Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Walkable Urbanism in Miami Beach

Dateline: 10:55 pm January 6, 2009 Filed under:

In late October I flew in to Miami for the fall meeting of the Urban Land Institute. I was there for four days, and rather than stay in a hotel, I chose to rent a condo in Miami Beach, about one mile from the convention center. I always try to better get to know a city when I travel, and staying in a condo nestled in a neighborhood is a great start.

I scouted the condo carefully, using, a vacation rentals website, Walkscore, and checking out transit options. I needed to have a nice place to sleep, have a small grocery nearby, and have easy access to the Convention Center.

I found a great place just south of the South Beach Art Deco District in the Ocean Beach Historical District. It had a Walkscore of well over 90 (out of 100), and was a short walk to the South Beach Circulator, a bus service that circles the South Beach area, with a stop at the Convention Center, for just 25 cents a ride. What a deal!

I arrived mid-afternoon the day before the conference started, dropped my things in the condo and went out for a walk. I meandered up and over along several streets on my way to the grocery store, and was struck at how wonderful and walkable Miami Beach is. Every street had sidewalks on both sides, good crosswalks, and buildings that were a mix of uses but went well together and related to the street, cleary delineating private and public space. It was all quite dense and wonderful. It reminded me of Vancouver.

It was no coincidence that Miami Beach and Vancouver’s West End are similar. I am speaking of the historic Miami Beach, from Lincoln Mall to the south. The two were laid out on a grid and developed at roughly the same time, although Miami Beach is a little newer, dating back to the 1920s. The mad similarity is that of the size of the area, its walkability and livability.

Vancouver’s West End is northwest of downtown, and from Granville Street is a little over a mile long and less than a mile wide, with Stanley Park beyond to the northwest. Starting from 17th Street or Lincoln Road Mall and heading south, Miami Beach is similar in size and shape. More uncanny, both areas are served by three commercial/transit streets that form a U-shape. In Vancouver they are Robson, Denman and Davie, and in Miami Beach they are Washington Avenue, 5th Street and Alton Road. These commercial streets contain most retail and service needs, and are rarely more than a quarter mile walk from any residence or office in either city.

In essence, Vancouver’s West End and Miami Beach are fantastic examples of walkable urbanism. Lest you claim Miami Beach is all tourism? Venture just a block or two off of Ocean Boulevard and you will find normal urban neighborhoods. Over the course of the week, getting to and from the conference, I walked (and biked) through this urbanism, morning, noon and night. I walked the Lincoln Road Mall, through Flamingo Park with its ball fields and playgrounds, along Washington Avenue, up Collins Avenue, down Ocean Boulevard, around the perimeter of the island.

Miami Beach is full of little surprises. I visited a cuban place where Paris Hilton is apparently a regular. I had a fantastic cappuccino Matarello on Washington Avenue. I got snapped at by an alligator nuzzled in a man’s arms.

I understand Ocean Boulevard can be touristy. Walk down the sidewalk and every outside every restaurant there is a host or hostess with a menu mentioning a special dish and asking if you will be dining with them tonight. No thanks, although there is a great Indian restaurant. But at least it is lively, with people always about. In the 10 block stretch of Ocean Drive, you have – count them – four choices of route; 1) You can walk along the sidewalk in front of the rows of gorgeously restored art deco buildings, where you will dodge tourists, pass through outdoor seating areas and sometimes under restaurant canopies – this is the most elbow-rubbing route; 2) You can walk on the sidealk on the other side of the street, where there is more space – most people here are taking pictures of the art deco buildings, as this is the best vantage point for architecutural photography; 3) You can walk along the winding sidewalk in the park, among palm trees and past volleyball courts; or 4) You can walk along the beach itself – shoes optional.

And so, the news at the ULI conference wasn’t good. The real estate industry is in for a long cold winter, but that didn’t stop me from exploring a great walkable city on foot, the way it should be.

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