The Mystery of Mooresville (part 3)

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   Once the Mystery of Mooresville was unlocked, we discovered there is great power in architecture with purpose, in fields as disparate as affordability and lovability. Here’s a quick look at how this works:


   Anytime I’d ever tried to get builders to “build different,” they always assign a “custom price” to patterns new to them, but a “standard price” to stuff they’ve done countless times. This is understandable. But it also means that the good stuff is always more expensive, even if built with less labor and fewer materials. But armed with the “we do this because…” of the architecture of this place, an amazing thing happens: builders eventually acquire a degree of shame over conventional stuff that made no sense there, along with an appreciation for what did, flipping the price equations, making the good stuff actually less expensive than the conventional stuff they no longer want to do. This doesn’t happen overnight, but once it does, building good stuff more affordably gets much easier.


   Depending on the region, the “we do this because…” of the place may have a lot to do with the survivability of the architecture, like hurricane survival on the Caribbean Rim or earthquake survival in seismically active places like Antigua Guatemala. Put another way, architecture calibrated to a region tends to last longer than one-size-fits-all buildings.


   A big part of the “we do this because…” equation has to do with the regional climate. Architecture that doesn’t let you get comfortable in a place without great expense means you’re unlikely to stay for a long time, whereas a well-adapted architecture can allow the region to thrive. And comfortable shelter that conditions itself at least partially in natural ways is less expensive to operate.


   Regional appropriateness has always been one of the big mysteries to me. Here are my thoughts today, which are susceptible to change as I learn more: I suspect that people might be hardwired to resonate with buildings in harmony with their region because of a basic survival instinct. For most of human history, the place people chose to take shelter in a region they didn't know might have a lot to do with whether they survived until the morning. So I now believe we have a strong sense of architecture which is in harmony with where it’s built.

The Process

   In the early days after the epiphany, I struggled with what the “we do this because…” process should be called. At first, I used “the transmission device of the vernacular mechanism” because I was trying to gain traction with the machine-based crowd, which I hoped to convert. That proved impossible, as they ignored all of it. Never mind that the term was a confusing mouthful. In any case, within a few years, I came back to a biological term instead of a mechanical term: a “living tradition” (more on that later).

   A living tradition is a process that involves the people, not just the architects, hearkening back to Wanda’s long-ago incisive question about lovable architecture. And because it involves many minds, it produces the most modern architecture because with more people tinkering with or hacking a problem, more good ideas emerge. Indeed, a living tradition is the original crowd-sourcing.

What About Style?

   Many people are more comfortable talking in terms of style because styles are known things, promoted by countless books, especially in the past two centuries. And there’s nothing wrong with style… so long as the styles are curated for the region. But a Cape Cod house looks as ridiculous in New Orleans as a Gulf Coast house does on Cape Cod, so curation is essential.

Building on Living Traditions

   I wrote the Gulf Coast New Vernacular Book of Architecture in 2005, finishing it on the day after Thanksgiving, exactly a quarter-century after taking the Mystery of Mooresville home with me. We were deep into the Katrina recovery efforts by then, 3 months after the hurricane made landfall. I hoped the book might be useful in the Katrina recovery, but those in charge opted for a style-based pattern book instead.

   Both living tradition and style-based pattern books go through a range of architecutral patterns having to do with walls & massing, doors & windows, porches & balconies, eaves & roofs, and attachments & sitework. There's a chapter for each style in a style-based book with only a couple pages in each of the five categories. A living tradition pattern book, on the other hand, is based on the best architecture of this region as it varies from rural to urban and from vernacular to classical (or plain to fancy, if you prefer). This means that in about the same number of pages as a style-based book, a living tradition book can have an entire chapter on walls & massing, another chapter for doors & windows, etc. Put another way, it’s a deep dive into the best architecture of here instead of just an overview of a selection of historical styles.

A Living Tradition
[Architecture of The Bahamas}


   By mid-2006, nearly a year of pro bono work on the Katrina recovery had left us nearly broke, and we weren’t sure what might be next. And then, out of the blue, legendary Bahamian developer Orjan Lindroth showed up. He had heard of the yet-unpublished Gulf Coast book, likely from Andrés Duany, and thought it might be beneficial for his new town of Schooner Bay. Do a blog search near the top of this page for Orjan or Schooner Bay, and you’ll see just how much I’ve written about the man and the place.

   We met in Coral Gables one July afternoon and I laid out the new pattern book proposition, and we spent several hours poring over every detail of the Gulf Coast book, which at that time I was still calling the “New Vernacular Book of Architecture,” as I hadn’t quite come up with the “Living Tradition” term yet. That would come in early May, 2007 during a late-night conversation with Mike Watkins while on a charrette in Fayetteville, Arkansas. But in any case, Orjan commissioned us to write what would become A Living Tradition [Architecture of The Bahamas].

   I spent every available moment that fall completely rethinking every detail of the book, knowing that this one would likely be published widely in The Bahamas. Early the next spring, Orjan brought us over for an epic week-long photo safari to shoot all the best places remaining in The Bahamas. After processing the photos, I worked through the summer and fall, finally delivering the book in early December 2007 with massive help from Wanda and her sister Janna, who was working with us at the time. It won a CNU Charter Award the next year.

The Original Green

Original Green cover 300

   Soon after getting the book printed and in use in The Bahamas, I started trying to tell the story of the underlying principles as best I understood them at that time. I’ve always been a story-teller who loves to write, so when Nathan Norris introduced me to blogging, I quickly discovered it was a natural medium for working out ideas. The first post on this blog went live April 10, 2008. For the next two years, I blogged here frequently, working out what would become the Original Green book two years later. For those about to write, I found the blog comments immensely helpful. As a matter of fact, many of the best ideas in the book weren’t originally mine, but originated with comments from others. I wrote over a third of the content of the book as blog posts here, until I had to buckle down in early 2010 and do nothing but work on the book for a couple months to get it done. 

   Jumping two decades back in time to a month after the Mooresville Thanksgiving trip, I discovered Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language in the long-defunct Books as Seeds, a local indie bookstore. These two books profoundly influenced my thinking from that day forward, and helped me better understand some of the things I had seen in Mooresville the month before.

   People often ask about the difference between A Pattern Language and the Living Tradition books. In a nutshell, Alexander’s Pattern Language is a foundation language, like Latin is to Western culture, whereas the Living Tradition books are calibrated to a region, like a regional dialect of a national language.

   What I never realized until last year was the fact that Alexander had done the same thing I did: he wrote A Pattern Language first, which contains the particular patterns, then wrote The Timeless Way two years later, just as I did 3 decades later with my two books. Most people say “start with the principles and move to the particulars,” but for both of us, it seems that the deep dive into the particular patterns was necessary for each of us to see the underlying principles clearly.

The Second Edition

17011-ALT-00-front-cover cropped

   Orjan and I first met on a DPZ charrette in Nassau in February 2005. Orjan was one of the developers and I was by then a regular consultant on DPZ charrettes. We quickly discovered over dinner, possibly the very first night, that we had each long been curious about many of the same things having to do with sustainable architecture and urbanism. In particular, we each had a sense that, while neither of us were Einsteins, there was an underlying set of natural rules of sustainability, much like the unified field theory Einstein searched for over most of his career. That search bound us together in repeated collaborations until Orjan's untimely passing earlier this year.

   We made bits of progress on the unified theory over the years, but when we decided in 2017 to publish the second edition of A Living Tradition [Architecture of The Bahamas], we dedicated ourselves to getting a clearer vision. This resulted in a complete rewrite of the first and last chapters of the book, including several advances such as the first substantive application of the Original Green Scorecard, meant to be a fast, friendly, and nearly free alternative to the LEED green rating system.

   While there are mysteries remaining to unlock, the book made huge leaps forward on several counts which can be incapsulated this way: Truly sustainable architecture and urbanism must be built on a foundation of nature’s ways instead of the industrial paradigm. It’s much deeper than that, but that’s the first key to the unified theory.

Where To From Here?

   Unlocking the Mystery of Mooresville opened many doors for Wanda and I, and numerous useful sets of ideas are already being built on Original Green foundations, which have spread far beyond just the two of us at this point, which was what we hoped for all along. It has long been our hope to build tools upon the Original Green foundations which may be useful to people we may never know, in places we may never go, both in our lifetimes and beyond our time. Please help us carry this on!

   Previous: The Mystery of Mooresville (part 2)

   ~Steve Mouzon

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The Mystery of Mooresville (part 2)

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   Less than a year after taking the three-question Mystery of Mooresville (urbanism, architecture, and process) back to college with me, Wanda asked me the most searching question of my career: “Why is it that you refuse to design anything anyone else I love would love?” “Do I?” “Of course you do!” “How do you know?” “Have you ever listened to non-architects talk about architecture?” “Our professors tell us we’re supposed to educate the client.” “Well, if you’d stop and listen to the people, they might actually educate you.”

   I had no answer, but took it to heart. And while I did a fairly good job of designing stuff the professors liked, I soon realized that I had no idea how to design things non-architects would love. In fairness, not all professors were alike. Much of the faculty was made up of dedicated Miesians or Corbusians, but there were notable exceptions.

Key People

   Marv Rosenman was key on the faculty, opening many doors of thought for the more curious ones of us, and was clearly more interested in our development than pushing a style agenda. More professors should be like Marv.  Jack Wells opened our eyes to how much there was to learn about the long heritage of humane architecture in the first year. Bob Koester accelerated my thinking on how buildings condition themselves naturally, and brought me back in 2010 to lecture on the Original Green. David Hermansen in later years was a great curator of appreciation for humane architecture. And Dan Woodfin, a Pattern Language advocate, was invaluable in my thesis year, when a few things were finally beginning to come together for me. I owe them all. David Rau, Allan McGuire and Mark Fishero were chief of my fellow-travelers, questioning us all and opening doors some professors would prefer to remain tightly closed.

Searching for the Unknown

   But upon graduation, my curiosity about designing what the people love overwhelmed my nearly non-existent abilities to actually do so. I remember trying to design a refined house for no particular client after graduation; I quickly developed a good plan, but had no idea how to properly compose a calm and dignified elevation. I left that drawing unfinished during several years of self-education, until I was finally able to complete it. During those years, I had no idea what I was searching for, where to find it, or if it even yet existed.

   By about 1992, the doors to open thinking slammed shut as the Modernist hegemony returned in full force, with stories in the journals about the nascent New Urbanism and new traditional architecture slowing to a trickle, then drying up entirely. Working in the flyover hinterlands where architecture was more of a business than a passion for most, I completely lost contact with the architects and urbanists who had served as my compass. It seemed I was all alone.

Finding My People

   Then one late September day in 1995, I got an invitation from some group I’d never heard of called the ICA promoting an event in Manhattan a few weeks later. Seems like they had an interest in humane architecture, so I quickly signed up. It didn’t take long once the symposium began that I had found my people! I was not alone!

   That quickly led to a search for the urbanism side of the coin. All I had known up until then was Seaside, but it turns out that Andrés Duany & Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of DPZ (Seaside’s planners) and a group of likeminded revolutionaries had founded the Congress for the New Urbanism two years previous, in October 1993. Emboldened by these facts, I began promoting the New Urbanism to developers I’d been working with locally and by 1997 a local project had begun.

The Big Plan Break

   There were two star traditional architects of the day who Southern Living had discovered, one of whom was originally slated to do most of the plans for this local traditional neighborhood, but his houses were all designed for lots that were wide and shallow, and his refusal to design anything for the slender and deep lots in the plan opened the door for me to start designing plans for the neighborhood.

Catalog of the Most-Loved Places

   About 30 months later, a Friday afternoon debate with the Town Architect of the place led to a weekend-long photo safari across the region. Before Monday morning dawned, what later became known as the Catalog of the Most-Loved Places had begun. Today, it numbers over a hundred thousand images in neighborhoods and towns across the US and in Europe, catalogued by street address, and stands as one of the big steps in my self-education.

DPZ Changes Everything

   Two years later, DPZ showed up in town to design the Village of Providence. I had an office of about a dozen people by then which could run itself for awhile, so I decided that since Andrés and Lizz had been my heroes since first seeing the plan of Seaside 21 years earlier, I should show up and volunteer a week. It turns out that in the New Urbanism, even the heroes welcome help from strangers so long as they show up with good ideas and hard work.

   We hit it off almost instantly, and for the next several years, I did so many charrettes with DPZ that many thought I actually worked there. And a year after the Providence charrette, Andrés said “Steve, if you move to South Beach, I’ll get clients for you from all over the world who would never do business with an architect in a small southern town because they’d assume you’re no good. But if you live in South Beach, they’ll believe anything I tell them.”

   It was an agonizing process, pulling up roots in the town where I was born at 43 years old and moving a thousand miles to a place where we felt like expats. But the 17 years we were there wrought an amazing transformation for us. At the rate I’d been burning myself out on 100-hour weeks in my original hometown, it’s unlikely I’d even be alive today. And by that time, I had found clear direction on two of the three questions in the Mystery of Mooresville: how to design and build places that are compact, mixed-use, and walkable (urbanism) and how to design buildings people love (architecture). But still the third question remained: what was the process that allowed the wisdom of building so well to be passed down to future generations that for so long weren’t even able to read?

The Great Epiphany

   On July 19, 2004, less than a year afer we accepted Andrés’ invitation and “took our talents to South Beach” we began an architectural charrette with the Urban Guild which I co-founded with Nathan Norris in 2001 for a DPZ project in Madison, Mississippi for a place named after its ancient Native American name: Lost Rabbit. On the first morning of the charrette, the design team made a fateful decision not to base our work on a random collection of historical styles, but rather the best architecture of this place. At that time, this was revolutionary.

   On the final night of the charrette, we had the customary celebratory dinner, then departed for our accommodations. The design team was staying at the Millsaps-Buie House in downtown Jackson (a B&B), and we were saying our goodbyes when someone asked Milton Grenfell, a Mississippi native, the pivotal question: “Milton, why are bell-cast eaves so popular in Mississippi?” <Before Milton’s response, a “bell-cast eave” has a bottom like a bell, which flares out to a shallower pitch before reaching the edge. Milton, carry on:> “We do this because in these parts, we have torrential rains, especially in hurricanes and their aftermath. And if your roof is too shallow in a hurricane, it’ll likely get sucked off, while if it’s too steep, it’ll likely get overturned. But at 8/12 to 9/12, it’s strong. But at those slopes, torrential rains will dig a trench in your yard. So the bell-cast eaves break the force of the water, sending it off the roof in more of a spray than a sheet.

   It took a few moments for it to hit me… “wait, what did he just say??” “We do this because…. That’s it!! That’s what I’ve been looking for all these years!!” These four words are the key to unlocking the last question of the Mystery of Mooresville! If every pattern in a language of architecture can be expressed in these terms, then it’s clear how a living tradition can be passed down from generation to generation with nothing more than an oral tradition! This last turn of the key late on the evening of July 21, 2004 changed everything for me in the sixteen years between then and now.

   This is the second post of three; the next will be tomorrow on the 40th anniversary of the origin of the Mystery of Mooresville telling the story of the benefits of unlocking the mystery.

   Previous: The Mystery of Mooresville (part 1)

   Next: The Mystery of Mooresville (part 3)

   ~Steve Mouzon

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The Mystery of Mooresville (part 1)

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Mooresville, Alabama's post office has been in continuous operation longer than almost any other in the state.

   Forty years ago on Thanksgiving Day, I never imagined that the ancient American over-eating ritual would change the course of my career in amazing ways. But waking up the next morning still in discomfort from the previous day’s gorging, we decided to go for a walk.

   But where to walk? I grew up in sprawl, but remembered the tiny village of Mooresville, Alabama where Dad occasionally took us when I was a kid. Dad was a cabinet-maker regarded by builders across the region as Mr. Perfect, and while his work in the 60s generally adhered to the styles of the day because that’s what people wanted, he had great love for the places that had long endured and were filled with superbly-crafted architectural patterns rarely built then. So he would take us to places like Mooresville from time to time so we could just soak it all in.

   By mid-morning that Friday, Wanda, Susan, Hazel, and a friend and I shook ourselves from the post-feast muddle and headed out to Mooresville to go for a walk. I was in the middle of my third year of architecture school at the time, Wanda and I had been married 17 months, Susan was in her first year of architecture school, and Hazel was toward the end of her pre-teen years.

   In those days, Mooresville still had its general store and another shop or two; maybe one was a coffee shop or breakfast place? In any case, the two churches still stand, and the post office is still in operation. The other commercial buildings still stand as well, and I hope they may be occupied again someday. The Stagecoach Inn & Tavern, sadly, was in ruins 40 years ago but I’m told it has been restored recently.

   The village is only 9 square blocks sitting peacefully among great trees only a stone’s throw from the interstate right-of-way to the north, and sloping down to its Tennessee River landing to the south. It served as the first state capitol for a few years after incorporating in 1818; I think the legislators met in the tavern. In more recent times, it was the primary filming location for Disney’s Tom & Huck in 1995.

   Walking around town that day, nearly halfway through my 5 years of architecture school, I was struck by two things I thought weren’t possible then. Having grown up in sprawl, I’d never experienced a place as an adult that was so compact, mixed-use, and walkable. Seaside was still a few months from breaking ground at that time, so to my knowledge nothing like this had ever been built in our day. But why not? If our ancestors enjoyed life in places like this, what were far too many of us doing stuck at the end of a cul-de-sac? That day primed me for being an instant adherent to the New Urbanism when DPZ's plan of Seaside was published a few months later.

   But the much longer-lasting questions were the architecture. Still embedded in the Dark Ages of Architecture, all that was built back then in flyover country like where I grew up was buildings like suburban tract houses, strip shopping centers and malls, and bronze glass box office buildings. The preservation movement had taken hold across the country by then and people were lovingly restoring houses and sometimes Main Street buildings downtown as the realization grew of what a downward trade the architecture of the Dark Ages had been in comparison to what it replaced. But how could we build lovable buildings again? What was the process? On that day, I had no clue.

   Our architecture professors taught us that because we had recently acquired computers, the builders had bigger power tools, and the banks had more clever mortgages, we could build better than ever before. Quality was determined by the tools, in other words. But I was walking the streets of a place that day built by simple farmers and tradespeople with none of those tools, but both the urbanism and the architecture was clearly far superior to what was built in 1980. How did they do that in 1818, years before architects first set foot in Alabama? I did not know. But it was clear beyond debate that they had. What great wisdom did the people of the village possess to build better than 1980’s best and brightest? Again, I had no clue. It was a complete mystery.

   But this wasn’t even the biggest mystery. One could imagine how an enlighted builder might come to town and build buildings people love for a time, but how was that wisdom passed down to the next generation? I was 20 years away from my first trip to Europe but was of course aware of the Italian hill towns, Cotswold hamlets, and villages in the South of France where the wisdom of building well had been passed down for centuries. What was the device? Go deep enough into European history, and most of the people were illiterate, so it couldn’t have been books. What was it?

   I left Mooresville that day completely clueless, but I took this mystery of three questions (urbanism, architecture, and process) home with me and “fed and watered it,” if you will, hoping to unlock it someday, realizing I was much more likely to find something I was looking for than something I forgot.

   This is the first post of three; the next will be tomorrow on Thanksgiving Day, and the wrap-up will be Friday on the 40th anniversary. 

   Next: The Mystery of Mooresville (part 2)

   ~Steve Mouzon

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Lovable Community Gardens

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Habersham, South Carolina community garden is the least lovely part of the neighborhood

Habersham’s community garden; everything else at Habersham is just gorgeous

   Community gardens today are far too often the rattiest and most unkempt places in a neighborhood; anything worse would get cited by the city as a public nuisance. Part of the problem is the fact that vegetable gardens have long been considered utilitarian, something worthy of similar aesthetic attention as a laundry room or broom closet.

   I don’t have images to show of what this post is promoting, because lovable community gardens have never been proposed before in the US that I’m aware of. But there’s no reason a community garden can’t be as beautiful as an ornamental garden; it’s just different plant materials. But in any case, this post looks at both garden design and garden culture to find ways that community gardens will be more broadly welcomed into the neighborhood, and treasured there. One more thing… if you’re on Twitter and like the thought in italics, click on the bird to tweet it… thanks, and enjoy!

Why This Now?

social distancing

   In last week’s post I said I’d soon be laying out strategies for community recovery from the economic wreckage of the pandemic and propose patterns for post-pandemic architecture and urbanism. So what’s up with this post? How does it fit in?
   It’s not yet clear how many Americans will migrate from larger places to smaller ones in the wake of the pandemic, but steep declines in Manhattan rental rates indicate it’s likely to be a substantial number. And those who are either moving from larger to smaller places, or who are staying where they are and making their bedroom community their day-and-night community by working from home longterm are likely to discover that their opportunities for social interaction are more limited there. And with traditional hangouts like bars being really risky now to the point that many places have shut them down, smaller communities hoping to attract and retain people need to find social interaction alternatives which are much safer. Community gardens may be one of the best alternatives, and for several reasons:

   1. Gardeners love to talk about their gardens. Few things other than puppies are more reliable conversation-starters than gardens, especially when you’re in the garden.

   2. Gardening happens outdoors, where you’re close to 20 times less likely to get infected with the coronavirus than indoors. And because most people don’t garden in the rain, sunshine on the biggest gardening days is a virus-killing bonus.

   3. Raising food yourself means you need that much less food from the grocery store. And while groceries tend to be doing a mostly good job with shopper safety, it’s safer yet to raise your own produce. 

Getting Started


The biggest community garden challenge is coordinating all of the gardeners. But if you help them understand that they’re on a mission to do something never done before, but which could spread broadly and for which they may be remembered someday as pioneers, that may help. The first thing to remember in creating a community garden is the community. The ultimate goal is for the garden to pull the community together. At every step along the way, consider how the garden can bring the gardeners together, and also how it can help bring the neighbors who don’t plant and harvest there together as well.

Garden Layout


   Design the garden as if it were an ornamental garden, then assign the allotments, which must not be all rectangular. It doesn’t have to look like a Renaissance garden; it might be inspired by an Art Nouveau pattern, for example. Just not a rectangular grid. No ornamental garden I’ve ever seen was laid out in a rectangular grid. That’s just boring. The very fact that most allotments aren’t rectangular helps the gardeners understand from the beginning that they’re embarking on something special and it calls for them to take more care with what they’re doing. With that foundation, follow these steps:

   1. Lay out the primary network of places and paths. Some of these will be gathering places; others will be places flanked by utility structures like tool sheds, well houses, etc. The primary paths and places should be paved in brick or concrete pavers, set in sand.

   2. Lay out the secondary network of paths, which are earthen foot paths between raised beds. Lay out paths and beds so that there are three sizes of beds: small, medium, and large.

   3. Calibrate these sizes to what you think neighbors will be willing to tackle. The worst thing would be to make the beds too large, where they don’t properly maintain them. Have a common bed edge material.

Plant Materials


   It’s not entirely necessary, but it’s best if each bed in the community garden has one vegetable. This will make the appearance of the garden visually striking. Combine this with the fact that many if not most bed shapes may be unique means the combination of shape & species will definitely be unique. And just because someone has a green thumb with okra doesn’t mean they know how to grow great jalapeños. The fact that every bed will have one vegetable means that your gardeners will need (with your help) to revive that age-old gardeners’ tradition of swapping. “Wanna swap some green beans for some of my kale?” An early step toward creating community.



   Many outdoor elements can serve as garden edges, including fences, hedges, walls, arbors, porches, and building walls. And you can use different edges on different sides of the garden according to what is beyond the garden on that side. Incidentally, because some of these edges (like hedges) are more easily adaptable for width, it’s simpler to make each of your garden rooms well-proportioned than it is indoors because standard building materials tend to have a narrow choice of widths.

Plantings Near the Edge


   If the garden’s edge is something solid (hedge or wall) put the shorter vegetable beds toward the center and the taller ones next to the wall. If the garden’s edge is open, (picket or wrought iron) do the opposite so the small material is at the edge. And no, there’s nothing edible in this image, but the main point of this post is to make community gardens that are lovable, so feel free to employ any principle of ornamental gardens to edible gardens. 

Upper Levels


   Be sure to include at least some second-level (arbor) gardens, if not even some third-level (fruit trees). Intensive gardening practices take into account the fact that not all light gets absorbed by the top plants, so more produce can be grown below. And in the case of an intensive arbor like this one, the complete shade makes a great place to sit and rest from your labors in the garden.

Wall Gardens


   If you do build a garden wall, be sure that you train or espalier a wall garden upon it. If it faces the sun through enough of the day, why should it not be fruitful?

A Shady Place to Sit


   European gardens frequently have two or three levels, with arbors and maybe trees. At the very least, have arbors on each end of your garden. Furnish arbors with seats so you can sit and enjoy the garden (more on this later).

A Sunny Place to Sit


   Depending on the time of year, you might prefer to sit in the sun instead of the shade. Because the first word in “community garden” is “community,” it’s important to design the garden in such a way that they gardeners can get acquainted if they want to. And gardeners often want to. In this era of the pandemic, social interaction can be risky in many settings, but look how easy it is to maintain social distance between family groupings in a garden.

Garden Structures


   The next step is to place your buildings, both utilitarian ones like tool sheds, potting sheds, and well houses plus sitting structures like the arbors just mentioned plus roofed sitting pavilions.

A Place for Solitude


   Be sure to include a number of arbors and sitting pavilions for one person, and maybe a few for small groups, where people can sit and contemplate, looking out over this beautiful garden. Include “morning pavilions” and “evening pavilions” on each side, where one person can sit on the east side with the sunrise streaming over their shoulder as the mist rises off the garden, or on the west side at sunset, admiring the work of the day.

Water Channels


   Do you need to channel rainwater to a rain pond? Water channels can run wherever in the garden they need to, but can be especially interesting along your garden paths where the running water is easiest to see. Water is always welcome in a garden design, and you might create a small fountain or two somewhere along the way.

Frog Pond


   Consider designing your rain pond as a frog pond because frogs are excellent insect-fighters. Frog ponds have edges low enough a frog can leap out, have some plant cover, and footing like lily pads on which the frogs can sit.



   The portals into your garden are important. People should feel they are entering into a special place. "Kiss of the sun for pardon. Song of the birds for mirth. You’re closer to God’s heart in a garden than any place else on the earth.” ~ Dorothy Frances Gurney Not everyone feels so strongly about gardens as Ms. Gurney, but make your portals important anyway.

Evening Light


   Might you light your garden, or at least part of it, for small evening events? Remember, this will be one of the most beautiful places in the neighborhood and if everyone does their jobs right, a wonderful place to gather.



   How about outdoor showers? And a changing pavilion? Someone could bring clean clothes with them, then shower and change before going home so they come in fresh and depart clean, not stinky and dirty. And properly screened outdoor showers are delightful.

An Agricultural Aesthetic


   Consider how to use the small elements of the garden artfully to create an “agricultural aesthetic.” These elements may include: sticks and twine, terra cotta pots, stones, gourds, vines, and branches. You might even have design competitions.

Agrarian Community Festivals


   Much like ancient cultures, organize a series of seed-time and harvest celebrations. Make these on Saturdays, timed according to planting and harvest best practices, and organize them in such a way that they become a neighborhood cultural event. At the end of the day, a community garden isn’t just a garden for members of your community with green thumbs. Instead, it’s also a setting for creating culture and community among all your neighbors, whether or not they are gardeners themselves.

   Wanda and I really hope this is useful, but what have we missed? What other things should community gardens cultivate? 

   ~Steve Mouzon


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How Communities Can Recover & Grow Post-Pandemic

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   Cities and towns across the US and abroad are in financial crisis due to the pandemic, and some of the income generators on which they depended in recent decades may be permanently broken, but there are certain fundamentals of community survival and growth which are likely to continue long past these years, as they have track records proven over centuries. This post lays out the basics of community solvency & growth, and several posts looking at post-pandemic urbanism will be based on these fundamental. Get these things right, and the recovery of your place will stand on proven foundations. These are the basic elements:



   A community is a hamlet, village, town, or city standing free in the landscape or with suburbs (the fifth community type) at the perimeter. A metropolis is made up of many communities contiguous with each other. A community is made up of neighborhoods, large civic spaces, and special districts.



   A neighborhood is the elemental building-block of urbanism. A neighborhood is a part of a community, but with the exception of the hamlet, a neighborhood does not make up the entire community. The majority of a city should be made up of neighborhoods, with special districts making up the remainder of the land area. A neighborhood contains at least three Transect zones, so there is a range of intensity in every neighborhood. A neighborhood also contains a mix of uses and is built compactly enough that neighbors can walk or bike to many if not most of their daily needs.

Large Civic Space


   Most civic spaces are located within a neighborhood or special district, but civic spaces can occasionally be large enough that they form borders to the neighborhoods and districts around them. The Mall in Washington, DC is an unusually large example of a large civic space.



   A district is a contiguous area within a town or more often a city that, by its intrinsic function, disposition, or configuration, cannot conform to one of the normative Transect zones or community types. Districts can be either warranted or unwarranted. Unwarranted districts are usually sprawl land uses such as shopping malls or office parks, and contain components that should instead be incorporated into neighborhoods. Warranted districts include universities, airports, hospitals, rail yards, cemeteries, industrial districts, etc.



   A hamlet is a community composed of one neighborhood standing free in the landscape. To be truly sustainable, hamlets should have a “raison d’être,” or “reason for being” tied to the land or water around them: most commonly, they were farm hamlets, but might also be built for fishing or other resource-based activities like (occasionally) hunting. Today, the term is most often used as a romantic description of sprawl, but that’s not what I mean by the use of the term. Because of its size, the hamlet cannot support any businesses supported only by its residents, but it can support limited commercial if it’s good enough to draw people in from other hamlets and villages nearby.

   Serenbe, in Georgia’s Chattahoochee Hills, has grown to four hamlets separated by nature preserve, but even when it was still a single hamlet, its foodie culture was already so strong that it drew people in from 10 miles around almost every day and all the way from Atlanta on the weekends to eat and shop there. The four hamlets today each have a specific focus: agriculture, the arts, health & wellness, and education. This highlights another necessity of sustainable hamlets: each should focus on one thing and invite people in from other hamlets to enjoy what you do well. Serenbe is arguably the best study of modern-day hamlets anywhere in America; it’s well worth your while to visit. As a matter of fact, Wanda and I would be happy to join you on the tour.



   A village is a community composed of more than one neighborhood, but with a clear primary economy focus, such as a fishing village. Whereas residents of a hamlet usually take their products to market elsewhere, the village develops a nascent market where people can come from elsewhere to purchase products derived from the economic focus of the village. The village also has enough residents to support a range of businesses supplying daily needs to residents, and also to those outside the village when the services are good enough, as in the Serenbe example. Hamlets can grow into villages by adding neighborhoods.

   Today, a multitude of people who can work remotely are considering relocating from more urban places to villages, towns, and smaller cities, with their perceived safety of smaller circles of contacts. But by doing so, they will be moving from places of greater cultural opportunties to quieter places, so these communities will have to deal with the balance between retaining their small-town character and becoming more interesting places. At the scale of a village, attracting a cohort which works remotely inherently creates a second economic focus of the village: one served not by natural resources like their first focus, but by high-speed connectivity which lets this second focus of remote work thrive.



   A town is a community composed of several neighborhoods, and which is large enough to have developed more than one economic focus, although it still may be identified by its original focus, such as a textile town. The market of the town may have grown robust enough that it is now known as a market town instead, and its economic reach can pull in customers both from surrounding hamlets and villages. Or because a town is large enough to develop special districts, it may be known by the function of one of those districts, such as a university town. Villages grow into towns by adding neighborhoods, at least one additional economic focus and possibly a special district.
   Towns should be able to add the economic focus of remote work more easily than villages, because towns have already diversified their economic bases. Because towns are naturally somewhat more diverse than villages, they may more easily welcome new arrivals than smaller communities.



   A city is a community composed of many neighborhoods and several special districts, and which is large enough to have developed enough economic foci that it is no longer identified by any of them except in the most general terms, such as an industrial city or an economic center. Towns grow into cities by adding neighborhoods, special districts, and several new economic foci.
   Cities have the greatest range of sizes, and small cities have special advantages when welcoming new arrivals from elsewhere within their region on two primary counts: they know how to do most of the things larger cities do, and they will feel most like home to those leaving larger cities. It is especially important to note that some of the most important urban thinkers (chiefly Leon Krier) have long made the case that cities can grow so large that they become fragile to many black swan events such as the pandemic. So if this indeed turns into a great migration, it could actually end up being healthy for some of the largest cities once the initial pain is over.



   A suburb is a community at the edge of a city. A suburb founded once the urb to which it is the sub-urb has become a city begins at least at the scale of a village because of the strength of the economic engine of the city. Hamlets around a village or town that grows into a city can either grow into village- or town-scale suburbs, or can be absorbed into the city. The motivation for suburb-founding can be varied, but is usually based on a desire to be different from the city in some way, while still maintaining strong economic ties to the city. Those differences may be differences in management, economic foci, or a range of other motivations. Suburbs can be sustainable if composed of true neighborhoods as defined above and if connected to the city by a range of transportation choices primarily including various forms of transit.

   In this election year, “suburb” is being used loosely and with no precision. Traditional suburbs can be some of the best places in the region to live and raise a family, with close-knit communities and thriving community institutions. Suburban sprawl, on the other hand, is a very different pattern of development and shares little with traditional suburbs other than the fact that both are outside the central city.

Suburban Sprawl


   Suburbs built according to the patterns of sprawl and connected to the city primarily by automobiles are highly unsustainable and have arguably become America’s greatest challenge to economic health, environmental health, and public health. Suburban sprawl has the worst negative ROI of any settlement pattern in the history of the world. Charles Marohn of Strong Towns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban 3 have been exposing the broken economic foundations of sprawl for over a decade. Transforming suburban sprawl to sustainable suburbs through extreme makeovers will be America’s most pressing place-making mission of the upcoming decades. Several colleagues have brilliant proposals for how to fix the insolvent patterns of sprawl, and Wanda and I are working on a version we call Sprawl Recovery.  Whatever it’s called, it begins with a commitment to building no more suburban sprawl.

   Post-pandemic, sprawling places have the worst prognosis for being able to host remote workers longterm. Many in the new remote work multitude commuted into the city from sprawling bedroom communities before the pandemic struck. They had many cultural opportunities after work before heading home for the night. But exiled day and night at the end of a cul-de-sac is a very different proposition that most will likely find intolerable long-term. These are the people most likely to be shopping for real estate in a traditional suburb nearby. For these sprawling places, an extreme makeover may take on urgency years ahead of when it would have without the pandemic. Fortunately, there is a path from sprawl to sustainable traditional suburbs.

   ~Steve Mouzon

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The Powerful Virtuous Cycles of Street Trees

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   There are several powerful virtuous cycles of street trees that benefit so many parts of the built environment and the people who inhabit it in ways we may not have thought about until now. This post hopes to bring this multitude of benefits (some of which are life-changing) out into the daylight. And from 2020 onward, as we look for the healthy benefits of spending more time outdoors, no single element will play a larger role in helping us to do just that than street trees.

Direct Effects of Street Trees

   Street trees affect us directly in several ways. These effects are arranged from the most local to the global.

Thermal Effects

   Properly placed street trees shade the sidewalk. This can result in a reduction of 20° - 45° (all temperatures Fahrenheit  in sidewalk temperature, according to Lance Hosey. Sidewalks store a lot of heat due to their mass and then radiate that heat to everything around them, especially including the people walking on them.

   Street trees also shade the people walking on the sidewalk. Walking in the shade versus walking in the sun can easily make a perceived difference of 20° due to solar radiation on your skin.

   Street trees transpire, meaning that they give off water vapor through evaporation of moisture from their leaves. The misting fans often found in warm climates like South Beach where we lived for 16 years cool people sitting at sidewalk cafes have a similar and more visible effect because you can see the mist whereas you can’t see the water vapor from the trees, even though it cools you almost as well. Evapotranspiration from trees can reduce temperatures around the trees by 2° - 9°, again according to Hosey. This compounds the cooling effect of shading.



   Street trees are usually considered beautiful by most people in town. And street trees are the only things we install on a streetscape that get bigger and more beautiful over time all on their own. But beauty isn’t the only way they appeal to our senses. “Street trees help you know when you are because of how they behave across the seasons.” ~ Victor Dover


   Properly placed street trees (between sidewalk & travel lanes) physically protect people walking on the sidewalk because a car is likely to strike a tree before getting to someone walking. Trees near the street also encourage drivers to slow down because no sane driver wants to wrap their car around a tree, as the tree almost always wins. Street trees have been shown to be as effective against speeding as speed cameras, according to The Telegraph.

Increased Real Estate Value


   Because street trees are beautiful, they raise the value of the real estate around them if properly selected. On mostly residential streets, their lowest limbs should be above head height; on mostly commercial streets, their lowest limbs should be above the sign band of the adjacent businesses. As to the value, one street tree on a block raises the value of every house on the block by $2,000 except the house where the street tree is located, the value of which is raised $7,000. If the street is lined with trees, the value of every house is raised by $22,000. This data is from Doug Kelbaugh. Dan Burden says that while the planting & 3-year maintenance cost of a relatively large-caliper street tree is probably $250 - $600, the lifetime benefits of that tree will be around $90,000. This means that street tree programs can be largely self-financing in all except poor neighborhoods because once people understand this, many will plant their own street trees to jump-start their home appreciation. Beyond the street, studies show home buyers & real estate agents assign 10%-23% of lot value to trees on the lot, according to Kaid Benfield.

Indicator of Places People Love

   Because street trees are beautiful, they are good indicators of the most-loved parts of town, increasing not only the real estate value, but also the stature of the neighborhood. Recovery of a seriously disinvested place should begin early on with a street tree program because street trees change the perception of the place from a place where nothing is possible to a place where “you never know what good might happen here.” When I’m scouting a town I’m not familiar with for possibly shooting a volume for the Catalog of the Most-Loved Places, I drive a major street and look down the side streets looking for street trees. Almost without exception, places with lots of street trees are the most-loved neighborhoods in town. No other sign of a vibrant, lovable place can be seen from further away than a line of street trees. Test this yourself.

Crime Reduction


   Street trees reduce crime. A recent Baltimore study showed that 10% more street trees = 12% less crime. Why this is so is no mystery. More street trees = stronger Walk Appeal = more people walking = more eyes on the street = less crime, as Jane Jacobs said 60 years ago.

Business Improvement

   Street trees are good for business. Lining streets with street trees leading to a neighborhood center draws customers in to neighborhood businesses from surrounding neighborhoods by elevating Walk Appeal. Jeff Tumlin says that street trees are a critical economic development and sustainability investment. And they’re good for the economy of a neighborhood in general. According to Patrick Kennedy, Every street tree absorbs the first inch of stormwater. They can save billions in stormwater infrastructure across the city, allowing that money to be spent on things that benefit businesses. Or the money can be saved so that taxes can be reduced.

Global Effects


   Trees are carbon champions. They continually inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, while humans and other animals do the opposite. They also sequester carbon within the tree as the tree grows. Plant enough trees, and they will actually absorb all carbon emitted by humans today. That number is currently 1.2 trillion trees. Unfortunately, humans are going the wrong direction by burning the Amazon and deforesting places around the world for more cattle farming. But planting street trees would at least be a start in the right direction. If there are 4 million miles of streets and roads in the US today (not counting Interstates) and street trees were planted 25 feet on center on either side of all of them, that would total almost 1.7 billion trees. That’s only a fraction of 1.2 trillion, but definitely a step in the right direction. Just. Quit. Destroying. What’s. Already. Growing!

Secondary Effects of Virtuous Cycles Induced by Street Trees

This is without doubt a partial list, and might even be just the tip of the iceberg.

Walk Appeal Superfood


   The combined effect of shading the sidewalk, shading the humans, and evapotranspiration can transform a walk in hot weather (wearing anything other than beach attire) from something 10% of the people can tolerate to something 90% can tolerate, making street trees a Walk Appeal superfood. One young healthy street tree = the cooling power of 10 room-size air conditioners running 20 hours/day, according to Kaid Benfield. And Doug Kelbaugh says street trees have close to 16 times the cooling effect on the human environment as trees in a forest.

Urban Heat Island Reduction

   For all the reasons already listed and because street trees also shade a lot of paving on the streets themselves, they are major contributors to reductions in urban heat islands. For anyone who might not know the term, “urban heat islands” describes the heating of air within cities to several degrees above that of the surrounding countryside. And according to Ed Mazria, each 10% increase in tree coverage in an urban context can reduce mid-day temp by 1.8°.

Sidewalk Cafe Enrichment


   Street trees at sidewalk cafes make them more comfortable, thereby attracting more customers, which in turn increases the cafes’ chances of success which in turn builds the financial strength of their suppliers and provides a livelihood for their employees.

Adjacent Building Conditioning Reduction

   Deciduous street trees on narrow streets shade windows of adjacent buildings, reducing cooling loads. And by being deciduous, they drop their leaves in autumn, allowing solar gain into the buildings during the colder months of the year.

Improved Perception of Surrounding Environment


   Because street trees are beautiful, they improve the environment around them in many ways. For example, almost everyone loathes parking lots, but Victor Dover says that the greatest parking lot in the world is the Champs Élysées in Paris. And it works because of the street trees.

Increased Perception of Safety

   Perception of safety is a strong component of Walk Appeal. The perception of protection from traffic afforded by street trees (see Safety above) combined with the perception of the neighborhood as a most-loved place due to the street trees has strong compounding effects in elevating Walk Appeal.

Improved Performance of Surrounding Environment

   Street trees improve the local environment in several ways due to combinations of several of the direct effects noted above. Doug Kelbaugh says that street trees are like little urban hospitals. They beautify their surroundings, freshen and oxygenate the air, reduce aerial pollutants, provide cooling shade, retain soil, and detain & retain stormwater, among other benefits.

Improved Wellness of Body, Mind & Spirit


   All these things raise a sense of wellness and wholeness in those who are there, which have beneficial side-effects on our wellness of body, wellness of mind and wellness of spirit. And there’s one very direct result of Walk Appeal that benefits all three types of wellness: Both folk wisdom and scientific studies have shown that there is a direct relationship between walking and both clarity of thought and peacefulness of mind, which also contributes to wellness of body by reducing blood pressure and pulse rate, and improving many other bodily metrics. But long before the studies, folk wisdom set a high value on “thinking on your feet.” Many agree. Steve Jobs famously developed some of his best ideas on long walks.

Improvement of Disinvested Places

   Increases in real estate value as a result of street trees have beneficial side-effects across the board, but nowhere are these benefits more pronounced than in seriously disinvested places because greater value opens the doors for banks to provide the resources necessary for further improvements. But increases in value have a dark underbelly, which is gentrification with displacement. The old aphorism says “a rising tide lifts all boats,” but most of the time, a rising tide creates enough draft for the cruise ships, so the little boats have to leave. Increased value could be handled this way (and usually is) but doesn’t have to be. If the goal is changing lives rather than just changing structures & infrastructure, then transforming a barren street to a tree-lined street should be one of the first steps in turning a neighborhood around because they can lift the spirits of those who live there, helping things seem possible which seemed impossible on the barren street nobody cared for.

   Reduction in crime due to more street trees has many benefits to any neighborhood, especially the most disinvested neighborhoods. Crime stifles normal social interactions, which are the seedbeds of community bonds, and saps the economic strength of a place, both due to fear of the public realm. Reduction in crime makes many things possible that seemed impossible beforehand.

Street Trees, Walk Appeal & Single-Crew Workplaces


   Street trees set the stage for thriving single-crew workplaces because the workplaces are too small to survive without healthy foot traffic. Single-crew workplaces are rarely destination retailers. Walk Appeal and single-crew workplaces such as food carts have a strong symbiotic relationship. Few things feed Walk Appeal more than the combination of quick changes in view and other humans, and a line of food carts or shop sheds provides this in spades. And nothing feeds single-crew workplaces better than many people walking by.

Tertiary Effects & Beyond of Virtuous Cycles Induced by Street Trees

   The tertiary effects of street trees might even be even more the tip of the iceberg than the secondary effects. I have for years been trying to figure out something Orjan Lindroth and I call the “unified field theory of sustainable community,” We’re no Einsteins, but similar to how Einstein’s unified field theory of natural forces (that he worked to discover to the end of his life) would have been able to express every force in terms of every other force, our hope is to be able to express every part of the built environment and the societies that inhabit it in terms of every other part. We were finally able to tell a lot of the story in the new edition of A Living Tradition [Architecture of The Bahamas] a couple years ago once we finally figured out that the operating system is composed of nature’s ways rather than industrial rules. But these virtuous cycles (especially the tertiary effects and beyond) do the best job of laying out the story of how it works that I’ve ever been able to tell. Or at least I think so. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Living In Season


   Walk Appeal entices people to spend time outdoors, either attending to their daily needs or just for the pure joy of walking in a place with great appeal. In either case, time spent outdoors helps acclimate us to the local environment so that on all but the most extreme days of the year, it may be possible to throw the windows open instead of turning on the equipment, and there is no equipment so efficient as that which is off.  This is a condition I call Living In Season. Wanda and I have proven this personally. Because we arrived in Miami in the fall of 2003, we spent our first months there in the “winter,” such as it is, and got acclimated to warmer weather slowly in the springtime. As a result, I can accurately say that in all of my 16 years living on Miami Beach, I have never been in the shade, in a breeze, and uncomfortable. Not once. But when people came to visit who lived in a perpetually refrigerated existence, they really suffered. Waves of sweat rolling off them. Meanwhile, I have many times worked in my studio on Miami Beach in July, with the windows open, the ceiling fan on, and the AC off. In the town where the basketball team is named “the Heat.” This isn’t theory; for us, it is practice.

Fine-Grained Web of Daily Needs

   Single-crew workplaces fueled by street trees and their resultant Walk Appeal are the best tools for meeting a full range of daily needs in a neighborhood, especially a seriously disinvested one. There’s no need for a 40,000 square foot grocery; I have photos of a 16’ x 36’ single-crew grocery (one grocer) in Beaufort, South Carolina that opened in 1919 and has been in the family ever since. Without it, that neighborhood would have been a food desert. Put another way, if the smallest viable grocery is 40,000 square feet, everyone has to drive so all the neighbors in that neighborhood would be burdened with the cost of owning a car. Single-crew workplaces are a strong answer to the specter of automotive impoverishment.

Building Dreams Early


   Single-crew workplaces have another remarkable property: they make it possible for people of more limited resources like women, the young, immigrants, and minorities (groups Lean Urbanism is working to benefit) to begin realizing their dreams years or decades before they could afford to go in business in a conventional ULI-approved brick-and-mortar location. If they ever could at any time in their lifetime. The self-determination of pursuing one’s dream was always the real American Dream, right up until it got hijacked by the real estate industry and rebranded as owning a house. Single-crew workplaces can set that straight again.

Obesity Reduction

   Street trees reduce obesity by elevating Walk Appeal so people are enticed outdoors to walk instead of drive. Doug Kelbaugh puts it directly: “the more trees there are on a block, the less likely people living there are to be obese.” Walk Appeal has three prime benefits: elevating the environmental health, the economic health, and the public health of a place. While the first two benefit greatly from Walk Appeal, arguably the greatest beneficiary is public health, as Walk Appeal can add meaningful years to our lives. But we’ve known this dating back to Dr. Richard Jackson’s pioneering work over a decade ago.

Parking Reduction


   When street-tree-fueled Walk Appeal is stronger, there is less need for parking at single-crew workplaces because they can be more finely distributed around the city and the neighborhood so that more people can walk to their daily needs. Reducing parking, especially off-street parking lots, has many benefits. A parking lot paved in asphalt is a huge heat sink, elevating the temperature of the microclimate around it. Parking lots located at the street frontage nearly kill Walk Appeal for two reasons: they are really boring and they are also repulsive. How many people do you know who say “I love parking lots?” They also prevent proper street enclosure on their side of the street. And whereas the travel lanes of streets with on-street parking double as parking aisles but parking lots must provide their own aisle, the asphalt required per car is essentially doubled once you count access drives, doubling the harmful heat island effects per car. Actually, I could go on for quite some time on the harmful effects of surface parking lots, but then I wouldn’t finish this post this evening.

Driving & Heat Island Reduction

   More walking to daily needs means less driving, and there are more benefits to driving less to daily needs than just needing less parking. The heat of combustion from automobile engines exacerbates urban heat islands. Cities & towns where people drive more get hotter; cities & towns where people drive less stay cooler.

Air Conditioning & Heat Island Reduction


   More severe heat islands raise the cooling load on buildings because the air around them is hotter. Unfortunately, air conditioning operates by expelling indoor heat to the outdoors. Stand next to a condensing unit to feel the effects. This is a clearly vicious cycle, because as the urban heat island gets more severe and necessitates more indoor cooling, the heat that is expelled makes outdoor air even hotter, requiring even more cooling. The net effect of the supercharged urban heat island is that people who could otherwise walk to their daily needs drive instead, because it’s just too hot to walk, and that additional auto exhaust further heats the air, reinforcing the vicious cycle. Under these conditions, Living in Season eventually becomes impossible. The first step in unwrapping this vicious spiral is more street trees, which with the many intertwined effects noted so far, can cool the city enough to restart the virtuous cycles.

The Enticement of Other Humans


   I mentioned sidewalk cafes earlier. Nothing is more interesting to humans than other humans. That’s why it’s so interesting walking on a busy sidewalk. There is one thing more interesting than walking humans, and that’s humans sitting still in one place for some time. You might see a person walking by for a few seconds, whereas they might sit at a sidewalk cafe for hours. Sidewalk cafes are one of the silver bullets of urbanism, with too many befits that ripple out from them to describe here. Suffice it to say that if there is a thriving cafe scene in a neighborhood, many other good things are probably happening there as well.

Porches, Galleries, Balconies & Neighborliness

   The second most interesting place for humans to sit is on porches, galleries, or balconies located in such a way that they can strike up a conversation with someone walking by who was theretofore a stranger. And as hokey as it sounds, it’s also true that those conversations can lead to relationships, which can then lead to people acting like neighbors again, rather than as the more common status as anonymous co-habitators of nearby real estate. But that only works if there are people walking by, which is highly dependent on Walk Appeal and the street trees that boost it so.

Local to Global Benefits


   Let’s get back out here at the end to the global scale: Street trees elevate Walk Appeal which in turn reduces urban heat islands. All this conspires to make a community a more pleasant place to live where you can walk to your daily needs, become more fit and reach greater clarity of mind and peacefulness of spirit. And you can meet more neighbors and become as deeply invested in your community as you like, while seeing your neighbors pursue their dreams that would have been impossible elsewhere because of their single-crew workplaces in your neighborhood which by the way gives you more choices of services within walking distance. Or maybe you become one of them, pursuing your dreams as well.

   But there’s more. All of these things conspire to help mitigate climate change, which millions view as civilization’s greatest threat. But maybe you don’t; there are millions from the US to Australia who share that view. If you share that view, just focus on the local things you enjoy about living this way in your neighborhood and your town. If living this way has global benefits far beyond your neighborhood or your town, we all win. All you have to do is start planting street trees and enjoy them and the many powerful virtuous cycles that spin out from them. 

   ~Steve Mouzon

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What's Coming Back & What's Not

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   After 9/11, Katrina, and the Great Recession, there were many proclamations of “never again;” I made some of them myself. As Laura Clemons has said repeatedly on her quest to get towns to rebuild better after a disaster “there are very few human urges stronger than the need to put things back the way they were.” What does everyone think are the top three most likely and top three least likely things to come back essentially the way they were once the pandemic is over? My top 3s:

Most Likely

   The human urge to socialize is strong, so the things most likely to come back relatively unchanged all have something to do with our need for contact with other humans.

1. Third Places


   Look what happened in Wisconsin after the state supreme court killed the safer at home order: everyone streamed to the bars with no social distancing, including at least one nurse who should have known better. The most important thing here is scale. I believe there will be a lot of people uncomfortable with being in a restaurant that seats 300 people, but feel much better in places with a couple dozen neighbors. This favors neighborhood Third Places over large chain restaurants. Establishments that pull in large numbers from a distance have a greater risk of seeding the crowd with someone from a hot zone.

2. Religious Gatherings


   The only reason religious gatherings aren’t in the #1 position on this list is because not everyone attends them. But the passion here is probably higher than any of the others because when you combine the need to socialize with high stakes (heaven vs. hell, for example) religion in all its forms will be back almost exactly the way it was. I do wonder if one difference might be a new preference for worship in smaller groups? Even meeting in homes?

3. Fitness & Sports


   Both ends of the athletic spectrum will come back largely unchanged both because of the social need to work out with others if you're one of the athletes, and also the social need to cheer on the home team if you're not. Spectator sports in large venues may well be one of the very few exceptions most people make in the year or two after the pandemic is over to stay away from large crowds, and that’s because of their love of the home team. After the Spanish Flue of 1918, many people stayed away from very large gatherings for the next few years.

Least Likely

   To be clear, I’m not saying these things are unlikely to come back, but rather unlikely to come back as they were before. In other words, most likely to come back with big changes.

1. Offices


   Offices won’t disappear, but we’re in a massive test run on why many companies don’t need nearly the space they have. There's no doubt many are already doing the math & figuring out this new way. And the ability of millions to work from home at least most of the time could be a huge impetus to jump-start Sprawl Recovery when those who once worked in the city every day begin to really suffer from Social Deficit Disorder in the blandness of sprawl. I’ll blog more about this soon, and link to it from here. Office landlords should be nervous.

2. Transit


   Urbanists won’t be making this decision; millions of commuters will. There’s a chance the coming carpocalypse may push some back onto transit, but the percentage is uncertain. One big winner here is cycling and cycling facilities; one big loser is living a long distance from work because in some places, there’s a very real chance that if you leave at your normal departure time, you might not arrive until lunch at offices in cities heavily dependent upon transit. This is an existential time for transit, as much as it pains me to say that. I’ll blog more on some heretofore-unthinkable implications of this shortly.

3. Retail


   Look for a dumbbell migration to both the super-big and online like Amazon & Apple & to the super-small single-crew workplaces where people from failed mid-sized companies will set up shop again doing what they already know how to do, but smaller. Most won’t want to go to work for the companies that killed their businesses and are much more likely to try to reconstitute at the smallest possible size and give it another go. And many existing single-crew workplaces that already put out great products are doing great now. Our son Sam runs Dinner Bell Barbeque, a food cart in Portland, so he’s by definition a carry-out establishment and has been doing great since the lockdown, after a very dark and rainy winter.

What Else?

   As we navigate the new normal, what else do you see as most likely and least likely to come back the way it was? Help me out here, and I’ll post an updated list later with your items included… thanks in advance!

   ~Steve Mouzon

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The Original Green at 10

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Original Green cover front for post

   Ten years ago today, the Original Green went on sale for the first time after a launch party at Books & Books on Lincoln Road in South Beach the night before. I’m not sure what it has meant to anyone else, but it changed so many things for Wanda and I. So much useful stuff has resulted from this one little book in the decade that followed, including most of the ideas on this site, which would never have gotten worked out otherwise. For anyone who has found Original Green ideas useful, we’d really love to hear from you!

If you prefer buying from an independent bookstore, my favorite bookstore in the world is Sundog Books in Seaside, Florida, and they have them in stock.

   ~Steve Mouzon

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The COVID Collapse of the Office Park

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Sprawl Huntsville, AL 07MAR22 3347 modified

   Office parks are toast; if you’re a partner, director, investor, or trustee of one, start thinking now about how to redevelop your asset before it becomes a liability in the near future. Google “office park failing” and you’ll get million of results. The demise of the office park has been increasingly apparent for years, hastened by the Millennials’ distaste for boring suburban office parks; COVID19 is merely the coup de grâce. Here’s why:

The Brain-Dead Cool Factor

Glenwood Park 10MAY22 8956

the new reality: Cool Factor or Bust

   Millennials are legendary for picking a cool city, then finding a cool neighborhood in that city, then finding a job they can walk or bike to from where they live. Almost every office park fails every test for Cool Factor ever invented. If you want young talent, you absolutely cannot be in an office park less cool than the Apple Ring. Just forget about it. So how do you achieve a reasonable Cool Factor? Think back to when the Millennials were teens. Where did they go in your town? Almost everywhere, they congregated where there was some shred of urbanism; where the uses were mixed and the building types varied. Office parks are the antithesis on every count.

Efficiency Deficit Disorder

research park existing

a bit of building, lots more parking
& lots of wasted space

   Le Corbusier, dead for over a half-century, still haunts the American landscape with his “drive 30 miles to work” edict, and also haunts the architecture academy as their long-dead god. Corbusier famously called for the destruction of the best of Paris to be replaced with his trademark “towers in the park” in his wretched Plan Voisin. In American office parks, his towers in the park have become “mid-rises in the parking lot.” And they’re hideously inefficient. Take this example from a place I know well. This is a 100,000 square foot building filled with people doing meaningful biotech work. It sits on 18 acres of land. But look at how much more they could accomplish using just basic urbanism like the 50 foot “green depth” and interior parking courts!

research park transformed

the same land, reconfigured as city blocks

   They would get their 100,000 square feet on the first floor, plus an additional 80,000 square feet of stuff like coffee shops, neighborhood groceries, pharmacies, and the basic necessities of life… all on the first floor! Then the two floors above that could be 360 1,000 square foot units, 720  500 square foot units, or whatever mix worked for the local market. Or they could get the entire 100,000 square feet on just a couple of the blocks using all three stories and have that much more mixed use on the street level. Either way, you’d be able to live, work, shop, eat, and walk home… all on the space currently wasted on today’s office park! Corbusier’s Curse on America is felt nowhere worse than the doomed office park. Let’s get to work fixing this mess! Why waste so much profit potential any longer? Make places that pay their own bills and keep on profiting!

The Infrastructure Burden

Sprawl Huntsville, AL 07MAR22 3349-1

parking area exceeds building area
in sprawl because you must drive
everywhere for everything

   Sprawling districts like office parks are not only inefficient in themselves, but impose a great infrastructure burden on the municipalities where they’re located roughly proportional to the inefficient land use within their borders. Charles Marohn of Strong Towns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 have been exposing the Ponzi scheme of sprawl for over a decade, showing how every city pre-COVID had a date at which it would go bankrupt due to its inability to continue to maintain the infrastructure in sprawl, which can easily have as much as 3-4 times the infrastructure per property as traditional urbanism. The pandemic may have compressed the bankruptcy timeframe for cities from decades or years to months or even weeks. This will be a question of survival for municipalities all over, and let’s be clear: office parks may have a lot of high-income white-collar occupants with political influence, but the development form puts them close to last in terms of tax revenue vs. infrastructure maintenance burden. In business terms, they’re “alligators,” and they will eat you.

Home Officing


working at home isn’t limited to indoors

   The previous three problems are long-standing; this one is newer. Yes, New Urbanists have been advocating for live/work units and other forms of working from home for decades, and some of us have tried it, but it was not so pervasive a practice in the pre-quarantine days. Now, however, the millions lucky enough to still be employed and able to work from home are giving it a massive test run. And no, not everyone loves it. Those with small children are finding it especially challenging. But these are enormously eye-opening days for many companies, as they ask “what if we don’t really need this huge space with its huge rent?” Expect many of those companies to downscale post-COVID to varying degrees. Others will follow the PlaceMakers example, which has since the beginning operated with everyone in different cities. I look for those companies to provide stipends for the cost of the home office and childcare for those who need it. If these things happen, then office rents will soon be far more affordable. Couple that with the fact that lease delinquency is massive, and it’s obviously high time for all office building owners, whether in an office park or somewhere else, to start getting creative on what to do now.

Real Solutions

Sprawl Repair Manual cover

Galina Tachieva’s excellent book

   Fifteen years ago, the common solution in most places to a failed land use type like office parks was decline and eventual abandonment. Fortunately, much work has been done in the intervening years on what is now known as Suburban Retrofit, Sprawl Repair, or Sprawl Recovery. There are now reams of techniques out there such as those found in the Sprawl Repair Manual and Retrofitting Suburbia. Other resources include Build a Better Burb, hosted by the Congress for the New Urbanism. And you can (and should) start small instead of huge demolish-and-rebuild plans. Begin the very first things tactically, then build in small increments because not many want to spend huge chunks of money at the moment.

Dinosaur or Chrysalis?

   Dinosaurs are… well, you know, dead. Will the office park be remembered as a dinosaur or a chrysalis? The chrysalis is the intermediate form between a caterpillar and a butterfly. The dinosaur ran out of chances to transform, but it’s in the blood of the chrysalis. What is the office park? It depends on the leadership in each one. If they’re willing to transform on the scale of an extreme makeover, then it’s not actually that hard to do since office parks are made up of big chunks of mostly-empty land, meaning that many things are possible. And it has already been done; check out the Township at Colony Park, which began 20 years ago to build a robust mixed-use community in a couple pods of an office park. Mike Thompson can tell you more about it. So it comes down to this for the leadership: are you willing to grow up and become a city so you can pay your own way and attract young talent, or will you get stuck and die? It’s your choice.

   ~Steve Mouzon


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Earth Day at 50

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Earth Day at 50

   Never before in our lifetimes has the daily flood of urgent things been so firmly dammed up. Treasure these most surreal of days for their greatest gift: revealing the most important things that in the endless stream of everydays get obscured in the fog and the flow.

   If these days do not change me, then the only thing I’ll carry forward is a lot of economic pain. But if they help me see more clearly the things that are most important and act upon them, the benefits that flow from that awakening can last a lifetime... and beyond.

   This pandemic has caused too much death and pain not to cause good change. The worst thing we could do now is get back to normal. Let’s get to work soon building a new normal based on the important things revealed in these awe-full days. The worst thing to do now is shut my eyes.

   And let’s face facts: what’s happening now is just nature being nature. We have built an industrial illusion that we have overcome nature, but nature tests every construct. And in this test, our financialized industrial system has been found wanting. In the words of the President of the United States on March 23 “Our country wasn’t built to be shut down. This is not a country that was built for this.”

   No kidding. Since the Sustaining Economy this county and every nation before it was founded on was discarded and replaced with the Consuming Economy a century ago, the lifeblood of the country was ever-increasing consumption, as measured each quarter by Wall Street. The Consuming Economy values things by how quickly they’re used up; the Sustaining Economy values things by how far they’re handed down. I’ve written about this in detail in the new edition of A Living Tradition [Architecture of The Bahamas].

   But this Great Pause hasn’t been just unmitigated disaster for those of us still alive; it has also opened a window into a view of earth almost as profound as Earthrise, the first view of our home from space a half-century ago. Today it’s a view, however fleeting, of what earth would be like in just a few weeks if we quit spoiling it! Blue skies over Los Angeles, Beijing, and cities everywhere in between. Nature returning to places from which it had been exiled all over the world. Families spending time with each other, going for long walks or bike rides. People finally having time to think about the things that matter most.

   Obviously, this all can’t last. The financialized industrial system is raring to come roaring back as soon as possible, hoping to get things back to normal. But can we make at least some of it last?

   Think about what we’ve seen: cleaner skies and waters than we thought we’d ever see in our lifetimes even if all nations complied fully with all the agreements. They haven’t, and not by a long shot. So this is little short of a miracle that we’re seeing what we’re seeing now. What might we do to preserve some of this without completely wrecking economies around the world?

   The next posts over the coming weeks will look at several aspects of how we build our homes, workplaces, towns, cities, and lives to consume a lot less but live a lot better.  Better rather than more. Quality of life over standard of living. But for this one day, just cherish this miraculous view of something we never imagined we’d see, especially since it has come at such a great price to so many, almost 180,000 of whom have paid the ultimate price.

   ~Steve Mouzon

The COVID Collapse of the Office Park


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© Stephen A. Mouzon 2020