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VOL. 5, NO. 3 -- SUMMER 2003

TNDs on the Web

The sparkling swirl of online information is an attention-grabbing vortex, like the world's greatest newsstand. I'll readily admit I'm addicted to its allure. One of my favorite activities is finding traditional neighborhood development (TND) websites that feature excellent plans, renderings, photos and descriptions. That interest has been put to use compiling an online directory, and with more than 375 TNDs currently listed, it is the most comprehensive page of TND links on the Web.

It's reassuring to learn I'm not alone in this avocation. The National Association of Realtors reports that 41 percent of homebuyers use the Internet as an information source. That's the same percentage as those who do their house-hunting by newspaper, and the numbers are on the rise -- 79 percent of homebuyers intend to use the Internet the next time they purchase a home. Obviously, the $400 million online real estate marketing industry has much potential for growth.

With all this activity and interest, you'd think that every TND would have its own well illustrated website. Sad to say, that's just not so. Too often, the Town Paper will hear reports and receive press releases about TNDs, only to find they have zero or minimal online presence. So who commissions TND websites, and what do the best examples have in common?

The three main groups making TND websites are designers, developers and municipalities. Designers use project pages as part of a portfolio, to demonstrate their capabilities and accomplishments. Developers use websites as sales tools to generate publicity and contacts with potential homebuyers, renters and commercial tenants. Municipalities use web pages and websites as a record of accomplishment, to demonstrate the efficacy of their economic development and affordable housing programs, and to build public and administrative support.

Even though these are different aims, it is still possible to identify the common elements of a good TND website. A legible site plan is an absolute necessity, because it shows how well various locations in the TND are connected both internally and to surrounding neighborhoods. For instance, a site plan tells you whether it is safe and easy for your kids to walk to a friend's house, to the park or to school. Sometimes a bird's-eye view is used for this purpose.

Street level views are also critical. These may take the form of drawings or photographs, and they illustrate the character of the built environment. Often a real estate website will have elevations or photos of individual houses; however, street level views communicate a different dimension. They show the ensemble of buildings, yards and public spaces that combine to form a streetscape. For TND designers and inhabitants, this is a major point of interest that stands out in the world of real estate.

The website's text should present the project's background and key features. The background story may cover the project's gestation, the main people involved, unique circumstances such as brownfield reclamation, and the goals and values behind the project. Key features include TND amenities that exceed the competition -- local parks and playgrounds, plazas and greens, easy walking access to schools, community centers, transit stops, everyday retail, etc. TND websites can emphasize the public realm and civic places because TNDs include those features while many conventional developments do not, and they are executed with good design quality.

Overall, the look of the TND website should balance clarity and detail. Beware of the "puff piece" syndrome -- pages that are so clichéd and homogenized they don't even gain the viewer's attention. On the other hand, you don't need to smack your visitors with an lengthy exposition about walkable design on the very first page. Just include enough detail on the main pages to entice visitors to find out more. Make the contact information obvious so visitors can follow up with an inquiry, in-person visit, or appointment. Since this is often one of the ultimate goals of a TND website, the design should provide multiple, easy avenues for moving from the virtual world to the real one.

The online presentation of TNDs is somewhat unconventional, but TNDs themselves have some unconventional attributes. A small investment of thought and creativity can mean the difference between obscurity and visibility for a TND in the Internet realm.