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:

Spatial Enclosure

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

Shops lining Ponte Vecchio in
Florence are likely the world’s most
famous liner buildings

   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

grocery so small it can be run by 1 grocer - more

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

   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.

   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.

   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 of 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
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 & 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: 1:1 proportion with only 2-story
buildings because 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
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
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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