What Does "Lean" Mean?

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mysterious evening sky over Miami Beach

   "Lean Urbanism" is a new term that attempts to make sense of how we should be building sustainable places today, but the term "lean" runs the risk of getting described in very non-lean ways. So what does "lean" really mean? There's a #LeanMeans hashtag on Twitter where you can join the ongoing discussion. In the meantime, here's my take on what "lean" means:


dad on the tuba, momma singing, and little girl blowing bubble gum on the drums, all in the French Quarter of New Orleans

   Lean means communicating leanly, so your message travels far without you having to carry it to all those places yourself.

   Lean means having lean diagrams that are quickly comprehensible.

   Lean means aspiring to self-evident terms such as “buron” which to the public at large obviously means “bureaucratic moron” no matter what the inner circle says it means.

Conquering Complexity

   Lean means embedding wisdom in simple words that test complex systems with plain-spoken questions, such as…

New Orleans French Quarter corner grocery bathed in the green glow of a lone street light at nightfall as lavender clouds fade to dark against deep blue skies

   Lean means living where you can walk to the grocery. Because we know that if there's a grocery there, it's highly likely that there are other daily necessities there as well. But we don't need to ask about each necessity; we merely need to know if there's a grocery there. And it doesn't have to be the big mega-stores, either. There are four groceries within two blocks of my office. All are tiny, and carry just commodities like cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, etc. plus one or two brands of things like hot sauce, rather than dozens. But we eat many meals bought entirely from these grocery stores.

   Lean means making a living where you're living. If you do this, then you avoid commuting and many other related burdens, but we don't have to discuss those burdens if you make a living where you're living. Again, it's a simple test that probes many attached complexities without having to discuss the complexities… which is also very lean because it doesn't tax your bandwidth, either!

   Lean means using things with double-duty, triple-duty or more, not redundant things. This general principle covers so many things in life.


sunrise on the farm, with white cow and calf grazing against spindly steel fence-posts across the street from Janna’s Food Farm in Rogersville, Alabama

   Lean is what people do when they realize that help definitely is not on the way!

   Lean means doing more things for yourself when you have more time than money.

   Lean means less of clients hiring expensive experts to do things for them.

   On the other hand, lean means more of coaches helping people do more for themselves. So if you were one of those expensive experts in the old days, you should be re-making yourself as more of a coach today.

   Lean means not needing to lawyer up to get the job done.

   Lean means not needing gifts from governments to get the job done.

   Lean means decisions should be made by those affected by those decisions, not a larger group. The inner circle talks a lot about "subsidiarity." But that's for the 1% of America who know what subsidiarity means.


two girls crossing Ocean Drive in front of the Carlyle against neon and streetlight glow on glistening streets against backdrop of receding storm painting skies pink and French Blue on South Beach

   Lean means not needing to see the end from the beginning ...because this is a task humans are spectacularly bad at.

   As this principle applies to the development of sustainable places, lean means not needing to build the climax condition at the beginning. Cities never sprang like today's Manhattan from green fields or forests. They began humbly, then matured over time. See the Sky Method for my  best take on how to accomplish natural growth today. And I'll soon be illustrating how the Sky Method can be used to recover from the addiction of sprawl.


Cafe Beignet’s tiny storefront embeds lots of charm under its blue-and-green striped awning on the French Quarter’s Royal Avenue

   Lean means many things are possible at small scales that are impossible at large scales.

   Lean means building single-crew workplaces at the beginning …because you can get many tiny businesses started when there are only a few customers, whereas if you wait until there are enough customers to build the super-center, you might be building it for your kids or grandkids. And the tiny shops make for far better Walk Appeal than the super-center. So get services today that create a better environment, rather than maybe waiting decades for places that aren't nearly so good.

 Lean means measuring impacts across the scale of time. Something with a high initial impact that lasts for a thousand years is much better than something with less initial impact that gets torn down in a decade.


The Cabildo Museum sits solitary against the first rays of sunrise at the corner of Jackson Square in New Orleans’ French Quarter

   Lean means not growing regulatory "scar tissue" the first time something unpredicted goes wrong. It might be decades before it goes wrong again. Do we really need a law against it?

   Lean means that a tiny house inhabitable by one person shouldn't be regulated like a building inhabited by thousands.

   Lean means that a food truck that feeds a few dozen people a day shouldn’t be regulated like an egg factory that produces 80% of the eggs eaten in the USA.

   Lean means setting up self-regulating systems instead of systems that require lots of energy perpetually.

Buildings & Land

interior walls become shelving units in Eric Moser’s 2001 Coastal Living Idea House in Habersham, South Carolina

   Lean means conditioning the people first, so they can cut off the equipment most days of the year and “live in season.”

   We can do this by building outdoor rooms, not lawns, to entice people outdoors so that conditioned space can be smaller. In most places, great outdoor rooms can be built for about 1/5 the cost of interior space. So if the outdoor rooms are good enough to serve well enough as living space that you need 20% less indoor space, then the savings on indoor space can pay for the entire cost of the outdoor rooms.

   Lean means using every possible cubic inch of space, even the space within the walls. We do this by eliminating drywall and carving into interior walls so that almost all interior walls become shelving units. All of these ideals and more are bound up in Project:SmartDwelling.

New Virtues & Ethics

white concrete roof and scalloped parapet wall painted in mauve glow from fading evening sky over Alys Beach on Florida’s Design Coast

   Lean means adopting new virtues and ethics, not holding onto the old ones that lead to obesity. For 250 years, the prime virtues of business have been "better, faster, cheaper," and the measuring-stick has been the Consuming Economy, which values things by how quickly they're used up. I believe we're entering an age where the three prime virtues of business will become patience, generosity, and connectedness, and where the barometer will be the Sustaining Economy that guided economic activity for almost all of human history, and which values things by how far they're handed down, not how quickly they're used up.

   These new virtues may lead us back to some very old ethics: Waste Not. Want Not. Source Closely. Nurture Wellness. And maybe others as well: "a stitch in time saves nine," "a penny saved is a penny earned," "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," and lots of other solid wisdom upon which this country and others were built that we've let slip in recent decades.

   What are we missing here? What does Lean mean to you?

   ~Steve Mouzon


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Legacy Comments

Ann Daigle · Works at CityBuilding Exchange

Lean means graceful, common sense living. It means maximizing resources - or more simply, making the most of what you have. "Buronics" invades our lives - it exists in government, in corporate capitalism, in community NIMBYism and most profoundly in the media where it invades everyday life. Lean would capture the lost, wasted capital of communities - our natural, social, economic and built assets. Being Lean professionally means leaning how to be more effective with human resources and project management.

Oct 14, 2013 10:09am

Lisa Engstrom Nisenson · Co-Founder/CEO at GreaterPlaces

Great line: "Lean means not growing regulatory "scar tissue" the first time something unpredicted goes wrong."

Nov 4, 2013 8:41am

Nancy Bruning · Author, Founder and CEO at Nancy Bruning's Nancercize

Let's extend your idea of "generosity and connectedness" in business to every aspect in life: Lean means leaning on our own capabilities and leaning on each other when that's what's needed.

Nov 15, 2016 10:47pm


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2020