Next Urbanism Lab 04: Dare to live outdoors

As we re-populate our downtowns, and watch the crime statistics drop, people are seeing safety in numbers. Jane Jacobs was right about eyes on the street reducing crime. With the sense that it’s indeed safe to be in cities again, it appears that citizens are re-learning how to be connected in an urban context. Downtown’s street cafes, shops and plazas, filled with activity, are proof that we’re succeeding in bringing people back downtown. Safely.

This wasn’t always so.

For many, perhaps the majority, of us, our suburban lives were spent sealed in air-conditioning, interspersed with moments of purported discomfort as we transitioned between the homes, cars, McMansions, big boxes, gyms, schools, Olive Gardens, and Arby’s drive-thrus that characterized our daily lives. Suburban yards became meaningless, as were the landscape berms surrounding our banal office parks and multi-family apartments.

But rest assured: they were all very safe.

During the depths of our great suburbanization in the US West, probably around 1971, our downtowns were thoroughly de-populated. Since then, we’ve rebuilt our urban cores with a suburban sense of security being paramount. Today, at the confluence of the Great Recession, Peak Energy and the Religion of Sustainability, I recommend that we again ‘Dare to Live Outside.’

In our age of dangling austerity, our downtown buildings have shrunk from tall, secure, Glam-couver model towers to more modest 5 over 1 mid-rise buildings. These buildings can be assembled in a variety of ways on the block and are more nimble than towers to produce both great intensity and connectivity. This connectivity between buildings establishes an architectural language between blocks that can be used to purposely craft a ‘community character.’ Something I discuss in greater detail here:

The wish for sustainability and energy efficiency has permeated our society and building profession. This has led us to the rediscovery of windows that can be opened and closed, a step towards unsealing our lives. Today’s less expensive mix of low-to-mid-rise buildings does not create the wind tunnel effect more expensive full-block towers create for pedestrians and inhabitants wanting to open windows. 

Little Italy – One of San Diego’s best urban neighborhoods. Well-connected, mid-rise, and fun.

Being a pedestrian, or one of our ever increasing army of bicyclists, is a proven step towards unsealing ourselves from an air-conditioned lifestyle. I first came across this concept from the brilliant Steve Mouzon. He talks about “living in season,” and the need for us to acclimate ourselves to our local environment in order to be more energy efficient. In San Diego, my home, this would appear to be an easy concept to implement. However, a recent study reported that 76% of us still drive alone to work every day, with another 10% carpooling, while just 14% use transit, bicycle, walk, or work at home. 

Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle and Last Child in the Woods, will speak at this year’s Congress for the New Urbanism on our need for and value of re-connecting with the great outdoors. And in November 2012, the San Diego City Council dedicated 6,600 acres, about 10 square miles, of publicly-owned urban canyons for the public to recreate in and enjoy. Our canyons provide a well-defined edge for our urban neighborhoods as well as a place to connect with nature and the outdoors. Just as Seattle has its sound and Salt Lake City its Wasatch Front, I was fortunate to have worked along side the San Diego Canyonlands advocacy group in preserving San Diego’s defining mesas and canyons. 

San Diego’s newly protected Canyonlands.

Today, kids in San Diego can easily access nature, as the ability to live/teach/play outdoors is within a comfortable walking and biking distance from every urban neighborhood. We can again connect with our climate and place — another step towards unsealing ourselves from our hermetic suburban environment(s).

The true value of urbanism occurs when we are able to interact with one another… both inside and outside. These connections will redefine our ability to both endure and thrive in the 21st century.

Howard Blackson

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  1. How right you are. A defining moment for me was when, somewhere on the outskirts of San Diego, I wandered away from my group of friends. I paused atop a small hillock and lo and behold, a mountain lion appeared, scaring the bejesus out of my little 20-year-old New York City self. But what a magical moment. Today, I focus my public health career on helping people get outdoors and moving. They seem to prefer it to the gym and, with all the accumulating evidence on the health benefits of nature and natural light, I’m pleased at the added value. And now you remind us too of Steve Mouzon’s brilliant observation about acclimation and the potential to save energy via sensible indoor temperature control. (Full disclosure: I edited his book, “The Original Green.”)

  2. Matt Ritter says

    “Dare to live outdoors”…in mild San Diego? How about Houston where I currently live? We have an average of over 100 days per year where the heat index is over 95. There are 4 to 6 months of the year where it’s not safe from a physical health perspective to commute by bicycle, to enjoy parks or trails, or even to walk to a store between 9:00 am and 9:00 pm. We’re trapped in our air-conditioned suburban cars, houses, gyms, and big box stores for half the year. What do you recommend for us? Move to San Diego? I’d love to – if my employer were there and the housing prices were cut in half. Seriously, what about all of us living in places like Miami, Orlando, Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix? There are nearly 100 million of us. How are we supposed to live in this new urbanist vision of America?

    • PlaceMakers says

      I agree completely that solutions are context dependent but the fact that there are places where outdoor living isn’t viable doesn’t discount the idea for places where it is. Getting outdoors isn’t some kind of new urbanist vision, it’s a tool for community-building and energy savings that just happens to be nicely suited to San Diego and other temperate places.

      Yes, Houston is HOT, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t also face problems like diminishing community or rising energy costs. The question is, what locally-appropriate mitigations will emerge? I’d imagine that more than a few Houstonians are putting good thought into it.

      • Matt Ritter says

        Thanks for the reply. The only good idea that I’ve seen in this vein for Houston is our 7-mile network of underground tunnels downtown. It started in the 1930s back before air conditioning. Today, it’s nothing much more than an underground mall for the lunchtime crowd of office workers downtown. I tried to go down there on a Saturday afternoon recently and the whole thing was locked. I couldn’t find a way in! 🙂 I’ve lived in this town for 10 years and I’ve never seen the tunnels. Most people in the Houston haven’t either. I started to envision the dream of expanding the tunnels for dozens of miles…and then I realized that Houston already has something along those lines…it’s called our Galleria mega-mall. And all our other indoor malls. It got me realizing that indoor living is alive and well in Houston and, as sad and expensive and unsustainable as it is, we don’t have much choice. I suppose the future of Houston is either in converting to renewable energy (powering all our air conditioners with solar panels on roofs), building the entire city underground, or abandoning the city and moving to cooler climates. If I had my choice, San Diego would be the first place I would go!

      • Matt Ritter says

        Actually, I just realized the 90% of the US isn’t suited for year-round outdoor living. But I guess what is sadder is that the 10% of America that is suited for year-round outdoor living (which is basically the California coast, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico) is trapped in the mindset of the indoor lifestyle of the rest of the country. Your message is an important one. The residents of the 10% need to break free of the big box stores and the indoor shopping malls. Every mall in San Diego should be an outdoor mall. Every car should be a convertible. Every house should consist of 50% porch space. Every commercial district should have walkable streets. In San Diego, you have the ability to do what the rest of us can only dream of. In fact, one might say that you have the obligation to do so. You live in the most beautiful large city in North America, bar none. May you design it to be one of the best planned for its natural environment as well.

    • I understand that some places are less comfortable than others due to extremes of temperature and, perhaps, like wetlands, it might make the most sense to gradually withdraw from building on such locations. However, we can also learn about how to live more comfortably and sustainably in such places from others who came before us, before air conditioning and central heating de-acclimatized us. Steve Mouzon has written about this thoughtfully and extensively, spurred by his move to Miami some years ago. Check it out.

      • Matt Ritter says

        Thanks, I took a look at some of Steve Mouzon’s ideas. While I think there’s merit to many of his ideas, we need to remember that the American South before air conditioning was a sparsely-populated, slow-moving place that ground to an absolute halt during the long summer months. The notion that people in places like Houston today should try to become more acclimated to outdoor heat by spending more time outdoors is overly naive. Many Houstonians were born in much colder places. Many Houstonians have only lived here for a few years. Even with shade and breezes, outdoor temperatures in Houston are intolerable for much of the year. Air conditioning made life possible in this climate. The only environmentally-friendly alternatives I’ve found are A) underground dwellings and B) partial immersion in water. Unless future Houstonians want to build an underground city or convert their living rooms into swimming pools with waterproof appliances, I think indoor, air-conditioned living is the most effective way to function, unfortunately.

        • Matt, I’m sure you are correct. But also: we will be seeing some rather significant population and lifestyle shifts in the coming decades because of climate change, water shortages, and fuel prices.

          • Matt Ritter says

            I guess it’s possible that skyrocketing gasoline prices and electric bills would force people to migrate. Migration is very slow, though. I can’t even imagine the trillions of dollars and decades of time (maybe generations of time) involved in migrating all the people and industries out of the American South. I was born and raised in the North, so I have no deep loyalty, but I have wonder whether that kind of scenario will ever happen. My bet is that new technologies (electric cars, solar energy) will blaze the trail for people to move forward, not backward.

            • We may need to move faster than you think. More reading: Anything recent by James Howard Kunstler.

              • Matt Ritter says

                I had to laugh today having read the news in the Washington Post from an article yesterday describing how the Rust Belt revival of 2008 to 2011 has been completely reversed since 2012. Now that the economy is good, people are moving back to the Sun Belt again. Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas…these cities are growing fast again. You can start speculating in real estate in downtown Detroit if you want. 🙂

              • Matt Ritter says

                It scares the wits out of me, not just for my friends who live in Phoenix, but because I know that similar problems are in store for my current city of Houston. People don’t talk about it, but Houston is due for a Katrina-like hurricane of its own. We had Hurricane Ike a few years ago, and I lived through that, and it was very rough. And it was nothing compared to what an eventual direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane will do to us. The terrible Texas drought we had a couple summers ago seemed to be on the verge of killing most of Houston’s lush forests. I fully expect that, in a several decades, Houston will look more like Austin, and Austin more like El Paso. By 2100, Houston may look like El Paso. Only a whole lot hotter. As for Houston’s current heat, it’s almost as bad as what was described in that article on Phoenix. It has become unbearable. The only good news? I have no problem packing up and heading back up north. If Houston and Phoenix become destroyed by climate change (similar to New Orleans), people will find other places to live. Or at least those that survive will. So maybe you have a point. Maybe people are clueless, and the Southwest United States is an ecologically dead-end. I suspect you’re right. But, right now, people are headed here in droves. Houston was the #4 fastest growing city in the country last year. I guess I’ll be ahead of the pack when I flee. 🙂

  3. Hi, just wanted to mention, I loved this post. It was inspiring.
    Keep on posting!


  1. […] Howard Blackson, describes suburban life as “sealed by air conditioning” interrupted only by “moments of discomfort during the transition between the homes, cars, McMansions, big boxes, gyms, schools, Olive Gardens, and Arby’s drive-thrus.” As we begin to repopulate our Downtown’s Blackson dares us to get back in touch with the natural world. Link to full story. […]

  2. […] a true sense of what putting neighborhoods first really means by daring us to take ownership, live outdoors, occupy space, and really live together. This vision allows us to build places that are walkable, […]

  3. […] City Miami” or “Strong, Smart New York” or “Toronto the Big.” Or maybe it’s “Dare to Live Outdoors San Diego” or the great “Pub Sheds” in Decatur or […]

  4. […] Blackson dares us to live outdoors where “we can again connect with our climate and place — another step towards unsealing […]

  5. […] the words of our local placeshaker, “dare to live outdoors”. Let’s start on August […]

  6. auto transport…

    Next Urbanism Lab 04: Dare to live outdoors | PlaceMakers…

  7. […] Heading to the Wilmington, North Carolina region this week, I’m excited about seeing a city that’s one of my favourite running buddies. Last week, I was enjoying a run in Winnipeg as well, when someone pointed out, “But it’s raining.” I had barely noticed since this satisfyingly walkable neighbourhood dares people to live outdoors. […]

  8. […] before last, Richard Louv published Vitamin N, following up on ideas from his Last Child in the Woods. He encourages us to not get too formalized, but let the ideas of nature-rich communities be […]

  9. […] before last, Richard Louv published Vitamin N, following up on ideas from Last Child in the Woods. He encourages us to not get too formalized, but let the ideas of nature-rich communities be […]

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