The Gigantism Disease

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 17, 2008

The most important task of the urbanist is controlling size. – David Mohney

American cities, like most others in the world, are dying. Despite an emerging downtown renaissance being led by a notable growth in downtown residential development, changing demographics, and escalating gasoline prices.

Cities are dying due to an affliction I call “Gigantism.”

Like overeating, inactivity and obesity, gigantism is not being imposed on us by an evil outside force. It is largely self-inflicted.

We have become our own worst enemy because we have spent over 80 years building a world in which it is nearly impossible to navigate without a car. The Barrier Effect, as described by Todd Litman, when applied to transportation planning, refers to the “barriers” that over-design for car travel creates for other forms of travel. To put it simply, designing an “incomplete” street (a street that is designed exclusively or predominately for cars) makes travel by walking, bicycling and transit extremely difficult, if not impossible. In effect, an incomplete street creates a self-perpetuating vicious cycle because the travel barriers created by incomplete streets tend to continuously recruit new motorists who were formerly non-motorists—non-motorists who now find that on the incomplete street, travel by walking, bicycling or transit is unacceptably unsafe, inconvenient or otherwise unattractive.

Over time, the incomplete street increases the proportion of community members who are now traveling by car. Tragically, this on-going recruitment of new motorists compels many communities to spend large sums of public dollars to widen and speed up roads to (unsuccessfully) strive to accommodate the growing number of motorists. And these newly widened, higher speed roads create an even larger barrier effect. Which recruits even more motorists (“induced demand”), which then builds pressure for even wider roads, resulting in roads that drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users find unpleasant and unsatisfactory, fueling the demand for further “improvement,” usually widening.

We are therefore compelled to insist, at every opportunity, that new development promote car travel. Yet cars and people have vastly different needs. Due to their large size, motor vehicles require vastly over-sized parking lots, large building setbacks and wide, multi-lane roads reasonably free of other motor vehicles (despite the conventional wisdom, most cities actually have too much open space — but this open space is for cars, not people). To achieve that, widely dispersed, low-density, single-use patterns of development are necessary. Street lighting must be tall and bright, and retail signage must be enormous to promote visibility and readability in high-speed motor vehicles.

Because motor vehicles enable us to travel greater distances more conveniently, growing regional “consumer-sheds” are created, which has enabled the rise of gigantic “big box” retail development which takes advantage of such retail regionalism.

We are left with an overwhelming and disheartening amount of auto-centric architecture. Architecture that no one can be proud of.

This brutalization of our everyday world, amplified by the over-sizing of roads and parking lots, leaves a public realm that Americans have understandably fled. Instead, we are compelled to increasingly turn inward into the private realm of our accessorized, huge turn radius for roadluxurious homes and cars. Without a public realm worth caring about and participating in, we seek alternative outlets for a meaningful life. And this is exemplified by the substantial growth in the average size of the now gigantic American house, which has enlarged from 1,385 square feet to 2,140 square feet (a 54-percent increase) from 1970 to 2000.

Our over-sized world stands in stark contrast to what many people tend to prefer, which is smaller building setbacks, human-scaled and low-speed streets, modest lighting, signage and parking. People feel exposed and uncomfortable in gargantuan spaces—spaces over-designed for motor vehicles.

On average, a person in a car consumes 17 times more space than a person in a chair, which means that cars devour an enormous amount of space. The average car is 14 feet long by 6.2 feet wide = 55 square feet. The average person in a chair is 2.25 feet by 2.25 feet = 5 square feet.  Thus, a car consumes 17 times more space than a person sitting in a chair (even more if person is standing). By multiplying the number of cars in Florida in 2005 by 17 square feet, we can estimate that cars consume 1,581,100 square feet or 35,677 acres or about 27,444 football fields.

Planner Victor Gruen, in 1973, estimated that every American car is provided with four parking spaces.

In The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup estimates about 1 billion parking spaces for cars in the U.S.  If this were all surface parking, parking lots would consume approximately 12,375 square miles (roughly the size of Maryland). As a rule of thumb, a parking lot typically requires an additional 10 to 20 percent of its land area as stormwater basin area, although this can vary rather significantly based on such factors as soil type. Therefore, we can assume that a 300 square-foot parking space (the amount of space a typical car needs for parking, as well as maneuver space in the parking lot) would require 300 x 0.15 = 45 square feet of stormwater basin. In other words, if we include both space taken up by the typical parked car, maneuver space, and stormwater basin space, each car requires 345 square feet of land area just for parking.

The above means that to promote ease of motor vehicle travel, there is no alternative but to build sprawling, dispersed, low-density cities.

Of course, the growing size of American vehicles—particularly the SUV phenomenon—has fueled a need to build bloated roads and parking areas to accommodate these over-sized vehicles. Making matters much worse, however, is the decades-long trend of the growing size of trucks—particularly fire trucks.

Unfortunately, some fire chiefs are choosing to purchase larger and often less maneuverable fire apparatus. An unintended consequence is that such choices will dictate future community decisions about street dimensions. Larger truck decisions can prevent a community from designing safer, more human-scaled streets.  Fortunately, wise fire chiefs who are aware of a need for a more charming, safe, human-scaled community are able to make fire apparatus choices that are in line with such objectives (buy purchasing smaller fire vehicles, for example, or at least buying “articulated” vehicles that allow maneuvering in tight streets). If some parts of a community must have larger, less maneuverable fire apparatus for safety reasons, it would be wise to consider having both larger and smaller vehicles. One size, after all, does not fit all when one considers both the larger dimensions found in suburbia and the more modest dimensions found in urban settings.

For engineers, therefore, the design vehicle obligates the design of colossal lane widths and turning radii, which moves cities further from a livable human scale.

Where has the charm gone?

When we look for charming locations in our communities, we find that this charm is invariably found in our historic districts—places built, in general, over 100 years ago. We Catania Italy walkablelove to visit places like Paris and Geneva, with their ancient, intimate architecture, their layout of streets and neighborhoods, and their romantic ambience. And newer places are most valued when they mimic that style. We find that the more contemporary development—the more contemporary streets and roads—are invariably not charming. We have apparently lost the ability to build lovable places.

Why?

Is it because of the need to promote public safety? Is cost an issue?

Hardly.

It is because charm is impossible when we must design for the colossal spaces required to accommodate the car. Buildings must be set back enormous distances from the street to accommodate vast fields of parking (even the turning movements of the motor vehicle require that a building be pulled back from the street intersection to create the “vision triangle” and turning radius necessitated by a large, high-speed vehicle).

One unintended consequence of this dispersal and pulling back of buildings is that buildings lose the ability to “hold” an intersection. Or frame an “outdoor room” ambience on a street. Place-making is not possible when these human-scaled spaces are lost. There is no “there there” anymore.

Nothing to induce civic pride.

The gigantism disease is also aggravated by our decades-long road design efforts to maximize vehicle speeds, and to implement the related “forgiving streets” design paradigm. High-speed road geometries create enormous dimensions for intersection turning radii, lane width, shoulder recover zones, and size of roadside signage.

Forgiving street design delivers tree-less streets, over-sized vision triangles, and a removal of on-street parking, among other things. The motorist is “forgiven” for not paying attention while driving. Forgiven for driving at excessive speeds. Forgiven for careening off the road.

An unintended consequence of such design is that a large and ever-growing number of motorists are found to be driving too fast, too inattentively and too recklessly. Ironically, the intended safety improvements from the forgiving street actually result in less road safety.

High-speed design and forgiving streets, then, result in a loss of human-scaled streets, and the promotion of speeding, inattentive, road-raged motorists completely incompatible with quality urban areas.

Buildings must also be dispersed from each other to accommodate car travel, as the placement and agglomeration of buildings in a walkable, human-scaled pattern quickly creates intolerable vehicle congestion that gridlocks an area.

Induced demand, where a road widening breeds new car trips that would not have occurred had we not widened, locks us into a never-ending cycle of congestion, widening, more congestion, and more widening. Endlessly.

Or until we run out of public dollars.

This vicious cycle brings us 4-lane roads. Then 5. Then 6. Then 8. Ultimately, we are left with dangerous, high-speed, overly wide, increasingly unaffordable roads that we dread and are repelled from. Roads that, again, are car-scaled and not human-scaled. Ironically, the roads we hate most are those we’ve spent the most of our tax dollars to build. What does that say about what we are doing to ourselves?

Agglomeration Economies

Cities, to be healthy, must leverage “agglomeration economies.” That is, thriving, vigorous cities are characterized by densification, concentration, compactness and clustering of people, buildings, and activities. As Steve Belmont points out in Cities in Full (2002), an intensification of property is a sign of city fitness and dynamism. As city property is converted to a less intense activity such as parking, widened roads or over-sized building setbacks, the energy of the city is dissipated, and is a sign of a city in decline. Therefore, the gigantism borne from the gap-tooth dead zones created when property is cleared for vehicular parking or roads is toxic to a city.

The vehicle “habitat” in cities (parking and highways) drains the lifeblood from the metropolis.

It is not only the directly deadening effect of replacing buildings and activities with roads and parking that kills a city. Highways and parking also indirectly eviscerate a city by powerfully fueling the residential and commercial dispersal of communities through sprawl.

Finding Our Way Back to the Future

It is said that both the dinosaurs and the Roman Empire collapsed due to gigantism. For our society to avoid that fate—to restore safety and quality of life to our cities in the future—will require us to return to the timeless tradition we have abandoned for several decades. For cities to become sustainable, safe, enjoyable places to live, we must return to the tradition of designing for people first, not cars. In cities, that means that we return to low-speed street geometries and compact building placements.

We already have models. The historic districts of our cities. The charming, lovable places that tourists flock to the world over. As James Howard Kunstler noted in 1996, “[From]  1950 to 1990…we put up almost nothing but the cheapest possible buildings, particularly civic buildings. Look at any richly embellished 1904 firehouse or post office and look at its dreary concrete box counterpart today.” “The everyday environments of our time, the places where we live and work, are composed of dead patterns…They violate human scale. They are devoid of charm. Our streets used to be charming and beautiful…[in] Saratoga Springs, New York, there once existed a magnificent building called the Grand Union Hotel…”

One element of this return is that the “forgiving street” design paradigm be replaced by the “attentive street” paradigm in cities. That is, streets must be designed not to “forgive” reckless driving, but to instead obligate motorists to drive more slowly and attentively, which, as European demonstration projects have found, improves traffic safety. Doing so will also restore human scale.

Ideally, given the enormous space consumed by motor vehicles and the much smaller spaces that most people (as pedestrians) prefer, the motor vehicle must feel squeezed and inconvenienced when it finds itself within the city.

Only then will quality of life for people, not cars, flourish.

References

Belmont, Steve. (2002). Cities In Full. APA Planners Press.

Downs, A. (1992). Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak Hour Traffic Congestion.  Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Kunstler, J. (1996). Home from Nowhere. New York: Simon and Schuster, pp. 88, 90.

Litman, Todd. (2002). “Evaluating Nonmotorized Transport.” TDM Encyclopedia. Victoria Transport Policy Institute. http://www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm63.htm

McNichol, Tom (2004). “Roads Gone Wild.” Wired Magazine. December.

 

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Should We Prioritize More Efficient Buildings?

By Dom Nozzi

February 13, 2013

A few days ago, an architect made the point that buildings contribute much more to global warming than motor vehicles.

My response was that even though that may be true, it does not suggest that we should prioritize the creation of “green” (efficient) buildings over reducing per capita travel by car.

Why?

Because our quality of life, our neighborhoods, and our bank accounts will be significantly improved if we employ effective tactics (we know of many effective, equitable tactics) to reduce car use. By contrast, there will be little noticeable improvement in quality of our thaibiosolarhousecommunities if we create more “green gizmo” buildings. In my opinion, then, our number one priority, by far, is to design our neighborhoods to reduce car use.

I should also note that while cars contribute less to global warming than buildings, they nevertheless are significant contributors to the problem.

And I am not suggesting that we disregard the problem of inefficient buildings. Just that we should properly prioritize our efforts.

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Questions and Answers About My Planning Career and Lessons Learned

By Dom Nozzi

September 26, 2013

In September of 2013, a college student asked me about my city planning career and the lessons I learned in my work.

  1. What were your primary responsibilities in City of Gainesville, FL?

DN: As a long-range senior comprehensive planner, I prepared staff recommendations for proposed zoning, special exception, special use permit, and land use changes. I authored several environmental, transportation, and urban design land development regulations for Gainesville. I also authored the long-range transportation, land use, urban design, environmental conservation, recreation, and solid waste plans for Gainesville. My specialties and passions were promoting quality of life by properly designing for walkable streets, form-based codes, transportation choice, and employing “plain English” when writing land development codes.

  1. Could you share some of the highlights of your career?

DN: In 1989, I heard a speech by Andres Duany, and read essays by Walter Kulash, Jeff Kenworthy, Anthony Downs, and Peter Newman. The remarks by these individuals were an epiphany for me. I realized that the key way to design a community for quality of life was to return to the timeless tradition of making people happy, not cars. Particularly in town centers, I realized that the pedestrian was the design imperative. And that tactics which promoted or convenienced car travel were counterproductively degrading quality of life. The professional achievements I am most proud of were being the lead planner for creating a bicycle and pedestrian greenway path system in Gainesville, and being the lead planner for creating creek setback regulations. I am also proud of writing the long-range transportation, land use, and urban design plans for Gainesville, and authoring the “Traditional City” form-based code for Gainesville’s town center. Most importantly, the Traditional City code eliminated parking minimums for cars, and inverted those minimums so that they became parking maximums. I prepared land development regulations for large-format retailers, customized form-based codes for the University Heights and College Park neighborhoods, substantially revised and updated Gainesville’s noise ordinance, substantially revised the definitions used in Gainesville’s Land Development Code, created an urban design toolbox, prepared a sustainability indicators report for Gainesville, and incorporated a great deal of “Plain English” and drawings in Gainesville’s Land Development Codes to make them more understandable. Late in my career, I published a book called Road to Ruin about suburban sprawl, transportation, and quality of life, and gave speeches throughout the nation describing ideas from that book. More recently, I published The Car is the Enemy of the City, which touched on many of the same topics. After I retired, I became a nationally certified Complete Streets instructor, and served as a co-instructor to help communities throughout the nation design more complete streets.

  1. What is the most significant planning issue you have met during your career? What is the solution?

DN: Establishing tactics that promote quality of life, realizing that the most effective way to do that was to reduce the promotion and conveniencing of car travel as well as promoting quality pedestrian design, and recommending such tactics in a society where nearly all citizens are fierce proponents of car travel. One solution was to adopt the new urbanist tactic of creating a “transect” which calibrates land development regulations for a walkable town center, a drivable suburbia, and a rural lifestyle. In other words, creating transportation and lifestyle choices.

  1. Which school of ideas had the most influence on you as a planner?

DN: New Urbanism

  1. Do you have any advice for someone entering the field?

DN: Academic emphasis should be on design: architecture or urban design. The ideological focus of the school and its professors should be the new urbanism. The future will be to design for happy people, not happy cars. Tragically, most all planning schools (and nearly all communities) put too much emphasis on promoting happy cars. Become a highly skilled writer, a highly skilled public speaker, and a person highly skilled in drawing. Strive to emphasize speaking and writing in “Plain English” and conveying information that is both inspirational and understandable to a non-professional audience. Become passionate in recommending tactics that promote quality of life for people rather than cars. Such passion will be more rewarding and sustainable than a high salary.

  1. When you first entered the field, how did you apply what you had learnt in the college to practice?

DN: Primarily, when I first entered the profession of planning, I used planning terminology I had learned in college, and applied a number of planning concepts such as zoning to my work as a planner. I regret that my college studies were overly focused on policy rather than design.

  1. From your view, what’s the biggest barrier to create walkable streets?

DN: Allocating too much road space, too much parking space, and too many subsidies to car travel. The most effective way to induce more walking (as well as bicycling and transit use) is NOT to provide sidewalks, bike lanes or new transit facilities. It is to take away road space, parking space, and car subsidies, as well as shortening distances to destinations via compact, mixed use development. By doing those things, an environment conducive to walkability will inevitably evolve. Street widths and distances between buildings will be more human-scaled rather than car-scaled, travel distances to destinations will be considerably shorter, car speeds will be much more modest and attentive, residential and commercial densities will be higher and interspersed, and it will be less financially and physically rational to drive a car.

  1. Sustainable transportation has become a hot issue, how can new urbanism play a role in sustainable transportation?

DN: Americans devote an excessive amount of space to motor vehicle travel, which is enormously unsustainable, and greatly reduces the transportation choices needed for a more sustainable future. Because a motor vehicle consumes so much space (on average, a person in a car consumes as much space as 17 people sitting in chairs), cities in America are dying from a disease I call “Gigantism.” New urbanism, by making the timeless traditional focus on pedestrians the design imperative, is effectively restoring the pattern of building neighborhoods that are human-scaled rather than car-scaled. Because this creates a charming, lovable ambience, new IMG_3045urbanist design is highly profitable, which makes such design sustainably self-perpetuating (developers are self-motivated by the profitability of new urbanism to design in such a human-centered way, rather than being unsustainably forced to use such design due to government regulation). New urbanism has introduced the tactically brilliant idea of the urban to rural transect, which calibrates design and regulation differently in each transect zone so that all lifestyle and travel choices are provided for in each zone (forcing everyone to live in a compact, walkable town center setting is, today, politically unsustainable). But in the walkable, town center portion of the new urbanist transect, the compact design is inherently rich in transportation choices. A person is able to easily and safely walk, bicycle, use transit, or drive a car. Transportation choice is the most politically successful way to create sustainable transportation. Over time, as the cost of car travel becomes unsustainably expensive, the compact, walkable, design created by new urbanists – a design, again, rich in transportation choices – will become increasingly desirable to a larger percentage of Americans, which will mean that a larger percentage of Americans will be living in a setting that makes more sustainable transportation more feasible and less costly.

  1. What’s the best way for citizens to be involved in the planning process?

DN: Citizens should insist that new planning and development projects in the community use the “charrette” process, where skilled presenters, drawers, and designers begin by making a brief, educational, inspiring presentation about town design and transportation principles to an audience of citizens. When done well, charrettes abundantly employ many drawings of ideas by the charrette professionals as well as ideas from citizens. As a result of such a presentation, citizens become skilled and empowered to make town and transportation design decisions for the new plan or proposed development (or road) project. When citizens are making such decisions in a charrette format, there is much more community buy-in as to the design of the plan or project, and elected officials are thereby more likely to approve of such designs. The end result is commonly a design that makes sense to professionals, even though much of the design has been recommended by citizens and elected officials (ordinarily, design recommendations by non-professional citizens and elected officials is misinformed and prone to not-in-my-backyard opposition to even the best, most sustainable and well-designed plans and projects).

  1. Brief introduction of your latest book “The Car is the Enemy of the City”. Do you think people can maintain the same life quality without a car?

DN: Car travel and over-designing cities to accommodate such travel is deadly to cities. Healthy town centers need low speeds, human scale, and proximity. Yet a town center over-designed for free-flowing car travel is a city designed for high speeds, gigantic sizes, and sprawling dispersal of jobs, housing, shopping and culture. This book describes why cars and their “habitat” are toxic to town centers, and the features that create a walkable, lovable quality of life that a well-designed town center should provide. The book therefore illustrates how we can return to the timeless tradition of designing town centers to make people happy, not cars.

I am convinced that a person can maintain not only the same quality of life without a car, but a HIGHER quality of life. Owning a car in America today costs, on average, over $8,000 per year. Instead of spending that money on cars, a person can afford to buy or rent significantly better housing, and can have more money for education, better food, recreation, and so on. Indeed, in my own personal life, despite the fact that I did not earn a large amount of money in my job, I was able to retire at the relatively young age of 47 due to how much lower my expenses were without a car.

By not owning a car, a person tends to be more physically healthy, as more travel by walking, bicycling, or transit means that a person is exercising more and suffering less from growing health problems such as obesity and diabetes.

By reducing travel by car (because a person does not own a car), a person tends to be more sociable with neighbors and other citizens in the community. The car, after all, is an extremely isolating way to travel, because when one is commonly alone inside a car, interaction or serendipity with others is much less likely. Such interaction is also much more likely to be hostile towards others (via such things as “road rage”) rather than being friendly towards others.

When a person travels by walking, bicycling or transit, enjoyment of the trip route is much more likely. Sounds, smells, and enjoyment of other details of life and buildings are much more possible than when inside a car.

Finally, by not owning a car, a person is more motivated to see that her or his community is designed to be more friendly to people rather than cars. And there is no better way to enhance quality of life and sustainability than to do that.

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Should Boulder Prohibit Bicycling on Sidewalks?

 

By Dom Nozzi

August 16, 2014

Boulder Colorado is well known for providing an impressive range of bicycling facilities. However, the City prohibits bicycling on several sections of commercialized streets.

I have serious concerns about this prohibition. I should state first that I am very well aware of how poorly bicyclists mix with pedestrians on sidewalks – particularly sidewalks that are heavily used. An important reason for the incompatibility is that bicyclists and pedestrians have a very large speed differential, and pedestrians often move from side to side unpredictably. For these reasons, I typically tend to oppose bicyclists on sidewalks. I was a bicycle commuter in Florida for about 25 years, and I made it a point to almost never ride my bike on a sidewalk, and would strongly prefer it if I (and other bicyclists) NEVER had to be on a sidewalk. Professionally, I have spent much of my career strongly advocating that bicyclists not be allowed on sidewalks, and often argue with friends and others when I frequently hear the claim that bicyclists are safer (and belong) on sidewalks. I have always taken the position that bicyclists don’t belong on sidewalks.

It is therefore highly ironic that here in Boulder, where bicycle facilities are extremely high-quality and abundant, I suddenly find myself riding on sidewalks almost every day I ride. Not because I prefer it, but because I feel forced to do so.

There are two main reasons why, for the first time in my life, I am often riding on sidewalks. First, Boulder has a number of extremely important streets (streets that most all travelers understandably want to travel on frequently – that includes bicyclists) that are nearly impossible for a bicyclist to ride on – including for highly experienced, skilled bicyclists (I include myself in that category). These car-only, large_SMBIKE 1 MCNISHhigh-speed highways are exceptionally hostile to bicyclists. The main offenders are Broadway (particularly in the town center), Canyon, and 28th Street. Second, Boulder has a made what I believe is the very bad decision to convert a number of two-way streets to one-way operation in the town center. A growing number of cities are converting their one-ways back to two-way operation after discovering how toxic they have become to a healthy city and street. With one-way streets, bicyclists are presented with three extremely undesirable choices: (1) opt for a very inconvenient, out-of-the-way route that adds significant distance to the bicycle trip; (2) ride in the street against traffic (which is extremely dangerous); or (3) ride on the sidewalk. I typically opt for #3, even though I am well aware of the incompatibility-with-pedestrians problem.

Given all of the above, I believe it is extremely problematic for Boulder to not allow bicycling on commercial streets such as town center Canyon and Broadway (or on one-way streets).

By doing so, Boulder is taking the position that bicyclists are not allowed to bicycle on some of the most desirable, heavily used routes in the city. Only pedestrians and cars are allowed on those streets. While the regulation is a significant inconvenience for someone such as myself, it is much more inconvenient (and extremely discouraging) for the “interested but concerned” bicyclist that Boulder is now seeking to put special efforts into encouraging.

Again, I tend to be strongly opposed to allowing bicyclists to ride on sidewalks. But when the Colorado Department of Transportation (and the City of Boulder?) opted to design town center Broadway and Canyon to be hostile, car-only superhighways (and opted to convert certain two-way streets to one-way), an unavoidable consequence (in my opinion) was to force the City of Boulder to take what is normally a very undesirable position (in some ways, a Faustian Bargain): allow bicyclists to ride on sidewalks on those exceptionally hostile streets. Building car-only Broadway and Canyon in the town center (as well as creating one-ways) makes such a policy nearly unavoidable, unless the City of Boulder wishes to significantly handicap or inconvenience bicyclists by not allowing them to ride along Broadway or Canyon in the town center.

In sum, I believe that the regulation discriminates against bicyclists. I should add that I recommend allowing bicyclists on sidewalks with deep regret (for the reasons I mention above), which to me adds urgency to the need to, say, road diet Canyon and Broadway in the town center to make them Complete Streets, because in general, bicyclists do not belong on sidewalks. But until that day of reform for Canyon, Broadway, and the one-way streets comes, bicyclists should be allowed on the sidewalks of those streets.

 

 

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Making the Boulder Comprehensive Housing Strategy Less Controversial

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 9, 2014

Much of the conversation regarding the Comprehensive Housing Strategy in Boulder Colorado has centered around the extremely important issues of affordability and neighborhood compatibility. The issue has been exceptionally controversial. A few suggestions to turn down the volatility:

  1. One of the most effective ways to create affordable housing in Boulder is to create more walkable, compact, mixed-use housing (what Boulder is now calling “15-minute neighborhoods“). On average, a car now costs about $9,500/year to own and operate. If a household is able to only have to own one car instead of two, or two instead of three — because compact neighborhood design allows such a reduction — those households would have almost $10K a year that could now be put into housing rather than motor vehicles. Personally, I could not afford to live in Boulder if I owned a car.
  1. A related, powerful affordability tool is to allow more housing where the price of the housing is unbundled from the price of the parking. Boulder Junction will be the first time that Boulder sees housing where the price of parking can be unbundled from the price of housing. Big savings, given how much parking (especially in Boulder) can cost to provide. In addition, the average parking space consumes something like 300 SF of real estate. The outdated, excessive minimum parking requirements that Boulder uses too often is making it impossible to build smaller, more affordable housing units on smaller lots, because so much space is needed for parking. We need to leverage this affordability opportunity by reforming parking regulations (mostly by converting minimum parking to maximum parking, and by making it easier to unbundle parking — or requiring parking to be unbundled).
  1. Boulder’s future will see a growing number of Millennials, and we know that demographic group (more so than earlier generations) is looking for more walkable, compact, mixed-use housing where the need for a household to own 2-3 cars is less necessary. Does Boulder provide enough of that type of housing for the coming growth in demand (and a more sustainable world where car co-boulder-pearlst-01ownership is less necessary and less affordable)? I don’t believe it does. An equitable, healthy community provides the full, adequate range of housing and lifestyle choices from urban to suburban to rural. In my opinion, Boulder has a mismatch of such choices. There is an oversupply and relative under-demand for drivable suburban housing. Conversely, there is a large (and growing) demand for compact, walkable housing, and a very scarce supply of such housing in Boulder.
  1. Increasing the number of unrelated adults who can live in a home, as well as easing up on accessory dwelling unit and co-op housing restrictions, are very important affordability tools. And one that causes relatively little neighborhood disruption.
  1. Neighborhood compatibility and neighborhood objections to new development are highly contentious in Boulder. Perhaps the most fundamental building block I know of for creating neighborhood compatibility (not to mention creating the much desired, yet elusive vision for Boulder and its neighborhoods) is to implement charrette-driven form-based coding, instead of the vision-less, conventional, outdated zoning-based coding that Boulder uses. An excellent example of the power of form-based coding is the code created by Dover-Kohl for North Boulder and the Holiday neighborhood. I believe that now is a wonderful time for Boulder to either adopt form-based overlay zones in targeted areas, or to engage in a citywide, perhaps incremental, replacement of conventional zoning codes with what are called Smart (form-based) codes. Such codes not only incorporate detailed, inspirational visions and compatibility tools (and most importantly, uniquely significant neighborhood buy-in), but are effective (when appropriate) in creating compatible compact, human-scaled, lower-speed and mixed use development that induce civic pride and powerfully achieve important City objectives.
  1. I am worried that actions taken by Council on the Comprehensive Housing Strategy might lock certain parts of Boulder into a highly undesirable status quo. There are many areas, such as East Boulder and important transit nodes, that are in desperate need of re-development — places that are overly car-happy, declining, parking lot-choked areas with a terrible economic and quality of life problem. These places, in particular, are overdue for restoration through catalysts such as the needed reforms to land development and parking that I outline above.

In sum, the Comprehensive Housing Strategy offers the City an excellent opportunity to implement the reforms I outline above.

 

 

 

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One Size Does Not Fit All

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 15, 2014

As the debate in Boulder Colorado is fought over development, density, neighborhood compatibility, and future vision, I keep thinking about the important truism in urban design:

One size does not fit all.

In the Sunday, September 14th Daily Camera, Mayor Matt Appelbaum indirectly made this point when he was quoted as saying that “There is not going to be a consensus.”

Precisely.

There will ALWAYS be a large number of folks in Boulder who passionately advocate for and desire to live in compact, walkable neighborhoods. There will ALWAYS be a large number of folks who desire more dispersed, drivable suburban neighborhoods. And there will ALWAYS be a large number who want an isolated, rural lifestyle.

How do we meet these three different lifestyle needs?

For over a century, most communities — including Boulder — have unfairly believed that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to community design. And land development regulations too often reflect this unfairness.

No, what is needed is not to find an impossible “consensus” amongst those seeking differing lifestyle paths (a recipe for a dumbed down, lowest common denominator plan). In my opinion, one huge solution is for Boulder to adopt what is called a Rural to Urban Transect Sandy Sorlien“Smart Code.” A Smart Code includes an “urban-to-rural transect,” where land development regulations are calibrated so that a quality urban lifestyle is achieved in the areas designated as compact and walkable, where another set of regulations are calibrated to achieve a quality suburban lifestyle, and a third set of regulations is adopted to achieve a quality rural lifestyle.

The transect concept asks this question: What elements are immersive in the habitat we are working in—be it Charleston or the Everglades? For example, the transect instructs that a sidewalk is immersive in Charleston, and a “transect violation” when within the Everglades. Conversely, a 200-acre marsh is immersive in the Everglades and a transect violation in Charleston. In other words, something is immersive if it promotes the quality of the habitat being designed. It is a violation if it harms the quality of the habitat being designed.

And frankly, this is where some of the conflict and impatience comes between those who are currently the loudest: many Better Boulder advocates and many with PLAN-Boulder County. A good number of PLAN-Boulder advocates don’t seem to have a conception of a transect or immersiveness. To such advocates, it is always a good idea to incorporate more nature, larger setbacks, and lower density everywhere—which fails to acknowledge that a 200-acre marsh in the middle of an in-town urban neighborhood harms the quality of a walkable Charleston. Natural features are not always immersive in all locations (it took me a while to realize that, since I came from an environmental academic background).

Conversely, many Better Boulder advocates are guilty of not taking proper care of sensitive ecosystems in projects they support. That more density, or taller buildings, or smaller setbacks are always appropriate in all locations. But it is also true that a many environmental scientists are guilty of not taking proper care of urbanism in their advocacy. Both advocacy positions (urban or suburban) can harm the other if not applied where it belongs.

Let the city be a city and let nature be nature. It goes both ways.

It has been accurately stated many times in Boulder that there is very little coherent “vision” for Boulder’s future in its Comprehensive Plan or its land development regulations. This is certainly true for Boulder’s largely conventional land development regulations, which utterly lack any vision. Instead, the regulations only tell us what we DO NOT want. The result, as we see, is unpredictable, often random, often unloved development — development that is certainly worrisome and opposed by many neighborhood groups.

A Smart Code effectively addresses this lack of vision, as well as the equitable need to provide lifestyle and housing options for the full range of community desires — from compact to rural. It does this by not only adopting a code that varies as it moves from urban to suburban to rural, but also by incorporating a “Form-Based Coding” system, which is in stark contrast to the conventional zoning used in much of Boulder. Instead of the conventional, use-based codes that are found in most all of Boulder — a code that is mostly concerned about what happens inside of buildings, only tells us negatively about what is not allowed, and strives to avoid any mixing of housing with retail, services, or offices — a Smart Code with form-based coding reduces the excessive concern about what is inside a building (by separating uses from each other with such regulations, the use-based conventional zoning makes it much harder for Boulder to achieve crucial transportation objectives).

A form-based Smart Code also provides us with a predictable, neighborhood-supported, positive vision for future development in neighborhoods. And that predictability and neighborhood buy-in is not only a wonderful way to reduce opposition to development, but is also a great way to ensure economic health (predictability is very important for business). Our regulations can show developers the building appearance and location on the property that the community and neighborhood desires in a given part of the “transect,” rather than the conventional use-based zoning, that only tells us what NOT to do.

In my opinion, Boulder should use this highly contentious debate over future development as an opportunity to call for the development of a form-based Smart Code — either in targeted locations such as what has already been done in North Boulder, or citywide. This code should be developed in a “charrette” process (intense, community- or neighborhood-based design workshop facilitated by trained professional urban designers). A charrette is an excellent way to provide community design education to citizens, as well as to achieve a great deal of citizen/neighborhood buy-in (because citizens end up making many of the design decisions).

The North Boulder Sub-Area Plan and the Holiday neighborhood within that location (prepared by Dover-Kohl consultants in the mid-90s) represents an excellent local model for a form-based Smart Code that has delivered popular, quality development. I understand that the plan and regulations remain popular after almost 20 years of adoption of that plan and its Smart Code.

 

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Maximum Height for Buildings?

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 14, 2014
I continue to believe that five stories generally makes sense as a maximum height for a smaller city such as Boulder Colorado. I wouldn’t be rigidly opposed to taller buildings, but I think taller buildings in Boulder should be extremely rare (and probably clad in brick or stone to reduce the jarring nature of a relatively tall building).

Besides the human scale that is lost when a building gets taller than five stories, there are other important concerns I have. Speaking from experience (and particularly in a city such as Boulder where transit service is good but not great, as it is in many big cities), when a building has a lot of stories, it is very likely that there will be an enormous amount of financial, political, and employee/resident pressure to serve that building with massive surface parking lots, monstrous (and monstrously expensive) parking garages (and underground parking). There will, in other words, be huge expenses associated with storing the huge number of cars, and the taller building will therefore be drawing a rather large number of cars — which is generally not good for a relatively small city or a place that seeks to be walkable. Relatively tall buildings can generally avoid this problem if served by very frequent bus or rail transit. In addition, that huge influx of cars can put a LOT of pressure on local and state government to add a lot of toxic, ruinous roadway capacity to the existing street system in order to serve that influx of cars — not at all good for a small city wanting to be walkable.

Monster roads and monster parking is deadly to efforts to create walkability.

It is probably true that a given city can only expect to support “X” number of jobs or housing or retail space. I think it is much preferable for a city that wishes to be walkable, vibrant and interesting to have, say, 50 buildings that are five stories tall than to have 25 buildings that are 10 stories tall.

Aesthetics (including properly proportioned windows) are extremely important in this discussion. We’ve given density a very black eye by allowing aesthetic atrocities when density is attempted in the US.

The Boulderado hotel in Boulder is a great example to point to when folks express screaming agony over density and large buildings. We need to put buildings like the Hotel_Boulderado1-T1Boulderado into a pattern book…

Excessive focus on size/height distracts us from the important, necessary discussion we need to have about design and details. This reminds me of a similar issue: Too many in Boulder are convinced that putting a cap on the number of people in Boulder is the be-all-and-end-all of protecting quality of life. Too many think that such a cap is all we need to create or protect the lovability of Boulder.

Nonsense.

I very much like the idea of making structured parking more common, and agree with how taller buildings can do that. Taller buildings create needed concentrations for transit nodes.

I love the idea known as “inclusionary upzoning,” which makes affordable housing more economically, legally, and politically feasible.

For walkability, I want to see as many buildings as possible (which taller buildings might work against). I want to see surface parking prohibited in places intended to be walkable. I want to see lenders stop demanding excessive amounts of parking for taller buildings before they agree to lend money. I want to see the price of structured parking unbundled from residential units. I want to see building setbacks minimized and “open space” or landscaping requirements relaxed substantially in places intended to be walkable. I want to see minimum parking regulations converted to maximum parking regulations. I want a requirement that parking be priced. I want to see a form-based code. And I want to see Floor Area Ratio limits raised substantially.

Oh, and I also want to enact a moratorium on street/intersection size, and a cap on the total amount of parking in various districts.

Then we can talk about taller buildings…

Many in Boulder claim that the City engages in “punishing” drivers. By contrast, I’ve been shocked by how PAMPERED drivers are in Boulder. And by how many “environmentalists” in Boulder are supportive of such pampering. Many greens here wrongly think that free-flowing traffic and the oversized roads and intersections that result from that) reduces air emissions and fuel consumption. It is actually the other way around. They forget about induced demand and low-value trips. By joining with the sprawl lobby in Boulder, they have created a very car-happy community.

Drivers in Brooklyn or Amsterdam are maybe “punished.” But not in Boulder.

If anyone is “punished” in Boulder, it is pedestrians and cyclists. Certainly there is a fair amount of lip service paid to pampering pedestrians and cyclists, and “punishing” drivers, but the reality is light years from that.

 

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