8 - the Green Country to the Green City

aerial shot of gorge opening to Pacific Ocean in Kohala Forest Reserve on Big Island of Hawaii looks like paradise

Wilderness paradise of Kohala Forest Reserve on the Big Island of Hawaii

   American environmentalism makes a fundamental error when it defines the ideal condition as pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands. European environmentalists don’t make this error, because there’s no pristine wilderness left to protect in Europe. This American error makes almost all human actions a degradation of the ideal, and something to be avoided. This view places humans apart from nature, and the logical conclusion is that the best thing for the earth would be for the humans to die so that the whole world could go back to wilderness.

rooftop view of Paris from atop the Arc de Triomphe in the Place d'Etoile

Paris from atop Arc de Triomphe

   Some extreme city-lovers make an equally erroneous mistake in the opposite direction. They correctly observe that many metrics of environmental impact are better for city-dwellers than for those in the suburbs because urbanites don’t have to drive nearly so much. But then they take that observation and use it to argue that the city is the ideal condition, and that humans shouldn’t live elsewhere. Interestingly, the city-lovers’ view is similar to the American environmentalists’ view in this respect: by saying that we should all live in the city, it also implies that we should stay away from the wilderness and therefore not spoil it.

   Both of these views are incorrect for two reasons: because each view tries to make a single setting the ideal to the exclusion of all others, and because each view misrepresents the proper relationship of humans and nature. We’ll address the single-setting problem in a moment, but let’s first look at the relationship of humans to nature. This book firmly takes that position that humans should be seen as being part of nature, not apart from nature. How can this be?

the Relationship of Humans to Nature

rocky land at Glass Window, Eleuthera, in the Bahamas

wilderness of Glass Window, Bahamas

   Let’s start by comparing a natural place and a man-made place. Look closely at this image. What do you see? This appears to be a completely natural scene, with no evidence of human intervention. What are the components of this scene? We can see green things that are living. We can also see dead wood that was once alive, but no longer is. And we can see rocks that have never been alive. And we can assume that various creatures probably scurry, slither, or crawl across this scene from time to time, even though none of them appear to be here at this moment.

streetscape of galleries an brick buildings in the French Quarter of New Orleans

New Orleans French Quarter

   Now look at this next image. What do you see? This is clearly a place that has been built by humans. What are the components of this scene? We can see green things that are living. We can also see things that were once alive, but no longer are, like the wood in the shutters, windows, and doors. And we can also see brick, stone, and metal that has never lived. And we can assume that various creatures (mostly humans, but probably dogs, cats, birds, and other creatures) run or walk across this scene from time to time. Matter of fact, if you look closely, you’ll see that one fellow is in the picture now, walking along the sidewalk under the gallery.

   So it’s clear that both the natural place and the man-made place have some of the same categories of materials. Their arrangement, however, is completely different. The natural scene is arranged by forces of nature, while the man-made scene is arranged by human hands for the shelter, comfort, and convenience of the humans that live there.

   But we’re not the only creatures that make homes for ourselves. Birds build nests. Bees build hives. Beavers build lodges on ponds they’ve created by damming streams. Rabbits build underground warrens, as do many other burrowing creatures. Bears find and inhabit caves. Spiders build webs. Ants build anthills. Many creatures build or find their own particular type of home. The homes that humans build are more elaborate, to be sure, but we are by no means the only creatures that modify the natural world to shelter and protect ourselves.

miniature dachshund puppy in cloth dog-cave

my puppy Sally

   Some creatures are exceptionally clever because rather than building their own homes, they entice other creatures to build homes for them. This is a picture of my puppy Sally. She was only three months old when this picture was taken, but she’s such a sweetheart that I bought this bed for her. And that’s not even half the story, because really, my whole house and garden is hers, too. Really clever.

   Nature, then, is shaped not only by natural forces like gravity, wind, water, and sunshine, but also by all the creatures that make their homes there... including humans. But humans have built many horrific landscapes in recent years. It’s an impossible stretch to say that a coal power plant or an auto junkyard is a part of nature, isn’t it?

hilltop view of outskirts of Chipping Campdem (Camden) in England

outskirts of Chipping Camden, England

   What standard can we use to distinguish between places like this hamlet, that can reasonably be seen as being a natural part of the landscape, and places like a boarded-up suburban strip mall, which nobody would ever consider to be a part of nature?

abandoned strip shopping center in Montgomery, Alabama

abandoned Montgomery strip center

   How about using the standard of sustain-ability:“keeping things going in a healthy way long into an uncertain future.” A “healthy way” means that we should leave it better than we found it, but it’s better yet not to leave it at all, like this hamlet that has likely been inhabited for centuries.

   A sustainable place is a place where you want to stay, not a place that you want to leave. So many places built in recent decades are so bad that we discard them as quickly as possible, littering the landscape with cast-off places that are far worse than the places they replaced.

   It’s clear that the error of the American environmentalists’ view of nature stems from our recent track record of building horrific places and quickly discarding them. That truly does spoil the environment. Interestingly, there has not been pristine wilderness in Europe for a very long time, so environmentalists there are much more likely to see humans as a part of nature rather than apart from nature like their American counterparts.

the Problem of Single Settings

mountaintop view of ridge town just outside Bielmonte Nature Preserve in northern Italy

Italian ridge village

   The other problem identified earlier is the problem of establishing a single ideal environmental setting whether it’s wilderness or city, and then trying to make everything fit into that setting. People don’t live in only one type of settlement (the city, for example) We need to know how to build the city sustainably, and also its suburbs. We need to know how to build towns sustainably. We need to know how to build villages sustainably. And we need to know how to build hamlets sustainably, too.

   It isn’t just the cities, suburbs, towns, villages, and hamlets that need to be sustainable. All of the parts of those cities, suburbs, towns, villages, and hamlets need to be built in a sustainable way, too.

the Transect

cross-section illustration of natural Transect from Atlantic ocean to beach to dunes to woodlands

natural transect, from dune to forest

   The best tool available today for building all of the parts of cities, towns, villages, and hamlets in a sustainable way is a set of ideas known as the Transect. It was originally developed a century ago as a management tool for the natural environment. The Natural Transect illustrated above shows a series of adjoining habitats. Each has its own set of conditions, and it’s own set of plants and animals that thrive there. For example, sea oats thrive on the dune, but would die in the ocean.

illustration of rural-urban transect including T1 Natural, T2 Rural, T3 Sub-Urban, T4 General Urban, T5 Urban Center, T6 Urban Core and SD Special District

rural-urban transect

   In the late 1990s, New Urbanist planner Andrés Duany realized that the Transect could also be applied to human habitat. The Transect of the human habitat begins at t1, which is most rural, and runs to t6, which is most urban. Specific Transect zones are:

   T1 Natural: This zone is untouched nature, or a park designed with no apparent human hand. Nobody lives here except the forest ranger. t1 could be dangerous; something might bite you, or even eat you.

   T2 Rural: This zone is largely agricultural; it is made up mainly of farms, orchards, and meadows. The human hand can be seen here, but only very lightly, like a fence across the land, or a country road disappearing in the distance.

   T3 Sub-Urban: This zone is found primarily near the edges of neighborhoods, where the houses are spread more thinly. Large swaths of t3 are the main ingredient of many suburbs, which often suffer from having too much t3.

   T4 General Urban: This zone makes up much of the fabric of good in-town neighborhoods. Trees line the streets, which are flanked with fences with porches behind them. Townhouses and occasional corner stores can be found in t4.

   T5 Urban Center: Think of t5 as Main Street, with bustling sidewalks fronted by shops and restaurants with apartments above. Buildings sit tight to each other in t5, with offices, townhouses and apartment buildings on less busy streets.

   T6 Urban Core: This zone exists in larger cities, but not towns or villages. This is where the buildings are the largest, the lights are the brightest, and things are happening until late at night.

night shot of intersection in North End of Boston

square in Boston's North End

   Each Transect zone provides certain unique attributes and has certain needs. For example, we’ll see later that if we want to build sustainable places, then most of the people need to be able to make a living where they’re living. There are plenty of places to make a living in t5, but not in the less urban zones. It’s clear, then, that sustainable places need to have some t5 in nearly every neighborhood, or at least in the adjacent neighborhood. But t5 has several special needs. For example, if there’s not enough traffic (whether pedestrians, bikers, or cars) then it will starve because the businesses won’t have enough customers. Once we know the important attributes and needs of each zone, the Transect allows us to very intelligently calibrate the sustainability of a place.

   ~Steve Mouzon


   This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is #8 in the top 10 items we can do.

the Green Top 10 for 2010

night shot of cafe just outside of Plaça Reial in Barcelona

   2010 is shaping up to be a momentous year on several counts, especially for issues having to do with sustainability. Here are the top 10 things that appear likely to develop, from an Original Green perspective:

the Offshoring Reversal

the number 10 superimposed over picture of dock cranes

   Offshoring of manufacturing has had a long run, beginning in earnest a few decades ago. But as fuel becomes remarkably more expensive (see #2,) expect this trend to begin to weaken. We’ll likely only see faint beginnings of the reversal in 2010, but look for it to pick up steam through the decade. And it will eventually play a major role in our ability to live sustainably. Here’s why: Turn your head and look around the room. Most of the things you’re looking at have traveled thousands of miles to get to you, from the point where the resources were extracted to where the parts were made to where the whole thing was assembled to where it was warehoused to the store where you bought it. Common sense tells us that being green is a pipe dream if nearly everything we touch has thousands of Embodied Miles. Jim Kunstler’s World Made by Hand and Christopher Steiner’s $20 Per Gallon each tell excellent stories that support the reality of the Offshoring Reversal.

the Sustainability of Preservation

the number 9 superimposed over picture of the portico of a classical building in Charleston, South Carolina

   For several years, there has been a growing realization in some circles of the green building world that something is seriously wrong when you can get almost as many LEED credits by installing a bike rack as by preserving an entire building, and this inequity has set the preservationists against the green building industry. But until now, we haven’t had the tools to do anything about it. Now, however, a number of people are working on ways to factor in the true value of preservation, both within the US Green Building Council and elsewhere, because how can we say that we’re being green if we keep throwing buildings away? Look for several of these tools to surface in 2010 from a variety of sources.

Gizmo Green Gets Exposed

the number 8 superimposed over picture of industrial equipment at Schloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama

   Gizmo Green is the idea that all we need to be green is better equipment and better materials. There are two problems: First, Gizmo Green can’t really make us sustainable because efficiency alone isn’t enough. But if it could make us green, there’s still the fact that better equipment and better materials cost more money. That’s OK when times are good and budgets are fat, but 2010 isn’t shaping up to be a fat-budget year, and the first thing to get cut out of a construction budget is usually the expensive stuff, because people almost always choose the long, slow bleeding of monthly utility bills over up-front costs. So what works? Natural green measures, like passive heating & cooling, daylighting, etc. You know, the stuff that has always worked, since long before the Thermostat Age.

the Meltdown Vacuum

the number 7 superimposed over night shot of front porch in Key West

   There’s a silver lining to the catastrophic effects of the Meltdown on industries and professions surrounding construction: The vast machine of developers, bankers, planners, architects, builders, and real estate agents has largely been immobilized, leaving a vacuum of building design and construction leadership, and 2010 isn’t looking much better. Pre-Meltdown, this machine paved huge swaths of the country with a carpet of suburbia, but everyone who’s still operating now is doing so at a much smaller scale. On the other hand, shelter shows such as those on HGTV have never been stronger, with regular people learning more and more about the design and construction of their own homes and shops. These two trends will combine to create a much more grassroots construction industry than we’ve seen in at least a couple generations... and that’s great for sustainability because a more grassroots construction industry is far easier to infuse with the simple wisdom of how best to build green for a region’s conditions, climate, and culture. And it’s already beginning. The New Urban Guild’s Project:SmartDwelling, for example, sets out to do exactly these things for each region of the US, as illustrated by SmartDwelling I which was published recently in the Wall Street Journal.

the Return of the Garden

the number 6 superimposed over picture of fence and garden wall in Panama

   The trend of food coming from further and further away will begin to reverse in 2010, as the realization spreads that local food isn’t just fresher, healthier, and better-tasting, but it’s also far more sustainable to ship food only a few miles as opposed to today’s 1,500 Mile Caesar Salad. But this won’t be your grandmother’s garden. Rather, it’ll be full-blown Agricultural Urbanism, with everything from good-neighbor Employing Farms that can nestle tightly around cities, towns, and villages, all the way down to window gardens. DPZ, arguably the biggest rock stars of planning today, is one of a number of notables working this out. And there are already neighborhoods where these ideas are being tested, such as Serenbe in Georgia, which is fairly mature, and which I described here. Sky in the Florida panhandle and Southlands near Vancouver are in the planning stage, while Schooner Bay in the Bahamas and the Town of Hampstead in Alabama are in the early phases of construction.

the Re-Coding of the City

the number 5 superimposed over picture of archway and urban street beyond in Madrid, Spain

   I’ll warn you up front... this one is a little bit boring. It has none of the drama of the Meltdown Vacuum, nor any of the sexiness of the Return of the Garden. But it’s an essential step in building sustainable places. Sprawl not only flings suburbs all over the map, but it lays them out in such a manner that whether you want to get to the city, or whether you just want to go to the store, the office, or to school, you’ve gotta drive. And if you have to drive everywhere, sustainability is impossible. But sprawl didn’t just happen. It was planned. By devices known as Euclidean zoning ordinances. Every city has one. Until now. DPZ (yeah, them again) has worked for years to develop an alternative zoning code that reverses sprawl; it’s known as the SmartCode, and it’s based on an idea known as the Rural-Urban Transect. The Smart Growth Manual illustrates what kind of places the SmartCode produces. Their colleagues have developed similar codes, and lots of firms are geared up to implement them. And now, the cities want them. 2010 looks like it might be the year that’s the tipping point with cities choosing this very smart way to reverse the tide of sprawl and make green cities possible. Here are lists of places where SmartCodes have been adopted, are in progress, and places with other form-based codes.

the Return of Durability

the number 4 superimposed over picture of archway leading to main courtyard of College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina

  It sounds crazy, but the tough post-Meltdown economy of 2010 looks like it will finally make us buy stuff that’s better and more durable, and that just might turn the tide on a throwaway century during which pretty much nothing was designed to last. Here’s why: when cash is flowing, we can afford to throw stuff away, but when times are tight, we can’t. So although it’s more expensive to begin with, it’ll be much less costly in the long run. The Story of Stuff does a great job of showing why high consumption is unsustainable. So what’s the alternative? Using things that last for generations, rather than stuff meant to last only for a few months, weeks, or maybe even a single use. Things like reusable shopping bags are part of the story, but look for 2010 to be the year that we begin to realize that everything must be more durable... including our buildings themselves.

the Emergence of the Live-Work

the number 3 superimposed over picture of live-work buildings at the Waters near Montgomery, Alabama

   The US was originally built largely by people who lived near the shop. Everyone from the President (the West Wing is part of the White House, remember?) to shopkeepers, woodworkers, blacksmiths, and even farmers, all lived very close to where they worked until trains and then cars made it possible to commute. Today, three trends are converging: Countless people have been laid off post-Meltdown, and the scarcity of jobs has many of them striking out on their own. The Internet makes working from home more feasible than at any other point in our lifetimes. And a cadre of planners and architects known as New Urbanists have been working for years to figure out how to get workplaces back into our neighborhoods so we don’t have to drive everywhere. The Live-Work Unit, designed so you can live and work on the same piece of land, is where these trends converge. Now, you can finally “make a living where you’re living.” Look for the Live-Work Unit to be a household term by the end of 2010.

the Big Convergence

the number 2 superimposed over picture of gas pumps at old gas station in Florala, Alabama

   Three world-changing trends that need no introduction are converging right now, and 2010 looks like the year when most people realize we’ve got to think differently about “business as usual.” They are the Meltdown, Peak Oil, and Climate Change. The Meltdown has seared our consciousness like no economic event since the Great Depression. Peak Oil was once hotly debated, but now the evidence is mounting that we’re running out. And Climate Change is still debated, but not ignored. Any one of these three should be a warning that we need to change, but all three emerging at once make it clear that we have some serious adapting to do. There’s a lot of hand-wringing over all this, but I believe that if we take these things seriously in 2010 and adapt in an intelligent way, it could lead to the next Golden Age... something that would have been impossible in our previous sprawling, over-consuming, debt-ridden condition.

the New City

the number 1 superimposed over picture of two women, one standing on a porch and the other leaning on a fence, having a conversation in the Waters, near Montgomery, Alabama

   How might we live in this next Golden Age? Our cities, towns, villages, and hamlets should be nourishable, because if you can’t eat there, you can’t live there, and accessible so you can get around in a number of ways, especially including walking and biking, which the price of gas can’t touch. They should be serviceable so you can get the basic services of life within walking distance, and the people serving you those services can afford to live nearby, too, and securable from undue fear. These things make a place sustainable. Once we’ve done that, then we need to build sustainable buildings, which are first of all lovable, because if they can’t be loved, they won’t last. If they’re lovable, then they should also be durable so they’ll endure to carry that lovability long into the future, and flexible so they can be used for many things over the centuries. And they must be frugal, beginning with things that work naturally. What does this look like? It looks a whole lot like the New Urbanism, a movement which has been working for decades to figure these things out. A growing number of experts agree that the New Urbanism will be the most important green trend of 2010. I think they’re right... it’s about time!

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - 08:05 PM


excellent as usual

most of it focus on US since there was no meltdown per se in other places but still applicable (hopefuly) to the many Western countries


Thursday, December 31, 2009 - 09:33 AM

Nancy Bruning

Steve, you always nail it.  How about expanding upon the multi-use idea and explore ways in which Original Green would improve our health?  For example, I lead a fitness walking class three times a week.  We exercise in a local park, using only gravity, our body weight, and the park features as our "equipment." This is green because it uses a space and "facilities" that are already there and being used for other purposes--so nothing needs to be built for the single purpose of working out.  On Saturdays, we walk an extra mile to a local greenmarket, getting more exercise, getting to know each other and our neighborhood, and supporting local farmers. As you point out, walking and bicycling for transportation are green, and they also help manage weight and improve our health inmany other ways.  In a ripple effect, this potentially cuts down on health care costs. Finally, being physically active  outdoors exposes us to nature, which appears to have extra health benefits, resulting in a more bang for the buck effect.

Friday, January 1, 2010 - 07:29 PM

PK Haeder

   As always these quasi-smart growth and new urbanist articles have all the flavor of the theoretical, and little is directed to the larger issues of the five e's of sustainability working through a practice of governance versus governing. Education right now, one of those e's, is absolutely necessary for a society to live in an urban world, where 200 million envirogees will be more than some TV-producer's wet dream for a reality show. Education is going the way of the three branches of government and that fourth estate, vis-a-vis the wrecking crew a la Frank. Students today are challenged with a culture of fear, a culture of dumb-downing and a culture of abuse syndrome. Without education on all levels, k-12, tech college, two-year cc's, university, professional schools made available and decidedly creative, then we will be a class of people whose rich children will be those who find those hallowed halls, and the rest who have been priced out of education will find what as the alternative?

   Peak everything (water, soil, nitrogen, you name it)  has a lot to do with how buildings are built and cities are planned. We can't allow these 10 green things to be left in a vacuum without the perspective that there will be many more haves not than haves, within this country and throughout the world. Capitalism and corporatism have largely failed, and that reality just is never really brought into planning or green circles. Slow Money is not some far-fetched concept. Relocalizing and community bill of rights and the rights of nature and the rights of the poor will continue to plague the yuppies and new urbanists who just love tidy plans and tidy mixed-use neighborhoods. This economic imbalance will cause resentment, exploitation and strife. We're talking about planners actually looking at the disenfranchised youth and the unemployed young male as part of the planning process. This is not just some workforce challenge; it will challenge civil society on all levels. 

   So, those other E's of the Five? Environment? Acidification of oceans, fisheries collapsing, and major water shortages and agricultural collapses? Our lives must be strategically planned around the fact that we need to prepare for a world that's 7 degrees F warmer, where 850 to 1,000 ppm CO2 will be the limit of our atmosphere in 90 years. Plan for those scenarios. Planners and greenies need to bit the bullet and cross-pollinate and get on political boards and start writing more letters to the editor and create their own Web TV network if change is to occur. Look, the Southwestern USA will be in a continual drought, and temperatures will be over 105 degrees 100 days straight. Chicago having Austin, Texas, like weather in 40 years? Come on, plan for this through bio-regionalism, and begin talking about climate change as real threat to all city and urbanism plans and concepts. 

   It’s too much to go over the equity issue, the other E in Sustainability. And the energy E. We do dwell on the E for Economy way too much.  But integrate these under girders into all sustainability discussions, all talk about land use and ecological and bio-regional planning. Planners need to wake up, get backbone, be activists, and fight for communities and stick together and defy politicians and lawyers. 

   So your heart and CAD images of a new urbanism world are in the right position, but you just fail to see the asymmetrical problems and unintended consequences of a culture that still suffers from a psychology of pre-investment and fails to embrace steady state economics and permaculture.  Chronic drought and chronic unemployment in spots around the world and in our country have everything to do with some grandly designed Portland or Vancouver. We have to stop a country of hyper competitive municipalities and chambers of commerce and building and construction industries that have an eye on huge financial gains. We need planners who see a world where making 3 percent profit is not the most terrible thing. New urbanism is really microcosmic. Think bigger.

Sunday, January 3, 2010 - 11:01 PM

Steve Mouzon

   Nancy, check this one: Parks and Sustainable Places

It's not all you're suggesting (I'll follow up... thanks!) but it's a start.

   PK, I'm not quite sure where to start. Your 5 e's (education, environment, equity, energy, and economy) are all highly laudable aspirations... no quarrels from me on that at all. But what this post is trying to identify is 10 important green trends that may occur in 2010, as opposed to aspirations, which may not take place until much later. But let's get back to what you said... I have no problem with anything you mentioned... except for the fact that it's all so theoretical that I'm struggling to make it real. What's bio-regionalism? We might be doing that already, if I knew what you meant by that. Embracing steady-state economics? Look at the Problem with Consumption blog post a few months ago. It crisply lays our current consuming economy against a conserving economy, which is what I think you're calling for here. Relocalizing? Read back through the blog posts here, and you'll find many calls for things resolved locally rather than globally. Bottom line is, I think we're agreeing... if I only knew what you really mean by the terms you're using.

Monday, January 4, 2010 - 06:02 PM

Chad Cooper

Excellent post, Steve!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010 - 03:04 PM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Chad! And thanks to the sites like Planetizen that have picked up this post! It's also generating lots of re-Tweets on Twitter.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010 - 03:06 PM


Excellent Top 10 Steve!

I fear that we as a nation have forgotten many of the important skills we are going to need in the not so distant future (for example #10 local manufacturing, #6 Gardening etc...all 10 really!).  It reminds me of a story about places in Eastern Europe where suddenly, for some reason, there was no one who knew how to make bread in the late 20th century!  We are in an interesting position now because the majority of people alive today do not have the traditional knowledge of these basic things that were common place just 100 years ago.  Most people know how to create little or else none of the things they use and need daily. A lot has been lost and a lot has been foolishly thrown out in just a few generations.  Its tragic really.  Just as the secret of concrete was lost with the fall of the Roman Empire and not rediscovered again for centuries, our negligence as a nation is going to cause us to loose much.  Your efforts to keep traditional wisdom alive can't be appreciated enough.  Thank you.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010 - 10:24 PM

Steve Mouzon

Creede, thanks so much! I've never thought of it that way. You've traced a very interesting thread that began with us all being specialists. A specialist, of course, is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about only one thing... or some would say "absolutely everything about nothing at all." So the basics of life, which we once all did, are taken out of our hands and given to the specialists. We didn't resist, of course, because all that leisure time was great! But fast-forward to the recent decades of offshoring, which is supposed to make everything run more efficiently. What happens when skyrocketing fuel costs that must necessarily come with peak oil and spiking consumption from China and India begins to deteriorate the worldwide supply chain? We find that many of the basics of life are things we've forgotten how to do! Wow... never quite put all that together until you did... but it all begins with specialization.

9 - the Diversified Extent

Athens, Greece, with a single building in the foreground and thousands of buildings on a mountainside in the background

   We are equally mistaken to believe that all things sustainable are universal as to believe that all things sustainable are local. Sustainability is more often a function of the region, but that’s not always true, either. We must have some strategies that work all over the world, while we need the nimbleness of other strategies developed for a particular place. What follows is a framework for how these strategies can interact with each other to form a sustainable whole:

Six Realms of Patterns

   A pattern is simply something that happens again and again. Towns and buildings are made of languages of many patterns, from the ways that eaves are built in a particular place, to the region’s most favorite ways of building a square. This book organizes patterns into six Realms, from the smallest extent (the work of one person) to the largest (the universal.) Each Realm has important and unique sustainability implications.

First Realm ~ Personal Patterns

Frank Gehry amphitheatre at Millennium Park in Chicago

   Every great idea begins with the single person who first conceives it. If it’s an idea about a better way of building a building or a town, and if the person is convinced the idea is good enough, then they attempt to build it. If successful, they build it again. Because anything that is repeated again and again becomes a pattern, and because it is associated with the person who conceived the idea, it is a Personal Pattern. Anyone familiar with architecture should have no doubt that the image above is from a Frank Gehry building. Those are his patterns. Without the First Realm, we could not advance. But there is a problem with the Personal Patterns of the First Realm: they have no life of their own. This is because the patterns die with their originator, since nobody else is designing or building that way.

Second Realm ~ Local Particulars

streetscape populated by the "Charleston Single House" in Charleston, South Carolina

   Sometimes, a Personal Pattern will resonate with others who see it, and they say “I want that on my (house, shop, or town, according to the scale of the pattern.)”

And so they repeat it nearby, and it becomes a local pattern. Once a pattern spreads beyond its originator, a curious thing happens: it takes on a life of its own and can persist for decades, centuries, or occasionally millennia after its originator is dead and maybe even forgotten. In this way, it can be considered to be a living thing. This is where Living Traditions begin; we will discuss them in more detail later. So while great ideas must begin in the first realm, they must also graduate to the second realm to have any chance of delivering sustainability.

Third Realm ~ Regional Dialect

artists on the street beside Jackson Square in New Orleans

   Often, local patterns of the Second Realm catch the eye of travelers who are residents of the same region. If the pattern is well-tuned to the regional conditions, climate, and culture, then they are likely to say “we love this... and we want to adopt it into our family of regional traditions.” The process of adoption of patterns into the Third Realm illustrates the fact that a Living Tradition is not made up of historical artifacts as some would suppose, but rather, of things that are worthy of love. Historical artifacts no longer commonly produced are the products of traditions that were once alive, but are now dead.

Fourth Realm ~ National Language

Paris courtyard with soldiers assembled

   Occasionally, patterns are so resonant that they are adopted by an entire nation. While Third Realm patterns can be considered to make up the Regional Dialect of architecture and place-making, Fourth Realm patterns make up the National Language of architecture and place-making. These languages are not the same as spoken languages, but there are certain striking similarities that are very helpful in understanding them. For example, individual patterns can be thought of as words. And just as there are words in many languages for “apple,” with variations of regional dialects, so too are there patterns in many architectural languages for “eave,” complete with countless Third Realm variations of the Regional Dialects.

   Because Fourth Realm patterns are broader than any particular region’s conditions, climate, or culture, they are most likely to express national aspirations or self-image, and contain within them traces of the history of the culture. Put another way, they often hold the memory of the culture.

Fifth Realm ~ Continental Heritage

ancient stone temple in Paestum, Italy

   The Fifth Realm is the highest level of refinement to which anyone can elevate any pattern. Because of this, the Fifth Realm is the home of most of the patterns of each continent’s classical tradition. In the case of Western Classicism, these patterns actually spread from Europe and now form the primary classical traditions of Europe, North America, and South America.

   The myth of origins of the Corinthian order, related by Vitruvius, illustrates the rare instance where a single trained hand, in one brilliant stroke, can elevate a simple vernacular expression all the way to the Fifth Realm. Vitruvius tells of the sculptor Callimachus walking through the outskirts of Corinth about 2,500 years ago, where he happened across a tomb of a young girl. Her nurse had taken a few of the precious things of her life and put them in a basket, then put a roofing tile over the basket to shield them from the rain. Over time, acanthus plants sprouted at the base of the basket, their leaves curling out as they grew up to meet the tile. Callimachus, the story goes, was so moved that he refined the nurse’s simple expression into the Corinthian capital, which has persisted across the millennia.

Sixth Realm ~ Universal

Leonardo's Vitruvian Man drawing

   Just like a smile or a laugh need no explanation to any human on earth, the allure of hot coals of fire on a cool evening, the soothing breath of a cool ocean breeze in the tropics, or the assurance of an obviously durably-built beam need no expounding, either... they simply feel right... to any human. We know it’s what we need.

   What are Sixth Realm patterns? First of all, they are the patterns that do not change. Some call this the Eternal Realm because of their permanence. They are things like the habitational comforts hardwired into all humans, our resonance with the natural laws of gravity and thermodynamics, and our resonance with rational proportions like 1:1, 4:3, and 3:2, and irrational proportions like the square root of 2 and the Golden Mean. Most people cannot explain proper proportions; rather, they have a simple comfort that all is right.

the Six Realms and Sustainability

   So maybe this Six Realm stuff might be entertaining, but what does it have to do with sustainability? The answer might not be immediately obvious, but each Realm produces certain attributes that we can’t get along without. Here’s what they are:

Green of the First Realm

night shot of bike chained to sign post on plaza in Barcelona

   The First Realm is where invention occurs. We cannot live sustainably without invention, because conditions on earth change, and what will we do if we don’t yet have an answer to a new condition? Some feel like we should simply go back to the 15th century, because people lived sustainably back then. 

But we’re not 15th century people anymore, so that clearly would not work. We must have a 21st century sustainability solution, because we can’t simply forget everything we’ve learned since medieval times. So invention is essential. And it’s essential (as we’ll see later) that millions of people participate in the invention. Only then can we have real sustainability: when everyone is thinking about how to live better, creating a bubbling stew of innovation by millions of minds.

Green of the Second Realm

night shot of Charleston Single House on Meeting Street in Charleston, South Carolina

Where do we go from there? The Second Realm is the testing ground of all that First Realm innovation, because patterns graduate to the Second Realm only when other people find them resonant or worthwhile. First Realm patterns only need an inventor; Second Realm patterns require a community to test the ideas.

The Second Realm is essential to sustainability because without this filter, there would simply be too many ideas; it would be information overload. We would choke on too many green possibilities.

Green of the Third Realm

night shot of gateway into the main courtyard of the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina

   The Third Realm is where most of the patterns of sustainability occur, but some make the mistake of believing that they all occur here. They do not. Third Realm patterns respond to regional conditions, climate, and culture. Some Second Realm patterns are only appropriate to the locality where they were developed, but many have a broader application.

   A great example is the Charleston Single House, known everywhere except Charleston as the Charleston Sideyard. It is a house that turns its short face to the street, and its long face to a side garden. The front streets in Charleston run generally north to south because of the shape of the peninsula the city is built upon. Because most lots are slender and deep rather than wide and shallow, this means that the short street face of the lot usually faces East or West.

   The long South face usually has long verandahs to shade the wall in summer when the sun is high in the sky, but let in the low winter sun.

   The North face has few if any windows, so as to not intrude upon the goings-on in your neighbor’s side garden. This practice is known as “North Side Manners” in Charleston, meaning that if you have any manners, your house won’t violate the privacy of your neighbor’s garden.

   The prevailing Southwest summer breezes cool the verandahs, while the cold northwest winter wind is shielded by the mass of the house, extending the usable season of the verandah.

   This pattern developed in Charleston, but has spread in recent decades all over the South because conditions are not so different in other parts of the region. Much like a healthy species will spread to adjacent compatible habitat, a Second Realm pattern that is applicable beyond the confines of the locality of the locality where it developed will spread to the region, becoming a Third Realm pattern and carrying its green intelligence with it.

Green of the Fourth Realm

night shot of lighthouse in Key West

   The sustainability of the Fourth Realm is hardest to understand. This is because Fourth Realm patterns don’t yet span continents like patterns do in the Fifth Realm, nor do they have the obvious green benefits of many Third Realm patterns. So does this Realm really have anything to do with sustainability? Yes. Here’s two ways that Fourth Realm patterns can help make a nation sustainable:

   Efficiency occurs when people don’t have to stop and think about what they’re doing. Fourth Realm patterns tell people how to use the town. They don’t have to read the signs because they can literally read the town, if it’s full of Fourth Realm patterns.

   But the greenest aspect of Fourth Realm patterns is the fact that they carry with them the hopes, aspirations, and national identity of a culture. What does this have to do with sustainability? Today, all except the most hopeless and impoverished cultures must aspire to be green. Why is this?

   Many green advocates don’t want to publicize this, but the best indicator of a green lifestyle is extreme poverty. If you’re barely scraping out an existence on a tiny piece of land, then you’re probably not generating a lot of garbage, or having other big impacts on the planet. But for the rest of us, it’s not so easy being green. We have to want to... with great vigor. That’s where the Fourth Realm patterns come in. If our Fourth Realm  patterns express our aspirations to be green, then we actually have a chance. As we’ll see later, sustainability only happens when everyone is involved; it’s not something that a few specialists can deliver. So deciding to be green individually isn’t enough; we must also decide to be green as a nation. And Fourth Realm patterns can help create that national self-image.

Green of the Fifth Realm

female winged figure sculpture atop building in Madrid, Spain

   Fifth Realm patterns change less frequently than all the others in the preceding realms. Many of these patterns have persisted for more than two thousand years. How is it possible for a pattern to contribute to sustainability if it doesn’t change?

   This question leads to a dilemma I call the Novelty Paradox: Sustainability requires things that can be kept going in a healthy way long into an uncertain future. Keeping something going for centuries implies that it doesn’t change very much. But we can’t be sustainable if we’re not adaptable. And adaptation requires new things. Herein lies the Novelty Paradox: How can we, at the same time, keep something going for centuries and also adapt to new conditions?

   Fifth Realm patterns clearly accomplish the former; Western Classicism has existed for more than 2,500 years. But Fifth Realm patterns, if understood as a language rather than a completed novel or textbook, can also be used to say things that have never been said before, whereas a novel or textbook is fixed in time the instant the ink dries. This, I believe, is the key to unlocking the Novelty Paradox: a process can do it; a product is completely impotent to do so.

   This means that if Classicism (or more broadly, the most refined expressions of each continent) are understood as inalterable canons, fixed in time, then they are completely incapable of having any beneficial impact on the problem of sustainability because they cannot change. If, however, they are understood as languages that can say innumerable things, then they instantly morph from fixed-in-stone portraits of antiquity to highly-adaptable tools that should be central to sustainability, because they last so long.

Green of the Sixth Realm

woman standing in front of fountain and stone memorial in Madrid, Spain

   The Sixth Realm is the second-largest home of the patterns of sustainability, just behind the Third Realm. The Sixth Realm is where our humanity is most evident because this is where we are all like one another. What human doesn’t gravitate to a crackling fire on a winter evening, or to the cooling murmur of a fountain of water on a scorching late-summer afternoon? These things aren’t particular to any culture; rather, they’re the things our species does when confronted with these conditions. These are things that we call “human habitational comforts.”

   And who doesn’t gravitate to forms that reflect our own human form in some way? What’s the first thing you do when you look at a photograph that includes you? You look at yourself, of course! We’re hard-wired to look for things that reflect us... and this includes things that reflect the shape of the human body. Architects may pooh-pooh symmetry, for example, but almost everyone else sees in it a reflection of the basic horizontal arrangement of the human face and body. We also resonate with forms that are arranged vertically like we are, with a top (head, or capital) a body (shaft) and bottom (base, or feet.) The most-loved buildings are almost always arranged in this way, from the shape of the entire building all the way down to the smallest detail, such as the baseboards.

   These things are extremely important to sustainability because they allow us to stack the deck in our favor by designing places and buildings humans are hard-wired to love. If we understand architecture as nothing more than fashion and style, then it’s not possible to even anticipate the next fashion cycle, so sustainable buildings are impossible. But the Sixth Realm patterns empower us to design places and buildings that, even in an unimaginable future several centuries from now, people will still be predisposed to resonate with and sustain further and further into the future.

   ~Steve Mouzon


   This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is #9 in the top 10 items we can do.

10 - the Things that Work

cows and cranes in field in southern Louisiana

   Our sustainability standards should be completely pragmatic. In other words, “do these things work?” Pragmatism is the standard of nature: If it works, it lives. If it doesn’t, it disappears from the face of the earth.

   The cows and the cranes in the image above are one of the countless cooperative relationships in nature where two or more species help each other as they go about their daily lives. Life as we know it arguably would not exist without these relationships. Their standard is very simple: “I’ll accomplish something good for you if you’ll accomplish something good for me.”

   This should be our question when examining something that is being put forth as being green: “What good thing does it accomplish?” Far too often, however, sustainability becomes a religion of sorts, where decisions are based more on faith than on the things that work. And the faith that is required is faith in a “green expert,” faith in a company, or faith in an interest group of some sort. Have they earned our faith?

   ~Steve Mouzon


   This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is #10 in the top 10 items we can do.

Original Green Places - South Main

aerial photo of South Main before any buildings were constructed

   This is the first in a series of posts featuring places that exhibit characteristics of the Original Green... this one takes a look at South Main in Buena Vista, Colorado. South Main is intriguing on several counts... let’s look at them all. But first, a bit of background: South Main was founded by the brother-and-sister team of Jed Selby and Katie Urban, who also happen to be world-class kayakers. The urban plan was designed by the acclaimed New Urbanist planning firm of Dover-Kohl of Miami. Here’s Dover-Kohl’s rendering of what South Main will look like at completion. Now let’s look at the Original Green principles South Main embodies: Original Green places are Nourishable, Accessible, Serviceable, and Securable. Original Green buildings are Lovable, Durable, Flexible, and Frugal.

Nourishable Places

bowl of vegetables from South Main gardens in Buena Vista, Colorado

   South Main is sandwiched between Buena Vista’s downtown and the Arkansas River, as you can see in the early aerial construction photo above that I took in 2006. Because it’s conceived as an extension of the urban core of the town, there’s no large-scale agriculture within the boundaries of South Main. But that doesn’t mean that South Main can’t contribute to its own nourishability. See the patch of green just above the river? That’s the beginning of the Town Square, where regular farmers’ markets can deliver local food to the citizens. And lots of food can be grown on each individual home lot, as SmartDwelling I illustrates... see the Kitchen Garden & Green Walls posts. Here’s an article by Katie’s husband Dustin (also a world-class kayaker) about gardening at South Main. And the tomatoes above? They aren’t some stock photo... they’re from Katie & Dustin’s garden!

Accessible Places

bicycle parked in downtown South Main in Buena Vista, Colorado

   South Main, like nearly all New Urbanist places, provides a choice of ways of getting around (not just driving) especially including the self-propelled ways: walking and biking. But South Main goes a step further. The upper right corner of the aerial photo the center of Buena Vista, only a half-mile from South Main’s Town Square. This means that South Main isn’t just accessible on foot or bike to its own residents, but also to the citizens of most of Buena Vista. Because South Main is completely open to all, it also means that everyone can walk, bike, or drive through South Main to the River Park being built on the river.

Serviceable Places

South Main cafe

   Buena Vista has a strikingly high percentage of live/work units in its plan. As a matter of fact, Jed Selby said emphatically on many occasions that “I want every lot in South Main to be a place where someone can work if they want to.” Truly, South Main is becoming a place where you can “make a living where you’re living,” as the Original Green has long advocated. And South Main is serious about this, with several live/work units among some of the first buildings constructed. But Jed & Katie are very sophisticated about this; it isn’t just one-size-fits-all. Rather, they understand that as the character of the street changes from the Town Square to Main Street to side streets and quiet streets in the back side of the neighborhood, the types of live/work units must change to fit the street character. So a classic Live-Above would work best on the Town Square, while an office over the garage might be more appropriate in quieter places.

Securable Places

   South Main illustrates the other half of the meaning of “Securable.” Today, Buena Vista is a sleepy little town where fear for your own safety, that of your family, or the safety of your belongings is far from people’s minds. But because South Main is built with buildings pulled tight to build-to lines rather than sprawled in haphazard fashion, it would be easy in some fearful future (that we hope will never occur) to connect the buildings with frontage walls in order to secure each block. Cities around the world have been built in this fashion for centuries.

The main point of this post is to look at how South Main is creating a sustainable place. But South Main is also doing several things to help people build sustainable buildings, too... here are a few of those items:

Lovable Buildings

town center building with clock tower in South Main, Buena Vista, Colorado

   South Main has, from the beginning, intended that its architecture be lovable. I had the pleasure of consulting with South Main in the early years (and occasionally since then,) and can attest to this firsthand. One of the first things Kenny Craft and I did was to catalog a wide range of Colorado high-country architecture to find out what had been valued the longest and loved the most. Two of the towns (Salida and Leadville) were so comprehensively good that I catalogued every good building for the Catalog of the Most-Loved Places. Look for those volumes to be posted shortly. Since then, South Main has implemented a strong principle-based Town Architect review process, with Kenny acting as Town Architect.

Durable Buildings

   South Main is located in Colorado’s “Banana Belt,” a central valley two miles above sea level that is spared the coldest weather. But because of its altitude, the sunlight is more intense... especially because rainy days are so infrequent. Buildings built in normal American suburban fashion don’t last very long here without serious maintenance. South Main, as a result, has spent years looking at the best materials and methods for their building exteriors that will make them the most durable, because how can you call something “sustainable” if it doesn’t last?

Flexible Buildings

live-work building in South Main, Buena Vista, Colorado

   Because of Jed’s insistence that all buildings in South Main be able to be places where you can work if you want to, the design team has looked more intensely than most places at ways that buildings can switch from a house to a shop and back again... either completely, or only some of the rooms. To do this, it’s necessary to focus on being a good building, not just being a good house or a good shop. For example, there is a design for a tiny 523 square foot house just off Main Street at the corner of a side street and an alley that perches over a single-car garage facing the alley. But as South Main grows and thrives, the boarding between the structural piers can be removed and the garage will transform into a tiny shop. How do I know this? It’s my place... I feel strongly enough about what they’re doing at South Main that I’ve bought a lot there, and hope to build in the near future.

Frugal Buildings

corner store in South Main, Buena Vista, Colorado

   South Main has been committed from the beginning to building extremely frugal buildings. Here are their founding principles. You’ll notice that sustainability in general and green building in particular are 2/3 of the total. But while they meet several state and national green building standards, their understanding of sustainability is far more than Gizmo Green. Just as we’ve advocated here from the beginning, they start by conditioning buildings naturally as much as possible, then using mechanical conditioning just to bridge the gap... an increasing amount of which will be solar-powered. And because frugality isn’t just about energy, but is about being frugal with all our resources, they looked closely at the resources they had on-site and found that South Main is built on an alluvial plain filled with rocks laid down as the river changed its course over the centuries, just below the topsoil. So rather than burning gas to cart them off to a landfill somewhere, they’ve used countless of them in many ways, from the great boulders of the terrace wall of the town square to foundation walls of buildings.

   So those are some of the things South Main is doing... do you know of other places that are doing as much to be an Original Green Place? If so, please let me know and I’d like to do a story sometime about them, too... thanks!

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Saturday, December 12, 2009 - 01:07 PM


Interesting article!  Looks like a nice place.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009 - 10:53 AM


South Main is as attractive and innovative as it sounds in the article! It's walkability makes friends of neighbors which I witnessed during the five day vacation I spent in the community. Not only does the community harken back to days of sustainability and green living, it also takes one back to a way of life where people know and trust each other and look out for one another. A very special place, indeed!

© The Guild Foundation 2013