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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Lean Conversations in Detroit - Saturday, October 12

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photos are from Richmond neighborhoods, not Detroit, because I was too busy with the conference to photograph while I was there

   The Lean Council of the CNU took place over the weekend of October 12-13, 2013 in Detroit. These are the first day's proceedings. Text <like this> is my commentary.


• Rip Rapson leads off the morning telling a fascinating story of private-sector-funded transit system being built in Detroit.

• <I still say that the broad understanding of "buron" will be "bureaucratic moron.">

• Rip: There has always been great vibrancy in the Detroit cultural scene.

• Rip: The Kresge foundation can't run all the things we're starting in the long run; our role is to get them going.

• Rip: Philanthropy serves well as a table-setter. Philanthropy can also serve as the seller of a great project.

• Rip: 30 people don't change the world.

• <They may not finish the job, but they can certainly start it!>

• Rip: Arts & culture are crying out for Lean! Opportunities are endless.

• Rip: Maker spaces thrive in a Lean environment. We need more of them!

• Rip: 1. Nestle Lean with intensely local community. 2. Integrate the arts. 3. Adapt our physical heritage. 4. Leverage creative potential that's already there. 5. Recover natural resources. 6. Adapt to climate change. 8. Acknowledge interdependence of urban systems. <I missed Rip's #7. Did anyone else get it? If so, please leave a comment below.>


• Anonymous: The Health Department is Killing Me!!

• <Scale is the best determinant of Lean. Where mega-projects are impossible, single-crew workplaces can still thrive.>

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

• Hank Dittmar: Millennials, immigrants, and small businesses are the biggest Lean market segments.

• Hank: We will act as coaches more than experts to foster a Lean future.


• Andrés Duany: I have been trying to unpack Lean so that we can all work on it in parallel.

• Andrés: I think it is very early in Lean. We are still piling things into the soup.

• Andrés: Phil Bess has a great quote which I believe characterizes what we are doing: "Twirling… twirling… twirling toward freedom."

• Andrés: It is very important that Lean not overlap either CNU or Tactical Urbanism. Lean should be the seam between.

• Andrés: If you don't want it repeated, don't say it because it will enter the collective conversation quickly.

• Andrés: One of the things that must be broken to achieve Lean is old thinking.

• Andrés: The 21st Century actually started in 2008. 2000-2007 were the last years of the 20th.

• Andrés:  The 3 Great Crises of 2008 were the broad recognition of Climate Change and Peak Oil, and the real estate bubble. These things did not have to happen all at once. But they did.

• Andrés: It is a common misconception that our society is based on energy. Our society isn't based on energy, but on cheap energy.

• Andrés: The real estate bubble revealed problems that began years earlier.

• Andrés: The Continental Disadvantage: America's sprawl pattern is more difficult to fix than Europe's because they've built compactly for almost all of their history whereas much of the US is sprawl.

• Andrés: 3 Overlaid Crises of 2008 are all caused by suburban sprawl.

• Andrés: The Great Pall is in danger of occurring when it finally sinks in with the public at large that the things we've enjoyed since WWII aren't coming back the way they were. But the Great Pall is something we cannot allow, because people will give up. So we must be able to show them better things to go on to, rather than waiting for what will never come back again.

• Andrés: Worldwide mitigation becomes regional adaptation in Lean. 

• Andrés: Regional adaptation. Local self-sufficiency. Many small projects. All three of these are components of Lean.

• Andrés: The focus on the present has been a distortion field, and so has the focus on the too-distant future. We need to be solving things for the middle distance, before the silver bullets of some far-distant future emerge. It may be easy then, but we can't just wait for the easy.

• Andrés: Global economy gives way to local self-sufficiency in Lean.

• Andrés: In a Lean future, there will be few large projects, but many small projects.

• Andrés: The real estate bubble revealed a permanent impoverishment that is likely to be with us for a few generations. Governments can no longer do what they once could.

• Andrés: We absolutely will find new oil & new energy sources, but they aren't cheap anymore.

• Andrés: If you only pay attention to the present, you cannot have many ideas that are compelling.

• Andrés: Anywhere built on low land is a future slum because insurance will get withdrawn years before anything gets wet. The insurance companies are already pulling out of the lowest-lying areas because of flooding that hadn't even happened yet. The revocation of insurance is years, or maybe even decades, closer than the actual floods.

• Andrés: Let CNU be in charge of the long vision and the large scale, Tactical Urbanism can handle the smallest-scale issues, and Lean Urbanism can handle the seam in between.


• Robert Orr: "Climate Change & Risk", was the scariest conference I ever attended. 

• Douglas Duany: Adaptation is the only answer.

• Doug Kelbaugh: If you don't attend to the long-range stuff, you won't be able to adapt to the near-term stuff.

• Karja Hansen: Projections have to do with averages, and with politics.

• Sandy Sorlien: We should focus on adaptation that also mitigates.

• Andrés: What happens with the depression that occurs when people say "whoa… it's hopeless!"

• Hank: I'm no Al Gore, but I know Al Gore, and a big mistake he made was not allowing any discussion of adaptation.

• Doug: Adaptation and mitigation are both essential to climate change.


• Andrés: Our diminished circumstances call for a return to common sense.

• Andrés: At the beginning, there is ignorance, then avoidance, then alleviation, then reform.

• Andrés: Lean operates at the scale of the household, block, and neighborhood, but not city, region, state, or nation.

• Andrés: These are the important Lean dates: 1874, 1924, 1984, and 2014.

• Andrés: The last quarter of the 19th century should be very interesting to Lean, and the Mormons were America's stars. Do you have any idea how many towns they founded during this time? During the last quarter of the 19th century, people with no computers or electricity got amazing things done.

• Robert: What you're proposing is much like a garage-cleaning: taking everything out and throwing away what you don't need.


• Andrés: The codes were very light in 1874 in the US because the risks imposed by any single building were small.

• Andrés: The New Urbanism was largely based on things built in the 1920s. Lean should be based more on 1874.

• Andrés: In the absence of regulation, the Town Founder and planners of Seaside found no impediments to building. What we owe the 30-year-olds is a permitting environment like the one we found at the founding of Seaside. 30-year-olds with the same skill sets that designed Seaside are doing little more than chair-bombing today. We owe them the ability to do what we did.

• Andrés: You can't fix 2014 Detroit with 2008 tools.

• Andrés: We've forgotten the original ways of doing things; even the New Urbanists conceive New Urbanism as the only way of doing things.

• Andrés: We're drawing high rises today, in a time when millions of people are barely avoiding shacks.

• Andrés: You can't think anything like 1990 if you want to fix Detroit.

• Andrés: Mizner Park should now look very archaic, like something out of prehistory. We should look at Mizner Park and say "isn't that quaint?" It was a good time, but it's over… you have to be more wily now.

• Andrés: The Original Green is actually the normative human condition. Recent times are the anomalies.

• Andrés: There is nothing dishonorable about 1874, 1924, or 1984... it's just not now.

• Andrés: The $100 million project is still viable. it's the middle that's falling out.

• Andrés: The first phase of Lean is created by the Risk Oblivious, who are the Bohemians. The Bohemians didn't get loans or permits, but have created value for 150 years.

• Andrés: The second phase of Lean is built by risk-aware developers like Tony Goldman.

• Andrés: The third phase is when the risk-averse (like dentists from New Jersey) move in and spoil the Cool Factor. When the risk-averse move in, the risk-oblivious leave.

• Andrés: It is absolutely crucial for Lean to allow the Bohemians to act.

• Andrés: When the Cool Factor fades, the value eventually fades as well, resulting in collapse and re-emergence of Bohemians.

• Andrés: The Cutting Tools of Lean are Subsidiarity, the Transect, Succession, and the Charter.

• Andrés: The ethics of Lean are the ethics of the Charter of the New Urbanism.

• Andrés: "Lean Alignment" may be a better term than "Lean Team"… we're aligned, but often work independently.

• Andrés: The glacier of regulation is receding from Detroit, and opening things up to happen.


• Sara Hines: Buildings in 19th century camp communities like Chautauqua were essentially "tents made solid."

• Sara: Neshoba County Fairgrounds is unique in that it's built around the county fair, not church-sponsored.

• Sara: Almost all camp buildings were handmade, and self-built. The scale of camp cottages were often tiny.

• Sara: The Park Model of manufactured house is up to 500 SF and avoids most regulations imposed on HUD Code trailers.

• Sara: Dan Camp has done a great job building Lean housing in the Cotton District.

• Sara: Boats can be great Lean housing.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Medians on Main Street

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walkers and a skateboarder safely crossing sun-drenched and palm-lined stretch of Washington Avenue on South Beach

   Medians are a terrible idea on Main Street because they don't let you turn into a business across the street, right? Not so fast… It turns out that the best Main Streets are those with parking continuous along the street, wide sidewalks to accomodate vibrant street life, and no parking lot entrances. If there are parking lots, they should be in the middle of the block, accessible from the alley. As we discussed in the Walk Appeal series, the worst thing you could possibly do is to put a parking lot right behind the sidewalk. Even a driveway to a parking lot in the middle of the block is a tremendous disruption to walking because it's a place you could get run over by a car entering the street with limited sight distance if you're walking down the sidewalk.

   We talked about the Alton Road battle on South Beach recently, and amazingly, the DOT ended up agreeing in the end to do what the Flamingo Park neighborhood asked for. But now there are special interests weighing in, many of whom never showed up at the years of meetings while the design was being hammered out, and they threaten to wreck the entire agreement. One is a small but loud bike lobby, but that's a story for another day. Let's talk instead about the anti-median guys. 

vibrant crowd enjoying afternoon stroll along the broad sidewalks of Washington Avenue on South Beach

   The final DOT design was largely patterned from lessons learned on Washington Avenue, which is just a few blocks away and pictured above. It is a vibrant commercial street, with street life that most of Alton Road could only dream of. The tree-filled median does several good things, including slowing down the heavy traffic, shading and therefore cooling the street, creating street proportions that are more than twice as good, providing a place of refuge in the middle to people crossing the street, and inserting lush planting material in what would otherwise be a broad river of asphalt. Medians enhance Walk Appeal, which is the best predictor of survival and success of neighborhood businesses. And Walk Appeal is what creates scenes like this, with sidewalks filled with people out enjoying the day (and who are likely shopping in the stores along the way). All of this means that the new Alton Road design is much better than what currently exists.

lone woman surrounded by speeding traffic as she attempts to cross treacherous stretch of Alton Road on South Beach

   Today, much of Alton Road is downright scary. The lanes are much too wide and fast, so you're taking your life in your own hands if you try to get across. The new design, while unfortunately leaving the design speed too high, will nonetheless markedly improve the likelihood that you can walk or bike on the new Alton Road and return home unscathed. And for a place like South Beach where almost half of the residents don't even own a car (because the rest of South Beach is so walkable) that's a really big deal.

people enjoying a South Beach afternoon along palm-lined stretch of Alton Road

   This is also a tale of two Alton Roads. The North end was built mostly according to the old South Beach pattern with buildings pulled right up to the sidewalk like they do on good Main Streets. I call this "Good Alton." It is here that you can find people on the streets, out enjoying themselves much as they do on Washington, even if there are somewhat fewer of them. Most of the buildings along Good Alton don't need major surgery, but rather a nip or a tuck here or there. The streetscape is similar, with relatively wide sidewalks and palm trees along the street, sheltering the sidewalks to the point that you'll find street cafes scattered along the way. Because Good Alton is as healthy as it is, it's the part of Alton Road where it's most important to keep the details good and really get stuff right. There is a group of merchants on Good Alton who are opposing the median. They're in the building with the parking lot out front that you see here:

satellite photo of Alton Road intersections

   They have a curb cut on Alton, but as you can see, it lines up almost perfectly with 15th Terrace. And they're on a really long block that's over twice as long as Portland's great blocks, so there really should be a break in the median at 15th Terrace, treating this like the two blocks it is on the West side rather than the one block it is on the East side. Eventually, if the city enacts a SmartCode, the building owner(s) will have the incentive to do a more profitable building that pulls right up to the sidewalk rather than having the regrettable parking lot in front. But for now, break the median there and don't lose the Walk Appeal of the new streetscape.

deserted stretch of Alton Road just north of 5th Street on South Beach

   Further South, the situation on much of Alton is bleak. Parking lots to the left and right, curb cuts all along the way, and a flyover that dumps out right down the middle make "Bad Alton" a place where you rarely see anyone walking. Landowners just north of 5th Street represent the bulk of the opposition to the median, I'm told. But without a SmartCode and a lot of major surgery, there's little hope that the last couple blocks of Alton north of 5th are going to be places anyone wants to be anyway, so eliminating the median there won't hurt anyone since nobody's there.

   Just don't screw up all of Alton Road because of one stretch that doesn't matter today and another single instance where the median should be broken anyway. Let's get the bulk of Alton right… not only for the neighbors, but for all of South Beach!

   ~Steve Mouzon


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