The Original Green Blog

   This blog discusses in plain-spoken terms various in-depth aspects of Steve Mouzon’s proposition of the Original Green, which is that originally, before the Thermostat Age, the places we made and the buildings we built had no choice but to be green. The Original Green is holistic sustainability, and broader than Gizmo Green. If you’re looking for legacy posts, here’s a page that lists every post since the beginning.


How Living Traditions Learn From Mistakes

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   A living tradition is the best mistake-correction system ever developed in architecture by a large margin, and the reason why is simple math: a living tradition engages an entire society to varying degrees in the design of its buildings, activating everyone with four simple words: “we do this because…” When you empower many to think, you get many possible better ways of doing things. Think of it as crowd-sourcing architectural wisdom.

   This is nowhere more obvious than on what I call the Caribbean Rim, where the climate, conditions, and culture are a gumbo of heat, humidity, and hurricanes seasoned withAfrican, English, French, and Spanish cultural influences. Here’s how it worked:

   If you were fortunate enough to survive a hurricane in 1725, but your house was unfortunate enough not to, when you crawled out of the wreckage of your house and saw your neighbor’s house still standing, you undoubtedly would have said “I’m gonna rebuild like that! Simply put, the wisdom of living traditions was hard-won. It was a significant part of the act of survival.

   Today, “tradition” has a bad rap in architectural circles. It is considered to be a set of handcuffs, restraining architects’ creativity. And depending on how you approach it, the architects may be exactly right.

   Many traditionalists approach architecture as a test of taste. They regulate on the basis of “thou shalt do this because I have better taste than you.” “No you don’t!” “Yes I do!” Repeat endlessly. I have served as a Town Architect since the mid-1990s, doing somewhere close to 10,000 individual reviews during that time. I tried all the normal ways first… long enough to find how they failed. And then I came up with another method where I sit down face-to-face with the designer and builder and explain everything on a foundation of principles rather than taste. “We do this because…” And in all those years, I can count on one hand the number of times someone has left the room in substantial disagreement.

   Simply put, principles are the friend of the architect, the builder, and the owner. Once the basic principles of how best to build in this place are established, everyone is free to thing, create, and develop the best solutions for them.

   This is one of the core foundations of A Living Tradition [Architecture of The Bahamas]. I just finished the second edition, and the totally rewritten first and last chapters contain answers to questions I’ve had for years, if not decades. If you have the new edition or pick it up anytime soon, I’d really love to hear what you think about these new ideas!

   ~Steve Mouzon

One more thing… I’m delighted to be participating in a blogoff again! This one is ArchiTalks, organized by Lora Teagarden, and this week's topic is learning from mistakes. I’ll update the links tomorrow as more posts come online. Enjoy the reads!

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
some kind of mistake

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Learning from mistakes in architecture

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Archi-scar - That Will Leave a Mark!

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
"Learning from Mistakes..."

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Forgotten Mistakes

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Are Architects Experts?

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
A, B, C, D, E...

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Learning from Mistakes

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Learning from mistakes


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The Water Will Come

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foaming waves and their salt spray crashing against a deep blue Hawaiian sky

   Sea level rise is considered a distant problem by millions today; either distant in years, distant in miles, or both, but they are greatly mistaken. I’ve just finished the book The Water Will Come, much of which is set in Miami Beach, where I live. For Wanda and I, the problem is here, and now. I remember the king tides in the fall of 2013, when I recorded South Beach at Sea Level, and I’ve worked with local leaders on ways we might adapt. And the decisions we make as a city today will determine whether we survive in the future, including decisions that allow us to preserve the character of this place that attracts people today from around the world.

   Not every coastal town will survive. Actually, most will not. And the terms of retreat will have a great influence on whether the impact across America is orderly, or whether we descend into chaos, or whether it’s something in between. But make no mistake: when thousands, then soon millions of people begin to retreat from the places that cannot be saved, that great migration will affect all parts of this country, not just the coastlines.

   I was a participant at the CNU Climate Summit in Alexandria last fall, and drew up a proposal for the real estate end game which is laid out below. The key point is that not every place is the same, and so what those places do to adapt will vary greatly.

Elevate & Harden

palm trees march by the iconic Art Deco hotels on South Beach's Ocean Drive

Miami Beach’s iconic Ocean Drive

   Some places have enough money to adapt in place by raising and hardening. Miami Beach is likely to be one of them. I’ve been involved in the conversation there as noted above, so this is a report from the front lines, not just a guess.

Choice Criteria

   The degree of sea level rise is uncertain, of course. City leaders in Miami Beach have aggregated sea level rise projections and are now adapting for their best guess of what would still work a century from now. The choice is a local choice, made by the city and not by larger entities.


   Miami Beach is raising streets; the lowest streets that have had the worst sunny-day flooding are being raised as much as 42”. The elevation tapers to zero near the middle of the island where the natural grade is this much higher. Water and sewer lines are being raised and upgraded on streets that are rising, and the new storm sewers drain to huge underground detention tanks on the West side of the island, from which water is pumped out into the bay. Unfortunately, this leaves the buildings in a hole. Buildings are already flooding as storm drains inevitably clog. To date, the city has been able to plead with insurance to pay for the flooding, making the case that it was a rare event cause by an incomplete tank-and-pump system. It is not. Buildings inevitably will have to elevate. Short buildings can elevate easily; tall buildings can give up their second level and move their ground floor up a level. There may be a “sour spot” of maybe 4 or 5 to 12, 13, 14, or 15 stories where the buildings are too tall to elevate but for which it is not economically feasible to give up a floor. These at-risk buildings are often some of the iconic Art Deco buildings which are a huge source of tourism, and some local architects are salivating at the chance to destroy them and replace them with their own ego towers. If the architects succeed and do not respect the character of what they are replacing, it could be economically crippling to the city to go from being a world-class center of Art Deco to just another beach town with a random collection of architectural styles du jour.


   We have no illusions that anyone is going to bail us out. Fortunately, the math is pretty simple, because insurance premiums decrease the higher buildings are elevated above BFE. With insurance rate trends now, the payback on elevation is probably a decade or less. The absolutely critical key is to get the insurance companies to lay out what the premiums will be at various levels of elevation so that people can make informed decisions. Without this, the entire process will fail.


   Because there is financial incentive for elevating higher, pattern books are needed to deal with the private frontage conditions created by elevation. In all likelihood, buildings will elevate higher than streets, creating different conditions than exist today.


   Galveston elevated both streets and buildings to above the 17’ elevation of the new seawall after the hurricane that remains the deadliest in US history. Many buildings were wood frame, but some were masonry as well, including a large church building. Chicago elevated many blocks of urbanism near the river in the late 19th century because of flooding and disease. They raised both streets and buildings, creating “Underground Chicago,” which is largely used for parking today. Most often, they were elevated a block at a time to avoid the problem of party wall buildings. They were elevated with screw jacks operated by human labor to the beat of a drum to keep the progress equal all down the block. They usually did so without cracking a window pane anywhere in the block, and one landmark hotel was elevated while still being occupied by guests every night! Underground Atlanta did not elevate the buildings, but began by building a series of bridges at the second level which were later connected to form continuous streets. Shopfronts were moved to the new street level and the old street level space was first used for storage, then became an entertainment district complete with speakeasies during prohibition. It remains an entertainment district today, but is currently closed for renovations. Bay Village is a small Boston neighborhood at the southeast corner of Back Bay that began flooding badly when Back Bay was filled, as much of the Back Bay runoff flowed across Bay Village. Almost all of Bay Village is masonry bearing wall construction from the early 19th century and earlier. It was elevated 23'-26’ using manually-operated screw jacks in the mid-19th century, much like Chicago a few years later.

Individual to Receiving City via Insurance

Detroit's vibrant Bricktown street lined with restaurants just before the lunch hour, with string lights above, awaiting the evening

Detroit, given up for dead for decades, could be a classic receiving city.

   This may be the most commonly-used method. It will be the most gradual and orderly method, and will likely happen over a number of years in most places. At best, this method compensates homeowners a maximum of $250,000 by flood insurance plus whatever price they can get for their flooded home.

Choice Criteria

   In the wake of repeated insurance rate hikes in places not wealthy enough to elevate & harden, individuals will realize that it’s simply too expensive for them to live in this place any longer, and will choose to move elsewhere. This will work best in the early years, when there are still buyers for the real estate being vacated, albeit at reduced rates. Later, when there are no more buyers for anything higher than just the land value, this may become more chaotic, especially once cities can no longer afford to service the flooding areas.


   In order to walk away from their home, there needs to be a broadly-understood narrative that compares their cost of ownership all those years with the cost of renting. If someone can say “I would have spent more renting than what I spent owning,” then it makes it easier to walk away.


   Even if they wait long enough that their property is widely recognized as being uninhabitable, there will likely be some uses for the land that gives it some value, so they may be able to sell it for something like a rice farm, which is expected to be flooded part of the year. The more likely transaction is to a developer looking to aggregate properties to the point they can elevate and harden the property for some use, whether resort or industrial. In short, they may be able to sell out at a steep loss, but leave with some cash in their pockets beyond the insurance proceeds.


   There will likely be sites and apps aggregating cities looking to attract sea level rise refugees, and laying out their proposals. “Our deal is better than Detroit’s deal, and here’s why.” At the very least, the move itself should be covered. One aspect of the sites and apps is that they should tag trades and skills the places are looking for, so a grocer or a metalworker could decide where they’re most needed. Another essential tool will be the single-crew workplace, as the refugees are unlikely to be able to set up their new operations at the scale of their old. Single-crew workplaces can operate from tiny quarters such as food carts and retail shacks such as Perspicasity at Seaside, where those humble plywood boxes are so beloved that the Town Founders have been unable until now to remove them and replace them with something more substantial. Without single-crew workplaces, many refugees would not be able to set up in business again. Receiving cities must therefore have codes which allow single-crew workplaces in temporary quarters, at least in Receiving Zones. Many Katrina Cottage principles will be in play here, allowing people to regain a foothold in their new home with a tiny footprint which they can expand later.


   Seaside, Florida is the birthplace of the New Urbanism and also the best precedent in our time for a broad spectrum of temporary structures. Single-crew workplaces exist all across the developing world, especially along the Caribbean Rim.

Individual to Receiving City
via Government Order

protesters massed on the streets of Paris with banners and placards

Serious protests will likely lead to worse things in relocation by government order.

   This may be a common method as well, but will be more disruptive than the methods above. See New Orleans ex-mayor Ray Nagin’s proposal to abandon the Lower 9th Ward, and the firestorm that ensued, prompting him to withdraw it 24 hours later. Telling people they cannot come back home is one of the most difficult things a politician will ever attempt.

Choice Criteria

   This is a mandate by the city, the state, or the federal government. The individual property owner has no choice under this model.


   The first measure is likely martial law, without which there could be a revolution, depending on how broadly the evacuations are ordered. If several cities in one region are evacuated, a revolution is likely; if statewide or broader, count on it. Beyond that, there must be a strong story-telling initiative of the renting-vs.-owning narrative described above.


   The ordering entity must bring truckloads of cash, or the revolution may proceed anyway, even if it’s only ordered in a city or two. Of all methods, this will be the most expensive, and will likely get tied up in the courts for years as countless homeowners sue the government.


   First, bring force because this method could get out of hand and quickly turn ugly. Beyond that, the government issuing the order needs to be actively promoting the story-telling and the relocation apps, and should probably be prepared to help the receiving cities with mobile structures for dwellings and single-crew workplaces in their new hometowns. The ordering entity should also be prepared to provide refugees with food for their journeys and some colder-weather clothing for the long term, as most migration will be northward.


   Antigua Guatemala (the old Guatemala City) was hit with an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, and a flood within about 15 minutes in 1773. The earthquake/eruption shattered the volcano's crater, which held a lake, hence the flood. The government deemed the city cursed and ordered everyone to leave for the current Guatemala City, under penalty of death. Some did not comply, of course, and hid in the ruins for decades, subsisting on avocados, hence their nickname “panza verde,” or “green bellies.” This will happen in our day as well.

Neighborhood to Receiving City
via Insurance

neat, almost festive mobile home community just off the water in Bradenton Beach, Florida

Tight-knit, low-lying, low-budget community

   Some neighborhoods, because of their family and civic bonds, may elect to move together to a receiving city when their homes become uninsurable.

Choice Criteria

   Neighborhood and family elders will make the decision to leave on economic issues centered on insurance price hikes.


   This will be one of the most orderly evacuations and require the fewest imposed measures, because the decision to leave will have been made by the elders. The renting-vs.-owning storytelling will be a strong measure, imposed by the most trusted members of the neighborhood.


   The financial model will be similar to that of Individual to Receiving City via Insurance: a combination of insurance proceeds and real estate sales at much-reduced prices. And to make matters better, community elders are likely to negotiate better deals with the receiving city than any individual could.


   The tools should be largely the same as Individual to Receiving City via Insurance, with the immediately preceding caveat about the better negotiated deal.


   I don’t know of an entirely parallel precedent, but study the migration of entire rural communities from Kentucky to Ohio in the 1950s seeking work. My mother’s family was from rural eastern Kentucky and the entire immediate family moved to suburbs of Cleveland in this era (but without the help of insurance).

Neighborhood to Receiving City
via Government Order

   This will be like Individual to Receiving City via Government Order, but much more orderly because the government entity will negotiate the departure with community elders, who will then persuade the community as a whole. Also, because the neighborhood will be moving largely intact, it will seem less disrupted in its new home than individuals would be moving alone. The downside is that because they are moving as a large group, that is likely to be disruptive to their new hometown unless it is a place like Detroit with large abandoned areas.

Individual to New Town
via Insurance or Government Order

Bento Cabins designed by DPZ CoDesign

DPZ CoDesign Bento Cabins

   This method will invoke the most New Urbanist tools and techniques, and this may be more common than is generally assumed today. The standard narrative is that governments at all levels will be financially stressed by sea level rise refugees and will be less likely to fund the construction of new towns, but new towns in the US have only rarely been built by government anyway. They have almost always been built in this country by private town founders.

   There is a very different dynamic in play with new towns versus receiving cities. A receiving city is one which has experienced failure of some sort in the past, and therefore has underinhabited areas available to receive sea level rise refugees. Detroit is the iconic receiving city. A new town, on the other hand, is emblematic of a fresh start. Some people are more drawn to places with long histories and established culture; others are drawn to places fresh and new, but with most of their cultural assets not yet built.

   For most of American history, the inaugural condition of a new town was dirt streets lined with tents, until the people could build log cabins, sod huts, or some other humble dwelling to seriously get started with their new life. Fortunately, we’ve moved a bit beyond those early American starting point, and some really smart people are working on some cool alternatives. DPZ was one of the founders of the New Urbanism, and Andrés Duany and friends at DPZ have been spending most of the last couple years designing a series of mobile dwellings such as the Bento Cabins shown above which can easily be used to found a new town or to reinhabit parts of  a receiving city.

Choice Criteria

   An individual or family could choose to move to a new town over a receiving city for reasons as varied as they are. The only commonality I anticipate is that the appeal of a fresh start in a new place could make the move easier emotionally to those moving, so they may be less predisposed to be part of the uprising that will take place in many places evacuated by government order. The better the founding stories of the new towns, the easier the move may be. Governments ordering evacuations should take note, and do everything they can to help the new towns succeed. As a matter of fact, the success of the new towns may play as large a role as any in limiting violence due to sea level rise.


   The strongest story-telling measures will come from the destination town, not the departure town. As with other migrations, the renting-versus-owning departure narrative must be strong, but that should be outweighed by the story of the new town, which can and should be powerful, in large part because the new place hasn’t screwed up anything yet.


   Because this process works best with more financially solvent refugees, new arrivals are more likely to have significant assets than those of other migrations. This bodes well for the relative success of the new towns.


   The apps and sites mentioned above will be helpful, but due to the scale of the new towns versus the much larger receiving cities, the appeals to certain trades, skills, and businesses can be more precise. “We need a grocer” is more impactful than “we need a few more grocers,” and more likely to get a grocer to move there.


   This is what happened in almost every US frontier town of the 19th Century. We’ve done this before; we can do it again. That was the westward expansion; this is the inward expansion.

Old Town to New Town

red & white cottage at the Waters in Alabama flying the red, white, and blue

New town shops and dwellings that don’t start as mobile structures should still start small so as to not
burden the financially stressed people moving there from their old town.

   This method is rare, and requires the most work, as the governance of the new town must be set up in advance in the new place by the leaders of the old town, who must have agency in the new place.

Choice Criteria

   The choice to move from an old oceanfront town to a new inland town is a decision made by the city leaders, who then persuade their citizens (or at least the great majority of them) to make the move with them.


   The story-telling here must be heroic in order to succeed. Enticing individuals from coastal places all over to a new town is easy compared to the much taller task of persuading the great majority of the residents of a particular place to move to a new town somewhere else. But the benefits of maintaining cultural connections and supportive friendships is great, so this method should be encouraged.


   Because the town moves largely intact, the business owners and employees largely retain their original roles in the new place.


   Fewer of the tools above are needed here, because there is less disruption of connections. The grocer here will be the grocer there, for example. The big difference will be the fact that pretty much everyone will be impoverished by the move, and so lean urbanism tools like single-crew workplaces will be important to allow people to restart their lives, but at a smaller scale.


   I haven’t found confirmation yet, but I believe that Anderson, Indiana was founded by people from a Tennessee town which picked up en masse and migrated there.

   ~Steve Mouzon

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Planting Seeds of Better Design

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   If you want to have the most sustainable healing impact on our damaged built environment, the architectural ideal of the lone genius isn’t the best way to go about it. If you have a choice between becoming that lone creative genius yourself and helping many others do better work, then by all means choose the latter.

   Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk are the two highest icons of this approach in my experience. Once, they were partners in Arquitectonica, a high-profile Miami firm doing unusually good work that changed the face of South Florida and helped transform Miami from the decrepit victim of the Mariel boatlift into arguably the most glamorous city on this continent. Yet what they did post-Arquitectonica at their firm DPZ dwarfs their previous work because they learned this simple lesson: you can do far more good by helping many do better work than just by doing better work yourself. And so they opened doors for many and propelled them into realms they never could have previously imagined. Wanda and I are two such beneficiaries of their generosity.

   But Andrés and Lizz would have never found us had we not found a way to move in this direction ourselves. It all began with the conversation with Wanda in a grocery store parking lot mentioned in the last post. From that point, I began thinking of things we could create once and distribute to many. The following are some of those tools and resources:

Stock House Plans


Ash Lawn

   I had been taught that it is disgraceful to design anything without knowing the intricacies of the site. So designing a stock house plan must surely be akin to architectural malpractice. But at some point, I read where 97% or so of the homes built in the US are built from stock plans, not custom designs. If that is so, is it not our responsibility to try to help elevate the level of stock plan design? Wanda and I thought so, and looked into several outlets, eventually settling on Southern Living, the most reputable source of good stock design in the region, populated frequently by New Urbanist plans.

   Our first design, Ash Lawn, was our homage to Jefferson’s Monticello and opened many doors for us in 1996. We continued to design new plans pro bono for a year or so, until we built a good enough body of work that people started seeking us out… and some of those plans ended up on the Plan of the Month page as well.

Town Architect


   A Town Architect is someone who reviews other people’s designs in a neighborhood or town to ensure that all the buildings are neighborly, and that the vision of the place is carried on. The first place to use our plans was one I was able to steer in the direction of the New Urbanism, and it became the first TND (traditional neighborhood development) in town. They soon hired me to be the Town Architect there, and I continue to serve as Town Architect in several places. I quickly discovered that we can do far more good this way. Working as an architect myself, I can get one excellent design out per month if it’s small and simple and I do nothing else. But working as a Town Architect, I can help dozens of designs get better in a number of places. To me, the balance of benefits is not even in question.

   Seven years into my Town Architect career, I had tried every method except the Resident Town Architect, in large part because I couldn’t afford to live in the places where I worked. Every method had flaws. But I kept tinkering with it until I came up with the method I use now, where I come once per month and sit across the table from the designer, builder, and owner (if it’s not being built speculatively) and lay out the principles of getting stuff right, not just the particulars of where they got stuff wrong. This has proved to be a huge boost to starting a new living tradition of architecture, which is the ultimate tool for planting seeds of better design. And it all works on the basis of “we do this because…"

Catalog of the Most-Loved Places


   In the late 1990s, I had a debate with another Town Architect about a window detail, and he wasn’t persuaded. It was Friday afternoon, so I took off on a photo safari to get some pictures that might help. But somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that it might be useful to shoot every house in the neighborhood. When I returned home, I shot the downtown historic district throughout the weekend, and by Monday morning, the Catalog of the Most-Loved Places was underway. For several years, I just shot great places for my own benefit for some time, but then it occurred to me that others might find the images useful as well. When Andrés Duany came to town in 2002 to design the Village of Providence (where I have served as Town Architect almost ever since), the Catalog seemed to be one of the items with which he was most enamored, which led to a collabortion spanning almost two decades at this point.

Traditional Construction Details & Patterns


   That first place to use our plans was nerve-wracking, due to a development partner who has long since gone elsewhere. The landowners were complete gentlemen. But the other guys were allowing all sorts of ostentatious stuff, and so I knew I had to do something to steer the place back to the original vision. I developed a collection of construction details to help steer the place, and in the interest of expanding the collection, I bought a set of details from McGraw-Hill. When I got it, my response was “our stuff is a lot better than this,” so I called them up and told them. Their acquisitions editor said “you can send me your stuff if you like, but I can’t guarantee I’ll ever look at it.” I FedExed it anyway, for morning delivery. At 10:10, she called and said “you weren’t kidding… this is great stuff. We’d like to publish you!”

   And so they did, first digitally, then in a book of 1001 details that was as thick as War & Peace. A few years later, they published Traditional Construction Patterns, which remains a bestseller on Amazon to this day. Those books opened a secret door: we discovered that if you’re an author, you get all sorts of respect you never got before, even though you’re the same person you always were. Everyone should put their life’s work out there, where it can benefit others.

The New Urban Guild

   Nathan Norris and I founded the Architects’ Guild in 2001, and he encouraged me to rebrand it myself as the New Urban Guild when concerns came up over the fact that not every architect is an architect in all states. The Guild approached the problem of better design from the supply side: if we designers working in the traditional neighborhoods of the New Urbanism could get together and share what we knew, we should get better at what we do, right? And it worked out that way; I’m a much better architect today as a result of working side-by-side with these rare talents.

Living Tradition Pattern Books


   We began writing architectural pattern books starting nearly twenty years ago. Originally, they were all style-based, which meant they were based on a random collection of historical styles the developer thought would sell well. And while they did improve the quality of the architecture markedly, they had a big problem: If you use a style-based pattern book to replicate a historical style today, and use it again in fifty years, you’ll get the same result. But anyone with a copy of an architectural history book like Bannister Fletcher’s can easily see that architecture has always evolved over time, like a living thing. So that type of pattern book had no power to bring architecture back to life.

   I worked on this dilemma for years, and discussed it with the top pattern book experts. Nobody had answers. But finally a fortuitous conversation unlocked a mystery I had carried with me since the day after Thanksgiving, 1980. Here’s the full story. The answer was quite simple, and bound up in just four words: “we do this because…” If every pattern in a pattern book begins by saying what to do, then explaining why, it gives everyone working on designs the license to think again, rather than just following a recipe. And so architecture can take on a life of its own again and spread, long after the pattern book author is gone.

   But in order to be able to explain why we build the way we build here, you can’t use random styles. Instead, you have to tease out what is the most indigenous and sustainable architecture of the region, from rural to urban and from vernacular to classical. Only then does “we do this because…” have a chance at deep meaning.

   Our most notable book to date is A Living Tradition [Architecture of The Bahamas], which won a charter award from the Congress for the New Urbanism just after its release a decade ago. I’m delighted that we finished the second edition earlier this year. The meat of the book (the patterns) have been freshened a bit, but the first and last chapters have been entirely rewritten, and are filled with things I’ve been trying to figure out for years. If you’re interested, here’s where you can find it on Amazon.

   Thanks in advance for your interest in the book! And if you get one, please let me know what you think!

   ~Steve Mouzon

One more thing… I’m delighted to be participating in a blogoff again! This one is ArchiTalks, organized by Lora Teagarden, and this week's topic is designing for others. I’ll update the links tomorrow as more posts come online. Enjoy the reads!

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
designing for others – how hard could it be?

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
"designing for others"

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
How To Design for Others

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Just say no

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Designing for Others

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Designing for others

Anne Lebo - The Treehouse (@anneaganlebo)
Designing for people


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You'll receive an email from me with the subject line "Mouzon Design: Please Confirm Subscription." Click Yes to confirm your subscription for A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas] book updates.

A Strange Career Path

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composite selfie

An old-style selfie… the Photoshop version. And that’s Sally on the right, on the first day I met her when Wanda brought her home from North Carolina.

   Most architects chart their own path, but Wanda has changed my career path on so many occasions that it’s almost more her story than it is mine. We got married after my first year in architecture school, and while it seems unthinkable judging from pictures of us like the one above, she already had advanced degrees (microbiology and bacteriology) before I graduated from high school… due in part to the fact that she was really smart and graduated early.

   But in any case, Wanda would entertain herself in the evenings by coming down to the studio where we were all slaving away on our projects, and got intimately acquainted with what an architecture education was all about. She showed up at all my juries that occurred when she was off work, and eventually asked me this question: “In all branches of biology, and indeed of all science, there are standards to which ideas must measure up, otherwise they are discounted. At their core is the scientific method. Buy you guys in your juries do better or worse seemingly based solely on who is the best debater. Why is that? Is there no standard in architecture by which you can say ‘this is better than that?’”

   I had no answer. Nor did my professors. They all talked about genius, creativity, and freedom of expression, but only once in my academic career did I have any conversations with a professor who even hinted at anything that could be considered standards of goodness in the built environment. That professor was Dan Woodfin, who just retired from Ball State this year. He was my thesis advisor and a big advocate of pattern languages. I was fortunate to meet the author of the idea, Christopher Alexander, briefly many years later just after creating his Athena Medal graphic from a bronze casting at the Congress for the New Urbanism. I remain good friends with one of his close colleagues, Michael Mehaffy, to this day. The idea of languages of patterns have been invaluable to me throughout my career, and lies at the foundation of the idea of living traditions.

   But back to Wanda. On the day after Thanksgiving 1980 she and I were at my parent’s home in Huntsville, Alabama. We had eaten too much the day before, so she and I, along with my sister Susan and her boyfriend at the time, ventured out to Mooresville, Alabama to walk off some turkey because Huntsville was completely unwalkable in those years. I’ve told this story several times on this blog, most recently here, but I’ve told it as my questions to myself. In reality, Wanda was asking several of the questions as I recall it now. “Steve, your professors tell you you’re the greatest generation of architects ever because you have computers and your builders have bigger power tools, but how could these simple farmers and tradespeople have built a better town in 1818 than the best of you can today? I had no answer. But I took the mystery home with me, feeding it and watering it until the answer opened up almost a quarter-century later.

   A year after that Thanksgiving, we were lying in bed about to go to sleep when she asked me a question that again rocked my career: “Why is it that you refuse to design anything that anyone else I love would love?” “Do I?” “Of course!” “How do you know?” “Have you ever listened to non-architects talk about architecture?” “No, our professors tell us that we should educate our clients!” “Well, if you’d listen to some of them, you might actually learn something!” And so that began a decades-long quest to try to figure out what non-architects actually love, and why. Along the way, I discovered that lovability is actually the first foundation of sustainable architecture. If it can’t be loved, it won’t last.

   I could go on for hours with all the ways Wanda has redirected my career path, but this post would be far too long. Here’s just one more: We were standing in the parking lot of a grocery store in the late 1990s when she said “in the medical profession, I see many doctors who live lavish lifestyles, but when they retire, they have nothing left to sell because the only thing they ever had to sell was their time. And if they keep up that lifestyle, they very quickly come to poverty. You could do the same. You should instead think of creating tools useful to many people which you can build once and sell many times. And over the two decades since, that is exactly what we have done. At our core, we are now tool-makers, hoping to build things that will benefit many people we will never meet, in places we may never go, both during our lifetimes and beyond our time. That’s our hope, and we’re sticking to it.

   ~Steve Mouzon

One more thing… I’m delighted to be participating in a blogoff again! This one is ArchiTalks, organized by Lora Teagarden, and this week's topic is career path. I’ll update the links tomorrow as more posts come online. Enjoy the reads!

Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols)
Well, How Did I Get Here (Again)

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
a paved but winding career path

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Career - The News Knows

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
#architalks 41 "Career Path"

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
A Winding Path

Drew Paul Bell - Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell)
Career Path

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Career Path of an Architect (And Beyond)

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Career Path(s)

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Career Path

Actually, there’s another “one more thing” … Walk Appeal is the book Wanda and I are working on now. Please feel free to subscribe for updates!

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Fathers Day for Architects - The Empty Seat

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old empty seat

   I suspect most of my colleagues writing in this blogoff will have really happy, uplifting things to say about Fathers Day and architecture, but I have a different, darker view… but also a way to change it for the better, at the end. See the empty seat in this long-ago photo? That was mine. But I bailed out of our family vacation at the last minute because I had too many pressing deadlines, so Wanda took Sam and David anyway, leaving me to satisfy my clients’ demands. Simply put, this profession can eat you up, and leave you with many regrets.

   The architect I worked for after graduation lamented that he felt badly about the fact that he worked so hard in the early years of his career. “I feel like I never got to know my daughter,” he said repeatedly. But when the deadlines came, he pushed us all just as hard, and the fact that we had been conditioned to long hours in school with all the all-nighters meant that it was far too easy to fall into the trap of 80-hour weeks when the deadlines came. And when I opened my own firm in 1991, 80-hour weeks became my new normal, as that’s what I averaged over the course of each early year. Eventually, that grew to a 90-hour average about the time this photo was taken, and the last three years I kept timesheets I was averaging over a hundred hours per week. So in those years, I was pretty much an absentee father, and nothing will ever give me those years back with my kids.

   Why do we do this to ourselves? Answers could range from the culture of the profession to the pressure we feel due to under-valuing of the profession to many other things, but I believe there’s also a dark underlying motivation nobody talks about: the necessity of uniqueness. For most of history, the high standard in architecture was excellence. But beginning in the late 1920s to early 1930s, that standard was displaced by a new high standard of uniqueness. If you wanted to be significant, you must be unique. I believe this was driven in part by the ascendency of Modernism and its love of the new, but also by the rise of the modern architectural press, which was seeking novel things to publish, not just the same old stuff from last year.

   The necessity of uniqueness is welcomed by the rare geniuses who are able to crank out excellent unique things in a steady stream. But it’s a recipe for failure for everyone else. Unfortunately, almost all academies base their teaching on the premise that they will educate the next Frank Gehry. So what actually happens in school is a curious dance of deception. A normal student usually did their best work when they were ripping off something a master had done. And because of the necessity of uniqueness, there was a vast store of published work to choose from. I remember the game. Whenever someone did something particularly well-executed, we all set about on a frantic search to find the original in recent magazines from which it had been plagiarized, all while the student was asserting it was a unique creation.

   There was one guy who was different; he made no mistake that he was a huge fan of Richard Meier, and ripped him off regularly. One Sunday afternoon, I remember him coming into the studio and laughing at us all… “you bunch of fools! You’ve been slaving away all weekend, haven’t you? And you’ll probably pull an all-nighter tonight to get done for the jury tomorrow, won’t you? Watch what I do!” And he sat down and in about 4 hours had produces a competent Meier ripoff. And got an A the next day. Because speaking in a known language is immeasurably easier than trying to create your own new language. Every. Single. Time.

   I believe that if we want to take our family lives back, and actually be good parents as architects, we really must discard this ridiculous necessity of uniqueness the profession has been burdened with for nearly a century. Children of future generations of architects will thank us for making this break from the recent past.

   The wisest and most effective way to do this is to seek out the most sustainable architecture of your region and begin working in that language of architecture. Much of it was probably worked out by the old folks before the Thermostat Age, so this is not something you’ll have to completely invent yourself. But if you learn why they did what they did, then you’ll be able to follow those principles to update the architecture, because some of today’s needs didn’t exist several generations ago. So architecture can take on a life of its own and live again, evolving to be the most current architecture of the day, but based on principles instead of just raw novelty.

   Wanda and I have dedicated ourselves in recent years to building tools that help others do better work rather than pushing to do more design ourselves. When you work within known languages of architecture, it is easy to build tools many others can use because we use the same “words,” or patterns, of the language. For example, we’re about to publish a broad and deep collection of SketchUp components for southeastern US languages of architecture, and another for the architecture of the Bahamas. I’ll blog on that when it goes live.

   In a world where the sharing economy is so strong in so many other realms, why should architects not be allowed to share? Let’s give up this harmful necessity of uniqueness that has caused so much neglect of our families for so long, and speak in known architectural languages. The public realm will benefit greatly but the greatest beneficiaries will be our children.

   ~Steve Mouzon

This is a Blogoff by some of the same characters who bring you #ArchiTalks each month. My colleagues’ posts are here:

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
Happy Fathers Day #archidads

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
The Dad -- The Architect

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
#Archidad - A modern approach

Rusty Long - Rusty Long, Architect (@rustylong)
Life as an Archidad

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Being ArchiDad

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)

Larry Lucas - Lucas Sustainable, PLLC (@LarryLucasArch)
A Daddy Architects Work Life Blur and My Escape

Jared W. Smith - Architect OWL (@ArchitectOWL)
ArchiDad on Father's Day

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Starting Wrong - The Amazon Mistake

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   The 20 cities that are finalists for Amazon's HQ2 are starting out with a classic error of 20th Century thinking, and it is a mistake with colossal implications which may reverberate in the winning losing city for decades. It’ll be the “winning losing” city because while it will win the competition, it will be at risk of losses bigger than the win because winning a single big prize like HQ2 dims focus on the many small but fundamental things cities need to do in order to prosper in the 21st Century. If cities don’t get the small things right, One Big Thing like HQ2 won’t save them. If they do get the small things right, they may eventually have some home-grown Big Things no matter where HQ2 goes.

   238 cities originally pursued HQ2, and there will be one winner among the 20 cities on the shortlist. Several cities on the list are already coughing up multi-billion dollar incentive package proposals for Amazon, which is racing Apple and Google to be the first trillion-dollar company. So chances are good that no matter how much inducement money (or corporate welfare, if you prefer) the winning losing city forks over to Amazon, the relative cost to the city of those billions will be greater than the relative benefit to Amazon. There’s a cause founded last week by Richard Florida that asks competing cities to support a non-aggression pact. Nearly a hundred high-profile urbanists are signatories to the cause, and I’ve signed the petition on because this is a right first step.


   But the real questions (especially for the other 237 cities) are these: how have we become such suckers for pursuing the One Big Thing we’re very unlikely to get, and what should we be doing instead? We’ve been sold on the efficiency of bigness since at least the 1920s, captivated by the marketing slogan “we’re growing bigger to serve you better.” But somewhere along the way, we haven’t just made it easier for big things; we’ve actually exterminated most small things. In agriculture, that came in 1971 when Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz began bellowing “get big or get out!”

Starting Small

   What is the starting point of building a stronger city or town that we’re more likely to sustain long into an uncertain future? Anyone familiar with the Original Green knows there are four foundations of sustainable places: they must be nourishableaccessibleserviceable, and securable. These are physical characteristics. But the societies that inhabit them must also embody certain foundation characteristics if they hope to be able to keep inhabiting those places long into that uncertain future. Two of those characteristics are a good education system and a strong middle class. Improving the education system and a growing middle class are two really big things, but the starting points are small things, most of which cost only tiny fractions of the sacrifice of luring One Big Thing.

Spending Small But Leading Large


   Amazon’s 237 losers shouldn’t just slink off and lick their wounds and then forget about it. Instead, they should use the experience as an opportunity to ask this question: “Are there things we can do that cost a lot less than landing Amazon, but that will have better long-term benefits?” As unthinkable as that sounds with the Titanic focus on the One Big Thing, the answer is probably “yes” for most of them. But here's a crucial caveat: All measures described here, while inexpensive enough to risk occasionally sounding silly, can only work if they have a serious champion in your town. Otherwise, the inertia of the status quo will ensure that none of them happen. So find that group or that person who’s willing to stand up to business as usual, and is strong enough to stand up to one or more of your city department heads, otherwise you’re wasting your time. There are two types of people in the world: those who can tell you why something can’t be done, and those who get stuff done. The latter type is harder to find, but you must have at least one of them. Here’s what they need to work on:


   Good schools are essential to towns that can be sustained long into an uncertain future. Unfortunately, quality of education is not a problem solved by simply by throwing more money at it. Studies have repeatedly shown that there is not a strong correlation between education spending and high achievement. Outliers abound. Techniques suggested here focus on what has been the hardest nut to crack with education: fostering a culture where education is valued more highly, and which gives kids hope.



   Few characteristics of a society are stronger indicators of long-term stability than a robust middle class. But unlike the recent past when many families remained in the middle class for generations, it is now a more tranient status in the US and abroad. There are faster paths to wealth today than ever before, and disruptive events such as the Great Recession move millions quickly down and out of the middle class. Rebuilding the middle class is now, more than ever, a continuous challenge. The middle class is built from the bottom up, not the top down, as those who were once wealthy tend to find their own way back to wealth more easily the second time. At its core, middle-class-building starts with the small, the young, and the disadvantaged. Help those among them who want to start their own businesses, and they will in time hire others who would rather collect paychecks than write them. And those local businesses will help both owners and employees get into the ranks of the middle class.

The Settings

   Cities do not need to build a lot of new things to help fuel the middle class. Chances are, they already have many assets sitting unused all over town. Adopt a policy of No Fallow Land that states that every unused piece of city property is a potential setting for initiatives to help citizens join the middle class by starting new stuff. A vacant lot can be a community garden. An under-used parking lot can become a food cart pod. Empty buildings can be used like this:

Open Maker Spaces


   Identify neighborhoods most in need of recovery and open a maker space in each of them because time and again, they have become morning’s first light of recovery in a struggling neighborhood, and the first hint that place can be cool again. After that, continue with more stable neighborhoods. A maker space needs little more than wide-open space, a (mostly) leak-free roof, electricity, and running water. It is here that people come to re-learn the lost arts and crafts of making stuff. They also teach other makers what they’ve learned, so it’s half-laboratory and half-school.

   What they learn varies as much as their locations; a maker space in the Bahamas probably shelters those relearning something about living in a nautical nation, while one in Boston might focus more on technology. Or not. It all depends on the interests of those using them.

   Be sure to put maker spaces on the field trip schedule for local schools. Not only is it interesting for kids to see what the makers are doing, but there’s a pretty good chance that some of the kids might actually know more about some of the tech things than the makers, and be able to help them out… and maybe even come back after school.

Allow Temporary Single-Crew Shops

   Single-crew workplaces that are temporary or even mobile allow people to open their own businesses years or even decades before they could have afforded a bricks-and-mortar store… if ever. Put another way, raise the initial threshold to brick-and-mortar stores, and most people will never get started and the middle class will not thrive like it could have. Temporary single-crew workplaces run from the most ephemeral farmers market tents to food carts and shop sheds. In every case, they can be moved to another location whenever the town has a higher or better use for the land on which they’re sitting.

Build Craft Workshops


   Once someone has figured out how to do something useful, they need a more established place to do it longterm. When someone first moves out of a maker space into their own workshop, their needs are small. They probably need only enough space for one person to work, plus space to store their tools. Locate workshops on the borders of public spaces (plazas and sqares are best) for three reasons: it will make those civic spaces more interesting while helping create enclosure, drawing more people, and some of those people will become customers of the craftspeople. The third reason might be the most important: by being highly visible in a public place, kids are likely to see them working while coming home from school, and some of them might be inspired to try their hand at a craft someday.

Start Coworking Spaces

   Of the places to work, coworking spaces are the most expensive because they’re built just like a regular office. Their economy comes from the fact that each person uses only a very small part of the building.

Reopen the Old School


Legendary Bahamian craftsman Joseph

Saunders will soon be 91.

   Some old skills will never be needed again in most places. Saddle repair, for example, is a craft once found in every town, but now likely to be kept alive only in places where lots of people still ride horses. But there are many skills we’re now realizing we’d like to have back. Unfortunately, the last people to know how to do them are now aged or dying. Find an old abandoned school or similar structure (church building? office?) and gather the old craftspeople there to teach the young who want those abilities back again.

The Deal

   Remember, the original idea was “take a small fraction of the money you would have spent on corporate welfare and spend it this way instead…” in order to strengthen education and the middle class. The greatest help for a new business should come at the beginning, then taper off as new arrivals to the middle class can stand on their own. So rent charged at these workplaces should be free to begin with for a certain number of months, then transition to a percentage rent, where the city gets a percentage of each person’s gross monthly income. Once they graduate from being a single-crew workplace of one businessperson and maybe one helper, then they should be able to pay regular rent to a normal private-sector landlord.

Making Making Cool Again
(and Learning, Too)


   Being a craftsperson was once a high calling, but by the time I was in high school in the 1970s, classmates who spent their afternoons at the local vocational-technical school were known as “the VoTech losers.” Now, education of any kind is held in low regard in much of society. “It’s not cool to be smart” is sadly far too common, but easy to understand. Since the mid-19th Century, education in most industrialized nations was designed to produce graduates who were normal and obedient, so they could become good factory workers. How is it possible to be less cool than that?? So learning things and making things both need an image revival in most places today. Here are some low-budget ideas to try:

Idea Fairs for Kids

   Carve a little time out of the curriculum, probably on Friday afternoon, and start an idea fair in every grade of schools. Disruptive ideas are cool today, so frame it like “here’s how I’m gonna change this town,” to “here’s how I’m gonna change the world.” Give prizes. Make it the highlight of the month, or maybe even do them every week.

Idea Fairs for Adults

   Maker spaces are good places for neighborhood cultural events, so hold idea fairs there where makers can pitch their ideas to local businesses and investors. Saturdays might be a good time so as to not interfere with the workweek. And the Saturday idea fairs wouldn’t just attract people who might bring a contract with them. Look at Kickstarter’s traffic and it’s clear that many people consider looking at cool new ideas a form of entertainment.

Movie Night

IMG 6323

   Hold regular “movies on the green” screening films focused on kids with great ideas. Pay It Forward should be the anthem film, shown at least a couple times per year. Make this a real neighborhood cultural event, and a family night. Friday night right after the idea fair at school could be a perfect time. Do it as leanly as possible. You don’t need a big screen, for example; just a white-painted wall on the side of a building.

The Idea Board

   Set up a blackboard, whiteboard, or some other waterproof board in a public place like a park, installed at a height so most third-grade kids can reach the top of the board. Divide it into rectangles. You may have seen these before; they’re often framed as “things I want to do before I die,” “things I’d like to see built here,” etc. Do this one as “here’s my big idea; help me out with it” and leave a lot of chalk.

Helpful Infrastructure

   There are some things that can be done to the city itself to help make it a more education- and growth-friendly place for children and adults alike.

Gigabit Internet

   Cities around the US are realizing that if they bring gigabit internet to town, the internet will bring bandwidth-heavy businesses to town. Even small towns such as Geraldine, Alabama have brought gigabit to town to attract businesses. There’s no debate anywhere as to whether it’s worth the expense, and gigabit is a huge benefit to education as well. On a personal note, Geraldine was the last place in Alabama where members of my extended family were served by outdoor plumbing, and that was as late as 1978. Outhouses to gigabit in 40 years!

Pink Zones

   The Pink Zone is an innovative idea from the Lean Urbanism initiative. It’s a place where the red tape isn’t eliminated entirely, but is made a little bit lighter so the small, the young, and the disadvantaged can get started easier. In other words, it doesn’t create a favela zone, but it does allow more freedom than the fully-regulated remainder of town. And a Pink Zone doesn’t cost money; it saves, because it can be administered lightly.

Walk Appeal


   Swapping great ideas shouldn’t only happen at idea fairs, movie nights, and other special occasions and destinations. Smart cultures and entrepreneurial cultures work best when there are many opportunities for chance meetings between people working to figure stuff out. And that begins with getting people out, because you never accidentally bump into someone if everyone stays inside. Places with great Walk Appeal get far more people outdoors than auto-dominated places that are unfriendly to walking, so do everything you can to boost Walk Appeal all over town. Many of these measures cost little, and quite a number of them are in the financial best interest of landowners to do at their own expense, costing the city nothing. Wanda and I are writing the Walk Appeal book; if you’re interested, you can subscribe to updates below.

Third Places

   Your First Place is home. Your Second Place is work. Your Third Place is where you go to hang out, “where everybody knows your name,” as the old Cheers tagline went. Third Places can be pubs, coffee shops, or any other place where you can buy something and hang out for as long as you like (maybe with your laptop because they have wifi). Third Places can be like chameleons, morphing from coffee shop in the morning to rum bar at night, like the Rum & Bean. Third Places have been hotspots of thinking throughout history, from the forum in ancient cities to the coffee shops largely responsible for the European Enlightenment. A city or town should not actually build any Third Places; just encourage them, and make it easy for them to open for business.

Infrastructure ROI

   For over a century, Americans have built infrastructure with no thought for the Return on Investment, or ROI. If a traffic study says we need it, we’ve gotta build it. Today, most American cities are loaded with infrastructure they cannot maintain, and it threatens to bankrupt thousands of cities and towns.  Joe Minicozzi and Chuck Marohn have been sounding the alarm for years; it’s high time we listen, because if we keep building infrastructure that doesn’t make a profit for the city, we won’t be able to afford the other things on this list, much less the One Big Thing.

   ~Steve Mouzon

   One more thing… I’m delighted to be participating in a blogoff again! This one is ArchiTalks, organized by Lora Teagarden, and this week's topic is starting a design. I’ve altered it a bit for this post to include things beyond a single design… this one is more like laying a good foundation for an entire city. I’ll update the links tomorrow as more posts come online. Enjoy the reads!

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
Slow Down. Hold Still.

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
where do we start?

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
How to Start a Design

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
Starting a Design: #Architalks

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
On Your Mark, Get Set -- Start a Design!

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
Starting Design

Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Architalks #35: Starting a Design

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Where do we begin?

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Where do you start when designing a new home?

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
do-re-mi- Design

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
First Thing's First

Tim Ung - Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
5 Tips for Starting an Architecture Project

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
How it all begins...

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The Twelve Steps of Sprawl Recovery

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   The storm clouds of sprawl addiction had been gathering for years, but it took the Meltdown and the ensuing Great Recession to make it clear just how damaging that addiction had been to the health of cities across the US and abroad. Sprawl has two really big things going for it, but three even bigger things now going against it which are poised to turn the tide against the pattern of sprawl.

Sprawl's Two Enablers


   Sprawl development is, at its foundation, an industrial system, developed in the 1940s on the shiny and new mentality of the assembly line. The first enablers of sprawl are the core manufacturing systems that produces the subdivisions, strip malls, office parks, mega-stores, mega-churches, and mega-schools, and the mega-highways necessary to serve them all. The second enabler is the collection of support industries built around the core of sprawl: market surveys, zoning, infrastructure engineering, design, and their sprawl based standards, codes, and regulations, development lending and sprawl-based development practices, appraisals and home mortgages and mortgage bundling, “site-adapt” cookie-cutter building design, square-feet-bells-and-whistles real estate sales, plus all of the financial, design, development, and sales industry organizations, and the shelter publications and shows to support this behemoth. Because the parts were industrially designed to interact seamlessly with each other, and preclude any other way of building, it looked like an immovable rock for decades. Until the cracks in the infrastructure began to show.

The Three Interventions


   Three immense waves are now crashing against the monolith of sprawl, and promise to intervene in our current path to national, state, and local bankruptcy. The first is the relations between workplace and workers. The generation of workers who would follow a job across the country or even abroad is now retiring. Millennials turn the job hunt on its head, seeking first a cool city or town, then the coolest neighborhood in that town, then a job they like in that neighborhood. Cool Factor, on display in this image, is now what drives employment. And there is no place in America more devoid of Cool Factor than an office park, and a subdivision is close behind. Today’s slide is just the beginning of a precipitous drop in demand for boring places to work and live.


   The second great wave is also generationally-based, but more mathematical than the preferences for places with Cool Factor. For all of our lifetimes until just a few years ago, there have been net purchasers in the US housing market. Now, for the rest of most of our lives, there will be more sellers than purchasers. For a half-century, we’ve been assured that home prices will rise. Now, for houses located in ordinary subdivisions, the prognosis is very poor: falling real estate values as far as the eye can see. There is a solution: sprawling places that elect for an extreme makeover into vibrant and sustainable places can actually run against the tide and increase their values. But those which stay the current course cannot resist the value decline with any amount of wishful or “magical" thinking.


   The third wave is eqally inexorable: the failure of sprawl infrastructure. But this one is pure math and has nothing to do with Boomers, Millennials, or any other generation. Get to know two names really well: Joe Minicozzi and Chuck Marohn. They’re very different in so many ways: from different parts of the country, from different sides of the political spectrum, one a lone wolf and the other the founder of a movement with a small army and annual gatherings, but they are highly aligned as the two prophets of the end of sprawl. They show (in two very different ways, as you may have guessed by now) how that sprawl is a huge Ponzi scheme, and how it will collapse on the weight of its own infrastructure maintenance. “Do the math,” as Joe says… it shows a terrifying calculation no city wants to see: there is a date at which every city in the US with a lot of sprawl will go bankrupt because of the cost of maintaining the infrastructure. It’s not a question of if, but of when. And that date can be calculated.

   So make no mistake: Sprawl is an American addiction, and we must break it or it will break us. Cities cannot afford to maintain the sprawl developers have built, and the infrastructure bills are beginning to come due in greater quantities than ever. For sprawl, it's recover or die. Do the math. Look it up.

The Twelve Steps

   There is a 12-step sprawl recovery program that can transform the subdivisions, strip malls, and office parks of post-WWII sprawl into sustainable neighborhoods... IF the people living there want that extreme makeover. But they have to want it & be committed to the transformation. Without the commitment, they won’t be able to break the addiction. The 12-step sprawl recovery program can never be forced upon anyone. People have to be committed to transforming the sprawl around them into sustainable places. The benefits are many, including the fact that those places will live much longer. The alternative is bleak; there are ghost towns around the world for a reason.

Step 1: Civic Space


   The first step of sprawl recovery is to create at least one neighborhood civic space, which can be a plaza (for the most urban places), a square (as shown here), a green, or a park. What's important is to do it at the beginning. If you wait, it'll be too expensive later on because property values will likely rise as the neighborhood recovers. A centrally located vacant lot can work as the neighborhood square & it adds enough value to nearby lots to pay for it. An abandoned lot works best, although one with a foreclosed building can work as well.


   Squares are often the size of an entire city block, like Jackson Square in New Orleans, but a neighborhood center civic space doesn’t have to be anywhere near that large. This plaza in chicago is only 75 feet wide; I stepped it off to be sure. Incidentally, that’s about the width of some neighboring buildings, so it’s possible that this plaza was once a vacant lot before being converted into the civic space we see today.

Step 2: Thoroughfare Recovery


   The second step of sprawl recovery is beginning to recover the thoroughfares so that they have enough Walk Appeal that people feel just as comfortable walking and biking there as they do driving there, like they do in this picture. Part of the job involves slowing the cars down by putting the streets on a "street diet" and adding on-street parking. Another part is redesigning the sidewalks, planting beds, and street furnishing zones to entice people to come out and walk on their neighborhood streets. A third part is inserting rear lanes and service alleys to get the messy stuff off the front streets, and the means of getting property owners to give up the back 10’ to 15’ of their lots and be happy about it will be the subject of an entire future blog post.


   Multi-modal transport is very important at this step, especially the self-propelled modes of walking and biking. Get these right and Walk Appeal flourishes and many good things happen. Get them wrong, and you're stuck with the auto-dominated place you have now, where people spend more quality time with their steering wheels than with their families. There's an added benefit to the self-propelled means of getting around: neighbors will get more exercise, stay healthier, and actually be happier, which is a proven benefit of getting out and getting around on your own power.

Step 3: Accessory Dwelling Units


   This step adds accessory dwelling units like the apartment over this garage in order to add neighbors to the neighborhood because subdivisions in sprawl rarely have anywhere near enough neighbors to support neighborhood businesses. Some people worry that "those people won't be just like us," but a variety of people make a place more interesting, and you have control over who you rent your accessory unit to; it's not like anyone is putting up high-rise apartment blocks next door. And your tenant might even be your own kid, who has just graduated from college. Also, some cities and states are now passing laws legalizing accessory dwelling units (also called ADUs or “granny flats”) because while they’ve been used all over American and around the world for all of human history until recently, they’ve been illegal in the US since roughly the end of World War II. So if you’re living in a place that is now making them legal again, you’re one step ahead.

Step 4: Gifts to the Street


Encouraging neighbors to give "gifts to the street" is the next step. Gifts can delight people (like a beautiful frontage garden), entertain them (like a great storefront), refresh them (like a street fountain or even a sidewalk café), shelter them (like an awning or gallery), direct them (like a goal in the middle distance), inform them (like a clock or sundial), help them remember (like a memorial), or simply give them a place to rest. Whatever each gift may give to the street, there's no doubt that the collection of gifts will make the street a much more interesting place to walk.

Step 5: Lovable Edible Gardens


The next step of sprawl recovery is encouraging lovable edible gardens throughout the neighborhood, and also establishing a farmers market for those who don't want to raise a garden themselves. Fresh local food does much good for a neighborhood… so much so that these benefits will occupy an entire future post. It’s also really important that the edible gardens be treated with every bit as much care as ornamental gardens. Today, most vegetable gardens are treated with similar aesthetic respect to a utility room. For most people, that means “not much." As a result, many cities ban vegetable gardens in front yards because they can be eyesores. Recovering neighborhoods need to learn how to do edible gardens beautifully again, as our ancestors once did.

Step 6: Places to Eat


   Restaurants tend to be risk-oblivious, so they should be the first business type introduced to your recovering neighborhood (probably around the neighborhood square) as Step 6 of sprawl recovery. Small restaurants fit well in existing houses like the one shown here. But be careful where you put them, especially at the beginning. Quiet restaurants can fit well on most street corners because they close earlier and don't disturb the neighbors, but those with a younger clientele or that serve alcohol should be limited to around the neighborhood square, and should only be added later, once the neighborhood has a strong track record of beloved establishments.

Step 7: Bed & Breakfast


   Add a bed & breakfast at Step 7 so subsequent houses aren't burdened with needing a guest suite and can therefore be smaller if desired. Before the Meltdown in 2008, a guest suite in many suburban houses included a bath and often even a walk-in closet, frequently  tipping the scales at 250 square feet or more. At $200 per square foot, the necessity of having a guest bedroom inflated the mortgage by $50,000 or more. The mortgage savings can more than pay for putting your guests up at the B&B.

Step 8: Cottages


   By this time, your recovering neighborhood is ready for Step 8 of sprawl recovery, which is the construction of small cottages throughout the neighborhood so you can invite more neighbors to live there and help support the growing collection of neighborhood businesses. Because they're small, cottages can slip into many underused parts of a neighborhood, including along rear lanes or in cottage courts carved into the middle of a block. Having smaller homes in the neighborhood expands the affordability range, allowing young adults to live just down the street from their parents for the first time in nearly a century.

Step 9: Live/Work Units


   Step 9 is construction of live/work units so you can open a small business and live above the shop. America was built by people living over the shop; live/work units were only banned after World War II, when planners decided to segregate homes not only from factories, but from everything else as well. Recent decades have seen countless corporate job losses, and many of those people have gone in business for themselves. Now, just as it was when the US was founded, there is no better place to cultivate your own business than in a live/work unit.

Step 10: Neighborhood Market


   Your neighborhood should be mature enough in its recovery by this point that you're ready for Step 10, which is a dedicated neighborhood market. This one has apartments above, but the owner may live elsewhere in the neighborhood. One really important note about neighborhood markets: retail experts may tell you that they need to be at least 40,000 square feet to be successful, and this is true in sprawl, where they're often much larger. But in a walkable neighborhood, they can be much smaller. There are even single-crew groceries of less than 1,000 square feet, and a grocery of 5,000 square feet can stock everything in a convenience store, plus healthy food as well.

Step 11: Dedicated Office & Retail


   This step of sprawl recovery is the construction of dedicated office and retail space. On quiet streets, it might be just a small home office for one person built tight up to the sidewalk; larger establishments fit better around the neighborhood square. Look at old town centers, and you'll see that some of these shops and offices are quite small, and are built in the front yards of homes near the town center. In other cases, homeowners eventually redeveloped their homes as dedicated office and retail, like the shops shown here.

Step 12: Civic Buildings


   The final step is the addition of civic buildings, if you haven't added them already. A meeting hall, wedding chapel, or place of worship are all candidate civic building types; your neighborhood's needs may be different, so build the ones you need. Civic buildings in the US often sit on a square or plaza, but while that's nice, it's not necessary. Most of them do need space for a crowd to spill out in front, so setting them back from the street is one way to do this. Another is to place them in a location where the streets swells out, creating a small civic space that might be as simple as an extra-wide sidewalk.

   We realize that an extreme makeover of your neighborhood sounds like a scary thing. It is because it's a big change. But it's the kind of change that can transforms ordinary subdivisions and strip centers into a vibrant and sustainable neighborhoods that can join the ranks of the Most-Loved Places someday. Good luck, and let’s talk about the challenges and techniques of making this happen!

   ~Steve Mouzon

   Wanda and I are writing a book on Sprawl Recovery and you can subscribe to updates below, which is good, but what’s even better is to join in the discussion so we can all work these things out in the open. Nobody’s under any illusions that this will be easy, but sprawl recovery is likely the most important challenge America has ever faced because sprawl has grown so large.

   One more thing… I’m delighted to be participating in a blogoff again! This one is ArchiTalks, organized by Lora Teagarden, and the topic is renewal. It’s clear to me that renewal of the health of our cities after the long addiction of sprawl is of paramount importance. I’ll update the links tomorrow as more posts come online. Enjoy the reads!

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
get out of town renewal

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
Goal Renewal

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
renewal: #architalks

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
Renewal - Re-Ranch

Stephen Ramos - BUILDINGS ARE COOL (@BuildingsRCool)
No guts, no glory!

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)

Michael LaValley - Evolving Architect (@archivalley)
working towards my site re-launch. next time! cheers

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
5 Tips for Harnessing Renewal to Advance Your Goals

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Renewal (at Each Beginning)

Tim Ung - Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
Break Routines

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Opting out on this one

Larry Lucas - Lucas Sustainable, PLLC (@LarryLucasArch)
Renewal is Valuable for Heart and Hometown


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The Sad Saga of Schooner Bay, and How It Might End Well for the Bahamas

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aerial view of the harbour island at Schooner Bay in South Abaco, Bahamas on a day mottled with scattered clouds

   The foreign investor at Schooner Bay recently took the unthinkable measure of evicting the local organic farmer from Crown land that doesn’t even belong to Schooner Bay; who else do you know who is against healthy local food? But while the farm and the story surrounding it is highly regrettable, it’s not the biggest story here. Instead, the core issue is the question of how the Bahamas and also the entire Caribbean should be developing new places and healing old ones. But before that, here are some really important things to know about Schooner Bay:

   Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, partners in business and in life, are the founding partners of DPZ and are widely regarded as the best planners alive on earth today. They are also co-founders of a worldwide movement known as the New Urbanism that seeks to build places that are compact, mixed-use, walkable, and sustainable, like our old towns and cities originally were. Andrés designed Schooner Bay with partner-in-charge Galina Tachieva and senior project manager Xavier Iglesias and an all-star supporting cast (plus me).

   Many of you know me, but for Bahamians I may not have met yet, I’m the author of the book A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas], which was born out of my long love affair with Bahamian architecture; I’m now completing the second edition, which should be out by Easter. I have worked as a consultant with DPZ on countless projects over the past fifteen years, but of all those new towns and neighborhoods, I have long regarded three as the very most important: Southlands in Canada, Sky in the US, and Schooner Bay. The reasons for Schooner Bay’s inclusion in the top three are many, only a few of which I’ll mention here.

A Bahamian Town

local school band marching through the streets of Schooner Bay on a sunny spring day on south Abaco, Bahamas

Schooner Bay in happier days

   When Canadian, US, or British developers or those further abroad think of developing in the Bahamas, their default model is the resort, but the Bahamas and the Caribbean are littered with the bones of dead resorts. Few resorts last even 50 years, and some fail much sooner, but Bahamian and Caribbean towns, on the other hand, usually last for centuries. DPZ designed Schooner Bay to be a Bahamian town where some of the houses are occupied by people on vacation, like Dunmore Town on Harbour Island, but where all of the businesses are run by Bahamians and many of the homes are occupied by Bahamians.

A Sustainable Town

lushly planted dunescape curves to the horizon at Schooner Bay in the Bahamas

Schooner Bay’s lush and carefully planted
dune is an important part of the resilience
of the town in a storm.

   Schooner Bay is designed to do so many things sustainably that this blog post couldn’t possibly describe them all, but it’s an important enough story that I’ve been blogging about it for years: The Schooner Bay Miracle tells why the place survived Hurricane Irene with hardly a scratch because of its hurricane-strong design. The Ecological Dividend lays out many benefits that accrue with time. Unfortunately, most developers do not practice patient place-making, and miss almost all of these benefits because almost everything in accepted development practice today stacks the deck against patience. All readers of this blog know that the first foundation of a sustainable place is that it must be a nourishable place, and Schooner Bay was designed to do ocean and farm to table as well as any place… at least until the foreign investor cut off the water to the farm last month. Today, there is a great rebuilding challenge in the southern Bahamas and all around the Caribbean, and the region sorely needs a great model, which is something Schooner Bay could have been and still can be.

A Diverse Town

young Bahamian boy caught aloft in mid-stride at Schooner Bay

Schooner Bay was designed as a place for all Bahamians.

   Most places built today have a very narrow range of home values, and are terribly boring as a result. Great New Urbanist places aspire to a range of values of at least 5:1 and sometimes as much as 15:1. Schooner Bay was designed to have an amazing value range of 40:1, which would make it much like Harbour Island, where Bahamians of all walks of life and foreign billionaires live just around the corner from each other. This makes a place not only far more interesting because of its diversity, but also far more resilient because neighbors can pull together after a storm much better if they have a great diversity of skills and resources. Harbour Island is a world-class model of how existing places can do this; Schooner Bay could be a world-class example of how new places could do this as well.

Bahamian Scale

Schooner Bay cottages overlooking the seawall on the harbour island

cottages on the harbour island

   This may sound superficial at first, but please hear me out: one of the great architecture mistakes foreign developers make in the Bahamas is building both homes and businesses to the scale of Dallas, Atlanta, or Orlando. In doing so, they make places that are totally out of scale with the Bahamas, and feel foreign and imported. People don’t come from Dallas to the Bahamas to experience a place that feels just like Dallas; they come for the Bahamas. A nation such as the Bahamas where tourism is the biggest industry should be very careful that both homes and businesses are built to Bahamian scale, like Schooner Bay was explicitly designed to be. Otherwise, visitors may decide to stay home next year.

A Town at the Crossroads

   Four years ago, Schooner Bay's foreign investor David Huber terminated the role of Bahamian Town Founder Orjan Lindroth at Schooner Bay, as I later described in Schooner Bay at the Crossroads. I might have met Mr. Huber a time or two years ago although I don’t recall for sure, but certainly can’t say that I really know the man or his explicit motives. Some motives, however, are fairly apparent and all of them appear to go back to a fundamental misunderstanding of what Schooner Bay was meant to be. Mr. Huber, an American tech and communications entrepreneur with a checquered track record according to the Washington Post, clearly thinks Schooner Bay should be a resort, whereas it was designed to be a town instead. Every move Huber has made makes some sense for a resort, but are senseless for a town.

   The good news is that very little damage has been done to the town plan in the past four years because only one building has been started in that time, and it wasn’t even completed when I was there mid-summer. All other changes are small and easily reversible. And for the good of everyone involved, it is time for that reversal to begin.

   For Mr. Huber, I can’t imagine how much money he has lost with the place lying stagnant for four years, but that sum is likely dwarfed by his lost opportunity cost of time spent on a faraway real estate venture which is obviously not his passion, nor his expertise. I don’t see how Schooner Bay could be anything more than a distraction to him. I can’t imagine anyone on earth who would be more relieved for a transfer of ownership at Schooner Bay than Mr. Huber.

   The homeowners and business owners at Schooner Bay would likely be almost as happy, as their investments that have lain dormant for these four years could spring back to life again as townbuilding begins anew. And there would be many benfits for neighbors around south Abaco as Schooner Bay grows into the town it was always meant to be, beginning with bringing the farm back to the Crown land, so south Abaco could benefit from having a local source of fresh food again.

   The biggest beneficiary, however, would be the Bahamas as a nation. As Schooner Bay fully became what it was always meant to be, a shining village on the harbour serving as a world-class model of building sustainably in the tropics and sub-tropics, many would come from around the world to see the principles and practices of building sustainably laid out so clearly in one place. And the Bahamas could take on the mantle of underpinning and nurturing world-class models of sustainability at a time they are so sorely needed.

   It is high time to get back to the tough but noble work of town-building at Schooner Bay. Everyone involved needs for this to happen. Soon.

   ~Steve Mouzon

PS: Here’s Andrés Duany’s poetic take on the earth, air, fire, and water of Schooner Bay.


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Red Friday

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photo by Charles Marohn, used with permission

   Is this the beginning of the Fall of Sprawl? I was really struck by all the pictures on Twitter last night of half-empty shopping center parking lots yesterday, on Black Friday, which is the day American retailers finally get in the black (make a profit) for the first time of the year. But not yesterday. The final returns aren’t in yet, but when they are, there’s little doubt that most retailers will still be firmly in the red, many with little hope of turning a profit at all this year, making this the first Red Friday in America. The crash might come more quickly than anyone ever thought. Here are a few thoughts as to why:

Millennials Shopping


photo by Jon-Mark Patterson, used with permission

   Millennials are notorious for not wanting to work in office parks. Many of them choose a cool city first, then a cool place in that city, then a job in that cool place. If they can't stand working in sprawl office buildings, then why would they want to shop in sprawl shopping centers? It's no secret that big retailers have been failing for several years, and what city isn’t littered with dead or dying malls? If yesterday really turns out to be the first Red Friday of our lifetimes, that could turn the stream of big retailer bankruptcies into a flood next year, because of the prospect of Red Fridays year after year.

Shopping & Sleeping


photo by Monte Anderson, used with permission

   If you suddenly can’t shop in sprawl because there isn’t much left in a year or two, do you really want to sleep in that subdivision masquerading as a "bedroom community?” Remember the retail left in the inner cities in the 1970s once most shopping moved out to the sprawling new suburbs? It was mostly a collection of liquor stores, tattoo parlors, and cheap groceries with little more than unhealthy foods and cigarettes. It’s entirely possible that a similar thing could happen soon in much of sprawl if the shopping implodes. Who would want to live there then? Was today the beginning of the end of sprawl?

Traditional American Downtowns

   On the bright side, retail in the USA has been an anomaly since World War II. European nations typically have 1 to 3 square feet of retail per person. It's now 41.6 square feet in the USA, although it was only a much smaller anomaly of 4 square feet per person here as late as 1960. And almost anyone who has ever been to Europe would agree that most of their urbanism is far more charming and vibrant than almost all of our sprawl. So getting rid of the seas of parking around the malls and replacing them with vibrant town centers that people might actually travel to for vacation (like they do to Europe) would be good, right? And to be clear, nobody in the history of the world ever decided to come to town on vacation because of the Walmart.


photo by Charles Marohn, used with permission

   And lest this sound too Europe-centric, consider this: before sprawl began in earnest after World War II,  no American town center contained more than about 17% retail, according to Kennedy Smith, who was the director of the National Main Street Center for years. The rest of it consisted of offices, workshops, restaurants, apartments, and other uses. So if sprawl and its retail collapses next year, it's really just taking us back to the classic American towns we loved so much. And the most of America which destroyed their most-loved places by trying to transform it into sprawl from 1945 through 1980 now cherishes their memories so much that the do the next-best thing by spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to visit Main Street USA in Disney’s theme parks.

A Brighter Suburban Day

   It’s entirely possible that many sprawling places will become ghost towns when they can no longer afford to keep up their infrastructure, as Charles Marohn and Joe Minicozzi have been saying for years. Fortunately, New Urbanists led by Galina Tachieva, Ellen Dunham-Jones, and June Williamson have responded to the alarm bells rung by Charles and Joe by crafting a suite of solutions now known as Sprawl Retrofit that can help transform forward-looking spawling suburbs with courage and political will into vibrant and sustainable places with high Walk Appeal and a diverse collection of local businesses to serve them. Because make no mistake: for at least two years, people have been turning to small local businesses instead of national chain stores. The Congress for the New Urbanism, which usually encourages its members to lead new initiatives, felt that this issue was so important that they took the unusual step of taking the Build a Better Burb initiative under their wing in recognition of the fact that retrofitting sprawl is now the biggest place-making challenge in American history. We simply cannot afford to fail.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Walk Appeal book front cover

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Why Coastal Towns Must Thrive Now to Survive Later

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satellite image of South Beach showing streets that have been raised, those planned to be raised, and those high enough not to need to be raised in the near future.

   The age of the sleepy little low-lying coastal town is ending. If a town with streets close to sea level hopes to survive into the distant future, it must plan to thrive in the near future. Anything less makes it a candidate for being a future ghost town. Here’s why:

   The image above is my adopted hometown of South Beach, which is only about a third of the City of Miami Beach. For the first few years after Wanda and I moved to Miami Beach fourteen years ago, “sunny-day flooding” was a term we never heard, nor did we ever see the phenomenon.

   But beginning somewhere around 2009, we began to notice occasional puddles along streets on the lowest (Western) side of the island on days when there had been no rain. And by the time of the autumn King Tides of 2013, West Avenue was as deep as 18” in seawater. Google “octopus in parking garage” for an idea of what it was like. Here’s a video I shot on the worst night, when the waters of Biscayne Bay were literally higher than the streets.

Adapting to Sea Level Rise

11th Street on South Beach in the process of being raised to adapt to sea level rise

11th Street being raised

   Since that time, Miami Beach has begun a long-planned raising of the lowest streets, coupled with installing giant pumps and underground storage tanks. The blue streets above are 4.5 feet or more above a normal high tide, and should be dry for at least a century, depending on which scientists’ projections of sea level rise you use. The red streets above are less than 4.5 feet above a normal high tide, and need to be raised. The green streets have already been raised, although raising creates challenges as well.

   Why have so few streets been raised? Because Miami Beach ran out of money to raise them. Obviously, many millions more need to be spent on raising streets, and that’s just South Beach. The rest of Miami Beach will roughly triple the expenditure. And we’re likely going to have to come up with most or all of it ourselves; we’re not counting on anyone to come in with a huge pot of money and save us.

   Where will the money come from? Simply put, the city must thrive. We need to be doing everything we can now to transform sleepy neighborhood centers into vibrant places people want to come to, especially on the weekend, surrounded by interesting neighborhoods with neighbors who support the centers as well. Vibrant places generate far more tax revenue than sleepy places, and without that tax revenue, we simply won’t get all the streets raised in time. There are several ways of helping the city thrive. This post looks at characteristics of thriving town centers. Next, we’ll look at characteristics of neighborhoods surrounding those thriving town centers.

Thriving Town Centers

   The most flourishing town centers on earth share a number of characteristics, and these should be patterns for coastal towns as their centers ramp up into economic engines that can help sustain them as sea levels rise.

Town Character

throngs of tourists strolling on Lincoln Road in early evening light

   South Beach is “The 21 Most Exciting Blocks on Planet Earth.” New York City is “The City That Never Sleeps.” Seaside, Florida is “Capital of the Design Coast.” Unless your coastal town’s name is Palm Beach, you probably don’t have enough money in town to adapt to sea level rise without attracting visitors willing to come and spend money with you. If you want to live somewhere on the ocean and don’t want visitors, make sure it’s somewhere 25 or 30 feet above sea level so you don’t have to worry about adaptation anytime soon. Otherwise, figure out how to attract a lot of tourists willing to spend more than cruise ship passengers, who will not keep your town alive. To attract enough visitors who spend well, your town needs to be known for something. You won’t do well enough with visitors who just randomly happen upon your town along the highway; you should have a character of place that people want to experience.

   Inexplicably, there’s a growing movement in South Beach to change the town character from The 21 Most Exciting Blocks on Planet Earth back into the sleepy little ethnic retirement community it was in the 1960s and 1970s. NIMBYs in nearly every neighborhood association are trying to get rid of the visitors, and cannot tolerate any noise at night. We will not survive very many decades into the era of sea level rise if these NIMBYs succeed. (NIMBY means Not In My Back Yard. The NIMBY’s big brother on steroids is the BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. Both are deadly to thriving towns.)

Arteries, Not Arterials

Miami Beach tourists walking along Lincoln Road as twilight descends beyond brightly-lit storefronts

   Vibrant Bay Streets, Main Streets, or High Streets are like arteries in a living creature, pumping the lifeblood of commerce and culture: people who are mostly on foot, enjoying all the things that line the street. But don’t confuse arteries with arterials. In the world of traffic engineers, arterials are the biggest and fastest automobile thoroughfares in town, and they are highly corrosive to all good things within a block or two in either direction. Instead of the sidewalk cafés and small-scale shops of Bay Street, arterials are usually lined with muffler shops, convenience stores, and drive-through fast food joints. Avoid these like the plague if you want a place that will thrive enough to pay the sea level adaptation bills.

wretched Alton Road frontage on Miami Beach

people rarely walk between fast-moving
traffic & parking lots

   Sadly, Miami Beach completely blew this on Alton Road, which could have been a great urban avenue lined with eating, drinking, and shopping establishments and thronged by people, like some of the other main streets of South Beach. And Alton is this way, for about a block south of Lincoln Road, but beyond that, it’s the same mind-numbing parking-lot-in-front-of-strip-center of suburban sprawl, with cars screaming by just beyond the sidewalk. The Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association staged an heroic battle with the Florida DOT for years to make sure their Alton Road rebuilding project increased Walk Appeal. And it looked like they had achieved a hard-won victory with the design until the DOT did a design switch at the last moment, inexplicably aided by City Hall. Until Alton is re-coded and rebuilt as a much slower avenue rather than the arterial automobile sewer it is now, Alton will contribute nothing to the vibrant character needed to help us pay for adaptation. Come and see it, then go home and do the opposite.

Building Character, Not FAR

Detroit strip center designed by Mies van der Rohe

   Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is a planning standard commonly used by NIMBYs to oppose a project because they’ve forgotten what really matters. The most important thing is not FAR (usable interior square footage divided by site area), but the character of the buildings and how they support or corrode the streetscape. Every NIMBY wants to reduce FAR in order to build as little as possible on every site because the core assumption is that whatever the developer builds will be bad, so let’s at least limit it so we have less bad stuff.

   The building in the photo above has an FAR of about 0.20, so the NIMBYs should love it. Never mind that it’s a completely banal and boring strip center… even though it was designed by the most celebrated Mid-Century Modern architect: Mies van der Rohe. This highlights the fact that the real problem arguably isn’t the developers so much as it is the architects. The refusal of my profession to design lovable buildings has spawned more NIMBYs than anything else in the past half-century. In this, the NIMBYs are not wrong.

Espanola Way meets Washington Avenue on South Beach bathed in late afternoon sun

   Española Way in Miami Beach, on the other hand, has an FAR of just over 2.0 on several of its blocks. That’s ten times as much FAR as Mies’ strip center, and the architecture isn’t anything special. So using the NIMBY standard it must be ten times as bad, right? Have a look at these two images; which would you rather have as a neighbor?

   FAR is an incredibly blunt instrument. Building character is what really matters. Some of the best urbanism in the world has an FAR of 3-5, as does some of the most hideous. The only definitive thing FAR tells us is whether a place has enough intensity to be a thriving neighborhood center or town center if the architectural character is good. Española Way’s FAR is enough for a neighborhood center frequented mainly by locals. For a great town center that will pull visitors in from elsewhere, you really need to get into the 3-5 range of great urbanism. Otherwise you simply don’t have enough stuff there to entice someone to travel to your center and spend money in your town.

   Miami Beach is considering a measure in next week’s election to increase the FAR of an area Dover-Kohl has planned to become the town center of North Miami Beach. This should be a no-brainer for anyone interested in the long-term survival of Miami Beach. Unfortunately, the measure is receiving the normal complaints of “it will increase traffic,” but the complainers should look at South Beach. We have enough density here that over 40% of residents don’t even own a car because you need one so infrequently. Increase the density of the North Beach town center enough, and you’ll almost certainly see the same effect there. And it will help Miami Beach survive long into an uncertain future.

   One more thing: these principles hold true in new places as well as old. With so many parts of the Caribbean Rim facing a huge rebuilding challenge after this year’s devastating hurricanes, these things should be considered there as well if the rebuilt places hope to survive long into that same uncertain future.

   ~Steve Mouzon


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The Great Caribbean Rim Rebuilding Challenge

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satellite image of Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean, and Gulf of Mexico showing Caribbean Rim and Echo Rim along the Bahamas, US Gulf Coast, and Mexican Gulf Coast

The Caribbean rim includes not only the northeastern and northwestern boundaries of the Caribbean,

but also the “echo rim” of the Bahamas, the US Gulf Coast, and the Mexican Gulf Coast because
all of these areas have heat, humidity, and hurricanes, and all have a heritage that is a gumbo of
African, English, French, Native American, and Spanish cultures. The northern shore of South America

is excluded because it is very rarely hit by hurricanes.

satellite image of Caribbean Rim showing damages to date from 2017 hurricanes

2017 approximate storm damage through early October shown as orange (serious) and red (severe).

   As Caribbean Rim nations move from emergency relief to disaster recovery mode in the coming weeks and months, strong consideration should be given to the ways in which places should be rebuilt, both at the scale of towns and of buildings. This, the worst hurricane season in twelve years, has caused too much pain for too many people for everyone to go back to the ways things were before. The Caribbean Rim has had severe storms for all of recorded history, but many of the lessons our ancestors learned the hard way have been lost over the past century, as we moved from building in harmony with nature to trying to engineer our way out of severe weather problems.

Sustainable Towns

   Sustainability begins at the scale of urbanism, because it makes no sense to talk about sustainable buildings until the place itself is sustainable. The lone surviving building in an uninhabited town isn’t a very good place to be.

Storm Surge

mountain of rubble in Gulfport, Mississippi glows eerily in evening light in the wake of Katrina

This is all that remained of Gulfport’s Gulf-front town center
buildings after Katrina’s storm surge.

   The first question to ask is “should we be building at all in this place?” This is especially difficult in a once-inhabited place that has been severely damaged, because it’s so hard to tell someone they can’t come home again. But the fact of the matter is that storm surge is one of the most destructive forces in nature, which building structures are almost powerless to resist. Strong storm surge almost always reduces buildings to piles of rubble, and usually kills more people than wind in a hurricane.

   The good news is that storm surge risk is no longer a mystery, as we now have a good understanding of how the forces of nature and undersea topography affect the risk in any given place. Often, safer places are on higher ground within sight of surge-prone areas. Sometimes, it may be necessary to move a settlement a few miles away, but in no case should people return to places known to be at high surge risk.


heavily-planted dune with over-story of palm trees curves around Schooner Bay in the Bahamas

diverse & storm-strong dunescape at
Schooner Bay in the Bahamas

   A healthy dunescape is the first line of defense against a storm. Sadly, developers forgot that fact for decades and built right on the dunes in many places. When Hurricane Opal slammed the Florida Panhandle in 1995, many buildings in the vicinity Seaside, Florida were completely demolished, whereas Seaside was virtually untouched. Hurricane experts came to study what happened, and dubbed it the “Seaside Miracle.” The secret? Yes, the buildings at Seaside were built to stronger standards, but more than anything else, Seaside stepped back from and protected the dunes, unlike many of its neighbors. Hurricane Ivan hit further west in 2004, but still, buildings east of Seaside sitting on the dunes were destroyed while Seaside again experienced almost no damage.

   Stepping back and not building on the dunes is only the first step, however. To sustain the dunes, it’s essential that they become diverse biomes instead of monocultures of single plants. Invasive species such as scaevola (sea lettuce) and casuarina (Australian she-pine) take over dunes and then destroy them. The best and most sustainable dunes have about twelve species of well-adapted plants, from grasses and ground cover to palm trees.


hydroponic salad greens at Goodfellow Farms, Nassau, Bahamas

Bio-intensive and hydroponic techniques produce much more
food in the same space as row-cropping.

   Until the mid-20th Century, most Caribbean Rim towns were fed from the fields and waters nearby. Now, most places on the Caribbean Rim and elsewhere are fed from thousands of miles away, and the shutdown of a single port facility such as the one in San Juan, Puerto Rico can result in food and other urgently-needed supplies not reaching those who need it most. Yes, a hurricane will damage the local crops, but if people have a choice between walking out into the fields and picking and eating what’s left of a crop today, or waiting for a ship to come in and get offloaded days (or longer) from now, which is more survivable?

Compact Towns

view down the Paseo de Marti in Havana to the sea, with trees growing stronger the deeper they are planted into the urbanism, protected from hurricane winds

Old Havana, a compact city, has survived
 hurricanes for the past 500 years, even with
very little maintenance in the past 50 years.

   The benefits of compactness run far beyond the scope of this post, but some of the most obvious are as follows:

   • Compact towns place buildings closer together, where each building helps shield its neighbor against hurricane winds.

   • Buildings that are attached such as in downtown Nassau, Havana, and pretty much any Spanish colonial town are substantially stronger than buildings standing alone.

   • Town centers with many attached buildings really should be built of masonry to resist fire spread, and masonry buildings are inherently stronger against the wind than framed buildings. 

   • Compact towns get electricity back quicker. We evacuated for Irma, and from the time we were allowed back onto Miami Beach until we got our power back was less than 24 hours. Last week, Wanda and I were in west central Florida near Apopka, and there were still many power lines down. This must ever be so, as utilities naturally try to get power back to the greatest number of customers as soon as possible, and that naturally happens where customers are closer together.

   • Streets are walkable before they’re driveable. You can clamber over a downed tree on foot, but not in a car. If the town is compact enough, you can get to more necessary things sooner, by hours or more likely days.

   • Fuel supplies in catestrophically-damaged places may be cut off for weeks, if not longer. Vehicles that survive the storm are of little use so long as they are out of gas. People in walkable places fare much better.

Small Local Businesses

tiny single-crew grocery store with glistening red shutters opened against sea-blue shop structure on Bay Street, Dunmore Town on Harbour Island in the Bahamas

single-crew workplace

   Town economies built mostly on small local businesses tend to be more resilient than those filled with multinational chain operations for reasons we’ll explore in more detail in a later post, but some of the biggest reasons are:

   • A local businessperson is far more motivated to get back in business because their livelihood depends on it, whereas to a multinational corporation, their location in town is just one of many around the globe.

   • Decisions about whether and how to reopen a chain operation must be run up the chain of command to at least the regional level, which on the Caribbean Rim might be someone in another nation. Local businesses, on the other hand, need only find the basics like drinking water and fuel before they can start selling whatever is left of their stock of products.

   • Chain stores tend to be larger, fueled by international business size standards and the myth that bigger is always better, whereas many local businesses on the Caribbean Rim are single-crew workplaces. Smaller operations have fewer employees (if any) and fewer moving parts necessary to get back in operation.

Local Leadership and Culture

   This will be the topic of an entire upcoming post, but should be mentioned here as well. A town led by local leaders and guided by local culture is far more sustainable than a resort managed by an offshore corporation. The Caribbean Rim is littered with the bones of failed resorts, with hurricane damage being the most frequent cause of their demise. The outnumber Caribbean Rim ghost towns, even though people have been builiding towns for centuries longer than they have been building resorts.

Sustainable Buildings

   Once a town is planned or replanned sustainably, it’s time to consider how to build or rebuild the buildings. A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas] is a detailed pattern book showing how to build sustainably in the Bahamas, and most of the lessons from that book are useful around the Caribbean Rim.

Beloved Buildings

intense pink-shuttered door and window set against white gable stretch toward the sky above Dunmore Town on Harbour Island in the Bahamas

Local character is essential.

   Almost everyone wants to put things back the way they were after a disaster. Their new home should look and feel like their old home. Unfortunately, many in my profession (architecture) want to remake the new world into something very different. This rarely succeeds, and even when it does due to a major source of outside funding (such as the Make It Right houses in New Orleans) it does not spread to surrounding neighborhoods simply because it doesn’t feel like home… it feels like something foreign. New buildings in Puerto Rico should not feel like they’re from Atlanta; they should feel Puerto Rican. New buildings in Barbuda (if the island is rebuilt) should not feel like they’re from Orlando; they should feel Barbudian. Not only do they help people recover emotionally from their losses, but they are more likely to be cared for and restored long into an uncertain future.

Buildings That Endure

tiny garden cottages cluster around cottage court at Mahogany Bay Village on Ambergris Caye in Belize

Most of the Hurricane Design images came from Mahogany Bay
Village on Ambergris Caye in Belize.

   Hurricane Design is a post that lays out several strategies for stacking the deck in your favor with building design. Here’s a quick summary of the top ten strategies:

   • Build hip roofs on all but the smallest or strongest buildings to be wind-strong so each side supports its neighbors.

   • Pitch wind-strong roofs 8/12 to 9/12 because this is steep enough to resist uplift but shallow enough to resist overturning.

   • Overhang wind-strong eaves less than you would inland eaves so there’s less for hurricane winds to grab.

   • When long eaves are necessary in the tropics, design them to blow off, leaving the main roof intact.

   • Long eaves on wind-strong buildings can be supported by heavy brackets.

   • Properly-attached metal roofing is the best material for a hurricane zone.

   • Shutter windows in some way so that most if not all of the opening is protected with the shutters.

   • Choose carefully between wood walls and masonry walls in a hurricane zone; each has its strengths.

   • Build above the floods in a hurricane zone so the storm surge does little or no damage.

   • If piers are masonry build them thick, or if wood, drive them deep so that they resist storm surges.

Kernel Cottages

Katrina Cottage VIII, which was the first Kernel Cottage, sits bathed in late-afternoon autumn sunlight in Silver Spring, Maryland

The first Kernel Cottage, here on temporary
display, was designed for the US but the
techniques apply in the Caribbean as well.

   Andrés Duany and I came up with the idea for the Katrina Cottages in 2005, on the Saturday after the hurricane. The original idea was to design “FEMA trailers with dignity,” but we quickly realized that with the money FEMA was spending to manufacture, install, commission, maintain, decommission, haul away, and dispose the FEMA trailers, we could design cottages worthy of being there for a hundred years, not just the FEMA-mandated 18 months. This would allow people to get a foothold back on their property, building on later to create a larger house. 

   Or at least that’s what we said. In reality, the cottages didn’t expand very well. Because the cottages were so small (several under 500 square feet) the exterior walls quickly got gobbled up with cabinets, closets, bathrooms, and the like so that it was difficult to find a place to add on. I designed the first Kernel Cottage the next summer; the very first design move was to put four “grow zones” in the plan, from which the cottage could expand. Disaster recovery housing that is mobile need not do this, but cottages meant to stay should definitely incorporate easy expansion.


cups and glasses sit on shelves carved into white-painted cottage wall at Mahogany Bay Village on Ambergris Caye in Belize

shelves built into a wall for storage - opening up wall cavity also
allows air circulation, reducing mould & mildew

   People recovering from a disaster are usually stretched to the limit (or beyond) financially. Why spend a lot of money conditioning a house if it can condition itself on all but the most extreme days of the year? An upcoming post will lay out several self-conditioning strategies. And self-cooling isn’t the only way to be frugal; you can be frugal with interior space as well, so that a cottage is smart enough that it lives bigger than its footprint. The New Urban Guild calls these SmartDwellings, and these are some strategies for implementing them. The image on that page shows an elaborate 1,200 square foot SmartDwelling, but the frugality techniques can just as easily be used on smaller Kernel Cottages as well. As a matter of fact, that’s where several of the techniques were first developed. We’ll dive into a number of frugality patterns in a later post.

Please Help!

   This and the next several posts are things I’m writing for the second edition of A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas], which I hope and believe will be useful around the Caribbean Rim. The Original Green is a far better book because of many great comments I got from readers of this blog as I was writing it. Please help make this second edition a better book as well by posting your insights here… it could benefit so many people whose lives have been so disrupted! Thanks in advance!

   ~Steve Mouzon

PS: I made a mistake and lost all the original comments… here they are, copied in manually:

Orjan Lindroth · Nassau, New Providence

very much to the point an addresses issues we need to disucss, make aware and also practices we need to implement.

Oct 12, 2017 2:12pm

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Thanks, Orjan, and you're right, of course.

Oct 13, 2017 4:41pm

Bob Theis · UC Berkeley

Steve, you might add the suggestion of a rainwater cistern to increase resiliency. It should be part of a circulating system, because still water goes skanky. The most beautiful version I've seen is in Bali, where there's an open concrete tank adjacent to the ( open air ) bathrooms, from which you ladle out water for your 'shower'. ( The design challenge is Westerners who mistake the cistern for a tub )

Oct 13, 2017 12:23pm

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Excellent on all counts, Bob... thanks! You describe it beautifully. I've never been to Bali (although Wanda has had it on our bucket list for years) so the best ones I've seen are in Bermuda, where the cisterns are a really expressive part of the architecture.

Oct 13, 2017 4:40pm

Kathy Gabriel · UWI St. Augustine

Implemntation of good ideas is always key ...

Oct 14, 2017 9:34am


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The New Starting Point for Retail

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Sam Mouzon inside his Dinner Bell Barbecue food cart in Portland, Oregon, moments after opening for the first time

Dinner Bell Barbecue on opening day

   Burdening most new Main Streets with building the “climax condition” of 3-5 story buildings in the beginning is a poor choice in all but the most robust places, but going back to 1-story masonry buildings isn’t enough; the new starting point for retail should be the food cart. I recently returned from the NTBA Spring Roundtable, where there was great discussion on many things, including the future of retail. The single-crew workplace is the new high standard.

neighborhood grocery in Beaufort, South Carolina with flag unfurled in soft morning light, with proprietor's home tucked just behind

single-crew grocery in Beaufort, South Carolina serves a

neighborhood that would otherwise have been a food desert

   For a grocery, it’s one grocer in 500-800 square feet selling just the basic commodities like tomatoes, cabbage, spinach, one type of hot sauce, one brand of mustard, etc. For a restaurant, it’s one cook and one server. For the smallest possible B&B, it’s one person who’s clerk, cook, and housekeeper for four rooms. For the next size up, it’s one housekeeper for eight rooms and one clerk/cook. For a bar, it’s one bartender. For a coffee shop, it’s one barista. For a barber shop, it’s one barber.

American flag waving in the sea breeze of Seaside, Florida just in front of white clapboard post office

Seaside’s iconic post office at the heart of

Central Square

   We’ve seen great examples for years, like at Seaside, Florida, but keep getting charmed by the retail experts who base their projections on standard sprawl paradigms. Their arguments are compelling: “If you want to compete, these are things the market expects.” And they’re exactly right if you’re hoping to attract national retailers like Applebee's, Walmart, Bass Pro Shops, TGI Fridays, Walgreen, Best Buy, McDonald's, Publix, and the like. The problem is that if you want to compete in that arena, you’re committed to sinking millions into your infrastructure before seeing a dollar of return. Since 2008, that hasn’t been a very good approach for most of us. New retail centers would do well to compete in a very different arena.

   Here’s another side of the problem with sprawl expectations: if you listen to the retail experts, you can’t even build a corner store until you have 600 rooftops. Seaside would never have achieved that because there will never be that many houses there, yet Seaside has become a thriving regional center. There are two secrets: Appeal to customers beyond your own rooftops, and start impossibly small with your shops, like Seaside did. A single-crew workplace makes many things possible today which are impossible until decades later using the retail experts’ standards.

night lights glisten on the corrugated canopy roofing of Dinner Bell Barbecue food cart in Portland, Oregon, with window shutters glowing red just below

Dinner Bell Barbecue the night before opening for the first time

   Our son Sam started Dinner Bell Barbecue recently in Portland, Oregon for amazingly less than you could ever start a bricks-and-mortar store. A conventional restaurant is at least an order of magnitude higher; usually much more. I’ve seen $100K vent hoods in my previous life as a small-town architect, so it’s really easy to spend a million dollars (in 1990s money) to start a restaurant.

   In Sam's food cart pod, all of the food carts share a single toilet facility, and all utilities except electrical (which is overhead) gets piped around underneath the food carts. No, it’s not the most convenient, but yes, it’s highly frugal. This model is the future of inaugural retail in most places. If you’re going to CNU in Seattle, consider a side-trip to Portland to see this. It’s amazingly Lean. And food carts contribute substantially to Walk Appeal because your view changes every 10 feet or less, and often in very interesting and colorful ways.

   Andrés Duany has been saying for several years that we need to scale back the inaugural condition of town centers, and Seaside’s Perspicasity and the Airstream shops courtesy of Daryl Davis have painted the picture of the future of retail for years. Why are we so slow to catch up?

   ~Steve Mouzon

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How Fire Chiefs & Traffic Engineers Make Places Less Safe

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Water Street in Celebration, Florida centers on a canal flanked by flowering water plants, with a bridge arching over the canal in the distance.

All images in this post are from Celebration, Florida where scenes like this could soon look very different if the deputy fire chief and traffic engineer get their way.

   Of all the urbanism specialists with tunnel vision, fire chiefs, fire marshals, and traffic engineers are probably the most dangerous. And by “dangerous,” I don’t just mean that they’re a threat to good urbanism; they also get people killed, which is exactly the opposite of what they are commissioned to do. A classic example of their silo thinking is playing out right now in Celebration, Florida, where the proposed measures of eliminating on-street parking spaces and eliminating street trees will almost certainly leave Celebration a less safe place than it is today.

   Let’s look at things from both a common-sense perspective and a data-driven perspective. Getting rid of street trees does some really bad things for safety: First, it eliminates the first line of defense for those who are walking or biking on the sidewalk (when the streets are too dangerous for biking). A car crashing into a tree at 35 miles per hour will deploy the airbags, but the driver and passengers will likely walk away with little more than bruises. But a car traveling 35 miles per hour that crashes into someone who is biking or walking will likely kill them. Higher speed = more deaths and injuries.

young girl on bicycle with pink-rimmed wheels cycles by Celebration, Florida market hall

Two groups injured and killed most often are

the young (because they’re small) and the

elderly (because they’re fragile).

   People adjust their driving according to the conditions around them. On a tree-lined street, people tend to drive slower because they don’t want to hit a tree if they lose control of their car and run off the road. Lower speed = fewer deaths and injuries.

   There’s another problem with removing street trees: They make a huge difference between walking and driving in places that are hot in the summer (like Orlando). A canopy of street trees not only eliminates the strong radiant heat of the sun with its shade, but also cools you even further with the trees’ respiration, which has a similar effect to a cool mist. With a cooling canopy of street trees, most people walk well up into the 90s. With a hot sun beaming down, those same people rarely walk, even in the low 80s. But there’s another problem: humans get conditioned to everyday behavior, so when treeless streets condition them not to walk on moderately hot days, driving becomes their norm. And when you increase driving, you increase crashes and traffic deaths.

   There are even more reasons not to eliminate street trees, but that’s another story for another day, because it doesn’t involve safety. On-street parking is equally essential to safety, and for even more reasons. As a matter of fact, on-street parking and street trees top the list of things cities should increase on streets if they’re interested in increasing the safety of their citizens. To be clear, the prime benefit of these two elements is getting people out of their cars because they prefer to walk to their daily needs. The two extremes are places where everyone drives (suburban sprawl) and places where everyone walks (European towns and villages). Where everyone drives, there are huge numbers of deaths per year because of crashes. In most places where everyone walks, nobody has ever died due to running into someone else.

park benches overlook canal in the middle of Water Street in Celebration, Florida.

Imagine this scene with all the trees cut down and cars driving

a lot faster.

   Walking to daily needs is therefore the safe ideal; it’s stunning that the deputy fire chief and traffic engineer seeking to ruin Celebration don’t realize this. Here are the minutes of a recent meeting that illustrate their blindness to these facts. Note also how the officials talk out of both sides of their mouths. At one point, it sounds like they only want to remove one parking space closest to the end of each block, but when pushed, there are actually several entire streets where they want to remove all on-street parking.

   This kind of double-speak is often found at the Department of Transportation. When the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association was fighting the Florida DOT over the safety and character of Alton Road, the DOT finally agreed to put a landscaped median in the middle of Alton. But just before construction began, they released their final drawings showing that the “median” was actually two half-block-long turn lanes with one ridiculous palm tree in the middle of the block, where the turn lanes switched from one side to the other! In good DOT fashion, it was a classic case of “too soon to know” switching instantly to “too late to change.” I’m an optimist on most things, but I fear this tactic may be used to wreck Celebration.

white-columned front porch in Celebration, Florida with flowing white curtains overlooking shady sidewalk

shady Celebration sidewalk

   On-street parking does several good things, and its alternative (on-site parking lots) does nothing good. Google “sea of parking.” Are any of the hits positive? Of course not; a sea of parking is dreadful on all counts. Beyond the obvious ugliness, they heat the microclimate by absorbing solar radiation and heating the air above them. Heating the microclimate makes walking uncomfortable and so people drive, even if the parking lot is out of sight. More driving = more crashes and more deaths and injuries.

   “But what about on-street parking,” you might ask? “That’s paving, too.” Yes, it is, but it’s a lot less paving. Parking lots need travel lanes between the parking spaces. A 65’ wide perpendicular parking bay has two 18’ parking spaces and a 29’ travel lane. On-street parking needs no extra travel lane because the street itself is the travel lane. So off-street parking requires almost twice as much asphalt and destroys almost twice as much green space as on-street parking, heating the microclimate almost twice as much, discouraging walking and encouraging driving. More driving = more crashes and more deaths and injuries.

   If parking lots were all put in the middle of the block, it would do less damage to the urbanism because it wouldn’t be visible from the street. Unfortunately, parking is far too often put in front of the building, just behind the sidewalk. If the street is heavily traveled, this creates the dreadful W0 Walk Appeal condition where people simply do not walk unless their car breaks down. Parking lots in front kill walking and increase driving. More driving = more crashes and more deaths and injuries.

Celebration, Florida sidewalk cafe flanked by thick palm trees

Celebration sidewalk cafe protected by street trees

   On-street parking makes sidewalk cafes possible. It would be insane to have lunch sitting at a table where cars were zipping by at an almost-certain-death 35 miles per hour just a foot from your elbow. But with cars parked alongside the street, moving traffic is much less of a threat. Sidewalk cafes are both the highest indicator and the highest single stimulus of Walk Appeal, which is the best indicator of places where people walk more and drive less. To make a place safe, we need more of them. I haven’t done the research yet (that’s for a later post), but there’s a strong likelihood that places with many sidewalk cafes have fewer deaths by automobile per capita than those with none. Less driving = fewer deaths by automobile.

   Walk Appeal is the strongest indicator of the likelihood of success of neighborhood businesses in walkable places. When businesses succeed in walkable places, more neighbors patronize them on foot and people drive less. Less driving = fewer deaths by automobile.

Water Street canal in Celebration, Florida

Without street trees, asphalt on the street on

the left would be soaking up heat all day long,

and therefore heating up everything

around it.

   Similar to street trees but even more powerful, on-street parking (especially diagonal parking) reduces driving speed. The possibility of a parallel-parked car opening a door in front of you subconsciously slows you down; the possibility of a diagonally-parked car backing out in front of you does so even more effectively because that would be a worse crash than just knocking someone’s doors off. If a car strikes you traveling 20 miles per hour, you’ll likely suffer some bumps and bruises and maybe a broken bone or two; if a car strikes you traveling 40 miles per hour, I hope you have your things in order, because your family and friends will be burying or cremating you in a few days. The US DOT is the source of this information (scroll down to the Vehicle Impact Speed vs. Pedestrian Injury chart). Lower speed = fewer deaths and injuries.

   It is insane that most traffic engineers don’t understand this! And their prejudice against safer design is cooked right into their standards: the AASHTO Geometric Design of Highways and Streets (the "Green Book,” which is the bible of traffic engineering), uses the Level of Service (LOS) system where streets are rated from A to F with A being best and F being worst, like grades in school. Here’s the problem: LOS A is the free flow of traffic at the highest speeds (most deadly), while LOS F is a slow-moving traffic jam (safest). Speed kills… especially if you’re walking or biking. Higher speed is OK if you’re driving on an expressway through the countryside, but it’s decidedly not OK if you’re driving in a city or town. To be blunt, the Green Book standards have probably killed hundreds of thousands of people in towns and cities. It’s deadly. Put a less dramatic way, the Green Book is great for highways in the country, but not for in-town streets. For that, you need Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares, a design manual jointly created by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) and the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). Sadly, many traffic engineers have apparently never heard of it, even though it reduces deaths and injuries in town, while the Green Book increases deaths and injuries in town by speeding up traffic. Higher speed = more deaths and injuries.

people walking the shady streets of Celebration, Florida on a sunny spring morning

The deputy fire chief never actually said “cut the trees down.” He

just said to remove them. But there’s no way you could move trees

like these with any chance of them surviving.

   This brings up another problem: eliminating on-street parking makes wider travel lanes. Of all the factors affecting travel speed, there is none more reliably calibrated than lane width. People behave differently in different settings. 9-foot travel lanes induce all but the idiots to drive no more than about 20 miles per hour. It’s important to note that you can never design for the idiots, because there’s no way to predict what someone will do when they’re in an irrational state of mind. On 10-foot travel lanes, people tend to drive 20-30 miles per hour. 11-foot travel lanes should only be used on the highest-speed thoroughfares in town, where there is good protection (like high levels of on-street parking) for people walking. 12-foot travel lanes are Interstate lanes, and we all know how fast people drive on the Interstate. In town, 12-foot travel lanes should be called “death lanes.” Higher speed = more deaths and injuries.

   Now, let’s look at some numbers. And this is just the first in a data-driven series of posts. It looks broadly at nationwide numbers for general trends. Later, we’ll compare urban form: cities with tight-knit traditional urbanism versus cities built mostly of sprawl. From a fire perspective, one would think that the USA, built mostly of modern buildings on broad streets where large fire trucks can turn easily and where most buildings are built to modern fire codes, would perform far better than European countries, which are burdened with medieval urbanism, with narrow, cranky streets and small-pipe water. Here are the recent facts, all from 2007 (the last year for which I was able to get data for all these nations):

Celebration, Florida Art Deco post office bathed in morning light overlooking plaza

The post office is one of many walkable

destinations at Celebration. If walkability

is damaged and more people drive, there’s

probably not enough parking for them all.

   Fire deaths per million citizens:

   USA: 12.4

   France: 9.8

   UK: 7.6

   Spain: 5.2

   Italy: 4.2

   So US fire deaths are over 20% higher than the highest of the Western European countries selected and almost triple the deaths in Italy. I wasn’t cherry-picking; I chose the most populous countries in Europe nearest the US. Germany, for example, is substantially lower than Italy.

   So the wealthiest country in the sample with the most modern buildings performed worst on fire deaths? Meanwhile, the other countries have buildings hundreds of years older, serviced by cobbled-together electricity and built on streets so narrow that many of them would be considered alleys in the US performed substantially better? How can this be? I’ll post later on the details of fire risk and urban form, but unless the Europeans are fantastically smarter than Americans and have much better reaction time, how else do you explain this huge discrepancy other than as a product of urban form? I suspect the primary cause of this difference that is costing over a thousand American lives per year is the difference in urban form.

   It only makes sense that places requiring four times as many miles of streets per person (or more) would be harder to protect, even if the streets are wider and allow faster fire truck travel. If that’s the case, fire departments should be celebrating places with traditional urbanism like Celebration, and bending over backwards to support that urban form (including buying smaller fire trucks) because it makes them look better by being substantially safer. Instead, they’re punishing traditional urbanism and trying to damage it enough to bring it back to the unsafe standards of American sprawl.

   It gets worse. Let’s look at those same five nations through the lens of death by automobile. If traffic engineers touting Level of Service standards were to be believed, the US should be the safest nation because more of our thoroughfares have been built to these modern standards. Meanwhile, Europe with its narrow, cranky streets should be really unsafe. Here are the facts, all from 2014 or 2015:

park bench under the shade of gnarled live oak tree in Celebration, Florida

Every comfortable destination that becomes uncomfortable by

cutting the trees down becomes one more reason not to get out

and walk. Things like this park bench help build a stronger culture

of walking in the community.

   Deaths by automobile per million citizens:

   USA: 119.7

   Italy: 55

   France: 52

   Spain: 36

   UK: 28

   So the US, purportedly the safest nation according to accepted standards, is actually the worst in this sample, and by a large margin! The most unsafe nation in the sample other than the US is Italy, where it’s standard practice to pass a car on a highway approaching a hilltop beyond which you cannot see, and Italy is more than twice as safe as the US. The safest country in the sample is the UK, which is more than four times as safe! If you average the non-US nations (42.75 deaths/million) and take the difference between that and the US multiplied by our population, then the logical conclusion is that our traffic engineering standards are killing about 23,000 people per year in the US! As with fire standards, traffic engineers should be embracing traditional urbanism with open arms because it saves so many lives per year!

   On the divide between traffic safety and fire safety, consider this: if you only count deaths by automobile of people walking and people cycling, that’s 19.4 per million in the US, which is almost 50% more than the egregious 12.4 per million deaths by fire in the US each year. To be really blunt, if every fire department in the US closed up shop and dedicated themselves to reducing deaths of people walking and biking to zero, 2,100 lives would be saved in the US every year. Over my lifetime of 57 years, 119,700 people we’ve buried or cremated would have lived instead, with not a single fire station open in the US. To be clear, I’m not advocating for that. What I am advocating for is for fire chiefs and fire marshals to open their eyes and realize that when they do something in the interest of fire safety that damages walking and biking safety, they’re likely killing people!

   Look, I understand that neither the deputy fire chief nor traffic engineer overseeing Celebration are evil people, intent on killing their neighbors. And I hope both of them are reading this. It’s likely that you guys got into your lines of work at least in part because you’re interested in helping people, and making them safer. But the standards of your specialties, because they focus so tightly on just a few specialized metrics like LOS are actually killing and maiming people, destroying families, and causing uncounted grief. Your ideals are not wrong; your ideals are good. It’s your standards that are egregiously wrong, and causing much suffering. Do the right thing, and reconsider your standards. Let Celebration live, and may each of you stand as change-makers against unsafe regulations. Make places safer in real life, not in your tiny silos. The time is now.

   ~Steve Mouzon

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Great Storefronts

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bicycle rider leaning into his turn off French Quarter street thronged by visitors, with green-sheathed cast iron galleries in the distance

   It may come as a surprise, but few things in walkable places are stronger predictors of the vitality of a town or neighborhood center than the quality of its storefronts. Centers in the US normally gather around a Main Street or square. European centers often gather around a plaza, place, piazza, High Street or (again) a square. But whatever it’s called and however it is shaped, the life of the center is fueled more by the quality of its storefronts than by any other factor. Auto-dominated commercial strips, by contrast, are fueled most by two things: their tall pylon signs, and tall architectural elements such as towers at the corners of mid-box buildings which are designed to attract attention quickly from motorists speeding by. Big-box buildings, of course, are their own massive billboards. But back to walkable places...

deep green London storefront with brick building above glowing orange in the sunlight of a late winter afternoon.

   Go into any neighborhood and walk down a primarily residential street, and you’ll likely find relatively few people walking, even if it’s after work. But good neighborhood centers are often thronged with neighbors after work. A few of the people on the residential streets are walking to a neighbor’s house, but most of them are walking to the neighborhood center. The primary job of the residential street is to collect them and to entertain them enough along the way that they don’t get bored before arriving at the neighborhood center.

   Think of the primarily residential streets as the opening act to the main event that is the town or neighborhood center. Streets leading to the center should have enough Walk Appeal to be interesting so that people keep walking; the center itself should be positively entertaining in order to entice enough people that it becomes a vibrant place.

French Quarter intersection with bicyclist and driver negotiating right-of-way, serenaded by street musician sitting against the corner building

   Entertainment begins at the storefront, and the reason why is primarily geometry. As you walk along the sidewalk, the views that change most quickly are those into the storefronts beside you. Every five to eight seconds, you can walk past another shop, with its unique selection of wares on display. Entertainment is the opposite of monotony, and changing the view frequently is essential to avoiding monotony. All of the places shown in this post are in metropolitan areas that have districts built of larger buildings, but fewer people walk there except at starting time and quitting time of the offices because large office buildings are much less interesting because it can take a minute or more to walk by some of them.

London shop with deeply-set bays on upper levels glows in late afternoon sun as pedestrians stroll by

   People don’t come to the center solely for an entertaining walk, of course; they usually have a reason to visit one or more of the shops. So uses do matter, and the the more frequently-visited businesses like a grocery or a third place (coffee shop, bistro, cafe, pub, or restaurant where you can bring your laptop or tablet and hang out for awhile) draw people more frequently than a shoe store, for example. The difference is that if the walk is boring or the storefronts in the center are boring, they’re more likely to drive to the shop from which they need something, pick up the item, and drive back home whereas with great Walk Appeal fueled by great storefronts, they’re more likely to walk and then stay awhile once they get there, benefitting more businesses.

   We’ve already talked about frontages in general; now let’s look in detail at the storefronts that line those frontages. And fortunately, there are a few simple steps for making them enticing. Storefronts are made up of up to five parts. Three are essential and two are optional. The building face is essential, and includes  the windows, doors, doorways and other architectural elements. The interior display is essential as well, as a storefront where you can’t see what is being sold is pointless. Signage is also essential. Many storefronts have some sort of shelter, such as an awning, gallery, colonnade, or arcade. Some storefronts include exterior seating for food or drink service establishments. We’ll look at the essential elements of a storefront that occur on the sidewalk level in this post.  The following are rules of thumb for each:

Building Face

Windows & Transoms

Quebec City shops sit upon a sidewalk coated with recently-fallen snow

   Storefront windows should be single-lite clear glass to best display the wares inside. Divided lites may be used only when the items for sale are substantially smaller than the panes, so you can get an unobstructed view of things in the window. Storefront windows may run the entire height of the glazing, or may be capped with transoms. Transoms may have divided lites because the muntins diffuse light coming into the shop, bathing things within the shop in a softer light.

Glass Percentage

New York City sidewalk overtaken with pedestrians and diners sitting under blue umbrellas sunlit beneath a crisp clear sky on autumn afternoon

   The best storefronts are 65% to 75% glass at eye level. Less glass is boring, because you can see less of the interior. More glass is also boring, but for a different reason: the closer you get to the 100% glass of a butt-glazed curtain wall, the less interesting the wall becomes because more and more architectural elements like piers, pilasters, casings, and sashes must be removed. And when walking down the sidewalk beside the curtain wall, you’ll notice that glass becomes more reflective when viewed from a steeper angle. The glass that’s 30 feet ahead of you essentially becomes a mirror, so you can’t see inside.

Window Sill Height

   Storefront window sills should never be higher than 29 inches, which is table-top height in a restaurant. Higher sills restrict your view into the store. But glass should never run all the way to the sidewalk, either, because the lowest few inches of the wall take a lot of abuse. A sill constructed of something tougher than glass should be a minimum of 6 inches tall. Sill heights should vary from store to store because that is more interesting than holding all of the sills at the same height.

Window Head Height

shopfronts along Alexandria's King Street glow in last rays of sunlight

   Window heads should be no lower than 8 feet above the floor, although they can be much taller, running all the way to the bottom of the storefront beam if desired.

Storefront Doorways

   Doors in commercial buildings are usually required to open outward by fire codes, but if the door is located at the edge of the sidewalk, someone walking quickly by on the sidewalk can be seriously injured by a door unexpectedly opening. This happened to a friend of mine; the end of the door caught him square in the forehead, splitting it open. I had to take him to the emergency room to get stitched up. So always set storefront doors back at least three feet deep into a doorway. The doorway sides can be either square or splayed display windows. A doorway isn’t just a safety device, however; it’s the best display space in the shop because it’s where people are slowing down to go inside, so they see the wares better. It’s also a good place to stand temporarily in the event of a rain shower.

Storefront Doors

ornamental black & white double doors in New Orleans' French Quarter open to grocery

   A storefront door should be mostly glass, and may be either a single lite or have divided lites  of any pattern, because it does not have to provide a clear view to merchandise just behind it, as that floor space is used for walking, not for display. Storefront doors may be single or double, and should be distinguished from the windows in some way in order to be immediately visible to people walking by. Paint color is a common method.

Storefront Beam

   The storefront beam holds up the wall above, and the span between visible supports is fairly long: at least 10 feet; often 16 to 24 feet or even more, so the beam needs to be deep enough that  it’s obviously strong enough to carry the load. The storefront beam may be a visible steel beam, or better yet a steel beam built up with plates, angles, and rivets, which is more interesting. Or it may be clad with stone, terra-cotta, or other finishes.

End Piers

brightly-colored red, lavender, and white storefront along recovering street in Cincinnati's Over-The-Rhine neighborhood

   The end piers occur at the ends of the shops (and occasionally in between) and visually support the storefront beam. End piers may either be shared between two neighboring shops, or each shop may have its own end pier that abuts its neighbor’s end pier such as these storefronts (which also have intermediate piers as well). The decision of whether to use shared piers or individual piers is usually made on a block-by-block basis and is based on whether the developer is building several shops at once (where shared piers work) or whether each lot is individually built out (so that individual piers are required).

Interior Display

colorful corner store in Cincinnati's Over-The-Rhine neighborhood reaches to the sky with three bay-fronted levels above

This element should be obvious, but in today’s retail climate, it needs some explanation. Retailers should turn their wares toward the windows where everyone in the neighborhood will see them, instead of inward where only those who are already inside their shop might see them. This should be Marketing 101. But retailers complain that “my store is designed to put shelves on the outer walls, so that all the aisles are double-loaded.” This is easily fixed by simply flipping aisle and shelving. Rippled across the store, this creates the same efficiency, but with the outer aisles getting many times the exposure through the storefront windows.

   What they choose to display on those outer aisles is important. In my neighborhood, there is a grocery store which did the right thing and put windows all along the side of their store. But then they chose to display stuff like diapers in those shelves. One aisle away is their wine department. Imagine how much better they would do if they turned more enticing products like that toward the sidewalk instead of diapers!


Clover Grill in New Orleans' French Quarter glows softly orange from within, while lit by blue-white light of corner street lamp against the gathering night

   I’ve written a Sign Code for Walkable Places, the essence of which is this: Signs for places where people walk should be scaled to the person walking by close to the storefront, not the automobile speeding by a hundred feet or more from the storefront. This means that you’re permitted more types of signs: blade signs, band signs, window signs, etc., all on the same storefront. The problem with signs in auto-dominated places is that they must be very large to be seen and read before you zip by in your car. So it’s essential to limit the area of the signs in auto-dominated places, and also the number of them. Signs in walkable places can be much smaller, because you see them from short distances. As a result, they generally don’t need size limitations, or limits on sign types. And their variety makes a place more interesting.

   ~Steve Mouzon

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Preserving Architectural Character in Places Threatened by Sea Level Rise

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The Carlyle on South Beach glows a shaded pink against eerie glow of sunset-lit clouds.

   Preservation is a losing battle, and nowhere is this more obvious than in South Beach. Eventually, every building ever built will be lost, so preservation needs to be understood as the act of extending the lives of places and buildings we love the most, not the act of preserving them forever. Every thriving place has development pressure that seeks to replace old buildings with new ones that are substantially larger. Anyone who lives in Miami Beach and who wants to visualize development pressure can simply walk outside, look around, and count the cranes that dot the skyline. Preservationists have gotten relatively good at fighting back against development pressure, at least for the best historic buildings, but the pressure is there.

Sunny-Day Flooding

IMG 4111

   Here on South Beach, we have another threat to the character of our architecture, and it’s not yet clear if this threat can be opposed, at least for some of our buildings. That threat is sea level rise. When Wanda and I first moved here almost 14 years ago, “tidal flooding,” and “sunny-day flooding” were terms we didn’t hear for several years. Tidal flooding wasn’t a thing until 2009 or so. But by 2013, we were having nights like this on an accelerating basis, when the sea level was simply higher than the streets, with seawater spilling into the streets. Inland people debate sea level rise, but not South Beach residents because we have seen it with our own eyes.

   Even before the October 2013 flood occurred, the city had undertaken a massive infrastructure project consisting of improved storm drainage, huge underground storage tanks, and massive pumps to pump the water back out into the ocean before it gets to street level, putting us in the same boat as New Orleans: cities with streets that are at least sometimes below sea level. And those pumps work almost all the time, but when they failed after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans flooded and thousands of buildings were lost. So far, the South Beach pumps have not failed, and we have had no further street flooding. But we inevitably will at some point.

Raising Streets

IMG 9335

   And so the city is now raising the streets. Land is highest on the Atlantic side, sloping down to the lowest point on the bay side. Streets are being raised about 3.5 feet on the bay side, which is the existing grade near the middle of the island.

   Unfortunately, the city is not raising the buildings. I predicted last year that this approach would cause rain-driven flooding problems, and this has already happened. Here’s why: when the streets are raised but the buildings are not, those buildings may be 3 feet or more below the sidewalk. In a rainstorm, if debris like cardboard clogs the newly-installed storm drains in front of a building, or if mulch washes out of a planting bed to clog the drains, the lower area at the front of the building effectively becomes a swimming pool, and in many cases the only place for the water to run is into the building. The pumps might fail only once ever few decades; this flooding could happen repeatedly; whenever there’s a big storm. The city worked with the insurance companies on the first floods in Sunset Harbor, but the insurance companies will quickly tire of the same story each time floods occur. At some point, the buildings must be raised because they will otherwise become uninsurable. These are discussions we need to be having now. The longer we wait to start talking about how to raise the buildings, the more painful and urgent the process will be. The new administration should make this a high priority, as we cannot avoid this problem indefinitely.

Raising Buildings


Galveston house before and after being raised

   We’ve done this before, and with masonry buildings, not just wood-framed houses. And we should be doing this now on South Beach, as our ancestors did in these two examples: Bay Village in Boston was raised in the 19th century after the Back Bay was filled in. Some areas were raised up to 18 feet, although some of the building main levels became basements. After the Galveston hurricane of 1900 (the deadliest natural disaster in US history) the entire city was raised up to 17 feet, which is the current seawall elevation. So there’s no doubt that we can raise 1- and 2-story buildings.

   There’s also no doubt that we cannot raise skyscrapers. For tall buildings, the best solution will probably be to demolish the second level and move the first level upward, leaving upper levels unchanged. The problem is the “Sour Spot” between the 1-2 story buildings (or maybe 3) and the high-rises. Sour Spot buildings that are too tall to raise but too short to modify are likely to be lost. It’s simply an economic reality. With sea level rise happening across the country and around the world, it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to bail us out because this is not a localized disaster like a hurricane. We’re on our own on this.

Ocean Drive Art Deco hotels bathed in sunny sea breezes along Lummus Park on world-famous South Beach

   Walk down Ocean Drive, and you’ll see that some of the most memorable examples of South Beach architecture are in the Sour Spot and likely to be lost because they’re too tall to raise but too short to move the first floor upward. Ocean Drive Sour Spot buildings won’t be the first ones  lost, as they’re sitting on higher ground; that’ll happen further back in the Art Deco District at the beginning. But no reasonable models today project a future where seas don’t continue to rise to and beyond Ocean Drive at some point.

The Replacements

random collection of recent styles of architecture along 5th Street on Miami Beach

Here’s what the replacements might look like if built in wealthy

times… a random collection of styles that just happened to be

popular at the times they were designed.

   When this happens… and there is little doubt but that it will… what will replace these long-loved buildings that form the core of the character of South Beach? If we do nothing to direct the character of the architecture, those replacements will almost certainly be a random collection of “styles du jour” that occur at the times at which they will be built. In short, we’ll morph over time into urbanism no different from any other urban beach city in the US, without the strong character Miami Beach has today that leaves little doubt in any visitor’s mind precisely where on earth they are.


Here’s what the replacements might look like if built in frugal times.

   It is rare for a city to have strong architectural character, and it helps create far greater value than exists in more ordinary places. And that strong character draws millions of people to travel from around the world to visit Miami Beach every year. Will that continue once that character is eroded beyond recognition? Sure, the Post Office will be preserved, along with a few other Art Deco monuments, but what city that was thriving from 1920-1945 doesn’t have a few Art Deco monuments? Once the Sour Spot buildings are replaced by random architecture, we will clearly lose great real estate value and great annual revenues to local businesses.

Coding for Character

The Tides, a mid-rise Art Deco hotel on Miami Beach, reaches to mostly sunny skies, flanked by palm trees and yellow umbrellas

   Architect Trigger Warning: I’m about to trigger some foul emotions in the architectural community. There is a solution, and that is to code for character. This means that leaders in the city must make the choice to build future buildings that become part of a new living tradition of Art Deco architecture. If Art Deco is what people love, why not build more of it? Most architects will fight this furiously, kicking and screaming all the way. Their battle cry is “architecture must be of its time!” The fact of the matter is that there is a strong track record of cities coding for a particular character, and it usually creates great value.

   In some cases, coding for character takes the form of an "extreme makeover” such as when Santa Fe chose about 1910 to transform from a town of Victorian cottages to the adobe city it is today. Santa Barbara chose a makeover to  Spanish Colonial Revival about ten years later. South Beach, as we  all know, adopted Art Deco shortly thereafter. In other cases, places like the French Quarter in New Orleans and Charleston have chosen to code for character in order to preserve their existing character. In every case, strong character has created strong value.

Design Leadership


   Who should lead this initiative to ensure preservation of the character of Miami Beach into the future? It’s not set in stone. Here, the Art Deco character was established by a community of architects such as Lawrence Murray Dixon. Architects also led the Santa Barbara transformation. Architect-driven initiatives do not have to be large at the beginning. Just a few like-minded designers can band together to get it started. The Sarasota School of the 1950s is another model where there was not a code per se, but rather a collection of architects agreeing to pursue similar architecture. The code, however, is stronger.

Civic Leadership


   The initiative to preserve character can also be led by civic leaders. Mayor Joe Riley in Charleston is a great example of the “strong mayor” model. Leadership can also come from someone on the Commission that adopts the initiative as their own. The Chamber of Commerce can lead as well, as they did in Santa Fe. The bottom line is that there are many people who can step up to the plate and get the initiative rolling to preserve the character of Miami Beach. Who will it be?

   ~Steve Mouzon

Hypocrisy and the CorbMiesian Revival

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CorbMiesian Revival architecture rises amid the palm trees south of 5th street on South Beach.

   Modernism’s core hypocrisy can take down some really good guys. Richard Campanella is apparently one of them. By all accounts, including from my close friend Ann Daigle, he is well-loved and highly respected in Louisiana and beyond. I’ve read a number of his pieces, and they’re very professional, well-researched, and even-handed, except when it comes to one core point: the continuation of a much-loved character of architecture at a later time, once it has fallen out of favor. The problem isn’t whether it’s OK to revive an old style, but for which characters of architecture it is permitted and for which it is forbidden, and why there should be a difference. To be frank, Greek Revival and Colonial Revival are reprehensible to most architects today, while CorbMiesian Revival and Brutalist Revival are the hottest things going. I’ve illustrated this post with CorbMiesian Revival examples from South of 5th on South Beach (my adopted hometown), and 1111 Lincoln Road, which may be the best example built to date of Brutalist Revival.

CorbMiesian mid-rise tower south of 5th street on South Beach is composed of steel and glass.

CorbMiesian Revival architecture is still

mainly steel and glass, but the steel is now

allowed to be stainless rather than painted.

   In short, if it’s Modernist, you’re a hero for bringing it back. If it’s not Modernist, you should be banned from the company of thoughtful architects. Hypocrisy incarnate. Let’s look at how Richard unfortunately falls prey in his post New Orleans' historical revival architecture: A look to the past for inspiration? Or solace?

   But this late-20th century brand of historical revival was different. It was more emphatically neotraditionalist -- that is, purely pastiche, lacking an underlying philosophy and seemingly motivated mostly by nostalgia.

   Campanella acknowledged prior revivals of Greek and Roman architecture in New Orleans, but he’s clearly put off by recent traditional architecture. I can’t read his mind, but this seems perilously close to disrespecting it because it’s a present-day threat to Modernism. In his meticulously-researched piece on post-Katrina architecture, he shows how New Orleans residents have chosen traditional characters of architecture <even if poorly executed> over Modernist characters of architecture <even if superbly executed by nationally-known masters> by a margin of 14 to 1. <These are my insertions not found in his piece.> Why would people choose mediocre traditional buildings over masterworks of Modernism? More on this later. And if you haven’t noticed already, “pastiche” and “nostalgia” are insults thrown around regularly by Modernists at those who have not joined their clique. To be clear, I consider Campanella to be an unfortunate bystander who took up these terms from his architect friends, because according to his CV he didn’t go through architecture school.

Tilted pilotis on CorbMiesian Revival building reflect major conflict in Modernist architecture between the necessity of uniqueness and the desire to revive dead Modernist styles.

Le Corbusier’s pilotis are still a favorite method of supporting upper

levels of a building, but in order not to be a straight-up copy, some

of them are tilted today. This is not accidental. When my son was in

architecture school, his professor told him “if you do not tilt or break

your columns in some way, I will fail you.” It’s really amusing to

witness Modernists being conflicted between reviving historical

Modernist styles and the Necessity of Uniqueness.

   For families in the market to build a new house, pattern books increasingly featured historical designs, making their selection convenient, and builders streamlined their construction, which lowered their costs. Historical revival became de rigueur in both old neighborhoods and new subdivisions, and features like faux Creole hipped roofs and Victorian turrets started popping up region-wide.

   When have pattern books ever not featured traditonal designs? Traditional designs are those which have been proven to work. Most people like proven things. Only a few (including me) are willing to take risks to explore new stuff. Calling them “historical” rather than “traditional” is an attempt to relegate them to the past. If people living today choose them fourteen to one, what’s historical about that? That’s a contemporary and present-day fact.

Curvy CorbMiesian Revival building reaches skyward with irregular profile

CorbMiesian Revival architecture can be

rigorously rectilinear or completely curvy.

Corbusier was more well-known for his

curvy buildings, but Mies occasionally did

them as well.

   Also, what is a “faux Creole hipped roof?” Richard, you’re a great researcher, so you surely should know what a Creole roof accomplishes. A hipped roof is one where each plane of the roof supports their neighboring planes, which is inherently stronger in a hurricane. Creole roofs often have a slope in the 8:12 to 9:12 range, which hurricane experts today tell us are in the sweet spot of being too low to easily fail in overturning and too high to easily fail in uplift during a hurricane. One exception is the Creole cottage, which may be up to 12:12 because there is living space within the roof, and those upstairs walls reinforce the roof. Meanwhile, the trademark flat roofs of both Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, grandfathers of today’s CorbMiesian Revival, have the absolute worst failure rates in uplift stress. 

   The “bell-cast eave” that often occurs at the permiter of the building in many Creole hipped roofs? It unlocked the mystery of living traditions because of its utilitarian purpose: torrential rains coming off a steep roof would dig a trench in the yard, whereas rains broken by a shallower eave come off in more of a spray than a sheet of water. Simply put, there’s nothing faux about a Creole hipped roof. It’s a roof shape proven over centuries to perform very well in the region. One of the great Modernist conceits is that “nothing that came before us is worthy of us.” I think that’s a Wright quote but can’t find it at the moment. In any case, the pell-mell rush to discard anything old also turns out to discard anything proven. Is that what we really want?

   Contemporary designs, meanwhile, usually entailed commissioning an architect, which might slow the process and raise the price, while possibly limiting the home's future curb appeal to only those who liked modern architecture.

CorbMiesian Revival building composed of curved concrete floors supported by tubular columns.

Beyond the all-time favorites of steel and glass, concrete is a common

building material in CorbMiesian Revival architecture as well.

Concrete floor slabs can easily be formed into curves.

   Agreed on all points. And because your own research shows that those who like Modernist architecture are roughly 1 in 15 (1 to 14), who in their right mind that didn’t like Modernist architecture would choose to build something so hamstrung in the market?

   Neotraditionism won further ground when the New Urbanism movement, which sought to recapture the intimacy and walkability of pre-automobile neighborhoods, extended the retro aesthetic to entire developments and fortified it with a social policy argument.

   Let’s be clear. The New Urbanism has always researched the things that people love most from the beginning, and began doing so at a time that nobody cared to even ask the question “what do the people love?” New Urbanists then had the audacity to actually build lovable homes and businesses. The Modernists will never forgive them for that, because it lays bare the greatest failing of Modernism: their core precept (the necessity of uniqueness) necessitates unlovable architecture almost all the time because they’re required to dispose of every characteristic of buildings that has ever been proven lovable in human history. Yes, there is the one-in-a-million Eiffel Tower which becomes deeply loved by a people and even by the world. But for each of those, there are countless tons of dreck put up that people get rid of as soon as possible. If it can’t be loved, it won’t last.

1111 Lincoln Road, arguably the best Brutalist Revival building built to date in the US, glows against a clear evening sky

Here's 1111 Lincoln Road, which is arguably

the best Brutalist Revival building built

so far in the US. 

   And this gets back to one of the foundations of this Modernist hypocrisy: the assumption that the architects know and the people don’t. This “retro” slur that Campanella unfortunately uses is common as well… another way to consign anything non-Modernist to the past, and banned from ever being built again. But the people know how to value what they love most, and have no problem at all signing earnest money checks for more-loved characters of architecture (even if poorly executed) over fabulously-executed examples of unlovable architecture. The proper contrast isn’t retro vs. Modernist, but lovable vs. unlovable.

   The rebuilding after the Katrina deluge of 2005 formed an experiment of sorts in which the architectural tastes of thousands of New Orleans families might be further revealed. With such bad memories behind them, would families opt for a refreshing contemporary look?

   Richard, look at your own work! All signs, as you noted, pointed toward a break from tradition, for something new! But your own research painstakingly shows that this was not the case, by a margin of 14 to 1! Why is that so? If all the signs point to one conclusion yet the evidence points overwhelmingly to a very different reality, does that not suggest that our foundation assumptions are very seriously wrong?

   With various levels of flood risk at play, would they opt for sustainability?

   What is sustainability? Is it Gizmo Green? Something you can buy from Home Depot? Or is it building things that can be sustained in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future? If the latter, then it’s essential to know the people, the things that they love, and why. If it can’t be loved, it won’t last. Architects really must develop enough humility to earnestly listen to regular people if they are to have any hope of actually accomplishing this.

1111 Lincoln Road Brutalist Revival building, with raw concrete aglow in late afternoon sun as cars sit silently inside

Brutalist Revival buildings are built primarily with concrete;

steel is mostly used for accessory items like the guardrails on

1111 Lincoln Road.

   We may conclude that, for better or worse, most folks wanted the new New Orleans to look like "olde" New Orleans -- despite that, from the 1720s to the 1970s, local society had a completely different sensibility, importing new ideas and experimenting with the latest design thinking, as if to say "we are confident about the future." Only when that confidence nose-dived in the late 20th century did the architectural eyes of the average New Orleanian turn backward.

   Richard, you’re asking the wrong question here, and coming to the wrong conclusion. It’s not “olde” versus new, historic versus modern, or any similar chronological divides. Rather, when people’s lives are severely disrupted, it’s a known fact that they turn to things that are known to work. It’s absolutely no surprise that the people of New Orleans chose what has been proven in the region to work for centuries versus the hodgepodge collection of Modernist styles du jour. Why is this even in question?

   ~Steve Mouzon

   PS: I’m speaking in New Orleans at the CityBuilding Exchange March 8-10. We’re arriving early. I’d be delighted to buy you a coffee or whatever else you’d like to drink and talk about these things if you’re interested. Ann speaks very highly of you.

Want Some Walk Appeal With Your Tacos?

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late morning crowd enjoying breakfast at the News Cafe on South Beach's Ocean Drive, just across from Lummus Park

   Restaurants in places with good Walk Appeal are inherently less fattening than unwalkable ones because meals come with embedded exercise. I just walked to my favorite restaurant and back, and burned 113 calories. That might not seem like a lot, but 113 calories each day for a year is enough to lose almost 12 pounds, which is why people who live in places with good Walk Appeal are thinner.


Alton Road's Whole Foods sits between two neighborhoods with strong Walk Appeal

   We don’t eat out every day, of course, but we do walk to the grocery store pretty much every day. Whole Foods is 60 calories away; it’s where we shop most often. Publix is 93 calories away; we shop there as well. Walgreens is 56 calories away.

   We rarely buy more than one day’s worth of food; often only one meal’s worth. There’s no doubt we eat fresher and therefore more nutritious food by doing this rather than by driving an SUV to the grocery and stocking up on a week’s worth of food. Some people from unwalkable places are shocked to find that we walk over a mile round trip to shop at Publix. “How can you lug all your groceries the half-mile home?” The fact is, when you’re buying only a meal or two at a time, there are never so many groceries that they don’t fit in my single reusable bag.

Drinking Establishments

Playwright Irish Pub opens to South Beach street corner with chamfered entry below circular Art Deco building corner

   If you’d like some beer with your tacos, Walk Appeal might actually save your life someday. Almost everyone who visits this neighborhood pub walks there. If they have too much to drink, they stumble home, and the worst thing likely to happen to them is to stagger and fall, and bump their head. Contrast that with people who visit a bar in sprawl. Because it’s surrounded with bad-to-hideous Walk Appeal, everyone drives there. And if there’s no designated driver, those who’ve had too much to drink will far too often get behind the wheel anyway, endangering their own life and the lives of everyone else along their route.

   I’m of the opinion that cities should strongly consider the Walk Appeal surrounding an establishment trying to get a liquor license. Granting a license to a bar on the highway guarantees that some people will be drinking and driving.

Sidewalk Cafes

tourists stroll along Ocean Drive on South Beach as patrons enjoy brunch at the News Cafe

   Eating and drinking establishments don’t just benefit from good Walk Appeal; they can actually contribute to it as well. I did an entire blog post on this earlier, but it bears repeating: nothing makes a stronger contribution to Walk Appeal than a sidewalk cafe. That’s because the most interesting thing to someone walking is seeing other people. And while you might see someone for a moment on a sidewalk, they are likely to be sitting at the cafe eating and drinking for an hour or more. Or if you’re in Paris, they might be there all day.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Walk Appeal book front cover

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Street Tree Design

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canopy of street trees shade a Philadelphia mixed-use street on late springtime morning

   Street trees are essential for strong Walk Appeal almost anywhere in the US, which makes them a fundamental part of the public frontage, which extends from the property line to the edge of the street. We’ll talk about other public frontage parts later, but street trees are so important that they warrant their own discussion. Two things will be apparent when we look at street trees and other public frontage parts: First, none of this is rocket science; simple rules of thumb cover most of these parts. On the other hand, it’s shocking how often a city, a Department of Transportation, or a developer gets them wrong… so do what you can to get people informed in your city or town.

Why Should We Plant Street Trees?

   There are many reasons to plant street trees (most of which will be in a later post), but the two most obvious ones are closely intertwined: Walk Appeal and sustainability. In most of the US, a street without trees is a street where people rarely walk, and therefore almost always drive. This is bad for our towns, our wallets, and our waistlines.

Street Tree Types

   If you’re not in a US state with a Canadian border, you really need street trees to shade the sidewalk. And if you’re North of New Orleans, those street trees should be be deciduous so they drop their leaves in winter so you can walk in the relative warmth of a winter sun. From New Orleans southward, shade is helpful throughout the year because it can be warm throughout most days of the year.

shady sidewalk dappled by late afternoon South Beach sun through the leaves of magnificent street trees on Meridian Avenue

spectacular street trees along Meridian Avenue create one of the

best sidewalks on South Beach

   The type of street tree varies according to where you are in town. Along a Main Street, trees should be taller and more vertically-proportioned, so that when they’re mature, their lowest branches are 12-16 feet above the sidewalk so they don’t block business signs. Also, Main Street buildings typically pull right up to the street, so trees that are more vertically-proportioned don’t grow so hard up against the upper levels of the Main Street buildings. On a primarily residential street, the trees can be lower and spread more broadly because the buildings (mostly houses) are set further back from the street. The lowest branches only need to be a bit above the head height of a tall person.

Street Tree Spacing

   Street trees should be planted roughly every 15-30 feet along a Main Street and every 25-50 feet along a primarily residential street. Start by planting a street tree at every property line. If the Main Street shops are really narrow (less than 15 feet wide) plant the trees on every other property line. If they’re really wide (more than 30 feet wide), plant the trees every 20 feet or so, but don’t plant them in front of the shops’ front doors. If you do, some shop-owners will sneak out at night and poison the trees.

IMG 0179-as-Smart-Object-1

this Alton Road street tree hasn’t been

poisoned by the shop-owner… yet

   The Florida DOT had no clue about this basic rule when they rebuilt Alton Road on South Beach, so this is exactly what happened again and again. It’s a lose-lose deal for the business owners, because while killing the trees keeps their signs more visible, the sunburned sidewalks are not a place most people want to walk for most of the year. That’s why Alton Road today is by far the least-walked commercial street on South Beach. And this is in a place where 45% of the people don’t even own a car (because they don’t need them) and most of the tourists don’t rent cars as well. In other words, the Florida DOT through their ignorance killed a lot of real estate value on Alton Road. And yes, Alton has several glaring flaws that will take a lot of work to fix, but the street trees could have been done correctly, and at no additional cost.

   Residential street trees planted every 25-50 feet along a street require only one tree on every property line on most residential streets in traditional neighborhoods. If the street is populated with narrow townhouses, it may require only one tree on every other property line whereas parts of the neighborhood with large lots (more than 50 feet wide) require two trees per lot.

Planting Street Trees

centuries-old oak trees shade Charleston residential street on early spring morning

according to urban foresters, these magnificent trees (captured on an

early spring morning just as they were budding out with new leaves)

should never have lived because their tree wells are scarcely larger

than their trunks, but they have shaded this Charleston street

for centuries

   Trees should be planted either in swales (on primarily residentail streets) or in tree wells (on Main Streets). Do not listen to “urban foresters,” who insist that trees must be planted in landscape beds large enough for their mature drip lines. Their grand lie is legendary… if what they said were true, canopy streets like Meridian Avenue on South Beach would be impossible. They are terribly wrong about this, and need to be called out on it. These are street trees, after all, not forest trees. Primarily residential streets may have swales up to 5 feet wide and of indefinite length, whereas primarily commercial streets may have tree wells 5 feet square or smaller.

   YES, “urban foresters” can specify trees that are unsuitable as street trees and will die on an urban street. Yes, they can specify planting conditions that will cause their self-fulfilling prophecies to occur. But hopefully, you live in a town where at least one good landscape architect knows which tree to plant and how to plant it so that it thrives for centuries. Go to Charleston, South Carolina… this isn’t just possible, but is commonplace.

   ~Steve Mouzon


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Legacy Comments

Adam Old · Director of Communications at TransitAlliance.Miami

has that Charleston street been paved with asphalt for centuries, or is it possible that it is a new material? I have seen huge grand old oak trees dropping whole limbs when the ground below them was asphalted.

 Jan 6, 2017 8:19pm

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Adam, it has been paved since I was young... the first time I was ever on that street was in 1983, when I was right out of college. I'm sure it was cobblestones at some point, but the asphalt is not recent.

 Jan 12, 2017 7:12am


Why Walk Appeal?

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Greektown street corner bathed in warm evening light as residents & visitors flood onto the streets

   Do we want a cup of coffee that is merely drinkable? A meal that is just edible? A book that is only readable? Of course not! We want things that are aromatic, delicious, and engaging! So why should we settle for places that are merely walkable? Why not places where we love to walk?

   35 years ago, walkability was a high and noble goal because the default settings of city-building created such hideously unwalkable places. But thanks in large part to the New Urbanism, we have learned how to build walkable places again. Walkability is now commonplace in places that adhere to New Urbanist principles. Today, we need a higher standard.

   A place with strong Walk Appeal is one where it’s appealing to walk, not one where we’re merely able to walk. And Walk Appeal is one of the strongest indicators of the economic health, environmental health, and public health of a place.

   Healthy Walk Appeal drives the prosperity of neighborhood businesses, and can even make the difference between failure, surviving, and thriving. And those neighborhood businesses have many benefits for the neighborhood, including eliminating food deserts, allowing people to make a living where they’re living, letting people walk to daily needs, and keeping the neighborhood safer because there are more eyes on the street.

   Good Walk Appeal benefits the environment in several ways, especially including these two: It’s obvious that every trip on foot or on a bike burns fat instead of gas, keeping us healthier and wealthier, and keeping the air cleaner. What’s not so obvious is that when we spend time outdoors, we get acclimated to the local environment so that when we return indoors we may be able to throw the windows open and leave the air conditioner off. And there is no equipment so efficient as that which is off.

   The greatest benefit of strong Walk Appeal, however, is what it does to our bodies. Places where people walk 10,000 steps per day as part of their daily activities have been proven to be healthier than those where people walk less, all other things being equal. Our obesity epidemic has ballooned as our walking has dwindled, and it brings many life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.

   Finding a characteristic of the built environment that has such a powerful influence for good in making us healthier, or making our environment healthier, or making our neighborhoods healthier is wonderful. Finding a characteristic that does all three is far better. Walk Appeal is that characteristic, and it’s time to start improving it all across America.

   ~Steve Mouzon


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Legacy Comments

Steve Dombek · Saint Petersburg, Florida

Steve, a little while back I tried introducing the idea that nearly all American streets are "One-Sided" places (even our good Main Streets), whereas the most beloved streets around the world are often "Two-Sided" places. It's a concept that's more easily illustrated with a few examples (make sure to play the GIF):
What makes a street into a Two-Sided place? I think it needs at least three things: (1) people-scaled amenities on both sides (e.g. shops, housing, parks) with minimal dead space, (2) a center "thoroughfare" that's either pedestrianized or very slow-moving shared space (people need to be able to walk down the middle and cross side-to-side with ease), and (3) a width that's narrow enough to create a sense of unified space. Most American streets are too wide for that last point and would need a median treatment of some kind -- imagine adding a strip of park space down the center, or a row of small market stands or food carts.

Dec 14, 2016 7:14am

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Several good ideas here, Steve... thanks! Street width is definitely a battle we fight in the US. At best, an American Main Street is likely to have a 1:3 enclosure ratio unless buildings are 3 stories or taller. I like what we've done on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach, where there are multiple crosswalks in the median to encourage people to cross mid-block.

 Jan 12, 2017 7:16am


City of Hope

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   Detroit has lost all that it’s going to lose. The city has clearly turned the corner. If you didn’t get those ruin porn shots you wanted, it’s far too late now; the ruined mansions in Brush Park have either been demolished if they were too far gone, or are now being renovated. New construction seems to be everywhere.

   But the most amazing thing about Detroit isn’t the buildings, but the people. Wanda and I were there in June for the Congress for the New Urbanism, and we stayed an extra day so we could walk around and see more of the city. We probably walked almost ten miles that day, and the most striking thing to see was the number of friendly people. We’re originally from the deep South, which is the region that takes great pride in the friendliness of its people, but I’ve never seen such a high proportion of friendly people in Atlanta or Charlotte.

   I was first in Detroit in 1979, and it was a very different place back then. I was on a student tour of Montreal and Toronto led by our architecture professors, and Detroit was so scary at the time that we didn’t even stop, but drove straight to the border as quickly as we could. Detroit’s decline began in the 1950s, and by 1979, it was in full swing and hopelessness ran deep. And yes, I know the crime rate is still far too high, but the faces of the people make it clear that change is coming.

   And no, this is not about race; it’s about hope. Insofar as I can tell, the racial mix doesn’t seem to have changed much, but the change in hope is stunning. The only race-based distinction I noticed was this: of all the people that struck up conversations with us that day, every single one was a Black person.


   How did this come about? I’m no expert on what finally flipped the switch from hopelessness to hope for all those Detroit citizens, but it’s clear what didn’t do it. Big, gleaming mega-projects like the Renaissance Center can actually create the opposite of a renaissance because they suck vitality off the street for many blocks around. And big corporate fortresses like this can actually increase fear, as people get accustomed to making the dash from home to office parking structure in their cars as quickly as possible instead of seeing their fellow-citizens each day on the sidewalk. If you want to build a vibrant city, put many front doors on the street, and put as many offices as close to those front doors as you can. The “city within a city” model of the Renaissance Center is exactly the wrong thing to do.

   Detroit’s real renaissance is now happening in many small places, not the few big ones. Walk around Brush Park, Lower Woodward, and Midtown, and you’ll find all sorts of cool stuff popping up. I can’t help but believe that a lot of the innovation is happening because the city has been so cash-strapped for the last decade that it hasn’t been able to regulate things like cities usually do. So the Millennials have just moved in, taken over buildings, and started all sorts of ventures without asking permission. The scene in the photo below is being repeated all over the city. Yes, it’s a bit like the Wild West, but we once built a nation that way.


   Cities in decline looking to revitalize themselves should go to Detroit and see for themselves what is going on. And then they need to ask this question: Rather than sliding to the depths of hopelessness that Detroit reached, where it was unable to regulate in a normal way and had to cease serving large swaths of the city, should we not skip the most hopeless years and lighten the burden of regulation now, so the vitality and inventiveness can get going?

   There’s a Lean Urbanism movement brewing; it actually kicked off in Detroit in October, 2013. One of the central things they’re looking to establish is Pink Zones, so named because they are places where the red tape is lightened. Pink Zones aren’t totally the Wild West, but they “make small possible.” Here’s more about what Lean means.

   Mark Nickita is an expert on Detroit on many counts. Here’s what he wrote about Lean Urbanism in Detroit. Several years ago, he said “Detroit is a tale of two cities, one of great hope and another of great despair, according to which streets you drive down.” Now, the hope is much easier to find. I hope the city leadership realizes the things that have tipped the balance, and continues to let the vitality and innovation flow.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Wanda Whitley Mouzon · University of Miami

Excellent article! I ask this question. "Are regulations going to be the downfall of this country? We are so over regulated that no one can even THINK anymore!" Lean Urbanism is truly the answer for our future!

Nov 14, 2016 1:35pm


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