Havana vs. Sawgrass Mills Mall

scale comparison of Old Havana (La Habana Vieja) with Sawgrass Mills Mall

   Look carefully at the images above. On the left is La Habana Vieja, or Old Havana. It’s an entire city. And a great city... a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as a matter of fact. No US city has yet made that list. Renowned New Urbanist Andrés Duany calls Havana “Rome, 90 miles from Key West.”

Plaza de la Catedral in old Havana, Cuba

   On the right of the image above is Sawgrass Mills Mall, not far from Miami, including its outparcels. In both cases, I’ve included the roads and port facilities required to make each place function.

   Here’s the kicker: both are shown at the same scale! The choice is almost unthinkable, but true: we can build a great city using less land than it takes to build a shopping mall!

   Kaid Benfield has a must-read blog post today entitled The Environmental Paradox of Smart Growth. It deals at length with the environmental benefits of building more compactly.

one of the buildings surrounding Plaza Vieja in Old Havana

   But before the facts and figures, there’s the “blink test” written about incisively by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, where he makes the case that a first glance is often more accurate than long deliberation. The first glance here shows there’s simply far more stuff in the city than in the mall, which is made up primarily of parking lots and roads. Simply put, most of what we build today is mostly empty most of the time.

   It’s not just about how full the land is, however, but about the character of what we’re building. Would you rather be in this picture, or at a mall?

   The choice is clear: spending time in a city that’s a World Heritage Site is a memory you’ll retain for a lifetime, whereas a trip to the mall will be forgotten by the weekend.

arcade surrounding Plaza de Armas in Old Havana

   What are some of the other “blink tests” we can do on cities versus malls? One really obvious one is that you can do almost anything you want in the city, while you can only shop at the mall. One of the Sawgrass Mills outparcels is a subdivision and another is the Bank Atlantic Center, which is the home of the Florida Panthers, but nobody ever walks between them and the mall. Want to go home? You’ve gotta drive. Want to go to work? You’ve gotta drive. Want to play ball? You’ve gotta drive.

   Here’s another test: What are the chances the shopping mall will be there in a hundred years? Malls, as we know, are usually thrown up with the cheapest construction, with no intention that they’ll last very long. How sustainable is it to be littering our landscapes with throwaway buildings? I blogged some time ago about Cancer of the City, and will have more to say about it shortly, some of which involves throwaway buildings and throwaway places. 

classic Old Havana courtyard

   Meanwhile, Havana has been there for almost 500 years, and it’s easy to imagine it being there centuries into the future... provided that the next regime brings some financial prosperity. Castro’s revolution has impoverished Cuba so badly that most buildings have had no maintenance in the half-century since the revolution. But imagine what a shopping mall would look like in 50 years with no maintenance! Actually, it might be in a state of total collapse in less time than that if it were not maintained.

   It’s no accident that great and sustainable cities tend to be more compact than shopping malls and office parks. Compactness contributes both to sustainability and to potential greatness by bringing things closer together. A building in a parking lot isn’t a place... it’s only a building. And landscapes composed of buildings in parking lots connected by networks of highways are neither destined for greatness, nor for being here for a very long time.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Friday, April 9, 2010 - 11:07 PM

Kaid @ NRDC

Really nice post, Steve.  I coldn't agree more, and thanks for the mention.  Keep up the great work!

Friday, April 9, 2010 - 11:15 PM

Charles Marohn

Awesome post, Steve. Great graphic - very vivid. Love your work.

Saturday, April 10, 2010 - 09:15 AM

Brendan H

I really enjoyed this post, Steve.  I have done similar side-by-side comparisons of malls and urban places and absolutely astonished people with the results.  Walking from one end to the other, and then back again, in a mega-mall can easily be a distance of over one mile.  I often find it rather difficult to convince others to walk two or three blocks in an urban area.

Monday, April 12, 2010 - 11:04 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, everyone! Because of your comments and several more off-list comments, I'll likely do more posts like this... it really is eye-opening.

Friday, June 4, 2010 - 04:30 PM


Well, I started reading and my first thought was - this is just another anti-growth, anti-American blog designed to force us all to live as if we were some high tech third world country. But NO!!!!! - YOU ARE SIMPLY INSANE AND IGNORANT!!! Rome 90 miles from Miami - are you kidding me. As usual Duany is so self involved with his Disneyesque urban trickery that he is unable to contimplate that great cities happen over a long period of time by acretion and economic opportunity and development. Witness the great cities of Paris, Venice and yes Chicago and new York. They DO NOT happen because of the socialist ideas of some urban designer from Columbia or worse Harvard. While I have not been to Havana - I have studied enough to know that density of people, decaying  infrastructure and urban filth does not make for a quality environment, especially in a country that is run by a communist dictator. I guess the analogy to Rome makes since. When I visited Rome - I found it to be much like Havana, only much much bigger. And finally, your comparison of a city to a mall is so bizarre on so many levels, it would take an entire seminar to discuss all of the reasons why a city is not and never will be a mall and vice versa.


An enlightened architect

Sunday, June 13, 2010 - 10:05 PM

Steve Mouzon

Is DLS Architect David L. Skyles? Just curious. In any case, David, I'm not quite sure how to respond. You signed your post "An enlightened architect" so maybe you can help me out. You noted that you've never been to Havana, yet you insist I'm insane and ignorant for these observations after I've been there... again, I'm not sure how to respond. Please help me out. As for great cities happening over a long period of time, Havana has been there for nearly 500 years... longer than almost every city in the US. And as for its communist dictator, he's only been in power for 50 years... only 1/10 of the life of the city. All the great stuff was built before he came to power. As for the scale comparison to the mall, it's meant to illustrate how much land we waste with sprawl development. I could have compared an interstate intersection to central Florence, for that matter. Pick any great city in the world, and you'll see that it has far more stuff designed into a far smaller footprint than we can imagine today because sprawl has bloated everything we do so badly.


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