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.

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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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


Liner Buildings - How to Get Great Streets Years in Advance

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morning sun streams across the face of shops lining the sides of the Pulteney Bridge in Bath, England

liner buildings on either side of the Pulteney Bridge in Bath, England are only 10’ deep

   There's nothing that jump-starts a place people will love to walk like liner buildings. It doesn't matter whether you're helping a place recover from sprawl or building a new neighborhood center; liner buildings get far more bang for the buck and make things possible today that would be completely impossible until years in the future using conventional mixed-use building types. 

   Liner buildings are very thin buildings that line the edge of a street, plaza, square, or other public space. They can be as little as 8-10 feet deep for retail uses and 12-14 feet deep if they include residential uses. They may be a single story high, or they may be several stories tall. Liner buildings have several key advantages over other building types:

Florence's Ponte Vecchio bridge glows in the warm Tuscan sun as the green river slips by below

shops lining the Ponte Vecchio in Florence

are likely the world’s most famous

liner buildings

Spatial Enclosure

   One of the top requirements of a great place is “spatial enclosure,” which is design-speak for “feels more like a room than a highway.” No building type encloses more space for less dollars than a liner building. Yes, you can enclose a space with a freestanding wall, but walls are usually much less interesting than buildings because buildings have people, windows, and other interesting things.

Storefront-Floor Area Ratio

   A liner building with retail on the street level displays the shop’s wares more effectively than any other shop. The reason is simple: if two shops each have storefront windows across their entire street frontage and one (the liner building) is ten feet deep and the other one (the conventional Main Street shop) is a hundred feet deep, then the liner building has ten times as much storefront per square foot of floor space as the conventional shop. Simply put, there is no other configuration of store that displays more of the store’s goods to people walking by.

Single-Crew Workplaces

   The Single-Crew Workplace is a place of business small enough to be run by a single crew. For a retail shop, that’s one shopkeeper. For a restaurant, it’s a cook and a server. For a barber or hairstylist, that’s a single person. For a B&B, that could either be one inkeeper/cook and one housekeeper for an 8-room B&B, or a single person that does everything for a 4-room B&B. For a bar, that’s one bartender. For a grocery store, that’s a single grocer.

Beaufort, South Carolina grocery sits clad in white clapboard and green shutters, with American flag flying from a porch column

here’s that grocery so small it can be run by one grocer - more on it

in an upcoming post

   Mixed-use buildings have a problem today: the retail experts who set impossibly high thresholds for supporting them. For example, the accepted wisdom is that you need 500 “rooftops” (that’s retail-speak for homes) to support a single corner store. If a neighborhood is building 50 homes per year, it would be a decade before that neighborhood could support just that first corner store. And that grocery store? Not too long ago, a 10,000 square foot neighborhood grocery store was common, but today 40,000 is considered the minimum size, and that requires a catchment area much bigger than a neighborhood. But I’ll blog soon about something quite the opposite: that single-grocer store which is considered completely impossible today. Here’s the bottom line: single-crew workplaces make all sorts of neighborhood businesses possible today that would be completely impossible using bigger-box standards, and no building type is so perfectly suited to single-crew workplaces as the liner building.

Front, Back, and Side

thin South Beach office building lines a parking deck

   Liner buildings are used most commonly today to enclose a public space, shielding it from something less desirable behind such as a parking deck or parking lot. I would even go so far as to say that every parking deck built from this point forward should be buffered from streets or squares by liner buildings. Why build any buildings that degrade the public realm? And the fact that the part that makes them palatable from the street also earns rent is a bonus. This building looks like a 5-story office building from the street, but it’s really a 7-story parking deck with an 18 foot office liner and 12 foot gallery on the street. But lining a parking deck is only one of the uses of a liner building. What’s behind the liner building doesn’t have to be something undesirable… enclosing the public space is worthwhile even if there’s nature behind.

classical stone liner building in Paris protects an inner courtyard from street noise

   The reverse can also be true. The liner building can be used to protect a quiet courtyard area from the noise of a busy street. A cloister is a classic ancient liner building type used for this purpose for centuries. Here’s a three-story classical stone liner building that’s nearly a block long which shields a courtyard inside the block from a mundane street.

one-story liner building used for cafe & bakery turns a corner nicely in Boston, surmounted by a huge billboard

   There’s a third type of liner building that’s less common: the “end cap liner.” An end cap liner building is a thin building built on the end of a block of attached mixed-use buildings. 

   Main Street buildings typically have blank side walls because they are attached to their neighbors on either side. Far too often, Main Street designers and builders forgot that the end buildings on Main Street blocks can have storefronts and windows above, and built them with blank walls like their neighbors. These blank walls fronting onto the side streets have a terrible effect on Walk Appeal, significantly reducing the number of customers who will walk down those side streets to get to the shops. This little modern metal end cap liner building transforms (with the help of the billboard above) a really boring blank side of its brick neighbor into a corner everyone wants to turn, increasing the prospects for success of every merchant on that street.

Fitting into Parking Lots

   One of the first steps in sprawl recovery is reclaiming the frontages, and liner buildings are a key tool, especially in or near neighborhood centers. In many cases, they’ll be reclaiming space from parking lots because surface parking is one of the greatest blights of sprawl. Interestingly, a bay of parking is typically 18 feet deep, which is perfect for a liner building. Build a sidewalk on the inner 3 feet of the parking space (toward the rest of the parking lot) and build the liner building on the remaining 15 feet. This is wide enough for apartments or condominium units above, even if the parking lot ran right to the property line. If not, then you have even more space to work with. And yes, once the place has reached enough intensity that not everyone needs to drive, those parking lots can be cannibalized for building expansion.

Daylight & Ventilation

aqua casement windows open to San Francisco summer breezes

   Because liner buildings are unusually thin, they are almost always one room deep. They are therefore no-brainers to daylight and cross-ventilate, meaning that they’re much easier to condition naturally for most of the year than conventional Main Street buildings. It is widely known that the most beautiful light in a room is achieved with daylight on two or three sides of the room, yet designers and builders struggle to achieve this on most buildings. Not so with liner buildings… there, it’s the easiest thing to do.

   What else should we be discussing on liner buildings? Have you noticed any in your neighborhood, or nearby? What other uses and types of liner buildings should we be talking about? I have a few in mind, but am curious what you think?

   ~Steve Mouzon


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Legacy Comments

Roland Beinert · University of Idaho

An added bonus of having liner buildings in hot climates is that they shade the sidewalk at least part of the day. The shade on a street lined with buildings is much more consistant than on a street shaded only by street trees. Trees can die and are sometimes never replaced by cities. Trees also take time to grow. 
Here in Los Angeles, a lot of sidewalks are lined with parking lots on one side and palm trees on the other (assuming there are any trees), and I get fried by the heat and blinded by the glare. On some streets, the only shade is from the lamp posts. The few streets with liner buildings are a welcome relief.

 Oct 8, 2015 9:22am

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Agreed, Roland. Parking lots lining a sidewalk are urbanism poison. Kills walkability quickly.

 Jan 12, 2017 7:17am

Andrew Watt · Creative at Watermountain Studios


I've been thinking about architectural design of late, and coming back to your blog to read a few articles here and there. This piece about liner buildings is helping to inspire a project I'm working on with our Spanish teachers, to help think about designing buildings for various central American countries. The idea of creating walkable, livable spaces, especially in poor neighborhoods, will resonate with many of those students.  

One thing you haven't discussed is how to retrofit existing structures like parking garages to have liner buildings within them. That would be a good thing to hear about.

Nov 17, 2015 5:37am

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Good point, Andrew... thanks! I'll do that. There are some techniques, beginning with the fact that the outer bay of parking is 18' wide... a great width for a liner building. As for tropical urbanism, I discovered in Havana that when the grid is diagonal rather than east-west, north-south, and the buildings are fairly tall, the streets are shady pretty much all the time.

 Jan 12, 2017 7:20am

Thomas Leatherwood · Principal/Owner at Thomas Leatherwood Associates

Steve. I'm promoting small liner buildings as part of redevelopment in a couple of places here in Santa Fe. A big issue for small cafes with cook and server is the requirement of a commercial kitchen. How do these small cafes work with those high front end costs? Is there an alternative scenario?

23 hrs


Sidewalk Cafes - Silver Bullets of Walkable Places

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Rome street glows with streetlights in early evening, packed with people walking along the street and eating at sidewalk cafes that flank its edges

   The most important thing about building a place with high Walk Appeal isn’t anything we build, nor is it about walking. Of all the factors that entice us to walk in a place, the strongest one is likely the presence of other people. When someone walks along a street, they’re there for a moment, and then they’re gone. But when they sit down to a meal, they might be there for an hour or more. Because of this, the sidewalk cafe is the single most powerful tool we can use to enhance people’s desire to walk in a place.

   Interestingly, the sidewalk cafe is both cause and effect of places we want to walk. It never occurs in unwalkable places, and its chance of thriving increases as the place becomes more appealing. Because it is fueled by the appeal it creates, the sidewalk cafe can be considered the “turbo-charger of walking.” Here are some sidewalk cafe design considerations:

Traffic Speed

Young South Beach crowd packs sidewalk cafe and spills out onto balconies above as traffic snakes by at a crawl

Ocean Drive traffic moving so slowly that people can hold

conversations with drivers

   The slower the traffic speed, the easier it is to do a good sidewalk cafe. The ideal traffic speed is walking speed… whether it is cars driving or people walking. Ocean Drive on South Beach regularly sees cars traveling at walking speed, and it has the most thriving sidewalk cafe scene in all of South Beach. As travel speed increases, protective measures to assure the safety of those dining must increase as well. Top speed for a thoroughfare adjacent to a good sidewalk cafe is 35-40 miles per hour, because nobody wants to have lunch alongside an expressway. Protective measures include the following:


cast iron bollard protects diners at sidewalk cafe under wrought iron and glass awning set against salmon-hued restaurant in Paris

   The bolllard is the first line of defense against moving vehicles. A simple thin metal bollard such as the one shown here provides protection against cars traveling between walking speed and running speed (about 15 miles per hour). Above that, the bollards need to get heavier and closer together in order to make the patrons feel safe.

   Please note that there are two factors in play here: actual physical safety, and the perception of safety. It is not enough to provide actual physical safety; the patrons must feel safe as well, otherwise they won’t eat there.

   Bollards can take many forms beyond the simple metal pipe bollard shown here. They can be made of iron, and cast into countless ornamental forms. Concrete bollards are necessarily heavier than thin pipes, and are often chosen for faster vehicular speeds, but bollards can be made of stone as well. For added protection, a heavy chain can be attached to the tops of a row of bollards.


Tactical Urbanism installation in New York City flanks sidewalk cafe with huge white terra cotta planters brimming with flowering plants

   Tactical Urbanism has popularized the use of planters as protective measures. Planters have several benefits. First, a planter can be really big and heavy without looking as clunky as some concrete bollards. And the plants planted within them can provide blooms, enclosure, and even shade if the planters contain trees.

On-Street Parking

Washington Avenue sidewalk cafe on South Beach protected by a wall of parked cars

   Parked cars provide the greatest degree of protection, and should therefore be used along higher-speed thoroughfares. Actually, there are many benefits of on-street parking, so it can be paired with sidewalk cafes anywhere cars are still necessary… in other words, almost anywhere in the US. Above speeds where cars and bikes can ride comfortably together (about 25 miles per hour) on-street parking becomes the protective method of choice. 

   Parking may be either parallel or diagonal, and there are benefits of each. On the one hand, a traveling car striking a parallel-parked car is less likely to push the parked car onto the sidewalk because it will most likely be a glancing blow. On the  other hand, most drivers slow down on streets with diagonally-parked cars because of the risk of someone backing out into traffic without seeing them at first. Also, diagonally parked cars put about eighteen feet of metal between the travel lanes and the sidewalk, whereas parallel parked cars are no more than eight feet wide.

Sidewalk cafes overflow along bustling pedestrian street in Paris

   We’ll revisit sidewalk cafes soon, because there are several other factors important to their success beyond protective measures for vehicular traffic. We’ll talk about comfort issues like shade and rain protection, breezes, and warmth on a cold day. We’ll also look at servicing and walking path issues. What am I missing? What other sidewalk cafe issues should we be talking about?

   ~Steve Mouzon


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Legacy Comments

Cascia Luther Talbert · Retail Merchandiser at Sas Retail Service

I wanted to let you know that I am a huge fan of your blog and you are listed on my site as one of the best 100 Eco-Friendly Blogs. I would be honored if you could share the post with your readers and fans.

Sep 15, 2016 1:27pm


Walk Appeal and Public Health

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   The Surgeon General’s Step It Up campaign kicked off last week with a call for more walkable communities, and that once would have been the proper thing to seek, but no longer. For decades, most places in America were so unwalkable that urbanists had to fight to build walkable places, but it turns out that “walkable” is a really low standard. Do you want food that is merely edible? Will you pay for a book that is only readable? How about a cup of coffee that is just drinkable? What we need isn’t places that are solely walkable, but rather places with Walk Appeal.


   The core idea of Walk Appeal is that people walk longest and most often in places that entice them, but rarely walk just because they’re told they ought to. Some Walk Appeal factors are measurable, while others are immeasurable, and it has long been clear that Walk Appeal is the best predictor of the viability of neighborhood businesses, whether they be single establishments or incubators like maker spaces. And creating walkspaces around buildings with high Walk Appeal has more sustainability benefits than almost anything else you can do because it helps people live in season. But arguably the greatest benefit of boosting Walk Appeal is the effect it has on public health.

   The Surgeon General has reams of studies on the benefits of walking, as did the Surgeons General of several preceding administrations. Susan Henderson put up a nice piece this morning that gathers several of those resources into one post. And I have huge personal experience of the benefits of Walk Appeal, having lost 60 pounds by moving to South Beach.

   Wanda and I are working on the Walk Appeal book now. Other than the things outlined above, what all should we be thinking about? Do you know good resources we might not be aware of? Commenters on this blog made the Original Green book far better… as a matter of fact, most of the good ideas in the book started with comments on the blog. So please help us out again... the idea of Walk Appeal deserves a book as good as we all can make it!

   ~Steve Mouzon


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Legacy Comments

Jeffrey Jakucyk · University of Cincinnati

Nathan Lewis doesn't specifically mention walk appeal as far as I know, but his writings on the subject of traditional cities or cities for people are invaluable to the discussion, in my opinion anyway.

Sep 16, 2015 10:12am

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Thanks, Jeffrey! I was unaware of this work. Gotta dig into it...

Sep 20, 2015 3:33pm

Dean Bowden · Huntsville, Alabama

Random thoughts from places I love to walk: building heights scaled to visible depth (shorter buildings for narrow walking paths and taller buildings for open plazas); planned spaces for the nominal weather (western buildings provide afternoon shade, awnings for hot sunny places); and usually an interesting mix of businesses so people can spend time and slow down (like you already mentioned, walking solely for health is a limited attraction).

Sep 20, 2015 4:16pm

Wanda Whitley Mouzon · University of Miami

Walk appeal is the foundation of any successful sustainable place!!

Sep 27, 2015 6:11pm


What Was Gained in the Katrina Cottage Loss?

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lone FEMA trailer glows like a jack-o-lantern under the spreading branches of a Mississippi live oak spreading against the softly glowing night sky in the wake of Katrina

All images on this post not depicting Katrina Cottages are from my upcoming book Nightfall on the Coast, which is a look back at the impacts of Katrina’s devastation ten years later.

   Katrina Cottages were once the shining star of the New Urbanists’ work on the Gulf Coast after the storm, but they seem little more than a distant memory today. Much has been written about their failure, but that’s not the whole story. They live on today in unexpected ways.

   The Katrina Cottage roller coaster began ten years ago right now, with the monster storm making landfall near the Mississippi/Louisiana border. I was on the road for several days before and after landfall, and came home thoroughly exhausted and emotionally drained from watching those events unfold that week in one of my favorite parts of the world. Wanda greeted me at the office door the evening of September 1 and said “you must call Michael Barranco right now. It’s urgent.”

FEMA trailer sits at the dark end of a driveway underneath a Katrina-brutalized oak tree in Gulfport, Mississippi, reflecting distant street lights

   Michael said “Steve, we’re assembling a Governor’s Commission to figure out how to rebuild the Mississippi coast, and we’d like you to come and speak to us about rebuilding according to the principles of the New Urbanism.” I said “That’s far too big a job for me; let me call Andrés Duany.” The next morning, I went to DPZ and met Andrés, and he said “that’s too big for me as well; we need to call in the entire Congress for the New Urbanism.” And so he picked up the phone and called CNU CEO John Norquist, setting in motion what became the largest planning event in human history, otherwise known as the Mississippi Renewal Forum.

   I returned to DPZ the next day, and Andrés and I spent that Saturday afternoon laying out the next steps. He said that some of  the emergency housing installed in Homestead after Hurricane Andrew had been removed just one year before Katrina. “Some children started first grade and graduated from high school living in the same FEMA trailer. We really must do better than that.” So our first conception of the Katrina Cottages was “FEMA trailers with dignity.”

FEMA trailer glows a dim green against the post-Katrina darkness, as a picket fence stakes out territory against the night

   It didn’t take long for that mission to grow. Early numbers suggested that a quarter-million homes had been lost in New Orleans alone. The New Orleans construction industry had been building roughly 1,000 homes per year before the storm, and at that rate, it would take 250 years to rebuild. Clearly, we had to be able to deliver housing through every means available: conventional construction, panelized houses, modular houses, and manufactured houses.

   It also became clear that the FEMA trailers were more expensive than they seemed. Although FEMA wasn’t forthcoming with the numbers, the evidence we could gather suggested that the entire cost of manufacturing, commissioning, decommissioning, and disposal could be $50,000 to $70,000. If the Katrina Cottages fulfilled the first mission of having dignity, why couldn’t they be permanent as well? Weren’t we being good stewards of the government’s money if we could use that money to build cottages that would last for a hundred years, not just 18 months like a FEMA trailer?

The Model T Cottage was the first Katrina Cottage ever designed, in advance of the Mississippi Renewal Forum in the fall of 2005.

the Model T Cottage, which I designed to

illustrate some of the principles of modular

and manufactured housing to designers who

might not have ever designed a mobile home


   I designed the first Katrina Cottage, then used it to illustrate the principles of the cottages in a call for designs to the members of the New Urban Guild. Designs began to pour in almost immediately. Thus began several years of pro bono work by Guild member on the cottages and other aspects of Katrina recovery. Six weeks after the storm, Guild members made up most of the architecture team, and filled slots on several planning teams as well, as nearly two hundred architects and planners gathered in a Biloxi casino to craft rebuilding plans at the Mississippi Renewal Forum.

   My sister Susan Henderson led the architecture team; my role at the Forum was to manage FEMA, but it was almost hand-to-hand combat because they weren’t budging from their policy of only installing temporary housing. They said “if you want us to do something permanent, you’ll have to get an Act of Congress!” My response was “if that’s what it takes, that’s what we’ll do!” And so we did. Congress approved almost a half-billion dollars for the cottages, initially with instructions that they could remain permanently. But in the end, FEMA did what they always do, and pulled them out and auctioned them off.

Marianne Cusato's Katrina Cottage I design was the basis for the little yellow cottage that stole the show at the International Builders Show in early 2006.

Marianne’s design, refined for the IBS

   During the Forum, architecture team member Marianne Cusato was one of several people designing cottages, and Ben Brown gave one of her designs to a newspaper reporter. In the ensuing stories, Marianne’s design got a lot of good responses. In early December, we had a stroke of excellent luck: one of the outdoor exhibition slots at the upcoming International Builders Show in Orlando opened up, and the promoters wondered if we might get a Katrina Cottage built in time. I debated whether to have Marianne or Eric Moser design the cottage. Eric had been published many times in Southern Living over the years, and was considered a star by millions of readers, but Marianne’s cottage had gotten a lot of good press since the Forum, so I asked her to do the design. The little yellow cottage stole the show at the IBS. Later, it won the People’s Choice Award at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards. I credit the cottages and in particular Marianne’s design with helping to turbo-charge the Tiny House movement, which had been largely unnoticed beforehand.

FEMA trailer hides its nose behind a massive Mississippi oak tree, which is silhouetted against the brown glow of the night sky

   I published Emergency House Plans in early 2006; the designs were done by over a dozen Guild architects. But there was a problem with every cottage in the book. Because space was so precious in tiny cottages, the exterior walls quickly got gobbled up with baths, closets, and kitchen cabinets.  In other words, things that are hard to move. So none of the first generation of cottages expanded very easily. And that’s a problem because someone is far more likely to buy or build a tiny cottage if it were obvious how it might grow than if it’s not, so the inability to grow easily was stifling the cottages. And that held back our idea that the cottages could be the first toe-hold back onto your lot, from which you could expand into a larger house later on.

   I had the original idea for the next generation of cottages that could expand easily at the Forum, but was so busy doing battle with FEMA that I didn’t have time to develop it beyond just a quick sketch. I called the idea the Kernel Cottage, because it could sprout and grow from several places, like a kernel of grain. Its development had to wait until the summer of 2006, when Ben Brown asked me to design three Katrina Cottages for USA Weekend, which was USA Today’s weekend edition at the time. I did a vernacular, a mid-range, and a classical design, and USA Weekend published them and conducted a poll. The classical version won in a landslide. USA Today was trying to help jump-start the manufacturing of the cottages, so they asked us to find a manufacturer who would produce the winning design in a factory and bring it to Washington DC, making it the first cottage to venture outside the Gulf Coast. It was slated to be donated to a needy resident of Silver Spring, Maryland.

Katrina Cottage VIII on display in Silver Spring, Maryland - this was the first "kernel cottage" to be designed, able to expand in several directions

   The effort to get the cottage built correctly was herculean; I even spent nights in the factory because nothing we were doing was “normal,” and the workers were working around the clock. Finally, the cottage shipped, and was put on display for several months in Silver Spring. It was during this time that I met Bobby Kennedy, Jr. and his family, who had a keen interest in helping promote the cottages. He later wrote the Foreword to the Original Green book. Unfortunately, this part of the story has a dark ending: after several months on display and after having gotten lots of great press, the manufacturer had an egregious ethical lapse and reneged on their promise to donate the cottage, and towed it away instead. I still wonder where that little cottage ended up.

piers of a Gulf Coast house, one of Katrina's victims, sit faintly in the background, standing vigil against the Mississippi night

phantom piers from destroyed house stand

vigil in the gathering Gulf Coast darkness

   The Act of Congress wasn’t working out so well, either, and much of it was our fault. To be blunt, we mis-managed the cottage initiative because we weren’t all on the same page, and the people managing Mississippi’s allocation of several hundred million dollars finally got tired of our infighting and decided to go their own way. The Mississippi Cottages bore many similarities to our designs, but we could have helped improve them had we handled it better. And the cottages always had one fundamental problem: so long as they resembled mobile homes, they were susceptible to the strong rejection of mobile homes that most communities exhibit. Like I told the mobile home manufacturers every time I spoke at their conventions, “it’s not good enough to produce homes as good as site-built homes. Your homes have to be substantially better. So much better, in fact, that instead of signing an ordinance banning your homes from town, the mayor is signing a check to buy one of your cottages.”

shattered stairs glowing orange in the street light's glare are all that remain of a Mississippi house after Katrina

   To date, we simply haven’t gotten there with any home produced on an assembly line. For a year or so after those heady days surrounding the Forum, I had high hopes that we would change the American home manufacturing industry, but it was never that simple. In the words of one CEO in the early autumn of 2008: “Steve, I can’t just start manufacturing these cottages in my existing factories. They are so different from what we build now that they not only require a different set of construction materials, but they also will require a different set of employees. We have a current culture of building mobile homes, not manufacturing architecture. And so we’ll need entirely new factories, with an entirely new workforce that has a different culture of building. That’s an investment of millions of dollars.” And in retrospect, he was right, as we were descending into the winter of the Meltdown, and the ensuing Great Recession.

FEMA trailer's porch light illuminates the underarm of a massive Mississippi oak a year after Katrina

   By the time 2009 dawned, it seemed that all was lost. Not only were the Katrina Cottages looking all but impossible to produce, but the planning efforts on the Coast were meeting resistance as well. It seemed as if inertia might finally win out. I learned that year that even the name of the cottages was a mistake. Southerners are often much too polite for their own good, so it’s no mystery that it took four years for a New Orleans citizen to finally tell me “Steve, you made a huge mistake. ‘Katrina Cottages’ are ‘Losing Everything I Ever Owned Cottages,’ or ‘The End of My Life as I Knew It Cottages.’ How could you guys possibly name them that?”

   But that’s when the cottages began to spawn new life. The New Urban Guild held a summit at DPZ’s office in Miami in January 2009 intent on launching Project:SmartDwelling, which sought to reinvent the American home at half the size and 60% of the cost of a typical American home by building radically smaller and smarter. In the years since, nearly every one of the SmartDwelling techniques turned out to be lessons we learned by figuring out the Katrina Cottages.

   Shortly afterward, Lizz Plater-Zyberk did a characteristically generous thing for which she and Andrés are legendary: she called me and said that the Wall Street Journal was doing a Green House of the Future story for which they had asked DPZ to design a house. Because she knew I was writing the Original Green book, she said she would prefer for me to design the house. The article was published April 27, exposing SmartDwellings to a broad audience for the first time.

whitewashed shops and cottages of Mahogany Bay Village glow warm in the Belize sunrise on Ambergris Caye

   But it hasn’t yet gotten built. And for the next few years, SmartDwellings went dark, existing only as a great idea that had not yet been realized, as Guild members struggled through the Great Recession like most other architects. That began to change May 12, 2012. On the last night of the Congress for the New Urbanism in Palm Beach, I told my friends Eric Moser and Julie Sanford “if we don’t do anything radical, the SmartDwellings may forever remain nothing but talk and drawings. If we’re committed to seeing them implemented, we need to create a design firm dedicated to the implementation of these ideals. We founded Studio Sky shortly thereafter, and today, there are hundreds of SmartDwelling rising on distant shores. I hope some of ours get built in the US sometime soon. Not only that, but there’s now a high-quality manufacturer gearing up to roll SmartDwellings off the assembly line. I’ll have much more to say about that just as soon as the production goes live. After all these years of thinking all that effort was lost, it seems like it’s finally happening.

   I know other Guild members have been working on SmartDwellings as well, but don’t yet know the details, other than Bruce Tolar’s heroic Cottage Square in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. For so long, nobody has had budgets for travel, and now that we’re busy again, nobody has time for travel. But we really do need to get together and compare notes at another summit. Anyone interested in listening in when we do?

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Ann Daigle · Works at CityBuilding Exchange

Steve, my take is that the Katrina Cottage was a successful national symbol for dignified, Lean public housing - and that is a very, very good thing. The execution of the idea, in a state where inequity prevails and in a nation not quite ready for inexpensive and Lean (pre-recession!), was less successful. No matter how many worked hard to manage the culture, the mobile home industry cannot be changed. Marianne's idea and push for the Lowe's Kat Cottage distribution model was the most brilliant idea of all, and would have been much more successful had the market been ready and if others had been on board to make it the default. I also think that if SmartDwellings had been built in Mississippi and especially in New Orleans (rather than Make It Right) the lesson abotu sustainable architecture would have gained huge national success. Bottom line, everything you write about, and all the people involved, were really before their time...but the lessons remain!

Aug 30, 2015 6:48am

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Ann, the Katrina Cottage name played very well on the national stage, just not locally to those whose lives were turned upside down. At least that's what they told me. As for the mobile home industry, you've known me long enough to know that I never say never! As a matter of fact, I'm really excited about the company that's gearing up right now to produce them. That's not what they manufactured before... their previous products were very high-precision, high-quality. But that's all it takes is getting it right in one place; Seaside taught us that, didn't it?

Aug 31, 2015 6:23am


Things We Do for Places We Love

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Veterans Day parade kicks off in New York City on 11/11/11

   The love debate continues unabated on several private listservs inhabited by some of the best and brightest architects and planners, but they’re making some fundamental errors. Some confuse “cuddly” and “cute” with “lovable,” for example. Neither buildings nor towns are often cuddly or cute. Those terms are usually reserved for small furry things. Maybe a Katrina Cottage or hobbit house might be cuddly or cute, but very little else. Lovable? That’s a very different matter.

statue of man and horse atop a building in Milan bathed in orange light against the deepening blue of the evening sky

   For love of freedom, people rise up and throw off tyranny, even at the cost of everything they’ve worked for until that moment, and even at the cost of life itself. From the crucible of this sacrifice, nations are born or reborn.

   For love of a country, young men and women get up and march, and lay their lives in the breach, risking maiming or death.

   For love of a region, people forego many self-interests to say “that’s my homeland.” "American by birth; Southern by the grace of God” is but one example.

   For love of a city, activists take hazardous stands and spend countless hours to stir the populace to make the better choice.

   For love of a town, those with resources put them at risk because of the dream of the city that will someday emerge as a result of their risk.

   For love of a neighborhood, citizens band together and spend countless hours to make their neighborhoods clean and safe.

   For love of a building, people chain themselves to long-loved structures and stare down the bulldozers that threaten them.

Miami Beach Veteran's Day Parade 2010 kicks off with the Marching Hi-Tides from Miami Beach High School

   These are things we all should know implicitly… they should be part of our DNA. How many New Urbanists have never said “I love this city?” How many times has the phrase “I love my country” been voiced, just in the USA? A hundred billion times? Maybe a trillion times in American history? Surely those words have been uttered many trillions of times in many languages around the globe in human history. A building, a neighborhood, a town, a city, a region, or a nation, are not things too big to love.

   It is high time to end the architectural conceit that lovability is somehow beneath us and realize that this is a powerful tool… possibly the most powerful tool… in doing the good things we are trying to accomplish. That which cannot be loved will not last. Let’s build things that last. If not, then why do we build?

   ~Steve Mouzon


Lovability Gains Momentum

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courtyard in Alys Beach centers on stone fire pit with Adirondack chairs at the four corners, as white stucco houses backdrop the scene, glowing white in the afternoon light

   A prominent architect whose work I love and respect told me recently that the term “lovable” has “a... problem with pragmatists” that can’t be resolved. He also said “you’re the only architect I know who can say 'lovable architecture' with a straight face.” And so it has been, ever since I started shooting for the Catalog of the Most-Loved Places in the 1990s… time and again, it’s been obvious that architects find it impossible to use the word “lovable." This became more obvious in 2004, when lovability was proposed as an essential element of a living tradition, and intensified in 2007 with the proposal that lovability was the first essential characteristic of sustainable buildings.

vines climb to the top of the first-floor windows and completely cover huge planting urn in front of white stucco stepped chimney of Alys Beach house

   Fortunately, that is increasingly not the case with people other than architects. Lloyd Alter alerted me recently to an article in Policy Innovations entitled "What Makes a City Great? It's not the Liveability but the Loveability.” The very next day, Kaid Benfield’s How to Make Smart Growth More Lovable and Sustainable appeared on the Huffington Post. Kaid’s article specifically referenced the Original Green, and I really appreciate that. The Policy Innovations piece, which was an interview of Ethan Kent, did not, but in some ways that’s more important because it means the idea is entering the general lexicon unfettered by an association with any one book, site, or person.

   Let’s dig further into the pragmatic architects’ problem with lovability by looking at a completely different field. I recently saw this story on Bloomberg Business about the computer programming industry.

naturally finished scrolled wood cantilevered brackets support Alys Beach balcony

   One would think that computer programmers would be about as pragmatic as they come, right? But they voted Apple’s new Swift programming language as “the most-loved language” in a survey of over 26,000 developers by Stack Overflow. Hard to find a more pragmatic publication than Stack Overflow.  So how can programmers tap into the idea of lovability but pragmatic architects aren’t allowed to? Yes, the programmers also have their religious wars, as the Bloomberg article documents. But something, somehow, opens that door to pragmatic programmers whereas it is slammed shut to pragmatic architects. Why? What’s the difference?

Arched wood double doors surmounted by scroll-supported copper carriage light open wide to reveal inner arch, and beyond that, a glimpse of Alys Beach courtyard

   My inquiry into lovable architecture began in a way I never planned. Wanda and I married in 1979, after my first year in architecture school. One evening in Third Year, she asked me “why do you refuse to design buildings that anyone else I love would love?” “Do I?” “Of course you do!” “How do you know they wouldn’t love what I design?” “Have you ever listened to non-architects talk about architecture?” “No, our professors tell us that we should educate the clients.” “Well, if you’d ever stop and listen to them, you might learn what they actually love.”

   The point to this story of the origin of my use of the term “lovable” is that the term requires something many architects are completely incapable of demonstrating: humility. Listening to the untrained requires humility. The New Urbanism did this early on… Robert Davis’ legendary road trips across the South learning what the people love is but one example. And that’s the core reason, I believe, why so many in the academy hate us so: because we have the audacity to have enough humility to actually listen to the people. We really don’t need to lose that virtue.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Christopher John Sparks · Sahuarita High School

Can you hear me applauding, Steve? Excellent article!

Jul 2, 2015 5:11am

Doug Lucia Juliana Lane · Architect at The Lane Group Inc.

Oh my "Modern Architecture" is salvation professors are failing you now Steve Mouzon but I love it. Thanks.

Jul 2, 2015 7:45am

Edward J. Shannon, Architect

Another Great article Steve! I concur 100%

Jul 2, 2015 10:59am

Steven Semes

Steve, this is such an important discussion. It reminds me of the saying of John Brinkerhof Jackson years ago in an interview. He said, "You can't change something unless you first love it. If you try to change it without loving it, you will only destroy it." This is the other side of the "lovability" coin. Not only do we need lovable places, but we need to defend them against those who would like to make them unlovable by changing them without having first loved them. This is an ethical imperative as much as an aesthetic one. Keep moving forward!

Jul 3, 2015 2:40am


One Little Book - Five Short Years

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IMG 0602

beginning the book tour

   I always hoped it would turn out something like this, although it was never clear from the beginning whether it would even work at all, and the stakes could not have been higher in the depths of the Great Recession. Last night marked the fifth anniversary of the release of the Original Green book. We had mortgaged everything possible to get it printed, and there was no Plan B.

   The ideas at the foundation of the Original Green actually date back 35 years now, and the first presentation of those ideas was at West Coast Green in San Francisco in September ’06 and this blog began in April ’08. But the book was a watershed moment. Here are some things it might have helped to influence, and other things it clearly spawned by virtue of looking at sustainability through different and more holistic lenses:

Nourishable Places

Ravello 04MAY08 9638 poster

   The Original Green’s proposition that you should be able to look out onto the fields and the waters from which much of your food comes is part of a long-running call for local food dating back continuously to at least the 1960s. Before refrigerated trucking, it was simply a fact of life and not even discussed much back then, because talking about the importance of local food was much like talking about the importance of local air. What’s notable is that I don’t recall tightly-embedded agriculture being proposed as the first essential element of sustainable places a decade ago. And regardless of how it came about, it was gratifying to have local agriculture as the focus of CNU 19 in Madison, and to see the rise of Agrarian Urbanism.

Lovable Buildings

Alexandria 06JUL16 5193 poster

   Think back several years… how often did you hear lovability proposed as the most essentail element of sustainable buildings? “Lovable” has until recently been considered to be beneath serious discourse on either sustainability or architecture. Now, it has clearly entered the lexicon of both discussions. I’m also delighted that people are now talking about lovable places as well. I don’t recall for sure where lovability made the leap from places to buildings… it might have been Mike Watkins’ idea… but lovable places are clearly a useful construct, and deserve further development.

LEED & Gizmo Green


   A clear proposition for true sustainability also brings into focus those things that claim to be sustainable, but aren’t. Gizmo Green is the proposition that with better equipment and better materials, we can achieve sustainability, but this misses most of what real sustainability is all about. 1 Bryant Park is a skyscraper that consumes massive resources, but is LEED Platinum. The reality is that skyscrapers in general have huge sustainability problems. And when people claim their parking garages are green, you know things have gone nuts. While the USGBC has done some good things over the years, its LEED system is a fair target because of its bloated Gizmo Green approach. And Gizmo Green infests the curriculae of most schools of architecture today, fitting students with Net-Zero blinders that shut out the view of real sustainability.



   The Original Green calls for a common-sense, plain-spoken definition of sustainability: “keeping things going in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future.” The core act of sustaining is preserving. That which cannot be preserved will no longer be there to be sustained. But there’s a deeper problem to preservation today: are we merely preserving artifacts we love, or are we also preserving or reawakening those living traditions that created those artifacts to begin with, so that more of them can be created? Living traditions were the operating systems of true sustainability. Preservationists must also consider the unthinkable: when is a tear-down the more sustainable choice? If not, what are the ground rules for saving a building from demolition, and how can you assemble a cause to preserve the building?

Sprawl & Recovery


   Sustainable places are possible only if they’re freed from the costs of sprawl. The need for speed burdens sprawling places with great inefficiencies, and the character of speedy thoroughfares cheapens the land around them precipitously. This impoverishes us both directly and indirectly. Fortunately, a number of colleagues are working on ways to retrofit or repair sprawl. The Original Green prescription is a 12-step program of Sprawl Recovery because sprawl really has been an addiction for reasons documented so thoroughly on StrongTowns. Sprawl Recovery is built on three foundations: The Transect gives predictability to sprawl’s extreme makeover. The Sky Method was developed as a radical new way of developing land but works equally well in redeveloping sprawl. And Walk Appeal is important enough to warrant its own paragraph:

Walk Appeal


   It’s possible that Walk Appeal might be the most useful tool the Original Green has spawned to date. Walkability was a worthy goal 30 years ago when so many places were completely unwalkable, but it’s a low standard today. Do you want food that’s merely edible? Or a book that’s merely readable? Today, we need to transition to places people love to walk, not places where they are merely able to walk. Walk Appeal is the product of several factors. Some of them can be measured, and therefore coded. Others are immeasurable, but nonetheless play into whether people want to walk there or not. But in any case, the impact of Walk Appeal is very real, and is key to the viability of neighborhood businesses, making the difference betwen thriving and failing. It may even turn out to be a secret weapon for the best maker spaces.

The Luxury of Small


   The Original Green calls for better instead of bigger, and as we learned during the Katrina Cottages initiative a decade ago, small cottages can be really endearing. The reason why has finally become clear, and it turns out it may actually be a biological survival mechanism: the Teddy Bear Principle. To build smaller, it is necessary to build smarter as well because nobody wants to simply have their life put in a vise. It has even influenced my own life, as Wanda and I combined our home and office into 747 square feet just over a year ago.

   There are allied ideals: Sitting lightly on the land can save millions, and is based on the idea of “digging as if you only had a shovel.” Lean Urbanism is an important new initiative now brewing, and co-founder Andrés Duany regularly cites the Original Green as an influence.

   There’s more, of course… and more on the way. I can’t wait to get the Original Green Scorecard built and running as a fast, friendly, and free alternative to LEED, for example. And to get the first Sky Method SmartCode in place. So if you don’t already have one, but want to see the foundation these ideas are based upon, pick up a copy and have a look. It’s an easy read with lots of pictures. As you know, I almost never ask you to buy something, but I think you may enjoy it. And please let me know what you think!

   ~Steve Mouzon


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Legacy Comments

Lloyd Alter · Contributor at Corporate Knights

And a wonderful book it still is. Congratulations.

May 9, 2015 5:49am

Hazel Borys

Steve, great work! Congratulations and thank you for changing the way so many of us think about resilience.

May 9, 2015 1:39pm


Schooner Bay at the Crossroads

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   No new town being built today embodies Original Green sustainability principles more explicitly than Schooner Bay in the Bahamas, but the town stands at the crossroads today, and could go in either direction. Town Founder Orjan Lindroth has set an heroic slate of things in motion that goes far beyond normal place-making goals, but this fabulous foundation required such effort to complete that investors have grown impatient and it is now possible that ordinary things could be built on that extraordinary foundation.


   The Ecological Dividend post described many of the assets built into Schooner Bay that will yield log-term benefits, and The Schooner Bay Miracle tells the story of how some of those principles and techniques allowed the town to emerge virtually unscathed from the wrath of Hurricane Irene at her strongest point.

   Patient place-making was once the way that great places were built, but it declined as development morphed into something more akin to industrialization than town building, with every system geared to crank out as many units as quickly as possible. Never mind that building patiently is precisely how to  make the greatest profit over the life of the project.


   Seaside, Florida is the best example in part because it has been there the longest. If you talk to Seaside’s Town Founder, Robert Davis, he’ll tell you that he made more money on the last 5% of the lots he sold than the first 95%. This never could have happened had Robert blown Seaside out in the normal 3-5 years. Instead, he took 30 years and was able to retire a wealthy man on just the profits of one development rather than risking everything every few years on a new development. Schooner Bay could do precisely the same thing Seaside did, if the investors rediscovered the patience of townbuilders.

   The worst thing they could possibly do now is ditch all of the effort and time that went into the original vision of Schooner Bay and sell the lots using the normal marketing fluff with which island properties are too often sold. Do this, and they will be competing on bells and whistles, and on cost per square foot. In other words, the lowest common denominators.

   Does that sound like the best way of moving out of the shadows of the Great Recession, which has been the worst seven years for real estate than almost anyone alive today has ever seen? Or would it be a better idea to move beyond those dark years to better days ahead buoyed by great and sustainable ideals lots of people can get behind, and accompanied by arguably the best planners on earth, and numerous other nationally- and internationally-known creatives who have worked with Schooner Bay through the years?


   The Bahamas and the Caribbean beyond are littered with half-finished projects sold on the lowest common denominator. Schooner Bay is based on the only model ever proven to work in the islands: true sustainable town-building. This is how Dunmore Town on Harbour Island was built. And Hope Town. And Green Turtle Cay. And Man of War. The places people have loved the longest and valued the most were all built as real towns, not housing built on the industrial model and sold with glossy marketing. In real towns, people come because of the town, and then buy a cottage. Places where people only come for the lowest common denominators of the housing  aren’t towns at all, nor are they resilient in the long term. Schooner Bay could suffer that fate. But it doesn’t have to suffer that fate.


   Anyone who reads this blog knows that I almost never go to bat for a new town, but there is too much at stake here to remain silent. I spoke two weeks ago at the World Congress of the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture, and Urbanism (INTBAU). My presentation, which you can read in its entirety here, lays out how Schooner Bay has been the starting point of so many advances in sustainable building practices along the Caribbean Rim. After the presentation, Prince Charles held a reception for the speakers and select attendees at St. James Palace where I had the honor of telling him a little about our work there, and why places like Schooner Bay are so important in spreading sustainable practices.

   What can we do now? Please spread this story to anyone on your networks who might be interested. Then go there. Relax for a few days at the Sandpiper Inn or the Black Fly Lodge, and have a look around. I’ll be doing the same myself soon, then I’ll post the Unofficial Guide to Schooner Bay Secrets. It’ll point you to many of the really cool green things that wouldn’t be on a real estate agent’s tour, but which you should see. Yes, you really should see this place.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Mirja Nordalm Zeilstra

so true!

Mar 10, 2015 10:28am

Luiz Cunha · FGV

I agree 100% w/ Steve , I had a chance to work as international sales director ( 81 days early 2014 ). Being in real estae bisiness for decades , trust me : there´s no place like Schooner Bay . It`s magic , cut out for simple / special people.Whenever customers inderstand the beauty of SB , all homes will be sold ! 
Luiz Cunha - Brasil

Mar 28, 2015 1:36pm

Luiz Cunha · FGV

Another comment about Schooner Bay : go there , visit and feel the atmosphere . Real Estate wise , SB is a healthy choice , I miss every single day working over there .
Luiz Cunha - Brasil

Mar 28, 2015 1:41pm

Wendie Bishop · University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Sandpiper, Black Fly Lodge as well as rental homes are available to spend sometime and get a true feel for the beauty of this magical spot. Should you be interested in a rental home give me a call ours cottage on the island "Over Yonder" is available for rentals 1 242 577-9910.

Mar 30, 2015 1:14pm


Washington Avenue's Walk Appeal Diagnosis and How to Heal the Frontages

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South Beach's Washington Avenue is diagnosed for Walk Appeal in this satellite photo and diagram

click to see larger image - be sure to zoom in where you can scroll around - North is to the right

   Here’s a great illustration of how frontages are the arteries of value in a city like we were discussing yesterday. Washington Avenue on South Beach is the color-coded street running left-to-right in the image above. When you walk down Washington, it’s clear that the bones are good, but the shops that aren’t vacant are typically t-shirt shops, tattoo parlors, greasy spoon lunch counters, liquor stores, smoke shops, sex shops, and a collection of clubs, bars, and bona fide dives. There’s enough concern in Miami Beach about Washington that the city has commissioned a study of how to improve it. Before we go any further, let me be exceptionally clear about my role here: I’m a citizen blogger who happens to live just inside the top of the map above, near the center, and my only interest is in putting out ideas that might help make my town a better place. The people actually doing the work are fully capable; I’m just hoping to put a bug or two in their ears, as we used to say back when I lived in the deep South. With that clear, let’s look at some things that should be considered:

Coding Existing Walk Appeal

brightly-clad father and son walk with mother past tattoo parlor and sex shop on South Beach's Washington Avenue

even with sketchy shops, Washington still

draws a crowd where the Walk Appeal

is good

Tweet: #WalkAppeal: 6 Great St, 5 Main St, 4 Neighborhood St, 3 Sub-Urban St, 2 Subdivision St, 1 Parking Lot, 0 Unwalkable

The seven standards of Walk Appeal: W6 Great Street, W5 Main Street, W4 Neighborhood Street, W3 Sub-Urban Street, W2 Subdivision Street, W1 Parking Lot, W0 Unwalkable.

   I’ve coded Washington and its crossing streets for its existing Walk Appeal. As discussed yesterday, Walk Appeal has measurable metrics, immeasurable characteristics, and these work together to have a great impact on a neighborhood business’ failure, survival, or success. That’s because people walk further when there’s greater Walk Appeal. You’ll find people walking 2 miles or more instead of driving on W6 Great Streets because it’s so enjoyable. On a good W5 Main Street, they often walk ¾ mile or so. W4 Neighborhood Streets is where people actually walk that ¼ mile instead of driving that the planners talk about. On W3 Sub-Urban Streets, the distance drops to a tenth of a mile, and on a W2 Subdivision Street, it’s down to about 250 feet. In a W1 Parking Lot condition, good luck getting anyone (including you and I) to walk more than a hundred feet if we don’t absolutely have to, because the experience is dreadful. And in W0 Unwalkable conditions like a sidewalk between a busy arterial and a parking lot, the only people you’ll find walking are those whose cars have broken down.

Analyzing Walk Appeal

young crowd jostles past each other under the shade of a green sandwich shop awning along Washington Avenue on South Beach
Tweet: You don’t need a specialist to tell you where to find #WalkAppeal… just walk out and observe where the people are.

You don’t need a specialist to tell you where to find Walk Appeal… just walk out and observe where the people are.

   Places with low Walk Appeal usually attract fewer people; places where it’s higher attract more. Knowing why it works that way is eye-opening, as we’ll see shortly. And businesses reach out into surrounding neighborhoods for customers only as far as the Walk Appeal of the connecting streets allow.

Along Washington Avenue

blue bike waits on its owner chained to a parking zone sign along Washington Avenue on Miami Beach as a young group approach under the shade of arched yellow awnings
Tweet: You can’t properly judge #WalkAppeal from one side of a street because it is largely influenced by things close by.

You can’t properly judge Walk Appeal from one side of a street. Walk both sides, because Walk Appeal is largely influenced by things close by.

   Looking at the map at the top of this page (click it and zoom in for a better view), it’s apparent that the East (beachward) side of Washington has fairly consistent Main Street character. Admittedly, several blocks reach that standard, but just barely. The other side of the street, however, is much spottier, with the longest stretch of the lowest rating being at the school just south of Española Way. Fortunately, there is no place on or near Washington Avenue that sinks to the level of a W0 Unwalkable place, even though some relatively short stretches approach that level. And the only places that rise to the level of a W6 Great Street are not on Washington at all, but are the crossing streets of Española Way and Lincoln Road.

Washington's Crossing Streets

streetlights still glowing down on 12th Street on South Beach as it crosses Washington Avenue as dawn's early light begins to paint the nearly cloudless tropical sky

one of Washington’s side streets

Tweet: Businesses can fail on #MainStreet if the crossing streets' #WalkAppeal isn’t strong enough to pull the customers in

Businesses can fail on Main Streets if the crossing streets' Walk Appeal isn’t strong enough to pull the customers in.

   If Washington Avenue is to have any hope of serious improvement, the first thing to fix isn’t Washington, but rather the crossing streets. There are thousands of hotel rooms on Collins, running parallel to Washington just one block over, and thousands more on Ocean Drive just beyond that, yet few of those people get to Washington because the Walk Appeal of the crossing streets is mediocre at best and almost unwalkable in places. The only two connections Eastward from Washington with great Walk Appeal are Española Way and Lincoln Road.

   It’s just as important walking inland as well. I’ve been told that almost half of South Beach residents do not own a car, so if Washington hopes to attract them as customers, Walk Appeal needs to be improved walking Westward as well.

The Tough Demographic Factor

a pack of sturdy young men amble along the South Beach sidewalks of Washington Avenue, one with a black windbreaker and another in a white tank top - is it a warm day or not?
Tweet: #WalkAppeal isn’t for everyone. Some people actually gravitate to places with low #WalkAppeal.

Walk Appeal isn’t for everyone. Some people actually gravitate to places with low Walk Appeal.

   This is a tough discussion to have, because some may consider it offensive, but it’s essential to talk about this if we want to change the character of Washington Avenue. We’ve all noticed how teen goths, punks, and the like tend to hang out in places their parents would never go. And it’s not just kids, either… the rougher side of the Bike Week crowd feels perfectly at home in tough places with little or no Walk Appeal. Think about all those crossing streets with low Walk Appeal that don’t entice the average tourist to walk to Washington. They’re perfect streets for the tougher crowd. So is it any wonder that the majority of people who make it through this filter of low Walk Appeal streets to Washington are the customers of the seedy shops that populate the street? Washington is only a block away from some of the biggest fashion names on Collins, but will never entice those people to shop on Washington until the crossing streets change dramatically.

Improving Walk Appeal

Washington Avenue on South Beach viewed from straight down the median
Tweet: Improving #WalkAppeal is neither art nor rocket science. Most measures are as simple as third grade geometry.

Improving Walk Appeal is neither art nor rocket science. Most measures are as simple as third grade geometry.

   The four things below are all measurable. We’ll look at only a few examples of how to implement them on Washington, but it should be easy to imagine other places along the street where these principles would work as well.

Liner Buildings

foreboding black metal fence sits alongside Washington Avenue on South Beach arching out menacingly to spear-points, warning anyone who's not a student away from the school within

how much better would both the school and

the street like it if this were shops with

apartments above?

Tweet: No building makes a greater #WalkAppeal impact for fewer dollars than a well-placed liner building.

No building makes a greater Walk Appeal impact for fewer dollars than a well-placed liner building.

   Washington liner buildings should have retail on the first level with stairs interspersed that rise up to serve two living units each on the levels above. I’m familiar with many good thin house designs from the years working on the Katrina Cottages initiative.

   Every parking lot on Washington should be lined with liner buildings, which need not be more than 18 feet deep. They can be as thin as 14 feet, however, or possibly even 12 feet. The worst frontages on Washington are all parking lots, but the longest bad frontage is at the school. Simply put, the school doesn’t want to be on Washington. Its tall metal fence is built of cheap aluminum tubes, with crude spear-tips curving out to the street, almost like a prison fence, except turned the other way to keep people out, not in.

   If the school board sold the outer 12 to 18 feet of its property for a liner building, that liner building would serve as a completely secure wall, and Washington would get a very interesting block of shops on the street with customers living above. For that matter, it’s possible that the school board could keep the property and develop it themselves, if that’s legal.

Building Height

Española Way on South Beach all aglow with lights strung overhead from building to building as dinner patrons enjoy their meals

Española Way gets to 1:1 proportion with only 2-story buildings

because the street is so narrow

Tweet: Buildings along a street should be tall enough to enclose the street space as an outdoor room.

Buildings along a street should be tall enough to enclose the street space as an outdoor room.

   Ever hear anyone say “I’m too short for my width?” Washington has that problem as well. Most buildings along Washington are 1-story, with a few taller buildings sprinkled in. But it is about a hundred feet wide, building face to building face. The world’s greatest streets (make that W6 Great Streets) typically have street enclosure ratios close to 1:1, meaning that the buildings are as tall as the spaces between them. That’s tough to do in the US, where our streets are wider than most European streets. American Main Streets are doing well if they achieve a 1:3 proportion, and below 1:6 (like most of Washington), there isn’t enough enclosure to make the street feel like an outdoor room. So Washington definitely needs to grow taller. How much taller? The best urbanism in the world is usually 3-5 stories tall. Leon Krier says 3 stories for a number of good reasons; Christopher Alexander says 4 stories for other good reasons. Paris says 5 stories (often with an attic tucked above). Because Parisians love South Beach already, I’d suggest that we make them feel even more comfortable, and allow Washington to grow up to 5 stories tall, with any vertical addition taking a building up to at least 3 stories in height.


real estate office and clothing store windows glow softly out onto the sidewalk beneath the cold blue glow of a neon band crowning the building

you don’t have to spend a lot of money to

get the basics right

Tweet: Getting the storefront right is a building's most important #WalkAppeal role at the scale of details.

Getting the storefront right is a building's most important Walk Appeal role at the scale of details.

   Measured walking along the sidewalk, glass should occupy no less than 60% of the wall at eye level, and ideally closer to 70%. The sill should be no less than 6 inches from the ground, and no higher than 30 inches. And the top of the glass should not be less than 8 feet from the sidewalk. People walking by can therefore see enough of the interior of the shops that it’s entertaining. But that’s only the beginning.

   It’s really boring to walk past lots of the same stuff. This applies to both the stuff in the stores and the architecture of the exterior. So ideally, the shops should be narrow enough that your view changes ever 4 to 8 paces. That pretty much describes the shops on the East side of Washington as they exist today. So keep them that way. Any building height that  is added should not change the storefronts, nor the width of the shops because what is there already are the bones of an awesome avenue of storefronts.

Sidewalk Cafés

canvas umbrellas stand guard over their dinner guests as Española Way glows on a tropical South Beach evening
Tweet: There is no greater barometer of vitality than sidewalk cafés, and no greater #WalkAppeal role for the sidewalk.

There is no greater barometer of vitality than sidewalk cafés, and no greater Walk Appeal role for the sidewalk.

   Sidewalk cafés do great where traffic is very slow, or there is on-street parking to protect the patrons. Washington Avenue has both. Sidewalk cafés achieve close to silver bullet Walk Appeal status because humans are social creatures, and we love seeing other humans. Streets with thriving café scenes are almost guaranteed to get pegged as “vibrant” by everyone, and become many people’s favorite places over time. Today, the city tightly regulates sidewalk cafés, reportedly charging establishments a fee for every seat on the street. City Hall would come out ahead by stacks of cash if they allowed seats for free, because their other tax revenues would increase substantially not only from the eating establishments, but because the higher Walk Appeal would draw people to the other shops as well.

Obviously, the task at hand is greater than the scope of a single blog post, but if Miami Beach gets these things right, they will be well on the way to a fabulous Washington transformation. And I hope this illustrates how powerful a transformative tool Walk Appeal can be. What do you think?

   ~Steve Mouzon


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Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

I never saw this coming! This Washington Avenue Walk Appeal diagnosis highlighted the fact that Washington's main problem isn't actually on Washington, but on the crossing streets, which are filtering out the customers Washington wants. The post also includes some Walk Appeal nomenclature advances.

Jan 20, 2015 1:58pm

Jeff Donnelly · Miami Beach, Florida

Hard to imagine a proposal with less attention to the historic designation of both sides of Washing ton Avenue.

Jan 21, 2015 9:58am


Frontages - A City's Smallest Part, But Greatest Key to Value

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stucco walls glow in late afternoon sunshine at the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres in New Orleans' Marigny

   They’re the thinnest and smallest of a city’s elemental parts, but “frontages,” a geeky planning word for the space between the front windows and doors of a building and a civic space or thoroughfare, do more to create or kill value in most cities than any other part of the city. Rarely more than a couple dozen feet deep, and often as thin as a few inches, the total acreage of frontages in a traditionally-planned town is less than that of thoroughfares, and is tiny compared to civic spaces and building lots, which are the other three elemental parts. Yet they make the greatest difference in the vitality and sustainability of the city.

   Along a thoroughfare, the frontage is divided into the public frontage, which is located on the thoroughfare’s right-of-way (including sidewalks and usually street trees) and the private frontage, which is the part of the building lot between the property line and the front windows and doors of the building. When buildings front directly onto civic spaces (such as plazas), however, the frontage is simply the thickness of the front wall and cornice of the building. The frontage isn’t very tall, either; the part that drives vitality and value extends no more than three stories high.

Walk Appeal

Parma street bends off into the midday sunshine, filled with people walking and biking to their daily needs
Tweet: Healthy frontages create value by building high #WalkAppeal; unhealthy ones do not.

Healthy frontages create value by building high

Walk Appeal; unhealthy ones do not.

   Walk Appeal is that characteristic of a path which entices people to keep on walking, sometimes for miles, rather than stopping short. Enhancing Walk Appeal is a frontage’s primary job. A decade or two ago, achieving high Walk Appeal was considered an art form, but now we know it’s simpler than that. Much of it is simply geometry, and is therefore measurable. Other characteristics of Walk Appeal are immeasurable, but are equally real. And the impact of 

Walk Appeal can be startling, meaning the difference between failure, survival, or thriving to neighborhood businesses. One other thing… as this image illustrates, places with great Walk Appeal typically have strong Bike Appeal as well, and allow each mode of transportation to coexist and thrive. Basically, Walk Appeal is a good indicator of a friendly place for all sorts of self-propelled transportation.

Thin Frontages

sea grasses bend in ocean breeze at the edge of Lummus Park on South Beach, with a dune fence just visible in the distance

parks are great and necessary places in a city, but you can’t build

a city out of nothing but parks

 nor can they provide places to live, work or shop

Tweet: Thinner frontages create more sustainable urbanism and enhance #WalkAppeal.

Thinner frontages create more sustainable urbanism and enhance Walk Appeal.

   When buildings are placed closer to civic spaces or thoroughfares, several benefits accrue. But one word of warning: pulling buildings to the street brings screams of protests from the Landscape Urbanists, such as I witnessed at CNU19 in Madison, Wisconsin when Charles Waldheim proclaimed “whenever you insist on pulling buildings to the street, you lose!” I asked “you lose what?” several times, but he turned away and never responded. Waldheim and his colleagues want the freedom to place architecture wherever they want it in the landscape. They are masters at beautiful parks, but this is no way to build a sustainable city. He repeatedly cited Detroit’s Lafayette Park as a sterling example, but when we visited a year ago during the first Lean summit, nobody was there. Literally, there was not a single person on the streets other than us. It was beautiful, if you like Miesian architecture in a garden, but had very low Walk Appeal, as was evident because nobody was walking. But if you’re more interested in building sustainable urbanism, here are some of the benefits of thinner frontages:


tropical garden in Coral Gables is home to several edible plants, and illustrates that edible gardens can be lovable as well

who says an edible garden can’t be lovable?

Tweet: Thinner frontages set the stage for more nourishable places by leaving more space in the rear.

Thinner frontages set the stage for more nourishable places by leaving more space in the rear.

   Someday, we’ll build an agricultural aesthetic people other than gardeners will love. When that happens, we’ll be able to plant edible frontage gardens. Until then, edible gardening that enhance the nourishability of a place will likely be restricted by many cities to outdoor rooms hidden from public view. So the closer a building is to the front of the lot, the more room there is on all but the most urban lots for edible gardens behind the frontage.


Tweet: Buildings closer to the sidewalk are more interesting to walk past than those further away, enhancing #WalkAppeal.

Buildings closer to the sidewalk are more interesting to walk past than those further away, enhancing Walk Appeal.

   Like Nourishability, this accessibility benefit is no more complex than third grade geometry. Walking close to a building is more interesting than walking further away for at least two reasons: your view changes more quickly, and you’re able to see more details of the building. Additionally, you may be close enough to speak with someone on the edge of the building. Making a walk substantially more interesting may make the difference between someone walking and driving, giving them more choices of means of access.


two shoppers peer through red-framed Madrid shopfront window under the watchful warm glow of an iron street lamp while another couple lounges against the wall where the shadows begin

there are many necessities of life, and all can be within an

appealing walk of your home

Tweet: Why put any buffer between people on the sidewalk and businesses hoping to serve them?

Why put any buffer between people on the sidewalk and businesses hoping to serve them?

   The worst offenders are shopping malls surrounded by seas of parking, and they’re dying across the country. Second worst are strip commercial buildings with parking lots in front. When is the last time you’ve walked to a strip commercial establishment? A sustainable place must be serviceable, so that you can walk to the daily services of life in your neighborhood, and that works best when commercial or mixed-use buildings are pulled right up to the sidewalk, with nothing screening storefronts or signs from people walking by.


London pub glows in warm uplights while shoppers bustle into the plaza upon which it sits

eyes on the street translate directly into

people on the street at night, a strong sign

of a secure place

Tweet: We’ve known since Jane Jacobs that “eyes on the street” make it more secure. Be sure they’re close enough.

We’ve known since Jane Jacobs that “eyes on the street” make it more secure. Be sure they’re close enough.

   Again, this is third grade geometry. The closer people are to the street, the better they can see and help supervise what happens there.


Tweet: Thinner frontages allow buildings to be adapted to more uses over time.

Thinner frontages allow buildings to be adapted to more uses over time.

   Buildings pulled closer to a thoroughfare or civic space can be used for more things over time than those further back. Consider the two extremes: buildings built directly on the sidewalk can be almost anything: civic, retail, offices, residential (townhomes), lodging, industrial, or even storage in those inevitable low points all urbanism faces at some points in the future. At the other extreme, a building located at the end of a five-mile driveway is likely to be one of two things: either a very wealthy person’s estate home, or the chemical plant so located that it can blow up and not kill everyone in town. When buildings are adaptable to more uses over time, they usually last longer.

   I could go on, as properly designed frontages can influence the lovability and frugality of buildings as well, but you get the picture. Just as a rudder can steer a ship many times its size, nothing steers the prosperity of a town or city like well-designed frontages. Simply put, they are the arteries of urbanism.

   ~Steve Mouzon


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Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Just as CNU was ending several years ago in Palm Beach, I believe, someone stopped me and said something cryptic: “I’m convinced that frontages are the lifeblood of the city, and chiefly responsible for its value.” It has taken me this long to get my mind wrapped around that statement, but I believe they’re right. Here’s how frontages the smallest of the four elemental parts of a city, act like the arteries of value.

Jan 19, 2015 12:52pm

Wanda Whitley Mouzon · University of Miami

If you find this an interesting concept you may like to hear more as Steve Mouzon debates the use of Form Based Code to create urban street frontages tomorrow evening at 6 PM at the MB Golf Club on Alton Road.

Jan 19, 2015 4:06pm

Lisa Welch · Planner at City of Syracuse Office of Zoning Administration

And, perhaps most importantly, they are economical. They provide multiple independent players access to public investments (the street) and to the market (also the street), and they provide the most important element for retail, visibility.

Jan 19, 2015 7:06pm

Kenny Craft · Director of Design at South Main Development, Inc.

Great kernels of wisdom Steve. I'd add that the impact of the frontages work hand in hand with the quality of the public realm. What are the materials, surfaces, and disposition of that space between the building and the street, and really the details of the street itself can seriously make or break the viability and walkability of the frontages. Too many developers spend disproportionately too little (attention & money) on the Public Realm...

Jan 20, 2015 2:42am

Jay Brewster · Director of Horticulture at The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore

Placing structures and building close to the sidewalk or street works well as long as there is some space for landscapig, planters, benches, dining, gathering, bike parking, and adequate, pedestrian safety.
Every space is different and needs to be designed for the site and use restrictions and opportunities,

Jan 20, 2015 10:24am

Jay Brewster · Director of Horticulture at The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore

Larger green spaces in the rear, side or roof of buildings offer unlimited possibilities for a different type of community gathering and even attractive parking alternatives.

Jan 20, 2015 10:26am


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