“Hometown Democracy” in Florida

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 10, 2004

In 2004, there was a voter referendum proposed in Florida called “Hometown Democracy.” It was an effort to substantially increase the use of direct democracy over representative democracy (due largely to many Florida residents feeling as if their elected officials were not listening).

This is my take on this constitutional amendment to go to direct democracy…

In general, I am quite uncomfortable with the idea. In some ways, the amendment would be an obstacle to the “re-use of vacant/abandoned lands” efforts that have become an important issue, because citizens would have a high likelihood of voting against nearly all proposals to intensify a land use designation on a property — and such “upzoning” is often needed to make it viable to re-use abandoned lands.

It also strikes me that the direct democracy folks are an extreme form of NIMBYism (the Hogtown Greenway Bike/Pedestrian Path Debacle is a good, infamous example of the dangers of direct democracy in Gainesville). While I am sympathetic to the thought that nearly all upzonings in the past have delivered us bad development (auto-oriented national chains and big box retailers and huge asphalt parking lagoons), and that it would therefore be handy to have citizens be able to trump weak-kneed politicians who so often cave in to Supercenters and Drive-Throughs (etc.) by reversing a zoning or land use decision, it seems to me that this is a sledgehammer rule that would lead to a lot of unfortunate, unintended consequences.

Indeed, in so many places (including Gainesville), if we were to lock in the status quo by having NIMBY citizens always voting against upzonings, we’d be locking ourselves into a dispersed, suburban, auto-oriented downward spiral that we are in today. Often, we need to have selected properties upzoned from residential to non-residential so that we can have a more walkable, compact community that is vibrant, sociable, and less dominated by excessive car travel. But it would seem that with direct democracy, about 99 percent of all such upzonings would be voted down.

It strikes me that the crucial change we need is to revamp the land development codes for places like Gainesville so that in-town developments deliver us walkable, pleasant, friendly projects that don’t overwhelm neighborhoods with big roads, big traffic, big noise pollution, and big light pollution. In other words, requiring that development build in a neighborhood-friendly, traditional manner.

The key to a better future does not lie in stopping all growth and development. The key is stopping auto-oriented development, rapid land consumption at the periphery, and BIG roads. We desperately need well-designed, walkable, in-town development.

Gainesville’s land development regulations require project design that delivers suburban, auto-oriented development everywhere. In my opinion, we must move away from that destructive, one-size-fits-all approach that says everyone should live the suburban lifestyle. Some of us should have the option of living a walkable urban lifestyle or even a rural lifestyle. The Gainesville code largely says we have only one choice: suburban.

I say we should revise our codes so that we set up at least 3 lifestyle zones, with accompanying regulations. Urban Zone gets compact, walkable design regulations, Suburban Zone gets big setbacks and other car-oriented dimensions. The Rural Zone gets small village cluster and farm/woodland regulations. That way, citizens will increasingly urban-to-rural-transect-Duany-Plater-Zyberk-smbe accepting of new development projects in their neighborhoods. They will hopefully live in their lifestyle zone of choice, and will eventually find that the 3-tiered development code results in new projects that promote their lifestyle. The nearly universal desire to fear the next proposed development in the neighborhood (no matter what it might be) can transform to that happy time in our decades ago past when we actually looked forward to the new development proposal.

As Padriac Steinschneider once said, the opposite of bad development is good development, not no development.

However, I might be sympathetic to the idea if it were somehow restricted to unincorporated areas remote from cities where we don’t want any development.

 

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

Using the Urban to Rural Transect to Make Urbanists and Environmentalists Allies

 

By Dom  Nozzi

September 12, 2004

Urbanists and environmentalists are natural allies. Instead of attacking each other, urbanists and environmentalists need to be saving energy to fight real enemies (The Making Cars Happy behemoth).

Speaking as someone schooled in both environmental science and urbanism, I must say that the new urbanist transect concept is one of the most powerful concepts I have ever come across, because its proper application informs us about how the entire spectrum of habitats — be they Charleston or the Everglades — is best designed. Neither the traditional discipline of urbanism or the traditional discipline of ecology incorporates the full spectrum of habitats and their needs. In principle, the transect achieves that.

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-inlets_2026_600x450Everglades (at least the inner core wetland area of the Prairie). 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 new urbanists and many environmentalists. A good number of environmental advocates don’t have a conception of a transect or immersiveness. To such advocates, it is always a good idea to incorporate more nature 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).french-quarter-inn-charleston-city-view1

Let the city be a city and let nature be nature. It goes both ways. Yes, many urbanists are guilty of not taking proper care of sensitive ecosystems in their projects. But it is also true that a many environmental scientists are guilty of not taking proper care of urbanism in THEIR advocacy. Both can harm the other.

Much of our culture fails to realize that nature can, in a sense, pollute urbanism in the same way that human development can pollute nature.

 

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Easing Our Guilty Conscience Can Subvert Quality Urban Design

By Dom Nozzi

September 19, 2003

Over the past few decades, environmental advocacy groups have had great success in making most people feel “sinful” for “damaging” nature. Such guilt leads to an increased desire to, for example, recycle soda cans. Or object to cutting down a few low-value trees. We ease our guilty conscience — guilt felt because many of us know, in the back of our minds, that we lead environmentally destructive lives. So recycling a few cans is our way to do penance and avoid damnation.

Another result is that arm-chair enviros often naively think that making our world tidy and neat is a meaningful and sufficient form of environmental conservation.

For both the can recyclers living in remote, car-dependent subdivisions with their SUVs, and the tidy and neat “enviros,” we see that most in our society have internalized the idea that “protecting the environment” is good. It is a cultural norm that most everyone takes for granted. It is now pretty much a bi-partisan consensus.

The end result of such a cultural victory, unfortunately, is unintended consequences. Many seem to believe that a tree or a shrub is ALWAYS a good idea in EVERY POSSIBLE location. It is inconceivable that a tree is not a good idea in some places.

That is, nature is sacred.

Given this cultural norm, naive enviros who don’t see the big picture too often decide to exclude a town design decision that has overall positive benefits for both humans and nature. For example, naive enviros will occasionally succeed in stopping an in-town project by convincing decision-makers to save a low-quality wetland or woodlot located in a town center. Naive enviros are often joined by commissioners who are naive about the needs of quality urbanism. Lacking any knowledge of what the ingredients might be for urbanism, it often seems case, that it is a no-brainer that we should save a few trees in exchange for loss of, say, a retail corner on an otherwise sterile building.

But is it really a no-brainer?

Is it really true that we can afford to give up a retail space in a part of a town center that is a scary, uninhabited prostitute- and drug-saturated no-man’s-land? A part of our town center where no one (except the homeless) walk, because there is nothing to walk to except empty parking lots and vacant buildings? (and a tired clump of trees)

The unintended consequence of saving every tree in a town center is that the town center ends up becoming, incrementally, a dead zone that no one wants to be a part of. Nothing happens there. It is not hip to be there, or be seen there. The hip, safe, happening places instead are in the outlying areas — areas that are incrementally wiping out our REALLY important woodlands and wetlands.

Preserving natural habitat by creating better human habitat. So says – correctly — the Smart Growth America’s web site.

The campaign over the past few decades to make environmental conservation (however naively practiced) a cultural norm has meant that we end up unintentionally harming other societal objectives — an example of “knowing just enough to be dangerous.” We strip commercial sidewalkoften fight and win easy “environmental” victories (such as saving a scraggly tree or degraded wetland), and pat ourselves on the back. But we are either blind to, or have given up on, the REAL war: stopping auto-oriented roadway and town design.

Because there are few, if any, citizens or decision-makers who know anything at all about what the ingredients consist of for a quality, compact, walkable habitat for humans, we easily and blindly harm that habitat as we zealously continue winning tiny, trivial battles to save Bambi.

No one objects, because no one sees any harm.

 

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Filed under Environment, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

Are We “Forced” to Drive a Car?

By Dom Nozzi

September 19, 2004

People often say to me that it is IMPOSSIBLE to survive without a car. Whenever I tell people that I’ve lived most of my adult life without owning a car, they look at me like I am some sort of dangerous lunatic. Or that I am from outer space.

They quickly rationalize about how “its possible for you, Dom, because you don’t have kids.” Or “you live close to work.” Or “you don’t have to run errands during the day.” Or “you don’t need to wear a dress.” And as I often say, it is IRRATIONAL not to drive a car quite often, because of the way we’ve designed our communities.

Sure, it is possible to live without a car. No one “forces” a person to use a car all the time. One has the “option” of walking or riding a bicycle seven miles, at night, in terrible weather, on a busy 5-lane road – a road without a safe space for wastreet without on street parkinglking or bicycling — to go shopping at the mall, or attend a meeting, or come home from work, or ferry kids and cargo. On a road that contains HUGE intersections that are extremely dangerous for a bicyclist or pedestrian to negotiate.

A person has the “option” of taking a bus filled with sketchy people, that arrives once every hour or so, and then takes an exceedingly slow route to your destination – assuming it actually goes anywhere near your destination.

But I question how many times a year that actually happens.

Our society makes it VERY difficult to travel without a car. I would say that on average, I attend about 5 events per week and I am almost always the only person there who has bicycled or walked. Indeed, bicycling and walking (or riding a bus) are considered so difficult and unlikely that almost no city government is willing to even set up a parking cash-out program — a program in which motorists would have the option of retaining the status quo of a free parking spot, or instead being awarded a higher salary [maybe $25-$100 per month] if they chose to walk, bicycle or bus to work. In other words, it is inconceivable to most all local government decision-makers that ANY employees would actually decide not to drive to work thru such an incentive. So why offer it?

So yes, no one is “forced” to drive a car. But it takes heroic efforts to NOT drive a car.

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What Direction Should the State of Florida Take With Regard to Local Government Planning?

By Dom Nozzi

September 25, 2003

The State of Florida contains an agency called the Department of Community Affairs, which provides directives and guidance to city and county governments in Florida regarding town planning, transportation and land development. That agency therefore plays a crucial role in how development and transportation should occur in Florida.

What should this guidance consist of?

As a 20-year long-range town planner in Florida, here are my thoughts on the matter.

First, planning directives from the state planning agency need to be more directive than to just call for communities to establish a “vision.” But instead of taking a heavy-handed approach in which the state dictates how communities should be developed, there should be a strong statement that calls for communities to:

(a) Create plans and regulations that promote lifestyle choices. All communities must provide ample opportunities for living an urban, suburban, or rural lifestyle. Currently, nearly all communities only allow for the suburban choice. We must be clear that one size does not fit all. We need a tiered regulatory system that applies appropriate regulations for each lifestyle choice, instead of providing only suburban design regulations. We need to make urban and rural lifestyles legal again (in appropriate locations).urban-to-rural-transect-Duany-Plater-Zyberk-sm

(b) Create a transportation system that is rich in transportation choices. Again, this needs to be a tiered approach where one size does not fit all locations. In core (urban, compact) areas, the pedestrian is the design imperative. Streets are modest in size, calm in design speed and no more than three lanes in width. Roads get progressively larger and higher in design speed as you move outside of core. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), in particular, needs to radically change their approach to design so that state roads are context-sensitive when going through communities. FDOT must become a helpful partner with local communities, instead of an adversary only looking out for the needs of the state.

In many communities, being serious about controlling sprawl and protecting or restoring quality of life will require a long-term healing process. Damage wrought in the past by building monster high-speed roads will often need to be incrementally reversed by putting many of these roads on a diet (ie, removing unnecessary, toxic, dangerous travel lanes).

In the interim, as communities struggle to correct the design of their streets and roads, an urban growth boundary will probably be required. Without a strong boundary, no plans, regulations or strong elected officials can stop the sprawl tidal wave induced largely by big roads in a community.

(c) Many important efforts are necessary to reverse our long-standing pattern of being our own worst enemies. The Florida Growth Management Act (which dictates rules for plans that local governments in Florida must adopt) needs to be revised so that road “level of service” (the level of congestion found on a road) is not applied in urban areas. The State concurrency rule that obligates level of service for urban roads is a powerful sprawl engine (because “adequate” road capacity tends to only be found in outlying areas rather than within towns).

In addition, public schools must end the practice of inducing sprawl by curtailing the widespread construction of new schools in outlying areas. An important element is this is to revise school standards that make walkable, in-town, neighborhood-based schools difficult or impossible (such as large ballfield requirements).

Large emergency service vehicles must not dictate excessive road design standards by being the standard that engineers use to design roads (the “design” vehicle). Doing so promotes high and dangerous car speeds.

Similarly, modest, human-scaled streets and building design must be made legal again in the urban portions of a community.

In sum, a strong stand must be taken by planners that we stand for CHOICE, and that one size does not fit all.

 

 

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Filed under Diet, Politics, Sprawl, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

The Big Box Church

 

By Dom Nozzi

December 11, 2003

As I write this, the current controversy in Gainesville FL is that the local community college downtown is trying to demolish two historic homes in a walkable, historic neighborhood abutting them. I’ve not heard this, but will be surprised if the college doesn’t end up putting in surface parking once they obliterate the houses. It is causing quite an outcry from the neighborhood and from the historic folks.

The University of Florida (and the Shands/Alachua General Hospital complex east of the university) has done their part to undermine nearby neighborhoods. Much of Shands/AGH is now surface parking. Quite a large number of historic homes were leveled to put in those seas of asphalt.

These days, one of the most common issue we city planners see raised in our planning newsletters and magazines is the emergence of the “Big Box Church” (the godly version of Big Box retailers such as Wal-Mart). There have been a lot of articles published in the church-campus4professional planning literature about churches growing enormously in size. To be healthy is to have lots of parishioners, which means that many churches now strive to serve a huge region. That, of course, means huge parking lots are imperative. Combined with recent US Supreme Court rulings and congressional action which severely restricts local governments from regulating churches (due to alleged “freedom of religion” intrusions), most communities (including Gainesville) are terrified of imposing even the most trivial land development regulations on churches. There is now much less planners can do anything to protect neighborhoods by restricting how much parking a church can have, or imposing noise limits on them, or even imposing special landscaping or building location or zoning rules. Homes near these new mega-churches now have little or no protection against loud churches or parishioners speeding through the neighborhoods or parking in people’s front yards.

There has been much talk about the downtown Episcopal Church here in Gainesville having problems and thinking about re-locating to Sprawlsville.

Why?

Not enough parking for the parishioners.

I’m sure they pray about leveling City Hall to install a new parking lot…

In the past (decades ago?), churches and hospitals and small schools were healthy and walkable for neighborhoods. In fact, like public grade schools, I’d argue that human-scaled, walkable, neighborhood-based colleges, hospitals and churches are essential ingredients in a healthy neighborhood. But the fact that we now must assume that everyone will drive everywhere means that such places MUST level buildings in order to install more and more surface parking.

Tragic.

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How Road & Intersection Size Influences Development

 

By Dom Nozzi

February 3, 2004

In 2004, I came across the following comments on an email list I subscribed to regarding urban design. The comment were written by Seth Harry:

“No, we can’t expect commercial to stay off them [big roads], and that is all the more reason to be mindful of how we design our arterial networks, both in terms of specific design of the actual street, and the network itself, such that we don’t automatically load all of our trips onto a few, overscaled arterials that represent an irresistible invitation to the huge box retailers.”

“The other part of the equation, however, is that fact that all of our housing developments also now typically empty out directly onto those same large scale arterials, with no intermediate street networks to diffuse and disseminate that traffic (and thereby creating more viable opportunities for smaller, more locally-focused retail to occur).  By putting all of those cars directly out there on the highway, we are inadvertently sending them out there at the mercy of those same mega-boxes.  As I referred to the occupants of those cars during a recent regional planning initiative —  Those aren’t just cars, those things represent self propelled “free-ranging consumers…” just looking for place to land and spend their money.  And there are all too many mega-retailers just waiting to accommodate them…”

Here are my thoughts about Seth’s comments, including my concerns about 4-lane vs 2-lane streets and the influence they have on future development:

Over the years, I have seen countless studies and books that touch on this crucial question of whether the size and character of roads (and intersections) determines the land uses that develop along it. Indeed, I find the question so crucial that I put a great deal of effort into trying to clearly show how road design DOES drive land uses adjacent to it, and start off with this point in my speeches.

Nearly all transportation engineers, chambers of commerce, citizen activists, and elected officials DENY that roads determine land use. Instead, most people naively believe that land use plans or development regulations or elected officials or enlightened staff can save us from ruin even if we build a monster road.

Here is what Walter Kulash, one of my heroes, has to say on this question:

Containing this type of use of 50/50 [50 mph and 50,000 cars per day] streets is far beyond the will and ability of the typical local government. The 50/50 arterial is a gift-wrapped, gold-plated, gift to strip development. Once in place, almost no power on earth will stop its march toward strip commercial. Time spent berating local governments (counties and admin-ajax (7)cities) for not doing better with these monstrosities (and I’ve done my share of this) is satisfying to the critic, but is unproductive. Once in place, it is too late to do much about the 50/50 arterial. – Walter Kulash

Walter Kulash was formerly a principal and Senior Traffic Engineer with the Orlando-based community-planning firm of Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin Lopez Rinehart, Inc. A licensed professional engineer with an academic background in engineering at North Carolina State University and Northwestern University, Mr. Kulash has worked on traffic and transit planning projects throughout the U.S. and Canada. Clients include private developers, local and state governments and non-governmental agencies.

Since the early 1990’s, Mr. Kulash has specialized in the rapidly emerging field of “livable traffic” design. This view of traffic engineering recognizes that the narrow traffic planning goals of the past few decades—moving the most traffic at the greatest possible speed—are giving way to a far more inclusive view. In the new view of traffic engineering, traffic performance is balanced against other desired qualities of the street, such as its value as an “address”, its retail friendliness, and its role as a premiere public space of the community.

Some recent projects for private developments that incorporate principles of livable traffic include neotraditional communities throughout the U.S. and Canada, community shopping centers that serve as centers of walk-in communities, resort villages, outdoor shopping villages and “park once” districts. Some recent projects for public agencies include city-wide mobility plans and reintroducing walking to formerly automobile-blighted areas.

Recent projects for non-governmental agencies include downsizing of road plans, re-introduction of on-street parking in shopping environments, substituting the improvement of existing streets for new freeways, and university campus mobility plans.

My observation as a planner (and that of Kulash and many others) is that big, multi-lane, high-speed roads make it CERTAIN that the road will be forever hostile to residences and transportation choices. The only things that can emerge and thrive along such “car sewers” is single-occupant vehicle travel and strip commercial development (with accompanying billboards, glaring lights, etc.).

By stark contrast, roads that are 2 or 3 lanes and designed for slower car travel will inevitably deliver residential development, higher densities, more locally-owned retail, less Big Box retail, and transportation choice. Big Box is only possible when big roads are built. Big roads ENABLE Big Box.

Indeed, Big Box can only survive if it has the 4- and 6- and 8-lane roads that allow them to take advantage of a HUGE regional “consumer-shed.”

 

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