Where would you rather be if you could be somewhere else, and how do those places draw you so long across the miles? For me, that would be Key West. Or Paris. Or New Orleans. Or London. Or Charleston. Or Pienza. Or Taos. Or Oxford. Or Beaufort. Or Barcelona. Or... I could go on for hours. What common thread do all these places have? They’re highly walkable because they’re compact enough that everything’s nearby, and they have everything you need within walking distance, so you aren’t just walking for exercise.
But that’s just the standard New Urbanist line. And there are places all over that are compact, mixed-use, and walkable, but that don’t attain greatness... they’re merely good. So what’s the difference?
This post is part of the new Twitter phenomenon: #Letsblogoff. The home page lists each week’s “idea worth blogging about.” This week, it’s “My slice of heaven,” and the idea is to explore our personal paradise.
For years, my personal paradise was Seaside, Florida. We lived a half-day’s drive away, and it’s such a great place that it became our regular vacation spot. In bad years, when we couldn’t afford to go to Seaside, we simply didn’t go to the beach. Everything else was so much less.
I remember back before most people had vacationed there, and people would say “yeah, it’s nice. I drove through. Lotsa little clapboard cottages.” And I’d tell them “you haven’t been to Seaside until your car keys have been hanging on the peg for at least three days. Then, you’ve been to Seaside.”
I remember the first (and only) architect I worked for after graduation. He went to Seaside and came back furious, because “I can’t drive my Cadillac 35 miles an hour down the streets.” I remember thinking “I know I won’t be working here much longer!” What he missed entirely was precisely the point of Seaside’s street design... it make the drivers slow down so the place is safer for the kids... or anyone else walking.
Speaking of kids... Seaside is a rare place that’s as eagerly anticipated by the children as the parents. It was the first place we ever let our kids run free, without knowing where they were, because you could be certain that with all those people sitting out on their porches, someone was watching them.
Seaside is also fascinating because it’s arguably one of the most family-friendly places you’re likely to visit on a deep and profound level... meaning that it’s a place where you’re likely to reconnect with family members in a meaningful way instead of just spending a few days as fellow-inhabitants of a cottage, or co-riders on a jet-ski. At the same time, it’s an exquisite venue for romance. Few ordinary places host both of these interests so well.
We moved to South Beach seven years ago. Seaside is now a distant memory... distant as in over 600 miles away. But we discovered before even moving down here that Key West was one of Seaside’s ancestors, inspiring many of its patterns. Both are at the end of the road: Seaside at the end of US 331, and Key West famously at the end of US 1. Many great places, however, are at the center of a network, with people streaming in from all around. Shared patterns don’t make the towns identical, of course; Key West tips the family/romance balance firmly (and often bawdily) to the side of romance, for example.
I often challenge town founders with something I call the Tourist Test, which is this: “Is the place you are building good enough that people will want to spend their vacations there? Many town founders can’t even dream of such a thing... they’re building a neighborhood full of first homes, not vacation homes. But every great city listed at the top of this page is full of first homes. None of them are solely resorts. Yet people willingly give up those precious two weeks each year in order to visit them.
So the Tourist Test sounds like a good aspiration, but what does it really mean? How do we build or rebuild a place in a way that will pass the Tourist Test? What makes places great? To answer this question, let’s consider what makes places ordinary. That which is ordinary is predictable. A great place embeds itself so firmly in our memory precisely because it is overflowing with possibilities of unpredictable and memorable moments.
Those moments most often are filled either with connection or with reflection. In other words, they either take us outside ourselves to connect with others in a meaningful way, or help us look inside ourselves in a meaningful way. None of which ordinarily happens while driving. But all of which just might happen somewhere around the next turn in any of the great places. You just need to be out of your car to have a good chance of experiencing them.
So in the end, the greatness of a place doesn’t derive so much from how lavishly it’s detailed or how elegantly it’s laid out, but rather for how well it acts to set the stage for human greatness. Imagine some act or insight that has changed the world as we know it. Can you say “something like that just might happen here” about the place you live? And is that anticipation that the extraordinary might be just around the corner obvious enough to others that they want to vacation where you live?
Here are some of the other participating blogs in today’s #Letsblogoff:
Veronika Miller @modenus Modenus.com
Paul Anater @paul_anater kitchenandresidentialdesign.com
Rufus Dogg @dogwalkblog DogWalkBlog
Becky Shankle @ecomod eco-modernism.com
Bob Borson @bobborson lifeofanarchitect.com
Bonnie Harris @waxgirl333 Wax Marketing
Tim Elmore @TimElmore growingleaders.com
Nick Lovelady @cupboards cupboardsonline.com
Tamara Dalton @tammyjdalton tamaradalton.net
Sean Lintow, Sr. @SLSconstruction sls-construction.com
Amy Good @Splintergirl Amy's Blog
Richard Holschuh @concretedetail Concrete Detail
Tim Bogan @TimBogan Windbag International
Hollie Holcombe @GreenRascal Rascal Design
Cindy FrewenWuellner @Urbanverse Urbanverse
I’m @stevemouzon, FWIW.
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Tuesday, September 7, 2010 - 12:53 PM
looks like a lot of fun! I want a margarita after reading your post.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010 - 07:31 PM
cindy frewen wuellner
Steve: you have truly lived your life in paradise, American style. had not put Key West and Seaside together as you did, thanks for that insight. I love them both too, both almost otherworldly - that is, if America is beige suburbs and gritty neighborhoods. those two towns are utopic, yes? made by people that wanted to build a perfect place. Maybe that is the point - you have lived places that not only have astonishing natural beauty. they have been shaped by people with high aspirations, who dream in color. Excellent test: how well it acts to set the stage for human greatness.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010 - 09:49 PM
Oh, please tell me that the first picture is from Rick's My Blue Heaven in Key West?! I love that place. My husband and I make sure to tell anyone & everyone traveling to Key West to go there. No other place like it. And there's nothing like walking and riding your bike through Key West. Thanks, Steve!
Tuesday, September 7, 2010 - 10:35 PM
Thanks, Carrie! Key West (and South Beach) tend to have that effect, don't they?
And thanks, Cindy! I didn't say it in the post, but I live in South Beach, which is another of the places that people travel around the world to see and experience, if only for a little while. And I live here every day. Funny thing is, I've wondered for several years why there aren't more creatives here, with as bracing as this place. Seems like a natural to me.
Tammy, you're exactly right! It's Blue Heaven in Key West! One of my favorite places, and not just because of the colors at night. Hope to see you there someday! I'm way overdue for Key West!