What South Beach is Doing Right

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I was recently in South Beach, Miami and having been to Florida a number of times, I was pleasantly surprised by how this area differs from the stereotyped remainder of the State.   A few things in particular were worth noting as examples of what this area has really done well.  Of course the enjoyment of public space is always easier in fair weather, but even given that natural advantage, as you stroll around this area it’s clear that South Beach has taken a number of strategies that planners dream about, and has run with them.

Here are my five favourite things about South Miami Beach:

5.                  Useable park space

Lummus Park is a 100 metre wide swath of green space that runs for 9 blocks long and separates the bustling Ocean Drive from the beach.  Contained within this linear green space are a number of useable areas including work-out space or playgrounds for grown-ups. Volley-ball courts also line this space between the road and the beach.  In my opinion, in an urban setting, the more usable the green space is – the better, and that includes not forgetting that kids aren’t the only ones who like to play outside.

4.                   Lincoln Road Mall

This pedestrian mall runs for 8 blocks perpendicular to Ocean Drive, and can’t help but be compared to Sparks Street for those coming from Ottawa.   When I was in graduate school, and studying pedestrian spaces, one simple way of evaluating blocks was the “door handle tool”.  The more doors contained within a block, the more people will be drawn to that space out of sheer interest (relates to establishment diversity).  Lincoln Road has got this down pat – narrow store frontages accompanied by outdoor patios.  Functions are smartly combined such as large round bollards doubling as seating or public art as climbing apparatus’ for kids.  Security is visible patrolling leisurely through the space on bikes.  The space is bustling, crowded and no space is wasted, used for patios, bike racks, sandwich boards, public art and landscaping.  And laneways located north and south of the space handle things like parking access and garbage.

3.                  Parking arrangement

The bustling Ocean Drive contains mainly boutique hotels with little separation distance between buildings.    Cars are accommodated, but are forced to drive at a snail’s pace due to the narrow space allocated for driving.  Metred on-street parking exists on both sides and pedestrians cross the street randomly because traffic is moving so slowly.  Most of the little hotels have a valet parking space in front and here’s the kicker – most of the hotels don’t actually have their own parking.  There is a PUBLIC parking lot a few blocks away on less prime real estate where the hotel valets actually use for their parking area.  So parking has been taken out of the equation of the hotels and grouped together in one lovely publicly organized structure complete with priority parking for hybrid vehicles.    The winner in this scenario is the pedestrian who can stroll un-interrupted for 10 blocks or so.  And one of my favourite features again – the rear lane to handle garbage and loading.

2.                  Miami Beach Architectural Historic District

The architecture in this area is as undeniably interesting as the story behind its preservation.  From their website: “Miami Design Preservation League is a non-profit organization devoted to preserving, protecting, and promoting the cultural, social, economic, environmental and architectural integrity of the Miami Beach Architectural Historic District. Originally organized by Barbara Capitman and friends in 1976, it is the oldest Art Deco Society in the World.” http://www.mdpl.org/ I won’t go into detail except to say that the Historic District has done a great job of promoting itself.  Art Deco weekend occurs every year and draws hundreds of thousands of fans.  The Art Deco welcome centre is smack dab in the middle of the action and the self-guided tour that provides visitors with iPods and lets them stroll around the District at their own pace is a great idea.   This Historic District has not been sterilized, but is using education and adaptive re-use to create a truly successful space.

1.                  Deco bike share program

Where to start on this impressive program… http://www.decobike.com/ Miami Beach has rolled out bike sharing in a way that should make us stop and pay attention.  There are 100 – that’s right 100 deco bike share stations set up in an area that measures about 12 square kilometres.  The bikes are so convenient that by 3pm on a Monday, the first two stations we passed only had two bikes left each and people that work for the program were seen walking two or three bikes at a time around between stations just to try and satisfy the demand.  The bikes are sturdy, no gears, your clothes are protected from the chains, there is a great big basket for your bags, the program is super easy to use with a credit card, cheap ($4 for half-hour, $6 for an hour, or $15/month unlimited pass for residents) and it just makes tons of sense.  You can feel the optimism in the air as tourists and residents alike are curiously embracing this as an alternative to driving short distances, walking long distances or taking a taxi.  The bikes are covered with advertising, which quite frankly, I’m indifferent about if it’s part of the model that makes the program work.  It also doesn’t hurt that a wide bike path is included in Lummus Park allowing for an alternative to riding on the road.  People were riding these bikes everywhere and embracing this new concept and it was fantastic to see and take part in.

Of course, I can hear the naysayers already. “Florida benefits from a glorious climate, Miami is just catering to tourists, people don’t actually live there”, etc.  But let’s just bask in some optimism for a moment, and celebrate positive things when we see them – this is a place that makes it fun to spend the days walking (or biking).


  1. Erin is right when she says other cities have taken planning ideas and run with them. What she doesn’t say is that Ottawa talks a lot, but delivers little. Back in the nineties I began travelling to North American cities on a frequent basis. My thoughts that Ottawa was “nicer” than most places was challenged. Over the following decade I found myself more and more often saying “Ottawa could do that” and feeling slightly let down upon arriving home. Whether it was our big box parking lot landscaping compared to Bozeman or active waterfronts in LA … the NCC and Ottawa increasingly looked stuck in the 1960’s vision of broad grassy lawns best viewed from an automobile. The City in particular has totally abdicated any notion that it should make public spaces beautiful — that’s the NCC’s job. Instead our planning consists of endless consultations and abstract studies with few real goods delivered on the ground. Planning is the end in itself. No deliverables required. We can and must do better, by sharing what works elsewhere and demanding a better urban environment. Can a bureaucracy-ridden town actually accomplish anything?

  2. Public fitness equipment – people using rental bikes – cars centrally parked out of sight -this just goes against so many stereotypes that the word Florida evokes. Thanks for a great post!

  3. There are plenty of people in Ottawa, including the public sector who want these improvements to public space. The problem is whenever someone tries to implement anything progressive, editors working for our conservative newspapers shout down any supportive discussion (see all debate in the media regarding light rail, u-pass, green bin, enivornmental protection, equal and fair access to space and public services, etc.).

  4. Ottawa is not as ‘nice’ as it thinks.

    I really blame this on a lot of the development that started in the 1950s in a lot of North American cities, not just in Ottawa; things like getting rid of trains, taking away train stations (our Union station), destroying character buildings for parking lots, putting up ugly apartment complexes with no height restrictions, cutting cities in half with freeways and then using residential streets as on/off ramps (such as Kent)… the list goes on.

    The NCC really did a number on Ottawa…

    The problem is… it’s a lot easier to break something than to fix something especially in a bureaucratic city like Ottawa.

    Another problem is that Ottawa is a city partly run by suburbanite councilors. They don’t LIVE in the city, they don’t particularly care about it’s interests, they tend to be more conservative and would rather keep it down to further their own suburban interests.

  5. I don’t think it’s a suburban vs. urban problem. I think it’s a human problem. Most people want good public space in this city. Unfortunately there are a few people in very high places who are truly out there to destroy our planet. It’s up to every person with a thread of humanity left in them to drag them from their posts and keep them far away from power.

  6. Nice post! I think South Beach is great and wouldn’t discourage anyone from looking to it for lessons on public space, but it’s also helpful to keep in mind how the history of the place has made possible what’s there now.

    The building stock there has never been repurposed. The boutique hotels were built that way and the entire economy of the town was (and is again) based on upscale tourists. And, I understand that the strip was so economically depressed during the urban razing decades that it was ironically preserved.

    I think the critical mass of synergistic businesses is huge and also wonder how the local governance being separate from Miami helps?

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