Preserving Stories in the Land

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palmetto shoots on the forest floor

   How is it possible to develop land that is "close to sacred" to the landowners and yet preserve both the beauty that has always existed in the land and also the family's stories that date back there almost a hundred years? I'm on a charrette this week in Niceville, Florida where we're contemplating that question. Niceville is bounded on the South by Rocky Bayou and on the North by Eglin Air Force Base. The 1,100 acres we're working on at the Northeast corner of town is the last large parcel of developable land in Niceville, which unlike almost the entire rest of the country, is experiencing substantial growth.

   The Ruckel family's roots here go back to the 1920s, when James E. Plew, great-grandfather of today's landowners, moved to the area from Chicago. Plew was an inventor, with inventions to his credit ranging from the nose inhaler to the "banana seat" for bikes. He was also an aviator and friend of the Wright Brothers, and donated the original land for Eglin. His children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren have developed most of Niceville and Valparaiso out of what was once family land. The 1,100 acres has long been preserved as a family retreat for fishing, hunting, camping, and yes, aviation: there's a grass landing strip to the West. The recently deceased Walt Ruckel (Plew's grandson) painstakingly mapped out every detail of the land in a hand-drawn map we're using this week as we work with Marion and Steve, his daughter and son, to lay out new places here.

   With all this beauty and history embedded in a place, how do you go about developing it? We're trying a few techniques that we believe may work:

Preserve the Old Paths

path through the woods

   We are painstakingly following the old paths Walt Ruckel laid out on the map. There is wisdom embedded in an old path that a newcomer can't often know. Sometime's it's obvious, like when a path dodges around an enormous live oak. But more often, the reasons the path runs there have to do with things that can only be known if one has observed subtle nuances of the land for a long time.

   We give high value to the places the paths intersect. As a matter of fact, many of these crossroads are becoming the centers of the hamlets, villages, and towns that will one day populate this land. Most of these intersections already have names (more on the names in a moment) which means that there are likely many stories embedded at these crossroads.

   If you really want to preserve the character of a path as it becomes a road, it's important to do so in three dimensions. In plan, preserve every little crank and turn rather than straightening them out. Do the same in the third dimension, moving as little earth as possible so that the new road hugs tightly to existing land forms.

Keep the Water Pure

sand-bottom stream through the woods

   A beautiful sand-bottom creek of crystal-clear water runs through the middle of the land from headwaters at a spring nearby, with fingers branching up into hollows on each side. The water is so clean that Marion stooped down and scooped up two handfuls to drink on our first site tour recently. We plan on using Light Imprint techniques to handle stormwater from the new development in hopes of keeping the waters as clean as they are today.

Build Compact Hamlets, Villages, and Towns

palmetto shoots in forest

   The normal inclination of conventional planning is to carpet the land from edge to edge with development, but then the original character of the land is irretrievably lost. Instead, we're taking the number of homes that have been approved by the city and building them more compactly so that we can preserve over half of the land, with most of it being left completely untouched and some converted to agricultural fields to raise food for restaurants in the hamlets, villages, and towns embedded in these woods.

   The outer edges of these settlements will be crisp, like the edge of an Italian hill town, going from urban to wilderness across the twenty-something feet of the drive bounding most of these places. This means that everyone in town can walk easily to the edge, since the edge isn't someone's private back yard, but belongs to everyone instead. In hamlets, you won't be further than a block from nature. In villages, the furthest distance to nature might be at most two blocks, and in the two towns, the greatest distance to the edge will be less than three blocks.

Save the Stories

deer moss laying among the leaves

   It's important to use the names that already exist for any places in the land. These don't sound anything like names that a PR department might come up with, and they make salespeople cringe. But they sound real places: Tin Can Junction, Hidden Springs, Five Points, and Two Shot Meadow.

   Next, find stories in the natural elements found in the land. Here's an image of the deer moss that carpets much of the high woodland floor. It gives way to the palmetto shoots above as you descend toward the stream. Unlike conventional development, where Fox Run is the subdivision where foxes will never run again, we hope the deer moss carpets the forest floor long into the future… so it's likely that there may be a Deer Moss Crossing somewhere in the woods.

   Finally, find ways of memorializing the stories themselves on monuments throughout the place before they're lost to the next generation. There are several hunting towers, for example, most of which are located near intersections. We plan to rebuild these towers in a more substantial fashion where they sit just at the edge of the village green or the town square for futures as observation towers anchoring those civic spaces. Somewhere on these towers, there should be an opportunity for the story of that place to be written.

   More soon… I've gotta wrap this up now because the charrette day begins shortly. What other techniques do you have in mind? What else should we be considering?

   ~Steve Mouzon

The Citadel Conundrum

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the castle of Segovia, Spain lit in late afternoon sun, viewed from the valley below

   Right-wing and left-wing exploding brains just might be the result of a proposed development in northern Idaho: it's called The Citadel. Here's the proposed plan of the development:

plan of The Citadel in northern Idaho

   Before we go any further, please note that except for exercising my right to vote, I care very little for politics and hope that nobody has any clue how I voted from the things I say and write. I haven't told anyone, not even my wife, how I voted in the last election.

sunset through the Western gate of Pienza, Italy

   So with that established, let's talk politics without getting political. The Citadel site says that "Marxists, Socialists, Liberals, and Establishment Republicans may find that living within our Citadel Community is incompatible with their existing ideology and preferred lifestyles." A reasonable person might infer from this statement that the Citadel folks are likely pretty far to the right of the political spectrum, right?

   But now let's look closer at the plan of the Citadel. What you see here is a place with defined boundaries, several neighborhoods, a town green and amphitheater, a town center, a factory on the edge, farmland all around the outer walls and a farmers' market just inside the main gate. In other words, it's a town. Except for the town walls and sometimes the farmland outside, these are components you'd find in any New Urbanist town.

stone ramparts of Toledo, Spain

   Now let's look around the Citadel site a bit. If you go to the Citadel Housing Cost Calculator and plug in some numbers, you'll find that they definitely have affordable housing. The comprehensive plan shows a clear buffer zone between the inner and outer walls, and the farmland is a buffer as well. Just inside the walls, which form an urban growth boundary, the perimeter road appears to be running through a greenway. Open space is interspersed through the plan. Their land use policies are clarified on the FAQ page, as are the facts that they're open to all races and religions but intend to protect themselves and their quality of life from all threats. In other words, they're planning on building a sustainable community… maybe not precisely to the standards of the New Urbanism, but there's a lot of crossover.

main gate of Toledo, Spain

  See all the italicized words in the paragraph above? They come straight from Glenn Beck's Agenda 21 Keyword List. I'd never heard of Agenda 21 until a couple years ago, but I've been following the New Urbanism since Seaside was first published in 1981. Agenda 21 is a non-binding, voluntarily implemented sustainable development guide sponsored by the UN. In recent years, it became a Tea Party lightning rod, and is portrayed as a conspiracy by the UN to take away individual property rights.

   But back to the Citadel. Their website doesn't list any of the leaders so I can't research them very easily, but their website makes it appear likely that some of them may follow Glenn Beck, and that maybe some of them might be sympathetic to the Tea Party. Yet they're building a place filled with things characterized by Agenda 21 keywords. To complicate matters further, Glenn Beck announced plans just over a week ago to build the city of Independence. Plans haven't been published yet, but if you read his description of the place, it embodies many of these principles as well. Confused yet?

diagonal view of the ramparts of Toledo, Spain

   The left wing is just as conflicted. I have some strong left-wing New Urbanist friends and some strong right-wing New Urbanist friends, but those on the left tend to be more vocal, so the New Urbanism is sometimes characterized as liberal. It is not. It spans the spectrum. But in any case, I've had a first-hand view of the left-wing conflictedness many times. For example, it really galled them that George W. Bush stopped at Seaside to give a campaign speech, and that Karl Rove bought a house at Rosemary Beach. And there has been much consternation by left-leaning New Urbanists about the plan of The Citadel in recent days.

last fading rays of sunset silhouetting the castle of Segovia, Spain

   Here's the bottom line: Right-wingers have no right to call me a communist for designing places that look and work like Mayberry. That's ridiculous. And it's just as ridiculous for the left to reject architecture or urbanism based solely upon the politics of the builders. Do that, and we have to reject Monticello, Mount Vernon, and the original University of Virginia campus because both Jefferson and Washington owned slaves.

   Here's an idea: politics only last until the next election unless there's a recall, in which case they don't even last that long. But buildings can last for centuries and cities can last for millennia. So if your prime interest is politics, then go and fight those short-term battles, and good luck with that. Seriously. But don't take good place-making principles and make them political. Leave the short-term principles in the short-term battles, and the long-term principles in the long-term battles, where they each belong. Town-building is too important to get caught up in politics because the towns and cities last so long. 

   ~Steve Mouzon

What's Sustainability Got to Do with Business?

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Mahebourg, Mauritius waterfront with monument and mountains across the sea

   I made a startling discovery while working to finish New Media for Designers + Builders, which is my latest book: the virtues and ethics that underlie the construction of sustainable places and buildings and the virtues and ethics that I believe will underlie business in the age that is now dawning are exactly the same! How can this be? What can business-building possibly have to do with place-making? Let's look:

Virtues and Ethics

   A virtue, for the purposes of this discussion, is something we aspire to be: Be patient. Be kind. Be hopeful. An ethic, on the other hand, is something we aspire to do. Treat people fairly. Recycle. Buy local. To be and to do. Virtues are within us; ethics are what we do with the people and things outside us.

   The three prime virtues of business since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution have been quality, speed, and economy. Or better, faster, cheaper, if you prefer. I believe we're now in a time of transition so great that even the prime ethics of business are changing. The new prime virtues, I'd suggest, appear to be patience, generosity, and connectedness.


sundial at Mugdock Castle, near Charleston, South Carolina

   Nothing you do today with the New Media is going to yield a measurable benefit in the first week, or even the first month. But if you are patient, the rewards you'll enjoy eventually will be far greater than what you would have reaped looking for immediate gratification. So patience is in many ways the opposite of speed.


three loaves of bread and buns

    Giving useful things away sounds insane when people are broke. But if you put things out there that are truly useful, not just teasers, which someone can download and never come back to you again, you'll receive a larger recompense someday. Like patience and speed, generosity is in many ways the opposite to economy.


two men debating in a Madrid park

   The relationship between quality and connectedness is a little different. For all of our lifetimes until now, you first did excellent work and that work got you published so that you became connected with many people. In other words, you became famous. Now, we have the tools to easily connect with others to begin with. I founded the New Urban Guild a decade ago, and working side-by-side with Guild architects has made me a much better architect. Starting with quality and ending at connectedness tends to arrogance because it's easy to say: "I'm so famous because I'm so good." Starting with connectedness, however, leads to humility because you realize "I'm better at what I do because of those around me."

Sustainable Place-Making

   Here's where it gets interesting. Sprawl development, especially since World War II, has been built squarely on the old virtues of better-faster-cheaper, and those virtues have created the most unsustainable development patterns in human history. Truly sustainable places filled with green buildings are almost impossible under the better-faster-cheaper regime, but would flourish among the virtues of patience, generosity, and connectedness. Here are a few examples:

Patient Places

house overlooking vegetated dunes at Schooner Bay in the Bahamas

   Build a place patiently, like Orjan Lindroth is doing at Schooner Bay, and you reap an enormous ecological dividend on many counts. Build at a high "development velocity," on the other hand, and you're left at the mercy of the interest clock ticking down at the bank.

Generous Places

   If you build a neighborhood generously, you plan lots of parks, greens, squares, and plazas for people to gather. If not, you try to squeeze every dollar out of the land by cutting every acre of your subdivision up into lots.

Connected Places

   A highly connected place is one where you can turn down many streets walking to many places where you might meet someone, or catch up with an old friend. Quality first, however, puts us in slick cars that cruise at high speed down a supposedly efficient highway system, but where the only interaction we have with others is called "road rage."

Patient Buildings

   Buildings built patiently start small, and grow over time as the homeowners' needs change through life, resulting in several side-benefits including the fact that they're often more charming. But if you want that whole house immediately, you have to mortgage yourself into a deep hole… a hole that millions have recently found themselves unable to get out of.

Generous Buildings

   A generous building is green in so many ways, and frees its occupants from much of the burden of energy and resource costs. It even entices people outdoors into gardens where they get acclimated to the local environment and are able to cut the equipment off and live in season for much of the year. Paradoxically, buildings built for economy try to control everything with machines and are therefore under a mechanical tyranny where their tolerance decreases to the point that the machines must be on every day of the year.

Connected Buildings

passage through a building at Harvard University

   It's easy to think that buildings aspiring to be more connected must have the fastest fibre optics cable and the like, but this is only a small part. Real connectedness connects us with each other in homes designed to bring families together and workplaces designed to foster better collaboration. And they connect their inhabitants to their neighbors by turning human faces, not garage doors, to the street.

What Do You Think?

   There are many more examples of the types of sustainable places and green buildings that patience, generosity, and connectedness produce. What are the first ones that come to your mind?

   ~Steve Mouzon

© The Guild Foundation 2013