist. 

I’m rooting for Kitson, but I wouldn’t want his job. I believe him when he says he didn’t take on the Babcock Ranch project for economic gain. There are easier ways to make money. 

But Babcock is a legacy project. It will thrive or dwindle based not just on Kitson’s work, but on the people who move there. Will the now and future residents rise to the challenge? Will they overcome the State’s official embrace of book bans, racism and gun-crazy fear? Will they eschew artifice, and encourage diversity, equity, artistic expression and actual (versus scripted) freedom? 

These are questions that every developer of a sustainable community should ask. But they’re also pertinent to would-be residents. Babcock may evolve into an amazing place to live. But it will need people of courage and conscience. The stage is set. Bring on the players.