Sprawl - Cancer of the City

Atlanta sprawl viewed from the air

   Diseases in living creatures may originate outside the creature, like when someone is infected with a virus. It may also originate from within, like when normal cells go haywire and begin reproducing wildly, producing a cancer.

   Disease occurs in a living urbanism just as it does in living creatures. Parts of a city designed by specialists rather than generalists usually act as disease agents to a living urbanism because specialists usually create things for very narrow purposes rather than for the general welfare of the city. Streets designed by transportation engineers are a classic example of a specialist’s solution because they have a single purpose: getting as many cars as quickly as possible from point A to point B. But in doing so, they make no contribution to the overall health of the city: It doesn’t matter if the zooming traffic makes the street a terrifying place to walk, or if nobody in their right mind would even think of shopping there because those things weren’t part of the engineer’s program. A specialist, you see, is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about only one thing. Or, as some would say, they know absolutely everything about nothing at all. So almost everywhere that parts of the city are designed the specialists (beginning in the teens, 1920s, and 1930s,) they cause disease in the living urbanism of the city.

   But there is something even more deadly to the living urbanism of a city, town, or village than the specialists. Since World War II, the very fabric of the city has gone haywire. Where we once built places that were compact, diverse, and walkable, we now build sprawl instead. Sprawl spreads rapidly, just like a cancer. Its parts, from the house lots to the super centers are all boated much larger than the parts of living urbanism in a healthy city. They are super-sized just like the cells of many cancers. Sprawl eats up healthy urbanism just like cancer cells eat up a person’s body. Ever notice how CVS and Walgreen’s find the best historic building on a busy corner and bulldoze it for one of their stores? And when sprawl isn’t directly attacking the living urbanism, it’s gobbling up the farmland that once fed the city and spreading wildly, sucking up the resources of the city just like cancer sucks up the resources of the body... until the life of the place is sucked out and the living urbanism dies. Sprawl is Cancer of the City.

   Today, our world is in crisis. We have a pandemic of global proportions of not just one disease agent, but of every sort of specialist-driven virus imaginable. And if that weren’t bad enough, cities all over the world are eaten up with the cancer of sprawl, so much so that few places remain with any signs of true living urbanism. Many places are preserved in Urbanism’s Cryogenic State: the Historic District. They may appear alive under casual inspection, but will they ever actually live again? And all around them, we can usually find nothing except the sickening, bloated carcass of what might once have started out as living urbanism, but now is just cancerous sprawl. And so the living urbanism died in hideous fashion weakened by the specialists’ viruses and eaten up by sprawl, and those of us who are old enough watched it happen before our very eyes. And as the urbanism died, sustainability died with it.

   What can be done? If we are to have any hope of living sustainably again, we must realize that sustainability goes hand-in-hand with a living urbanism. The two are inextricably linked, so that you cannot have sustainability without a living urbanism. Green power, hybrid cars, and compact fluorescent light bulbs are good, but they cannot even hope of doing the job alone.

   And so, we must revive living urbanism. How can we do that? The operating system of living urbanism is the living tradition. Some think that traditions are historic things, incapable of helping us live more sustainably today. But a living tradition bears about as much resemblance to an historical tradition as a living creature does to a fossil: some of the shapes may be similar, but one is alive and the other is dead. Living traditions can learn, and can adapt to new traditions, and then they spread that wisdom widely and quickly. They are very similar to nature’s way of spreading genetic material: it can be done by millions of people with nothing more than on-the-job experience.

Today, millions of people are working furiously all around the world to try to figure out how to live sustainably today. Once we figure it out, (and I’m optimistic that we will,) we simply do not have the luxury of time to spread that wisdom using only the higher education system because it is far too inefficient and slow.

   But there is an even worse way that we could fail than using a slow system of spreading the wisdom of sustainability. Much of the architecture of recent decades has at its core the precept that if you (as an architect) are to be significant, your work must be unique. So each significant architect is expected to reconstitute architecture into a personal style like nothing quite seen before. The problem is obvious: millions of the best minds are working today to figure out sustainability. It is a highly complicated problem. Once it is figured out, if we then require each architect who would be significant to re-invent all of sustainability in their own personal style, then we can expect nothing other than catastrophic failure because sustainability is such a complex, inter-linked problem. So the requirement of uniqueness goes far beyond the ludicrous to the globally treasonous. It must not be tolerated any longer. We must be allowed to share wisdom! The most effective way of sharing wisdom ever devised and proven is nature’s way: it is a living tradition. And it is the operating system of a living urbanism. We must use them again!

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 - 05:54 PM

Bob Loftin

Saw this TED video about cancer and anti-angiogensis today, then was reading a twitter post about highways being lifeline of tumor-like suburbs. Anti-angiogenesis for city transit systems may be needed.


Engineering vs. Design

ugly rooftop solar water heater in Colorado and beautiful chimney in London

   Look at the image on the left above. This is an on-site heat generation device which we know more commonly as a solar collector. The image on the right is clearly a fireplace, which means that it’s also an on-site heat generation device. They both do their jobs: the one on the left heats water, while the one on the right heats air. But that is where the similarities end. Because the one on the left was conceived only as an engineering exercise, while the one on the right was conceived as engineering and design. So both have similar amounts of engineering, because they both appear to do their heat-making jobs. But the fireplace was also conceived as being beautiful, whereas the solar collector possesses not one shred of beauty.

   So what? Isn’t that just aesthetics? We have sustainability problems far more important than mere aesthetics, right? Not so fast. If you’re old enough to remember the late 1960s and 1970s, you’ll remember that we had another green revolution back then. Many of us (I was in my teens through most of the 1970s) were very optimistic that we were seeing the beginnings of major changes. But that all changed very quickly in just a couple years. What went wrong? I’ll tell you what I remember seeing and hearing.

   I was an architecture student and then a recent graduate when it all came crashing down. And the thing I recall the most was hearing, again and again, the same thing, almost word-for-word: “I don’t care if those solar collectors are saving me a little money; get those hideous things off my roof; I will not tolerate them any longer!” And so, because the artifacts of sustainability were conceived only as engineering rather than design and engineering, the people turned against them and an entire generation was lost.

   The same thing could happen to us. It doesn’t have to happen, but it could happen. And it will happen if the artifacts of sustainability today are merely engineered. So they must work. And they must be designed to be beautiful. Because if they cannot be loved, they will not last. But can we afford to turn another generation against sustainability like we did at the end of the 1970s? Can we really afford to blow it again?

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 10:02 PM

Chad Cooper

Re-entered... originally posted January 30, 2009

I'd be very interested in reading an exploration of this topic in a broader sense as well. Meaning, the role/importance of aesthetics in general. In other words, when confronted with the form meets function mentality in which aesthetics play a part only when deemed necessary. Problem is, aesthetics should always be part of the equation, regardless of factors such as size, prominence, etc. With this, the willingness of some to spend money quickly on engineering gadgets or marginally increased performance, and even tossing aside aesthetics to pay for it.

Any thoughts on this (to help tackle these types of scenarios, or help ease frustrations)?



Adrian Johnson · 

An excellent, extinct grammar school

Think symmetry. Humans like symmetry, or balance in asymmetry. They like security & comfort first, then light and height according to the climate. People like curved lines better than straight ones, and wood & stone better than brick and metal, unless the metal is appealing.

Sep 9, 2016 4:53pm

Steve Mouzon · 

Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Exactly, Adrian! Put another way, people like buildings that reflect them in some way... you've included several.

January 17, 2017 11:07am


Twenty-Eight Years Later

Mooresville, Alabama post office, an historic wood-frame structure

   One of the great architectural mysteries of our time was the identity of the Transmission Device of Living Traditions. What was it? Where could it be found? Did it still even exist? I was optimistic, so I believed it would, and hoped that it would be rediscovered in my lifetime. I assumed that when it was rediscovered, it would be something really mystical, like the connection of the original Americans to the land. But we had no idea where to look. The questions that led to what I believe was its rediscovery were first asked twenty-eight years ago today, and the story goes like this...

   The day after Thanksgiving 1980, my wife, my sister, her boyfriend at the time, and I had a problem. We’d eaten too much turkey the day before, and desperately needed to find a place to walk. The city where I grew up was built almost entirely after WWII, and was therefore highly unwalkable. So we drove about 20 miles to Mooresville, Alabama.

   Mooresville is a little planters’ hamlet of only nine square blocks (3x3) that was built beginning in 1818 a stone’s throw from the shores of the Tennessee River. People farmed the land around them, eating from its bounty and shipping the rest downstream to market. They met their daily needs on the little town square, the shops of which had all the basic necessities, from the post office to the cobbler’s shop to a tavern and inn, amongst other shops.

   The citizens of Mooresville lived sustainably there for probably forty years before an architect ever set foot in town. Yet, twenty-eight years ago today, as an architecture student halfway through school, I had to admit that the town these simple farmers and tradespeople built was a better place than any place designed by architects since World War II. How was this possible? Our professors told us that we were going to be the greatest generation of architects ever because we had computers, the people that built our designs had power tools, and the owners could get mortgages. In short, we were going to be better architects because we had better tools.

   But if that was true, then why were the best in my profession incapable of doing as well as people with no computers, no power tools, no mortgages, and not even any flush toilets? In 1980, there was no New Urbanism; Seaside was still only a design, not a place. And in fairness, Mooresville isn’t a nationally-significant great place, either. It’s not on par with Charleston or even Beaufort. Nobody outside of  north Alabama has likely heard of it. But still, it was better than every place we had built since World War II. Place; not building. Architects had designed plenty of better buildings since World War II, but not a better place.

    Walking around town that day, photographing everything, I was unable to answer the question of how they did it. But here’s an even bigger question that immediately cropped up: You can imagine how, once people learn to do something, they can keep on doing it. But how do you take a wisdom so great that its results could not at the time be replicated by the best architects, and then transmit that wisdom down to the next generation? This is the Transmission Device.

   I puzzled over this for years. In the early years, I didn’t know what I was looking for, as I said earlier. I didn’t know where to find it, or if it even existed anymore. The search back then was something akin to walking around in the dark hoping you’ll bump into a clue.

   It was over twenty years later when, I believe, the Transmission Device was rediscovered. Late one night, after the celebratory dinner at the end of the Lost Rabbit charrette in Jackson, Mississippi, the design team was standing around in the parlor of our B&B, which was the Millsaps-Buie House on State Street. Milton Grenfell, one of the architects, said the fateful words while describing why eaves in this part of the world were designed the way they were. He prefaced the answer with “We do this because...”

   Could it really be that simple? “We do this because...” Looking back, it almost had to be an oral tradition because the residents of the old towns didn’t draw. And if you go back far enough in European history, they didn’t even read and write, yet people travel halfway around the world every year to visit medieval towns, the town-building wisdom of which was passed down using the Transmission Device.

   We now believe that “We do this because...” is the Transmission Device. If you put every pattern in a language of architecture in these terms, then people know why they’re doing what they’re doing. And you turn warm fuzzies about the places and buildings people love into heated advocacy. And you turn the wisdom of great place-making back to the people again. Most great places are not built because some architectural historian says “in 1845, window patterns were such and such because of these glass-making techniques...” Nobody cares about stuff like that. But if people understand why they love what they love, then you can build a real Living Tradition on that.

   I believe that the Transmission Device was rediscovered in the summer of 2004. It would be another year before the first tool was developed to implement it. I finished A Living Tradition [Gulf Coast Architecture] on the day after Thanksgiving 2005, precisely a quarter-century to the day after first asking the questions about Living Traditions and the Transmission Device. That first book was self-published and printed in-house, so it was very expensive, and very few people have ever seen it. But one year later, I finished A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas], which uses the same model, but expanded the patterns. It’s on Amazon, if anyone is interested. Click on the image for the link.

   What does this have to do with sustainability? Plenty! I’ll write more about this link in a later post, but the short answer is that we’re nowhere near knowing how to live sustainably today, even though millions of people around the world are working on the problem, and more will soon join them. Once we discover how, then we need a robust Transmission Device to transmit all that wisdom to the culture at large. Because if we don’t, then the actions of the specialists just aren’t enough to make a difference. So if the wisdom of how to live sustainably can be bound up in things that people love, and if they know why they love them, then we have a serious chance…

~Steve Mouzon

Adrian Johnson · 

An excellent, extinct grammar school

Wise words, written by a man who can see what he's looking at, and then explain it like that favourite teacher you had long ago who taught you not only how to read and cipher, but how to teach yourself. Sounds easy, but it isn't.

Sep 9, 2016 7:47pm


Green Sheds

front elevation of Green Shed

   Most solar things today are ugly. This is because most solar equipment is conceived solely as an act of engineering rather than an act of design. Back in the 1970s, during the first green revolution of our lifetimes, millions of “engineering-only” solar collectors were installed in roofs all over America. You’ve seen them, if you’re old enough to remember... big black boxes supported at funny angles having nothing to do with the house design by metal struts. They resembled nothing, really, that we had ever seen before. But if you squinted hard, you might imagine that they looked like giant car radiators supported by something that looked like the underside of the folding bleachers in the high school gym.

   But what would such a contraption be doing on someone’s roof? Not to worry; they didn’t last long. By the time the 1980s rolled around, people were saying “get that hideous thing off my roof; I don’t care if it is saving me money. I will not tolerate it any longer!” And so they were taken off by the millions, and either carted off to the landfill, or maybe their copper was salvaged in some cases.

   We stand the risk of killing this second green revolution if we don’t start looking at solar equipment as an act of design, not just an act of engineering. Today’s green revolution seems strong, but the one in the 1970s seemed strong, too. But the bottom line is: If It Can’t Be Loved, It Won’t Last. The Green Shed pictured above is my first attempt to show that solar in particular and green in general can be beautiful. Surely there are other architects who can do a much more beautiful job, but hopefully this makes the point.

   So what is a Green Shed? A Green Shed is something that you build somewhere in your yard that does several things: It houses your recycling bins and your trash can. It is your potting shed. It contains your toolshed. And it houses your solar equipment and maybe your collectors.

side elevation of Green Shed

   Today, photovoltaic cells are not yet economically feasible in many places where electricity is still relatively inexpensive, but they are clearly on the near-term horizon. So the wisest thing to do is to go ahead and provide a place for the equipment because even if you don’t install photovoltaics today, you are likely to do so at some point in the not-too-distant future. So be prepared.

   Hot water solar collectors, on the other hand, will save you money today, so there’s no good reason not to use them. Except that they’re ugly.

   This Green Shed attempts to solve that problem by making the hot water collectors become the entire South-facing roof. Don’t worry about getting the exact angle right, because the sun moves all through the day. Rather, get the architecture right for your region, and the angle likely won’t be so far off that the efficiency is hurt that badly.

   But why the entire roof? Because even when solar collectors lay flat on the roof, they still are ugly if they form an unsightly blotch on the roof’s surface. But if they occupy the entire roof, then they are simply the roof’s surface. It’s a completely different perception. But how does it work? See the dashed line just below the solar collectors on the drawing above? That’s the actual roof surface where the waterproofing is, because a little water might drip between the collectors. The space between the roof and the collectors is ventilation space.

   And here’s how the plan works: There are two lockable rooms on either end of the Solar Shed. Whichever of the two is closest to the house should be the solar equipment room. The other one should be for your more expensive garden tools. Tools and materials that aren’t worth so much should be hung on the exterior walls where they are more convenient to use. The space between the two lockable rooms forms your potting shed and your recyclable and trash storage below the potting bench.

floor plan of Green Shed

   The purpose of this website is primarily to promote the ideas of the Original Green, but if you’d like a set of working drawings of this Green Shed so that you can build it in your yard, they are available from Mouzon Design for $90. It has several cool ideas that we haven’t talked about in this article. Call 786-276-6000.

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 08:40 PM

Greg Richard

Re-entered... originally posted November 29, 2008


Here are 2 ideas for the next generation of photovoltaics:

Make them look like 5V crimp metal sheets or make them look like Ludowici tiles.

Both ideas leverage the idea of disguising one glossy surface as another more traditional one.

I'm sure that if you got an engineer and a designer collaborating many more offshoots would come from this basic concept.

Friday, July 17, 2009 - 09:31 AM


Another idea on P.V. collectors is flexible mattes that lay flat on the roof between the standing seams of a metal roof, thus eliminating almost all of the framing that is needed for glass panels. Calvin college has a good example of this on their Vincent & Helen Bunker Interpretive Center.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 - 10:35 AM

Steve Mouzon

I'm really intrigued to see what becomes of the flexible collectors you describe. I seem to recall reading that they're not so efficient, but you're right... they allow them to almost disappear, which is great!

Adrian Johnson · 

An excellent, extinct grammar school

Mr Mouson, I don't know if you're Catholic ( or post-Catholic! ) but you sound an aweful lot like David Clayton on his "way of beauty" blog about good art / design having a "reason". . . check him out on design & design history. . . also: here in the UK the huge housing crisis is about to be met with pre-fab housing ! Please, please post something about what you have learned from the Katrina house era that can keep those uglifiers from ruining a great opportunity not only to make housing people will love and cherish, but how to arrange the neighborhoods to accommodate those hideous rubbish-bins we must all have. . . . Try to contact the Prince of Wales Trust to start this dialogue early-- he'll be on your side. Thanks for a wonderful blog.

Oct 30, 2016 11:10am

Steve Mouzon · 

Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Thanks so much, Adrian! I'm not Catholic or post-Catholic, but I believe very strongly in design with reasons. Living traditions are based on these four words: "we do this because..." If we lay out the "why," not just the "what," then architecture can take on a life of its own again, as it did throughout time until we killed the living traditions in the developed world about a century ago. As for the Prince of Wales, he has been both a fabulous leader and also a strong supporter of those others who are working to build sustainable places.

January 17, 2017 11:07am


Gated Subdivisions

avenue between two gated subdivisions in Miami

   New Urbanists have objected to gated subdivisions for years, on the grounds that they interrupt the open network of a city or town every bit as much as a factory superblock or a shopping mall superblock. There are other problems, too. Emergency services such as ambulances, the fire department, and the police take longer to answer your call if you live in a gated subdivision. Addresses are harder to find for guests. Kids are NOT safer there, contrary to the popular misconception. These issues are explained in detail on the New Urban Guild’s FAQ of the NU... but that’s not really what this week’s blog is about.

   Rather, this week’s blog attempts to discover how they got so popular and where they are likely to take us. America has had gated places for over a century, such as Portland Place and Westmoreland Place in St. Louis. From the 1880s until the 1980s, they remained the very rare enclave of the richest people in town. Most towns, as a matter of fact, didn’t even have a single one. But since 1980, an increasing percentage of American new home construction has occurred on the far side of a subdivision gate. For example, I have friends in Pembroke Pines, Florida who live in the only non-gated subdivision I can find in the entire quarter of town west of the interstate. Every other part of the quarter is off-limits to everyone except the residents and their invitees.

Meridian Avenue on Miami Beach

   How did things get this way? I’m old enough to remember watching it happen. Once, the grandest houses in town were often found on the main avenue coming into the town, such as the avenue pictured to the left. Throughout the 1960s, when I was a child, big houses were still built on the big thoroughfares, but those thoroughfares weren’t avenues anymore... they were arterials. Because the function of the arterials was solely to move as much traffic as possible as quickly as possible through town. The on-street parking shown here wasn’t allowed on arterials, and street trees were frowned upon by the traffic engineers because someone might run off the road and hit them. The parked cars were forbidden because people getting into or out of cars, or pulling into the stream of traffic might make the traffic slow down, and that absolutely could not be tolerated by the traffic engineers. The problem was that the traffic engineers engineered all of the delight out of the arterials. People often walk a block or two out of their way just for the delight of walking down the grand avenue above. But the arterials became increasingly unpleasant (and dangerous,) to the point that nobody wanted to walk along them. The houses, too, were set further back from the arterials because of how unpleasant they were becoming.

stockade fences between back yards of subdivision houses and arterial thoroughfare

   The condition changed dramatically in the 1970s. Developers finally realized that they were wasting countless acres of land because they had to set the houses on the arterials so far back from the front of the lot. They solved this problem by building subdivisions that turned their backs on the arterials. Obviously, if having your public front yard on the arterials was intolerable because they were so unpleasant, then it was doubly intolerable to have your private back yard opening to the arterial, so miles of stockade fences sprung up along the back yards abutting the arterials. Note that stockade fences were originally meant for livestock, not for humans. Another meaning of “stockade” is “prison,” for whatever it’s worth. Please note that this condition wasn’t some nefarious design foisted upon the public by some misanthrope... it is the natural result of the increasingly intolerable pedestrian conditions of the arterials.

gate and guard shack at front of gated subdivision

   The next phase came in the 1980s, and it, too, made sense. Many subdivisions were bounded by arterials on several sides, so they were almost entirely fenced. Because subdivisions in the US have been marketed since WW II primarily based on “standard of living” issues rather than “quality of life” issues, what matters most is how many bells and whistles you have. So if you’ve pretty much fenced the whole place anyway, it made sense to add a gate and a guard shack, and advertise it as a “gated community.” Never mind the fact that the things that go into the creation of real communities were largely missing... the words “gated community” made great marketing fluff. But what about real communities? Those have things like shops, and workplaces, and schools. You can actually live in a real community without leaving all the time. But the problem with a “gated community” is that they rarely if ever have enough houses to support their own shops, etc., so they become instead bedroom warehouses. Again, this is the natural result of what they became... the train of logic continues... after a short detour:

aerial photo of gated subdivision

   There is a parallel problem of gated subdivisions that doesn’t descend directly from the traffic engineers... it comes from a different sort of specialist: the production builder. Traditionally, towns had a broad mix of classes and incomes that normally occurred in a fine-grained manner. Children just out of college could afford to live in the same neighborhood with their parents, who were in their peak earning years... it’s just that while the parents might live in the big house on the avenue, the kids might only be able to afford an apartment over the square... and their grandparents might live in a little cottage just off Main Street, or maybe in a little Granny Cottage behind the house on the avenue.

   This sort of housing mix is great if you’re building a town in a traditional manner, but it’s not so great if you’re a production builder. Even the small production builders get their efficiencies out of buying lots of the same things and building the same things repeatedly. It’s major brain damage for them to try to build mansions and cottages and live/work units. Trying to build a mix of housing types runs totally against the grain of what it means to be a production builder. Production builders also derive some of their efficiency out of taking down a big swath of lots from a master developer, and then building the houses side-by-side, so they don’t have to pack up and move down the street to the next lot... they just walk next door. All of this conspires to create places like the one pictured above, where each loop or cul-de-sac is populated by exactly the same types of houses. Interestingly, a street of the same type of houses tends to become occupied by the same type of people, because those houses are engineered to a particular market segment, with a narrow income range and social range. Why is it any surprise that the biggest single complaint of suburban children is “I’m bored”? But when you put a fence around boredom and get to it through a gate, you’re creating serious isolation. It gets worse:

hedge behind house that backs onto street

   The fact that houses back up to the street rather than face the street has a number of undesirable side-effects. All production-built houses have budget limitations of some degree. It is natural to spend more money around the front door, because that’s the face of the house... leaving little money for the back... which faces the street. This creates a condition known as “mooning the street,” because the back ends of the houses are exposed to the street. Again, this is the natural thing to do when your house backs up to the street. Adding unpleasantry like this to an already-intolerable arterial further increases the isolation because you’re less likely to want to go outside your gates because the quality of the environment outside is so poor. And this isolation has serious side-effects. Once, when children, parents, and grandparents could all afford to live in the same neighborhood, life was much more interesting because you would regularly rub shoulders with lots of interesting people, most of whom were not exactly like you. Kids growing up in traditional towns tend not to be bored... nor are their parents. But when you’re warehoused in a gated subdivision with people like yourself who are in the narrow band of income to which the houses of the subdivision is targeted, you don’t see those other people as often... and it’s easier to be uncomfortable with them in the increasingly rare occasions when you’re around them simply because they’re less familiar to you now.

meat hooks at top of tall concrete security wall in Sao Paulo

   The end result of this train of specialists’ logic is perhaps characterized best by São Paulo, Brazil. The isolation and unfamiliarity there are now so intense that people of any means live in fear for their lives most of the time. You can find many old parts of town that were built before the gated subdivisions and gated towers became all the rage, but now, the people are so consumed with fear that they’ve even built high walls around the older houses, topping them with razor wire, electric fences, and meat hooks. This may seem frightening and foreign, but it’s the natural end result of the path we’re on. Where does it lead? Take a look at the following images to find out where we’re going:

vigilante in Sao Paulo subdivision

   Yes, that says “vigilante” on the back of this guy’s shirt. No PhotoShop here. There’s literally a vigilante on every block, hired by the people that live there, with the express purpose of protecting the residents. Interestingly, the vigilantes come from some of the same classes of people that they’re protecting the residents from... go figure. But before you laugh (or cringe) too much, remember that the classes of people that residents of US gated subdivisions are isolating themselves from are occupied by people like the police and firefighters that protect us, the teachers that teach our children, and the people that cook our food and serve it to us when we go to a restaurant, or that stock the food on our grocery’s shelves. So we’re not all that different from São Paulo... they’re just a bit further down the road. But we need to look very close to see if we really want to go there... because this is definitely where we’re headed if we continue to build more gated subdivisions rather than real communities.

steel garage door in Sao Paulo subdivision

   It’s not a pretty place... it’s somewhere that your front door is likely to look like this: See the little white post barely visible just over the door? that’s the post that holds the triple high-voltage wires of the electric fence that tops the wall. I’ve just posted a photo album of these and other São Paulo images, but at higher resolution so you can see what I’m talking about.

   So let’s recap: it all started with the specialists. A specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about only one thing. Or, some would say, the ultimate specialist knows absolutely everything about nothing at all. But in any case, the initial specialists that began the problem were the traffic engineers, who were so good at their single job of moving more cars faster, that people turned away from the arterials, which caused the stockade fences, which were then connected with gates. Meanwhile, the production building specialists were filling the gated subdivisions with houses that were all alike, because... that’s what they do best.

threatening sculpture above window in Sao Paulo

   This is a chain of perfectly logical specialists’ decisions, but it has has created an illogical result: a public realm so dreadful that people become consumed with fear. I’ll ask it again; this is where the specialists are taking us... do we really want to go there?

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 09:42 PM

Daniel Ashworth, Jr.

Re-entered... originally posted May 16, 2008

Hi Steve,

   You begin to touch on it a little bit toward the end of the piece, but what about the crime element? I used to be really flippant about crime, until it happened to us, twice in one week at our Midtown Memphis townhome. Now I must admit that I denigrate those who moved to the 'burbs and into gated communities a bit less.

   Here in Memphis, most of the condo development near downtown, on old urban bones no less, is gated due to the high crime rate here in town. Also, in a place like Florida, a lot of those houses are people's second homes, which means they are unoccupied about half the year. Unoccupied homes are a prime target for burglars, and having them behind gates adds peace of mind for these folks while they are away.

   On projects I have worked on, where the developer insists on having gates, I try to sell them on gating the smallest unit possible - usually at the block level, where the fence runs house to house and the alley or single drive into rear parking is gated. That way the architecture fronts the street and the streets remain interconnected and public. An example of this, which we (Ritchie Smith Associates) worked on with UDA, is University Place here in Mempis, a Hope VI project currently under construction.

   I am not being wholly apologetic about gates, but I certainly can understand some folks' desire to live, or have their second home, behind a gate. I think we can try to work with developers to find creative solutions to the security problem.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 09:47 PM


Re-entered... originally posted May 17, 2008

   At CNU Austin, I was reminded of Austin's first move toward urban housing, as the gated (block scale) townhouses across from the Courtyard Mariott/Starbucks compound, but because of the block scale, the gates are less intrusive than the several blocks of gated subdivisions, Mr. Mouzon (whom I call, "the genius"). It's not the gates, it's the SCALE. In London, gates surround the greens in the Victorian neighborhoods out Queensway and Notting Hill. GATES! GREENS! They are only accessed by residents with keys (or when I climbed them with a bottle of wine with other urbanistas.) But, because they are at a human scale... so what? The gates worked and didn't deaden the area as the gates Steve describes here.

   Scale matters. The gates can both keep people in... as well as keeping people out. Gates, lights, porches, fences, trees... scale, scale, scale.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 09:52 PM

Steve Mouzon

Re-entered... originally posted on May 17, 2008

   I agree with both of you on gating at the scale of the block... there are other scales, too... what about gating an entire town that's large enough to be self-sufficient? The problem is gating at the scale of the subdivision, and the damage that does, IMO.

   Security is clearly a serious issue... so much so that I believe it's one of the foundations of sustainable places. If people don't have the freedom from undue fear for their own personal safety and that of their family, and for the safety of their belongings, then they won't live there very long... and the place can't be sustained. The problem with gated subdivisions is that they exacerbate the crime problem, I believe, in the culture at large by segregating people to the point of contributing to the "us vs. them" mentality.

   Thanks for the comments... let's please keep the conversation going... that's what it's here for!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 09:56 PM

Pablo Serna

Re-entered... originally posted July 18, 2008

   As someone who studied abroad in Central America (Guatemala City) I was hosted by an affluent family that lived in just such a gated community as you describe in Sao Paulo. The house even had a bomb shelter! Here is something to consider, however, in your analysis, real fear versus paranoia.

   In places like Sao Paulo and Guatemala City there are high instances of kidnapping by lower classes who find this method a sure means of gaining money. They pay off the police and in some cases the guards of such gated communities. So, as it was explained to me, THAT is the reason they live in these well-guarded gated communities. Over here, we still have a ways to go before kidnapping becomes common-place and the local police are as corrupt. The solution to this is more complicated than simply opening up the avenue, don't you think? Otherwise, a very good analysis of our growing predicament here in the U.S.

Monday, December 14, 2009 - 01:04 AM


I guess I'd second the comments here, and maybe add that the order you have things in is a bit, well, simplistic. It reminds me of the New Urbanism paradigm, which though well thought out, is not an entirely accurate view of history. New Urbanism seeks to return us to a time before these forces shaped cities, but that time is more imagined than it is historically authentic.  On the fear element, I would read "The Architecture of Fear" by Nan Ellin. Also, surely race had as much to do with suburban development as traffic engineers, if not more. And the rising inequality between a recent college graduate and their parents likely accounts for their divergent living conditions. With students exiting school with thousands of dollars of debt, and entering a job making less than they owe, I'm not sure anyone could afford to live in the same community anymore, even if there was an "entry level" housing opportunity, such as an apartment near the town square.

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

The worst thing you can do if you want a securable place is to build a gated subdivision. Here's why.

Aug 12, 2011 11:09pm

Mitchell Brown · SAIC

In gated communities there are no "eyes on the street" either. Wall Street's entre into the financing of real-estate ventures doesn't help either. Christopher Leinberger talks about this in his "Option of Urbanism" where, after the S&L scandal and Treasury's off-loading of bad paper onto to Wall Street led to the REIT being revived. Now there is the "The 19 Standard Types of Real-Estate Products". If you're a "non-conforming" real-estate project, good luck getting financed at a competitive rate. If it can't be analyzed and thus traded it doesn't get built. Buildings have become a commodity.

Aug 13, 2011 11:40am

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Want to see a real-life vigilante? Scroll down this post. That's what happens when we build an environment of fear, and gated subdivisions are some of the worst steps we can take in this regard.

Aug 16, 2011 4:36pm


Changing Directions

kids playing street hockey in Key West

   Today, it seems as if every company in the USA is in the process of proving how their products are green. I observed a similar phenomenon traveling in Europe nearly a decade ago. Nobody wants to be left out of the green stampede...why would you want to be the last company in the country that can’t say “our product is green?” In the building industry, there is green timber, green steel, green concrete blocks, etc... even green foam. Each claims their product is the most sustainable way to build.

Asphalt Green building in New York City

  It likely will not be long until someone claims that asphalt is green... oh, wait, it appears that they already have! No PhotoShop here!

   All humor aside, there is a fundamental problem with this situation: what is a company to do? Is it not natural to tout the sustainable aspects of one’s product? And is it not proper to hope that the newfound concern with sustainability might spur companies to actually make their products more sustainable?

   These are reasonable things to hope for, but the fundamental problem is this: how do you discern fact from fiction when everyone is beginning with their product and ending with sustainability? A classic example is the Congress for the New Urbanism: the New Urbanism has arguably been accomplishing more to change people’s lives in order that they live more sustainably than any other group dealing with the built environment over the past twenty-five years. While other groups have been doing good work getting people to change their light bulbs, the New Urbanism has been enticing people to actually move to places where you can walk to work, to shop, to school, or to play. I personally moved to Miami Beach, which is a highly compact, mixed-use, and walkable place, which is exactly the sort of place the New Urbanism promotes, in 2003. I went from driving 35,000 miles per year in my car (and 15,000+ more miles in Wanda’s car) to driving only 8,000 miles per year in our single car (we got rid of the other one, because the battery would run down in the months we weren’t driving the second one.) So our net reduction in driving is about 84%. If we were trying to get the same carbon reduction by driving a more efficient car as we do instead by driving 1/6 as much, we’d have to have a car that’s 6 times as efficient in order to stay in the auto-dominated place we were. In other words, we’d have to have a car that got 150-180 miles per gallon to have the same effect.

Cameo nightclub in Miami Beach

   Auto efficiency advocates are doing a good thing, but in their wildest dreams, they only can hope to get a 7.5% fuel efficiency increase in the American fleet. Meanwhile, our moving to a place that embodies New Urbanist principles resulted in the equivalent of a six-fold, or 600% increase. That’s eighty times as much as the wildest dreams of the fuel efficiency advocates. Let that sink in... eighty times as much. Clearly, nothing can even come close to reducing as much of the carbon footprint of the places that we build as building based on New Urbanist principles. Nothing else comes close.

   New Urbanist planners and architects have been advocating these principles since 1980, with a few predecessors such as Christopher Alexander beginning even before that. Yet with a track record this long and this strong, the New Urbanism finds itself in exactly the same situation as every other entity out there right now: they’re having to make the case that “hey, we’re green, too!”... starting with what they do (urbanism) and ending at sustainability.

   The Original Green changes the entire direction of the argument: it begins with sustainability and ends with principles and products, rather than the other way around. And by “sustainable,” we mean “can you keep it going for a very long time?” This is plain-spoken, plain English sustainability, not marketing fluff.

people walking down Meridian Avenue in Miami Beach

   But what does it mean? First, it is clear that we must build sustainable places before we can even think about building sustainable buildings. What makes a place sustainable? First, you must be able to eat and drink there: it must be Nourishable. Next, you must be able to get around in a number of ways, including by human-powered ways such as walking and biking, because we don’t know what the future of mechanical transport will be. In other words, the place must be Accessible. Next, in an Accessible place, we must be able to access the daily necessities and services of life, so the place must be Serviceable. Finally, few people will live in a place very long if they are constantly in fear for their life or safety, or that of their children, so the place must be Securable.

   Once the place is sustainable, then we have a meaningful conversation about sustainable buildings. Clearly, if a building cannot be loved, it won’t last, so the first foundation is to be Lovable. Once it is Lovable, then it makes sense to talk about buildings that are Durable enough to last for a very long time. If they are Lovable and Durable, then their interiors must be Flexible enough to accommodate many uses over the centuries. Finally, if buildings are Lovable, Durable, and Flexible, then it is meaningful to discuss how Frugal they are.

   Changing directions to begin with sustainability and end with the things that support sustainability produces some expected results, but it also produces some surprises. Stay with us as we discover some of each... and by all means, please join in the discussion.

~ Steve Mouzon


First Time Around

Mouzon Residence, Gurley, AL - begun 1985

   Many forget that the current environmental reawakening doesn’t mark the first time that this has happened. Others are simply too young to remember. I am not. At 48, I was a teen through most of the 1970s, and clearly recall the heady days typified by the first Earth Day at which point we thought we might actually change the world. I entered college in 1978, believing that my chosen major of architecture allowed as much opportunity as any to help build a better place.

2nd year restaurant design on the cliffs above the English Channel

   From the beginning, I was looking to environmental issues to help form the architecture in a polemical way. The model in this image was from the first project of my second year. The site was a cliff at the edge of the English Channel. I did my homework and found that the wind speeds there were consistently high enough to generate electricity. So I designed the building as a massive half-funnel, scooping air in at the left of the image, then narrowing down to where the turbines were, just off the image to the right. So the building wasn’t just designed to generate electricity from the wind, but to also look like it was using the wind.

   I continued this sort of experimentation through school. Later influences were the discovery of Christopher Alexander and Pattern Language over Christmas break in 1980 and the discovery of DPZ and the Seaside design shortly thereafter. My more technical explorations focused on passive techniques such as earth-sheltering... most of my third-year designs burrowed into the earth.
   I recall an article in Mother Earth News near the beginning of fourth year entitled “Taking a Solid Stand on Solar Battlements,” or something of the sort, in which the author described building his own house. He spent an additional $500,000, if memory serves correctly, to do all of the green things he did. In the early 1980s, that was an immense sum of money. The article was a huge jolt to me, because it was clear that most people could not spend that kind of money even if they wanted to. I spent the evening skewering all of his active solar equipment in my mind, only to realize that the single biggest ticket item was the additional structure required to support my beloved earth-sheltering.

   It wasn’t long until I was asking myself “why can’t we get the advantage of the mass of the earth without actually spending the money to bury the building?” This train of thought led to something I called “cool tubes” which would bring air into the building pre-conditioned by the mass of the earth.

   I graduated in 1983, full of hope. Wanda and I debated for the rest of the year where we should live. We ended up choosing to build in the country so that we could create a self-sufficient homestead. Current wisdom had it that a family of four could feed themselves year-round in a temperate climate on one acre, so we bought a one-acre lot in February 1984 and began building the house in the photo at the top of this post. Working primarily at night and on weekends, it took a year to design and two years to build.

   The house was super-insulated, and had every passive system I could think of, including the Cool Tubes that I had postulated in college. For the first two years after we moved in on April 22, 1987, it had no active heating or cooling system at all except for the two massive Russian fireplaces. A bitter freeze, by North Alabama standards, finally convinced us that we needed a mechanical conditioning system. So I retrofitted the cool tubes (which never worked properly because I under-sized them) to be a ground water loop, and built my own geothermal heating and cooling system. I bought the actual heat pumps, of course, but built the rest from scratch.

   Conditions at work were changing, too. At first, clients would merely look askew at me for talking about sustainable design. Increasingly, however, I wasn't just getting a deaf ear, but outright hostility. Things like "Oh, you're for solar power? I ripped the solar panels off my roof last year because they were so hideous. I don't want any tree-hugger designing my buildings!" And so I eventually gave up, because it was obviously counter-productive to me keeping my job, or getting another one anywhere in town. For most of the next two decades, I did "normal" architecture because nothing sustainable would be tolerated.

   What caused this state of affairs? Some say “that can’t possibly happen today; too many people believe that going green is the right thing to do.” But that’s precisely what people believed in the 1970s, too, and look what happened. It could happen again. Do we have another generation to waste before we begin building in a truly sustainable fashion? If not, then we clearly must build in a way that is lovable. If it can’t be loved, it won’t last.

~ Steve Mouzon


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2020