A Gift to the Street

frontage garden composed of pots and an old red wagon in front of fence on Randolph Avenue in Huntsville, Alabama

   There is no greater expression of neighborliness than showing kindness to someone you may never know. We can give gifts to strangers in person, of course, but our buildings can do it, too. Imagine what your neighborhood would be like if every home and shop gave a gift to the street! Wouldn’t it encourage you to walk more, where you could savor those gifts, rather than just zipping by in a car? And as we’ve discussed here on numerous occasions, encouraging walkability is one of the most important things you can do to make your neighborhood healthier and more sustainable. There are several types of gifts you can give to the street:

A Gift that Refreshes

sidewalk cafe on narrow street in Rome at dusk

   A Gift to the Street can refresh people. The most active way of refreshing people is by providing a sidewalk cafe, such as the one shown here. But there are simpler ways, too, such as a simple water fountain along the street, or a much larger street fountain which children can run through on a simmering summer day.

A Gift that Shelters

awning over sidewalk retail display on Charles Street in Boston

   This shopfront gives several Gifts to the Street, including sheltering people who stand under the awning from sun and rain. There are other good ways of sheltering people. A gallery can be as light and lacy as those lining the streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter, shielding passers-by from torrential Gulf Coast downpours. A colonnade is very similar, except that it’s much more heavily constructed, supported by brick or stone piers. An arcade does the same job, reaching across the sidewalk to shelter those walking by under its shade... the only difference is that it’s supported by arches instead of a beam.

A Gift that Delights

colorful frontage garden in narrow space between tan stone wall of house and edge of street in Bourton-On-The-Water in England

   This frontage garden has no place for the owner to sit, because it’s too public. Rather, it exists solely to delight those who pass by. Frontage gardens are by far the most common forms of gifts to the street that delight people. Occasionally, there are others, however. Civic art can serve this purpose, for example.

A Gift that Directs

chapel on the hill terminates vista in Lucas Point at the Waters near Montgomery, Alabama

   Sometimes a gift to the street serve to direct people along their way by proving a goal at the end of a path, such as the steeple of this chapel on the hill. Planners call this a “terminated vista” because at the end of your view, you see something to walk towards, helping to entice you along the way. Vista terminations are usually tall, so that they can be seen at a great distance.

A Gift that Entertains

storefront in Broadway, in the south of England

   Some gifts are simply entertaining, such as this storefront which has many things to entice the eye. People “window-shop” on Main Streets or High Streets where there are many entertaining storefronts, for example. We normally think of entertainment as something where we watch others play or dance, but an entertaining gift to the street makes our eyes the performers as they dance around on many interesting things.

A Gift that Informs


   The sundial is an ancient method of informing people of the time. More recently, the wall-mounted clock does the same thing.. You might ask “but what about a billboard; doesn’t that inform people, too?” It does... but is it a gift? Not at all. It’s asking you, either directly or indirectly, to buy something. A gift asks nothing in return.

A Gift to Help Them Remember

World War I memorial on wall in Rome

   Memorials remind future generations of the things that their forbearers found most important, such as this memorial to the citizens of this city who died in World War I.

A Place to Rest

Wanda Mouzon resting against round-top bollard on Bourton-On-The-Water in England

   There is often no gift so welcome as the gift of rest. The sidewalk bench is an obvious gift of rest, but there are other ways to provide this gift. Wanda is resting here in front of the New Old Inn across from the River Windrush in Bourton-On-The-Water on her 50th birthday. (Sorry, I just had to tell the whole story on that one because those Brits have such a knack with names!) But in any case, she’s resting against a stone bollard with a thoughtfully rounded top edge which makes for a comfortable surface to lean onto for a while as you decide where to go next. 

   Gifts to the street are one of the top ten things you can personally do to be more sustainable, as described in the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. It will be released a week from today (May 7.) If you’re in Miami, please join us for the South Beach Launch Party!

   The book outlines three top tens: the top ten things we’re doing now to be green that can’t work, the top ten things our nations and our cultures should be doing if we want to be truly green, and the top ten things each of us individually can do by ourselves to be more green. Some of the items near the top of this last list might require major changes in your life, and might take a while to accomplish, such as living where you can walk to the grocery, or making a living where you’re living.

   A gift to the street, however, is different. Depending on which gift you want to give, it’s actually possible to do some of these things today! So let’s get started!

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Friday, April 30, 2010 - 01:12 PM


A few years ago, when the Post Office put one of those dreadful "gang" postal boxes in front of our house, we put an inexpensive bench next to it.  It has been astonishing how many more of our neighbors we've met!  I'm thinking of putting a recycling bin next to the bench so they can dump their junk mail right there instead of having to lug it home....


Bend Oregon

Friday, April 30, 2010 - 01:25 PM

Steve Mouzon

Karen, I love your recycling bin idea! That way, even if the letter carrier doesn't put it there, you don't have to lug it all the way to the house. Get several neighbors to put one up, then photograph them along the street and write a story about it... someone ought to do that... it might help play a part in reducing the scourge of junk mail. Do you know anyone that EVER reads junk mail? I don't. I wonder why they keep wasting the trees and the money to send it?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010 - 03:13 PM


Gift to the Street reminds me of the Hidden Gems of Berkeley tours: http://localecologist.blogspot.com/2009/04/event-hidden-gems-of-berkeley-ride-walk.html.

Saturday, May 22, 2010 - 11:40 PM

Lorne Daniel

Great overview and inspirational images. A home in our neighbourhood has a box on a post (like a mailbox) to 'take a book / leave a book' - people donate and receive free books from one another.

Original Green Book Launch Party Next Friday!

cover of Original Green book

   If you’re on South Beach next Friday night (May 7,) please stop by Books & Books at 927 Lincoln Road between 7 and 9:30 for the Launch Party of the Original Green book! I’ll be signing books if you’re interested in one. Please RSVP to Ty Reid if you can make it... thanks!

   Beyond that, there will be book tour destinations posted, beginning with the Congress for the New Urbanism in Atlanta. Other events are in the works. If you’re on facebook, please go to the Original Green book page and click “Like,” and well keep you up on the events as they unfold.


   From the earlier post...

   18 months after work on the book began, the Original Green [and the Mysteries of True Sustainability] is complete! ... Here’s how it’s laid out:

   The first chapter, “What’s the Problem?” is a Top 10 list of the things we’re doing to be green, but which are not winning strategies. Each has a secret (or with some, not-so-secret) flaw that prevents it from achieving real sustainability.

   The second chapter, “What Can We Do?” is also a Top 10 listing of the most important principles that should underlie real sustainability. Several of the mechanisms described here are nowhere to be found in most current green discussions, but they should be. I serialized these first two chapters on this blog, beginning a year ago today... Because of many comments posted on this blog, and also much off-list email discussions, many parts of these chapters have been refined, so what’s contained in the book will be improved from what you read here.

   The third chapter, “What’s the Plan?” outlines the Original Green, which begins with sustainable places, in which we can then build sustainable buildings. Sustainable places are nourishable, accessible, serviceable, and secure. Sustainable buildings are lovable, durable, flexible, and frugal.

   Everything until this point deals with big-picture stuff that needs to be done by regions, by cultures, and by nations. The fourth chapter, however, gets personal. “What Can I Do?” is a Top 10 list of the things that each of us can do individually to help become more green. It begins with things we can do easily, and moves up to the life-changing things that make the greatest impact.

   The book closes with a Resources chapter that includes websites, blogs, Apps, and books that support Original Green principles. After the index and glossary, it closes with a page on the New Urban Guild’s Project:SmartDwelling.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Earth Day - A Symptom of Our Disease?

3-board fence crossing meadow in Dartmoor National Forest in England

   Is it possible that Earth Day, conceived as an event to raise environmental awareness, is actually part of our immense environmental problem? Let that sink in a minute, then let’s consider the facts:

   Take almost any metric of environmental impact and look where the charts have gone for the past forty years. The water and the air are definitely cleaner, but those changes were mandated on a relatively few industrialists, because there are tens of thousands of times as many people as there are industrial corporations. But how about the metrics that involve us? Are we driving more? Are we consuming more stuff? Are we building bigger houses? Are we building them further out from where we work? Are we fatter? Is it because we’re consuming more food? Is that food coming from further and further away? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. So after 40 years of Earth Day, all the metrics of our own behavior are getting worse.

misty afternoon just after a heavy rain on fields beside the Waters near Montgomery, Alabama

   I clearly remember the first Earth Day 40 years ago; I was ten years old at the time, and in fourth grade. My school made a really big deal of it. I recall the great optimism of those days, when we thought we might finally be making a difference. My mother would shortly open a health food store, and she regularly had lecturers come in and speak about the more natural ways of doing things. Hopefulness hung thickly in the air.

   So how could we have gotten it so wrong? Do you remember Earth Hour a few weeks ago? Everyone was supposed to cut off their lights for one appointed hour early in the evening. Did you do it? Did it make you feel good? But was it a bit inconvenient? Stubbed your toe on something you couldn’t see, or stumbled over something? Have you cut off your lights more often as a result? I didn’t think so.

looking out across the lake from the Waters Yacht Club near Montgomery, Alabama

   Here’s the problem: Annual events that require us to give up something for an hour or a day in exchange for a warm fuzzy almost never result in long-term change. It’s simple human nature: we’ve filled our “warm fuzzy quota” for the environment (or whatever the cause is) and we’ve suffered a little bit. The natural reaction is to think “I certainly won’t be doing that tomorrow!” The net effect is that one-time events in which we’re inconvenienced a bit in exchange for feeling responsible may actually act like a vaccination against the very thing we’re trying to encourage! It’s a small dose that ensures we won’t get the big infection.

Avenue of the Waters leading into Lucas Point at the Waters near Montgomery, Alabama

   If we’re serious about making a difference, then several things must happen: Everyone must be involved. The manufacturers can’t get the job done just by making more efficient stuff. We won’t solve sustainability by going shopping. And if our behavior doesn’t change, our machines can’t save us.

   So our behavior ought to change... but there’s a big problem with things we ought to do. Simply put, we often do what we want to do, but only infrequently do what we ought to do. The bottom line is that if we really want people to behave differently, we’ve got to entice them to do it, not nag them to do it. We will not scold the world to sustainability.

chapel atop Chapel Hill in Lucas Point at the Waters, near Montgomery, Alabama

   So what should we be enticing ourselves to do?

Here’s the Earth Day Top 10 I did last year that has a lot of ideas, but really it comes down to this: to cut stuff off as part of our daily life. To need less heating and cooling, and less electrical light. Less driving. Sounds a bit like suffering, until you realize that it actually results in a condition I call Living In Season, where you live in a way that you can throw the windows open much of the year.

one-bedroom cottage in Lucas Point of the Waters near Montgomery, Alabama

   Doing this means you’ll need to spend more time outside, getting acclimated to your local environment. You might spend some of that time in your neighborhood park, or in your garden. And your garden doesn’t have to be just ornamental; it can also help to nourish you. If your neighborhood really is a neighborhood instead of just a subdivision in sprawl, it’ll be compact, mixed-use, and walkable so that there are actually destinations to walk to, and it’s pleasant along the way. New Urbanists have been figuring out how to do this for years. They’re meeting next month in Atlanta... you might want to check it out. Some of these things aren’t possible today in a sprawl subdivision, but they’re also working on ways to repair sprawl, and to re-write the rules for how cities are built to be far more sustainable.

two women visiting, one standing on a porch and the other leaning on a fence in Lucas Point of the Waters, near Montgomery, Alabama

   Our homes and shops need to change, too. Buildings must first be lovable, so that they will last. We need to build them with materials for the ages, not stuff that falls off in the driveway in ten years. And this isn’t just buildings; the rule should be: “Choose it for longer than you’ll use it,” or “choose stuff you can hand down to your grandkids someday, and they can hand down to theirs long after you’re gone.”

wraparound porch in Lucas Point of the Waters near Montgomery, Alabama

   If this sounds a bit like some sort of American Eden; some paradise this country lost long before Earth Day began, then you’re exactly right... that’s precisely what it is, and can be again. My Original Green book, which will be released May 7, puts all these things into a coherent story. But if we want these things, then we need to stop doing things that temporarily make us feel good, and begin enticing people to make real change by building places and buildings where they will love to live. Does this mean we’ll have to rebuild much of what we’ve built in recent years. Yes. Isn’t that wasteful? Yes. But don’t worry... it’s falling down soon anyway, because it was never built to last.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on my Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there.

Legacy Comments:

Thursday, April 22, 2010 - 10:58 AM

Hazel Borys

   Great words, Steve! To live by. Thank you. 

   Here's what living the way you describe has meant to me personally in the last 2 years, in terms of dollars, hours, pounds of fat, emissions, energy use, and downright fun.

   I don't mention there about living in a structure built in 1904 that has been re-purposed several times, and withstood fire, flood, and storm. Love the great feeling it holds, and definitely meets the Original Green's lovable, durable, flexible and frugal requirements.

   Of course, I could still get way deeper into many of the nuances you discuss, so thanks for the encouragement.

Thursday, April 22, 2010 - 12:19 PM

Daniel Spurgeon

Hi Steve, very inspirational and so true.   Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that to get men to build a ship- you don't talk about the plans, the tools, the wood, etc.- but you tell them about the sea.  The earth is a fascinating home- God created it and it was good.  There are a lot of good stories left to discover and share about this fascinating home.

Friday, April 23, 2010 - 12:21 PM

Kaid @ NRDC

Terrific post.  I couldn't agree more that nagging is only self-defeating.  We must make the more sustainable approach also the more appealing one.  Keep up the great work.

Monday, April 26, 2010 - 12:06 PM

Wanda Mouzon

You have nailed it!  "If our behavior doesn't change, the machines can't save us!"

Monday, April 26, 2010 - 02:04 PM


Been reading your site for quite some time, and am completely impressed with the tone and utility. I think the more people you can get onboard with your designs and green living concept, the more this way of thought will root and spread. I believe it's inevitable, and people like you will be extraordinarily valuable yet under appreciated -- more so than now. At any rate, keep up the strong work.

Saturday, May 1, 2010 - 07:20 PM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Hazel! If anyone hasn't read Hazel's blog post, please do... it's well worth it! Daniel, I love the Stevenson quote! It's another angle on the generalists' way vs. the specialists' way. Kaid, you're right... and thanks so much for coming back here again and again! And Tommy, thanks for the link to your fascinating and provocative site!

Curing Cancer of the City

subdivision encroaching on farmland in Idaho Falls, Idaho

   Sprawl is Cancer of the City, as we’ve discussed earlier. But what’s the cause? And what’s the cure? The answers might shock you. It all begins with the things we’ve been doing to the city for years:

ancient car spewing oily exhaust on the streets of Havana

vehicular exhaust polluting the air

   We’ve polluted the air with our factories, our powerplants, and our cars. We’ve polluted the water not only with our factories, but also with things we spill from our cars and trucks, the detergents we use to do our laundry, and the chemicals we spread on our lawns. We’ve even polluted the earth when our chemicals seep into the soil.

deserted shopping center that's apparently less than ten years old, judging from the size of the trees

a thrown-away place

   We’ve trashed it building places and buildings that are so unlovable that they’re quickly abandoned, like this failed shopping center. Look how small all but one of the trees here are... this place probably isn’t even ten years old! This is the worst way to trash a city: by building places and buildings that are quickly discarded, left as a scab and then a scar on the city.

New Orleans urban highway interchange

this was once someone's neighborhood

   We’ve damaged the built environment by ramming huge highways through it. This used to be someone’s neighborhood. We’ve also damaged it by tearing down entire neighborhoods in our cities because we wanted buildings that were shiny and new, even if it meant losing thousands of buildings that were like old friends.

car wreckage lying by the side of arterial (Universtiy Drive) in Huntsville, Alabama

automotive destruction

   And we’ve made the built environment much more dangerous, primarily because of our cars. Most wild animals have long since either left places like this or become road kill. The one’s we’re killing and injuring now are ourselves. Cars kill tens of thousands of people every year and injure many more. Can you imagine trying to cross this street on foot? It’s even dangerous if you’re riding in a car!

   Matter of fact, we’ve damaged the built environment so much that lots of people say “I can’t live there anymore.” And so they leave. But in doing so, they create the thing that spoils the environment worst of all: sprawl, or Cancer of the City. For fifty years, we’ve built our suburbs in a sprawling way, leap-frogging across the landscape, taking up far too much land. Here, you can see sprawl at the top of the picture about to gobble up lots of farmland. Other times, it gobbles up wetlands. Why is sprawl so bad? Let’s take a look:

   Sprawl puts all the houses in subdivisions by themselves and spreads them out. If you’re at home and want to visit a friend at their house, it’s probably too far to walk, so you have to drive. Sprawl puts all the shops together in one district, then it spreads them out, too. Ever walk from Barnes & Noble to the Old Navy? Sprawl puts all the offices together in another district, then it spreads them out, too, with huge parking lots and landscaped berms in between, so that you have to drive everywhere. Think about the lunch-hour traffic jams. Sprawl puts places to play together in huge recreation centers. Because you have to drive there, and because there are usually several types of sports there, the parking lots in front of them separate them from everything else. And of course, the schools are in their own district, too, normally out on the highway at the edge of town. They’re so big today that kids have to ride in from miles away.

traffic jam in Huntsville, Alabama

traffic jams should come at no surprise

   By separating all these things, we’ve gotta drive everywhere. At home and wanna go shopping? Gotta drive. At work and wanna go home? Gotta drive. At the rec center and wanna get something to eat? Gotta drive. So whatever you’re doing, if you want to do something else, you’ve gotta drive.

   So why does sprawl spread everything out? Here’s why: If you’ve just moved out of a city that’s been spoiled, then it’s probably because you’ve felt the pollution, the trash, the damage, and the danger of the spoiled city closing in tightly around you. You want out, towards the country, where the air is clean, and everything is neat, tidy, and safe. And you want more space. A lot more space, where you can kick up your heels. So everything gets spread out, like we’ve already seen. It’s the natural reaction we should expect to the pollution, the trash, the damage, and the danger.

brown colt kicking up its heels in a green field outside of Cerro Punta, Panama

kicking up our heels may be an illusion

   Why is it bad to spread & separate? Because when things spread out like this, you have to drive everywhere. This pollutes our air and water like we’ve already seen. Sprawl is already trashed before it’s even fully built by unlovable buildings and places. Ever seen a lovable Wal-Mart? Sprawl damages the land by disturbing far too much of it, and leaving useless strips of undeveloped land in between. And it’s a very dangerous place, because it’s filled with streets and highways that are big and fast.

sidewalk where nobody ever walks, between arterial highway and parking lot with no shade trees on a hot summer afternoon

   It’s all a cruel joke because when we build sprawl, the things we fled the spoiled city to escape will soon spoil our suburb, too. And so we move out of those suburbs to new suburbs we build even further out. And on and on it sprawls, eating up our land like cancer, leaving discarded, unwanted places behind. But we can’t go on this way, because we’ll run out of land someday, eating up the natural environment. What then? Sprawl is Cancer of the City... and it doesn’t just eat up the city, but it eats up the land for miles around it, too. And we all know how cancer ends.

   Suburbs aren’t evil; sprawl is evil. Cancer and sprawl are unhealthy growth. There’s also such a thing as healthy growth, which we’ll talk about in a minute. it’s only bad growth when the wrong thing grows. And for many years, we’ve been building our suburbs in a sprawling pattern.

aqueduct running across the entry to Segovia, Spain

   What’s the cure? There’s a light around the corner now. The cure for Cancer of the City is to build a sustainable city, and not let it get spoiled by pollution, trash, damage, and danger, or heal it if it’s already spoiled. What does it mean to be sustainable? It means “keeping things going in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future.” What is a “healthy way?” It’s a way that’s free from illness or injury, which for a city, are things like pollution, trash, damage, and danger. What’s an “uncertain future?” It’s one where we don’t know what the price of gas will be, or when we might run out of it. In an uncertain future, it’s much better to rely on things nearby rather than things further away.

   So a sustainable city is a healthy city. And precisely because it is a healthy city, people don’t feel like they need to flee to sprawl. This means that countless acres of the natural environment are preserved instead of gobbled up with endless sprawl. Put another way, we can’t have a healthy natural environment around us if we don’t have a healthy city. This means that we need to design and build cities differently than how we’ve been building them recently, if we want to cure Cancer of the City.

CNU 18 logo (Congress for the New Urbanism, in Atlanta

   If you’re serious about helping cure Cancer of the City, then you need to be at CNU 18 in Atlanta next month. The Congress for the New Urbanism has for years been leading the charge to find a cure for sprawl, both in the new places we build and in the repair of sprawl that’s already there. This year’s CNU focus is New Urbanism: Rx for Healthy Places. Come help us find the cure!

   ~Steve Mouzon

Parks vs. Recreation Centers

group of people sitting in a circle in a park in London

   Parks are essential elements of vibrant and sustainable neighborhoods, while recreation centers get most of their DNA from super-sizing and sprawl. Both parks and recreation centers foster fitness activities, but there are several differences crucial to the health of the neighborhood and the greenness of the city.

pick-up soccer game in Flamingo Park at the center of South Beach (Miami Beach)

pick-up soccer game on field used for many things

   Parks are places where people can enjoy countless outdoor activities. See the patch of grass the people above are sitting on? Earlier that morning, it might have been used for a pick-up softball game. After these people leave, a few kids might kick around a soccer ball. Later in the day, you might see a couple young lovers on a stroll along the shadows at the edge of the field. Most activities are relatively unplanned. Most often, park recreation planning goes something like “hey, let’s go down to the park and see if anyone wants to play ball,” like the guys in the picture below. You don’t have to pay admission or get permission to go to the park.

peering through chain-link fence into tennis courts in Flamingo Park in Miami Beach

useful for only one thing

   Recreation centers, other than the fact that they also involve physical activity, are quite the opposite. Recreation centers have extensive facilities for certain organized sports: a swimming pool, baseball diamonds, soccer fields, tennis courts, basketball courts, etc.

two dogs playing frisbee in open field of Flamingo Park in Miami Beach

humans aren't only ones to enjoy fields

   Because recreation centers require major investments, they often have to charge admission of some sort to help pay back that investment. You also may need to be a member of the recreation center’s association to gain access. As a result, many of the activities in recreation centers occur behind walls or chain-link fences.

park bench in Flamingo Park, Miami Beachwoman in a white dress walking her little white dog in Flamingo Park on South Beach

   Once, a basketball court or two, a baseball diamond, a couple tennis courts, or even a soccer field were often tucked around the edges of many parks. More recently, however, our penchant for super-sizing everything, plus our deference to major sporting events that might happen only once or twice a year have resulted in the need to expand one or two of everything to dozens of everything. Two tennis courts are now  no longer good enough... gotta have a couple dozen in order to possibly host a city-wide tournament at some point in the future. One baseball diamond? Forget it... gotta have eight so you can host a tournament there, too. There are several hidden problems with these super-sized recreation centers: 

   You can’t walk your dog on the tennis courts. Or in the swimming pool. Or on the basketball court. A tennis-focused recreation center, for example, is only useful to people who play tennis. Because recreation centers focus on single-use recreational uses (like sprawl does with land use in general,) they eliminate fields for dog-walking, tossing a frisbee, pick-up games of whatever you want to play, or just laying in the sun or sitting on the park bench watching the world go by.

   Do we need specific-use recreational facilities like tennis courts, swimming pools, etc.? Of course. It’s just a question of proportion.

light pylon for baseball field at Flaming Park in South Beach

   Here’s one of the problems with proportion: If only a fraction of the population within walking distance of a recreation center play tennis, then building enough tennis courts to hold a major tournament means that most of the people playing on those courts will have to drive to get there. There are several sustainability ramifications here: Most obvious is the fact that you’re burning a lot of gas to get there. But you also have to surround the recreation center with lots of parking for all the cars. Plus, you’re clogging the streets of the neighborhood with traffic. Also, because the recreation center doesn’t attract nearby neighbors for all the general-use stuff like dog-walking, you’re starving the neighborhood streets of pedestrians that would otherwise make the neighborhood more vibrant and safe as I described in this post.

large tree in Flamingo Park on South Beach

   There are a couple rules of thumb distinguishing between parks and recreation centers: First, parks are made up primarily of multi-use fields. This means that less than half of the space in a park should be dedicated to single-use recreational facilities. A much better number is less than one-fourth single use, with the vast majority being multi-use. Many great parks are completely multi-use.

   There’s also the Grandstand Rule: If an activity needs a grandstand, it’s probably drawing a crowd from further around than just the neighborhood.

   So is there a place for a recreation center? Yes: Out on the highway somewhere. They are large, expensive, sprawl-based facilities, but if your community can’t do without one, then put it where it belongs: where lots of traffic can get to it quickly and easily. But by all means, don’t put it in a neighborhood. It’s not a good neighbor. It needs to keep to itself.

baseball grandstand in Flamingo Park on South Beach

   Parks, on the other hand, are necessary parts of a sustainable neighborhood. Everybody should be within a five-minute walk of a park, and smaller playgrounds for kids should be scattered throughout the neighborhood so that every kid is within a two-minute walk of a playground. Town planners such as those at the Congress for the New Urbanism, of which I’m a member, support these park principles.

pole light in front of park bench in Flamingo Park on South Beach

   There is a growing threat to neighborhood parks today: they’re increasingly being eaten up for single-use recreational activities, so in effect, they’re being transformed into recreation centers right under our very noses! My own Flamingo Park in Miami Beach is in grave danger of this fate. Already, so much of the land has been given over to single-use activities that there are only two general-use fields left, and they constitute a ridiculously low percentage of the entire park. Now, the tennis advocates want to take one of those two fields so that they can add to the seventeen tennis courts they have already! Might as well change the name to the Flamingo Rec Center and build a new parking lot on the other remaining field to handle all the extra traffic!

   ~Steve Mouzon

Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on my Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there.

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010 - 09:48 AM


Steve, in planner parlance the difference is between programmed and unprogrammed recreational space.  And I couldn't agree more.  Our lives are already over-programmed!


Wednesday, April 14, 2010 - 12:04 PM

Nancy Bruning

Steve, as usual you hit the nail on the head.  Where on earth did you get these radical ideas from? I'd add: the possibility of people-led programming (in public health parlance) to encourage and guide people who can't or won't be active on their own. For example, people lead groups of people through structured outdoor fitness programs (the extreme being boot-camp-like classes) using existing park features and furniture such as benches -- see the Fitness Alfresco page on my website.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010 - 04:48 PM

Dan Cotter

If Steve says the place for anything is on a highway somewhere, you KNOW he really hates it! Joking. Might we amend that by saying that the place for a rec center could be in a tourism district in a high density city center, accessible by public transit? I think you've picked up on an interesting phenomena... A rec center sounds more closely affiliated with a stadium or a museum, a completely different animal from a park, and should be treated as such... So I see no reason it couldn't still enhance a city center, if it were treated as what it is.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010 - 08:04 PM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Ann! Nancy, you're exactly right... your Fitness Alfresco ideas played prominently into this post. I'm going to blog on Fitness Alfresco shortly, but want to devote an entire post to the ideas, since they're so important. Dan, you bring up important issues. Like any other single-use district, recreation centers cast a huge "pedestrian shadow," and are therefore more suitable for boundaries of vibrant areas, rather than the centers of them. But this idea, like Fitness Alfresco, is important enough that it deserves further conversation... Thanks!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010 - 12:49 PM

Mary Vogel

I just sent the URL to this blog to my friend Carole who has been battling for years to keep a skateboard park from overtaking a lovely park filled with large native oaks next to a senior living center.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010 - 04:42 PM

give me a break

And why would you want to walk your dog on a basketball court? Do you think dogs should be allowed on the beach?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010 - 09:30 PM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Mary! Good luck to your friend! "give me a break," what I'm saying is that parts of parks that are taken over for single uses, like basketball courts, tennis courts, and swimming pools are no longer available for other uses like walking your dog. Open fields can be used for countless activities, from yoga to running to football to soccer to dog-walking to strolling or just lying in the grass. Or many other things I haven't named here. But single-use places like tennis courts are only usable for the single thing for which they're built. A much less effective use of land, for a much smaller segment of the population, it seems to me.

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

Plaza de la Catedral, Havana

   On the right 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

building on Plaza Vieja

   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

Plaza de Armas

   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

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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