Placing Blame

 

By Dom Nozzi

March 30, 2004

An important point I make in my speeches is that most of the ruinous transportation decisions we arrive at (regularly) are decisions that we are compelled to make by our unfortunate circumstances. I don’t, for example, blame folks for their desperate desire to make their cars happy (with, for example, big roads). What choice do they have when they live in a remote, low-density, single-use area filled with disconnected roads?

The approach I try to take is that we must work with the hand we’ve been dealt. Design our transport system in such a way as to not “get rid of cars,” but to make our cars behave themselves. (to be our slaves, not our masters).

Traffic calming. Connected streets. Mixed uses. Modest setbacks. Unobtrusive off-street parking.

It is important to point out that the conventional transportation design strategy WORSENS conditions for the motorist.

In our increasingly cocooning, isolationist, gated community culture, it is EXTREMELY difficult, politically, to push the connected streets agenda — crucial as that agenda is. Given that, can we really blame the traffic engineer for recommending a monster intersection on our sparse, cul-de-sac’d road network?

In the end, I recommend that the community establish and protect lifestyle choices within the community: Walkable urban areas and rural areas — not just car-dependent suburban areas. Each has clear design imperatives that we must abide by. One size does not fit all. Freedom of choice is difficult to argue against.

I am dedicated to doing all I can to see that high-quality models of the walkable, traditional lifestyle (a lifestyle that is rapidly vanishing) are established in my community so that people can see with their own eyes that it works quite well (envy can be our friend.) Models help us avoid the “abstractions” problem. Or the common wet blanket that it “won’t work here because ‘they’ are different than us.”

I live for the day when we have reached that much-sought-after “tipping point.” In other words, when smart growth is self-reinforcing, and does not need ZEALOTS like me to keep making what many find to be embarrassing, awkward observations about needed transportation and urban design reforms.

 

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Lessons From Europe

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 16, 2004

Is Europe on the road to ruin, due to increased auto ownership?  To what extent?

As traditional neighborhood architects would say, Europe has “good bones.” That is, many European communities are extremely fortunate in comparison to most American communities in the sense that they were largely built BEFORE the emergence of the ruinous shift to “car cparis narrow sidewalkraze” travel patterns. As a result, these European communities were built for transit, walking and bicycling. That is, their traditional, in-town areas are compact, mixed-use (residential mixed with shops and offices), multi-story, and modest in the provision of surface parking and street size.

This explains why these European communities remain such fantastic places (that millions of non-Europeans love to visit as tourists). They were built using timeless principles – principles that will never go out of style. The design was intended to make people happy, instead of cars.

What this all means is that increased auto ownership in Europe is troublesome but not necessarily fatal to what they have. In their urban areas, car ownership will be obligated to struggle to fit in. For the foreseeable future, it will remain inconvenient and costly to own and use a car in these European places. The danger is that European leaders may incrementally allow suburbanizing, car-friendly changes to the design of their communities — if they do not have sufficient pride in what they have, or leadership.

An enormous obstacle to undesirable suburbanization Europe is that it may be cost-prohibitive to retrofit the space-intensive needs of cars in communities that are now modest in size.

Can the US learn any lessons from European cities, which have within walking distance everything Americans in most cities must drive to reach?

The lessons that can be learned in the US are that traditional community design patterns that we have largely abandoned and forgotten about since approximately WWII are timeless. They remain wonderful, envied places centuries after they were first built. Those traditional principles — mixed use, higher density, walkable compactness, multiple stories, modest parking and street sizes — are an essential component for all communities. They must remain a lifestyle choice in all communities — a choice that is rapidly vanishing in the US. There will always be citizens who wish to enjoy the merits of the traditional, sociable lifestyle. And in the future, the number of citizens who seek such a lifestyle will grow as the auto-dependent lifestyle becomes increasingly unsustainable, unaffordable, and unrewarding.

Why is it that many in the US are stunned when they learn that a large number of European citizens live quite comfortably in cities such as Barcelona without a personal car?

Roughly since WWII, Americans have built their communities to make cars happy. Among other things, this has led to a substantial number of citizens fleeing the downwardly spiraling quality of life in town centers. This flight from the center is in large part due to the fact that car-friendly design in centers almost inevitably worsens the quality of life for people. They flee due to the decline in quality of life AND the fact that they were now able to do so because travel by car means that jobs and other daily needs no longer need to be close to each other. The result of the growing irrelevancy of distance is that we have low-density land use dispersal. Most homes are now quite remote from all daily destinations: work, retail, culture, entertainment, civic, etc. It should therefore not at all surprise us that we find ourselves forced to make nearly all trips by car. The dispersal locks us into extreme car dependency. It naturally seems impossible to nearly all of us that life could be at all possible without continuous access to a car (or someone who can give us a ride). Most of the Baby Boom and more recent generations have never experienced life in a place that is not designed for car dependency. We have lost the cultural memory of the tradition we have left — a tradition rich in travel choices.

Sadly, it is now nearly impossible to a fulfilling live life in America without a car. Too many sacrifices need to be made. Loss of independence. Loss of time. Loss of ability to go to certain places, buy certain things, or work in certain places. Without a car in America today, one is looked upon as a weirdo. A bizarre anachronism.

But as Paul Bedford, the Toronto planning director has pointed out, the sign of a quality city is that it is possible to live an enjoyable life without owning a car.

 

 

 

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Advice to a Friend About Finding a New Dance Venue

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 10, 2004

I have enjoyed “contra” dancing for over 25 years. Contra is an “old-tyme” form of dancing. It is a folk dance made up of long lines of couples. It has mixed origins from English country dance, Scottish, French dance styles in the 17th century, with strong African influence from Appalachia. Sometimes described as New England folk dance or Appalachian folk dance, contra dances can be found around the world and have much

Contra dance, Gainesville FL April 2007

popularity in North America and the United Kingdom where weekly or monthly dances and annual dance weekends are common. The dance is guided by a “caller” and tends to get its music from a live fiddle band.

A contra dance friend of mine in Florida – Tara – contacted me in 2004 to ask for advice about the local contra community seeking to buy a new venue building for contra dancing. Here is what I offered.

Hi Tara,

I’m flattered that you have contacted me to ask me about this. I have been seeing the email postings about this exciting proposal for a few days now and, coincidentally, was going to email you about it today.

First, I think it would be a very good idea for the dance community to own and have control over its own facility. Having full control over the scheduling of the building would be an enormous advantage over the current venue.

I don’t mean to rain on this encouraging parade, Tara, but I have very serious concerns about the Moose Lodge location on 23rd Ave. As a long-range city planner, it is my opinion that community-serving “social condensers” (of which the local dance community is one) should not be located away from a downtown location — a location that is essentially inaccessible by foot, transit or bicycle. In particular, inaccessible to the downtown residences.

There are a number of reasons why I believe community-serving “social condensers” should be downtown:

  1. They are an essential building block toward creating a “sense of community.” Like most cities, the town center is about the only place where a sense of community can be experienced, because the center is where residents gather for cultural, civic, political and entertainment purposes. When community-serving activities leave the town center, the sense of community declines.
  1. In the town center, there are “spillover” benefits. At the current location of the dance hall, it is easy for folks to walk to the hall from other town center locations, or to walk from the hall to various town center destinations. Due to the flight of such activities from town centers throughout the nation, there is “no there there” in the town centers of much of America.
  1. In my opinion, an essential ingredient in the creation and maintenance of a quality city, as the Toronto Planning Director once said, is that there is at least one place where people can choose to live without being forced to use a car to get to important, regular activities in life. Despite the erosion of town centers due to flight from them, many centers continue to serve the purpose of providing a car-free lifestyle choice to some extent. Folks who choose to live in the town center (thereby being able to take advantage of a less car-dependent lifestyle) would not be able to walk or bicycle to NE 23rd Ave, and find it more difficult to use a bus to get there.

Given the above, while I am thrilled about the idea of the dance community owning its own dance venue, a location on NE 23rd Ave would mean that (a) Our town would, overall, offer a lower quality of life for those opting for a car-free lifetyle; and (b) Spillover benefits to the town center associated with dancing would decline.

Finally, as one of those “weirdoes” who strives to live a less car-dependent lifestyle, I would sadly need to end my roughly 15 years of attending contra dances in town if the venue was moved to a place that was largely inaccessible to a person wanting to walk, bicycle, or take transit to dances.

Again, thanks for contacting me about this.

 

 

 

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Traffic Congestion

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 10, 2004

We all despise traffic congestion. Yet traffic congestion is an inevitable sign of a healthy, thriving, alive city or community. It shows that the community is attractive enough that people want to be there. It also shows, in some instances, that the community has not degraded itself by excessively catering to the needs of the car.

Putting too much into car needs inevitably leads to a degradation of conditions that make PEOPLE happy, since people and cars have disparate needs. Cars like huge asphalt parking lots, high-speed roads, lots of lighting, and no other cars around (cars are anti-social). huge turn radius for roadPeople outside of cars feel unsafe, inconvenienced, unpleasant and exposed in large parking lots or near high-speed roads. As sociable animals, people also tend to enjoy having other people around.

Often, people confuse traffic congestion with a sign that the community is unhealthy. As Yogi Berra once said, “The place got so crowded that no one went there anymore.”

Traffic congestion is nearly always our friend, and should not be fought against by improving car travel conditions.

Congestion, for example, does the following beneficial things:

  1. Encourages infill development.
  2. Encourages higher residential and commercial densities.
  3. Encourages compact, mixed-use development.
  4. Slows down cars.
  5. Slows down suburban sprawl.
  6. Slows the decline of downtowns and in-town, locally-owned retail.
  7. Reduces regional air pollution and gasoline consumption.
  8. Discourages low-value car trips.
  9. Encourages residential development near or in downtown and employment concentrations.
  10. Reduces car dependency.
  11. Improves the quality of public transit.
  12. Improves conditions for walking and bicycling.

In sum, congestion is caused by a community being attractive and vibrant. It is a community that is wealthy enough for its residents to be able to afford to own cars. A community without congestion is an unhealthy, unattractive community. Or its residents are unable to afford to own cars.

The beneficial way to address car congestion is not to try, hopelessly, to reduce it. The best way to deal with congestion is to establish ways to avoid it.

Create multiple routes to destinations. Make it easier to walk, bicycle or use transit. Build compactly so distances are shortened. And so on.

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Transportation Comes Before Land Use

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 21, 2004

The condition of the street determines what happens alongside it. I agree with urbanist Robert Gibbs when he says it is unfair to require a business to abut a streetside sidewalk when the street does not have on-street parking. When street carrying a relatively large volume of cars lacks on-street parking, the street is too hostile to have buildings butt up to it. I don’t at all blame businesspeople for pulling away from the street when the street is a “car sewer.”street without on street parking

In sum, either a relatively large street without on-street parking is forever to be a strip commercial “lost land” because it is impractical to shrink its size, or it needs to be made livable (largely with on-street parking and removal of travel lanes – both of which create a more human-scaled, slower-speed environment) before you start requiring buildings to behave themselves by pulling up to the sidewalk and having an entrance face the street.

If we try to force buildings to be pedestrian-friendly BEFORE the street is rehabilitated, we risk giving urbanism a black eye. We understandably increase the likelihood of a political firestorm of businesspeople SCREAMING to elected officials not to force their buildings up on the sidewalk.

Sadly, we fail to heed the above warning, and instead we almost always keep our fingers crossed and hope — in desperation — that we can fix the land development regulations or redo the urban design along a street before we fix the street, because fixing the street is (usually rightly) seen as being a non-starter (at least in our lifetimes), and the former is WAY more do-able.

To put land use before transportation is an ineffective path of least resistance.

 

 

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Can Sidewalks Be Too Wide?

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 11, 2004

Speaking as someone who works in a city where folks hardly walk at all (Gainesville, Florida), and as someone who is a strong advocate of promoting walking and urbanism, wide sidewalkI am convinced that it is, indeed, quite possible to build sidewalks that are too wide.

If a street is not vibrant or compact or active enough to experience more than a tiny trickle of pedestrian volumes, a relatively wide sidewalk can create a perception that the streetlife is dead, even if it is not entirely dead. A narrower sidewalk can, in such a circumstance, make the street seem more alive, even if the pedestrian volume remains the same. In addition, a relatively wide sidewalk can create an ambience that is not human-scaled and the feeling of being over-exposed — particularly if there are few or no pedestrians using it.

In my experience, pedestrians often enjoy the sociability of walking a moderately crowded sidewalk (often produced by a relatively narrow sidewalk), in stark contrast to our preference when driving a car on a crowded road.paris narrow sidewalk

I would add that some of the best walking experiences I’ve had have been on Charleston
and Nantucket sidewalks (or many ancient European cities), which tend to be quite narrow.

 

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The Importance of a Relatively High Floor Area Ratio (FAR)

By Dom Nozzi

June 11, 2004

What is a “Floor Area Ratio (FAR)”? An FAR of 1.0 means that the developer is allowed to build the equivalent of a one-story building over her entire lot, or a 2-story building over half the lot.FAR An FAR of 2.0 means the developer is allowed to build the equivalent of a two-story building over her entire lot, or a 4-story over half the lot.

An FAR of 0.5 means the developer is allowed to build the equivalent of a one-story building over half her entire lot, or a 1-story over half the lot.

And so on.

I should hasten to point out that while these numbers seem very dense, keep in mind that in almost every case except in, say, the middle of a downtown, an FAR of 1.0 would NOT allow the developer to build one story over the entire lot, as other development code regulations would ALSO require space for landscaping, open space, parking, setbacks, etc. Thus, an FAR of 1.0 would almost never result in a one-story building over an entire lot. It would probably be a one-story over less than the full lot to be able to fit in the landscaping, etc. In effect, what FAR limits do is control the amount of building floor area, and often don’t really tell you how much of the site will be covered by a building.

Walkable urbanism and healthy transit require FARs to be at least 1.5 to 3.0. In Europe, those loveable cities we all love to walk have FARs that are probably well over 3.0. In villageAmerica, as you can imagine, most of our commercial areas have developed FARs of about 0.1 (with most space taken up by surface parking).

Therefore, if a community wishes to encourage more walking and vibrant, sociable urbanism, it should require at least 1.5 FAR. Anything less than about 1.0 locks a community into sprawl, extreme auto dependence and downwardly spiraling downtowns,
because low FARs create unwalkably large spaces that are more car-scaled than people-scaled. People feel more comfortable in the quaint, enclosed spaces created by, say, 2.0 FAR buildings. They feel exposed and in a “no-man’s-land” when FARs are less than 1.0 (which is fine if you are inside an SUV…)

Note that I am NOT suggesting that we require more than 1.5 FAR everywhere in a community. Only in in-town places where more walking and urbanism are being promoted do we want to see 1.5 FAR or more. In suburban and rural locations, it is generally okay to have an FAR of 0.5 or less — unless you are trying to create a walkable neighborhood center (a sea-of-asphalt shopping center that is to be transformed, for example) in the middle of a suburban location.

Here is an excerpt from the Urban Design Toolbox I wrote for Gainesville, Florida that will forever collect dust on a shelf due to its “controversial” suggestions (and despite the Gainesville Plan Board demanding that it be published):

“…  In commercial areas, FAR should be at least 1.0. In office/industrial and mixed use areas, it should be at least 1.25 (Snohomish County WA).  Richard Untermann, a well-known urban designer, calls for FARs of 2.0-3.0 in town centers, and 3.0 for office areas.  San Diego requires at least 0.5 FAR near bus stations.  To increase employment densities, Orlando requires both a minimum and maximum FAR for most commercial zoning.  However, a FAR of 1.0-2.0 is considered ideal for creating transportation choices, yet Gainesville allows less FAR than this in town centers.  Every 20 percent increase in floor space in commercial centers developed as non-office uses is associated with a 4.5 percent increase in ride sharing and transit use…”

I’ve not given much thought to how we should design low-density residential areas, in part because nearly all of the regulations of most all American communities are intended to serve such a lifestyle, which means “we’ve got that covered — no need for more work there.” In effect, what that has meant for me is that I generally assume that the existing FARs that a community has adopted should presumably be appropriate for low-density residential areas.

Note, however, that usually, a community does not have an FAR rule for its single-family areas, probably because generous setback requirements, strict height limits, and the strong market desire for low density means there is very little danger of “too much” floor area in such neighborhoods.

In many cases, the community looking at addressing the needs of various neighborhoods or sub-areas of the community needs to make a decision about what the future intent will be for a neighborhood. Is the intent that the neighborhood remain low-density, smaller and more affordable houses and auto-dependent? If so, it would be appropriate to have an FAR of 0.5 or lower. If, on the other hand, the neighborhood has historically been low density and smaller in house size but is located near a part of the community that is intended to be more walkable and urban (such as neighborhoods adjacent to a transit center or town center), it would probably be appropriate to have higher FARs or no FAR limit so that the neighborhood could incrementally transform into a place that is more walkable, more urban, and perhaps more wealthy (due to the larger size of the homes or the high desirability of the location (in this case, being near all the urban action).

Healthy communities sometimes acknowledge that the historic character of a neighborhood should not be forever frozen in its current character. Sometimes, a neighborhood may have been originally built as a low-density residential area with smaller homes, at a time in which it was remote from the more urban locations of a city. But over time, those urban locations may grow in size or see the emergence of a new “satellite” downtown (such as a shopping center that has been rebuilt to be like a walkable downtown). In such instances, it is usually in the best interest of the city to encourage low-density neighborhoods that are now near urbanized areas to incrementally become more urban and walkable themselves.

In general, such transformation is a response to a market shift. If a historically low-density neighborhood is now within walking distance of where the urban “action” is, there will be more demand for folks who seek a walkable lifestyle to own a home in such a place. Also, when the neighborhoods near an urban center become higher density, they make the urban center more healthy, because a denser neighborhood brings more pedestrians and less cars — and excessive numbers of car trips are deadly to an urban center.

Often, if it is deemed appropriate that a neighborhood should become more compact and walkable, such a neighborhood will incrementally see some of its existing residents, who may prefer a lower-density lifestyle, be replaced by others who DO seek a higher-density lifestyle.

If we didn’t allow this to happen in cities, we’d have farms next door to skyscrapers in downtown NYC.

 

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