Monthly Archives: January 2001

Fighting the Correct Battle

by Dom Nozzi

[Updated Jan 2009]

 

I’ve been a lifelong environmental conservationist. I lead a very low-impact lifestyle: vegetarian, bicycle commuter, solar water heater, restoring a 10-acre cattle pasture to a native hardwood forest, purchase more used than new products, etc.

 

Much of this ethic comes from my father, who was a strong environmentalist. My upbringing, which included lots of play-time in wooded areas, inspired me to obtain a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a master’s degree in environmental planning.

 

Over the years, I’ve been a member of Earth First!, Alliance for a Paving Moratorium, Friends of Alachua County, Alachua Greenway Alliance, and the local chapter of the Sierra Club.

 

Much of my professional work over the past 15 years has involved the preparation or strengthening of city environmental plans and environmental development regulations.

 

For example, I wrote the long-range environmental conservation plan and solid waste plan for Gainesville, Florida, prepared a strict, esteemed noise ordinance for that city, included xeriscape requirements and prohibitions of non-native invasives to the city landscape ordinance, prepared a computerized land ranking system for public acquisition of important natural areas, prepared ordinances that further protect the city wellfield,  upland ecological communities, and nature parks. I also worked for 18 months as the development rate control planner in Boulder, Colorado.

 

Because of all this, it should surprise no one that I appreciate and respect the important work that others do to ensure that our society achieves sustainable environmental conservation.

 

My professional work in recent years has become much broader. I am involved in a number of “big picture” projects that give me a larger view of the social and environmental problems we face. Much of this work has been to prepare the long-range transportation and land use plans for Gainesville, which has sharpened my understanding of the underlying factors threatening our ecosystems and quality of life.

 

Due to this work, I am growing increasingly concerned because many of the admired environmental allies I worked with in the past seem to be focused on the wrong battles.

 

An enormous number of necessary, hard-fought struggles were fought by environmentalists in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It is crucial, yet counterintuitive, perhaps, to realize that we succeeded in winning most of those battles! At the national, state, and local level of environmental protection.

 

smokestackHard as it may seem to believe, we now have quite strict, protective regulations in place for the direct, obvious, easy-to-recognize sources of environmental degradation. We are now much, much tougher with regulations that ensure that smokestacks, sewer pipes, toxic waste dumps, and environmentally hazardous products do not harm our environment. We’ve fought the battle against these direct, “point” sources of pollution, and surprising as it may sound, we have largely won.

 

To effectively address our substantial, remaining environmental battles, we must now turn our attention to the much more difficult and seemingly intractable environmental threats; namely, the widespread “non-point” sources of pollution, such as stormwater runoff from roads and parking lots, emissions from car tailpipes, and new residential and non-residential developments sprawling into our outlying (and more sensitive and important) areas.

 

Yet despite all the victories we have won regarding direct sources of pollution,  intelligent, conscientious environmentalists are engaged in a desperate, sometimes hysterical attack against their elected officials, claiming that local plans and regulations are offering a “blank check” to developers, who will be allowed to “have their way” in developing projects that will destroy our urban natural areas and neighborhoods.

 

How can such an attack be possible? Shouldn’t the defenders of natural areas and neighborhoods be cheering on the impressive gains made with our elected officials, our plans, and our development regulations?

 

In my opinion, what is happening is that successfully correcting the direct forms of environmental pollution (the smokestacks and sewer pipes), and instituting neighborhood-protecting tactics, did not deliver us a pristine, sustainable ecosystem, or quiet, stable neighborhoods. In fact, a tidal wave of evidence—global warming, species extinction, air pollution, water and groundwater pollution, loss of ecosystems, loss of quiet neighborhood character—is bombarding us with the message that we are, more than ever, losing the battle to save our environment and our neighborhoods.

 

The obvious answer for many? Attack environmentally-oriented and neighborhood-protective elected officials for being pawns of developers! Disparage environmentally-strict plans for being too weak! Scream for stronger development regulations to require even more protection against smokestacks, sewer pipes, and toxic waste! Demand that the City take away a person’s constitutional right to have reasonable use of their land.

 

Isn’t it perfectly clear that these are the solutions?

 

The frightening problem is this: it is hard to realize that we’ve already won those battles. After all, isn’t it true that there is ongoing degradation of our environment and our neighborhoods?

 

It is therefore too easy for well-meaning crusaders to unintentionally waste precious time, energy, and money battling the wrong problem.

 

It is difficult to see that the essential problems are now indirect, less obvious, and less focused on “evil corporate business polluters.” Instead, they are more widespread, systemic, and incremental. Now, the sources of degradation are not, individually, big and nasty pollution sources. Instead, they are indirect and embedded into our auto-based, suburban sprawl lifestyles. Added up, though, these indirect impacts lead to substantial destruction of outlying, regional ecosystems and residential neighborhoods.

 

Now, instead of smokestacks, the big threat is indirect and more invisible: Things like widening urban roads, which open up markets for remote, sprawling subdivisions. These remote subdivisions trample our large ecosystems, further lock us into the downward spiral of auto dependency, and promote the continued decline of older, in-town neighborhoods.sprawlovertakesfarm

 

We have met the enemy and he is us.

 

Our auto-dependent, suburban lifestyles demand that we angrily insist our politicians give us low densities, big, high-speed roads; large, free parking lots and cheap gas. It is impossible for us to realize that such demands are a recipe that, ironically, locks us into the very thing that we fight against: degraded ecosystems and degraded neighborhoods. The handy solution is to find (the usual) scapegoats to blame.

 

Perhaps this is what we should expect. After all, the indirect, widespread, lifestyle-based problems don’t seem like problems we can do much about. It seems so much more feasible (and a way to ease our own guilt) to blame a few diabolical developers or corporations.

 

The convenient solution for this search is an artifact of the past: Evil developers, corrupt politicians, unsympathetic professional staff, and polluting smokestacks. It can’t be that we are to blame! It must be the “bad” guys!

 

Is it any wonder that there is no longer any trust, credibility, or respect given by citizens to developers, staff, or elected officials, even when they are intelligent, sympathetic, and well-meaning?

 

To their credit, the national Sierra Club has recently started to focus on the overriding, “big picture” problem that is overwhelmingly responsible for threatening our ecosystems and neighborhoods: Auto-dependent urban sprawl.

 

We must find effective ways to control auto-dependent sprawl if we expect to save our natural areas and neighborhoods. We must find ways to see that future development delivers us walkable, compact, neighborhood- and human-scaled projects rich in civic pride and transportation choice. We must set about the task of building cities and towns that are designed to make people, instead of cars, happy—so that we will mostly be clamoring to live in the city, and can reduce the widespread desire to flee the unpleasant cities for the perception of suburban bliss.

 

This is the only way we can restore trust, confidence, and respect.

 

And an essential way to do that is to not misdirect our time and energy by blaming the usual suspects…

 

 _________________________________________________

Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

My Adventures blog

http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

My Town & Transportation Planning website

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

My Plan B blog

https://domz60.wordpress.com/

My Facebook profile

http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

My YouTube video library

http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi

My Picasa Photo library

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534

My Author spotlight

http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

 

 

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Public Safety and the Law of Unintended Consequences

By Dom Nozzi

[Updated Jan 2009]

 

Is public safety an enemy of our quality of life?

 

One of the most curious things about communities these days is that, paradoxically, the desire for a maximum amount of “public safety” has become profoundly responsible for making us less safe and more ill at ease, while rapidly eroding our quality of life.  The problem is particularly disturbing because even when it is noticed as a problem, there is almost nothing that can be done about it, because it is extremely difficult, politically, to do something that seems counter to public safety.  For example, if it is argued, in the name of slowing down cars for traffic safety, that we should not build streets extremely wide for huge fire trucks, the people urging more narrow streets are seen by many to be in favor of more babies dying in burning buildings—because more narrow streets might slow down the fire trucks.

 

Quite simply, we suffer from the “law of unintended consequences” when it comes to public safety.

 

Public Safety Effort

Wide street travel lanes, left-turn lanes, big “vision triangles,” and large turning radii (at intersections) are all justified in the name of safety for cars and speed for fire trucks.

 

Unintended Consequences

When we enlarge street dimensions in such ways, it becomes less safe and less pleasant to bicycle around town, or walk on a sidewalk or cross a street because of the big width of the street and the high car speeds created by the large street dimensions.  And increasing car speeds is one of the most important reasons for the decline in the livability of our neighborhoods.

 

Public Safety Effort

Fire Codes and Building/Electrical Codes are justified to protect against the danger of fire or structurally unsound buildings, among other things.

 

Unintended Consequences

Such codes are often extremely costly when they need to be retrofitted into older, “in-town” buildings, which severely inhibits adaptive reuse or redevelopment in the city (mostly downtown) and leads many to develop in outlying areas.  These consequences promote a stagnation of our downtown, reduce downtown safety due to empty buildings and reduced numbers of people, and reduce transportation choice (since nearly all outlying locations can only be reached by car).  This problem is so substantial that the state of New Jersey has recently adopted a parallel Code that makes it easier for older, existing buildings to comply with contemporary safety rules.  The result has been a significant increase in the rate of in-town redevelopment.

 

Public Safety Effort

Increasingly loud and frequent emergency vehicle sirens, which are justified to ensure that motorists are able to hear emergency vehicles and get out of the way. On a related note, these loud emergency vehicles are brought to an increasing number of incidents—any incident that might possibly need emergency assistance.

 

Unintended Consequences

As emergency vehicle sirens become louder and more frequent, the nerves of in-town residents get frayed, and the tranquility and restfulness of in-town locations is lost. In-town locations are inherently subject to more sirens because most calls originate in central areas of a community.  Some cities have noticeably less siren noise pollution than others—not because they are less dangerous or experiencing less emergencies, but because the community leaders recognize that a balance must be struck between public safety and quality of life. 

 

Without striking this balance, and letting public safety concerns overwhelm quality of life concerns, many communities increasingly seem like a war zone, and its citizens are regularly awakened in the middle of the night by sirens. Commonly, people move to the outlying suburbs (which promotes costly sprawl and harms our in-town areas) to escape the in-town noise, and find peace and quiet.

 

Public Safety Effort

“High-tech”, catastrophic medical care, which is justified to heroically save or extend lives.

 

Unintended Consequences

Such care is extremely costly, which makes the overall health care system rather unaffordable in the U.S., and de-emphasizes important efforts such as preventive care.

 

Public Safety Effort

Liability management applied to public facilities (ensuring that your organization is not doing things that increase the chances of lawsuits), which is justified to guard against costly lawsuits.

 

Unintended Consequences

Often, we decide not to build public facilities, such as skateboard parks or imaginative youth play equipment, because of the threat of someone getting hurt and suing the responsible agency.

 

Public Safety Effort

Towering concrete street lights, and other forms of excessive lighting, which is justified to promote safety for motor vehicles and people at night.

 

Unintended Consequences

Tall, concrete street lights are extremely ugly, and ruin any chance of creating a romantic, human-scaled ambiance in our city. The “highway” character that tall street lights create probably encourage higher vehicle speeds. Excessive lighting hides the night-time stars from our view (an awe-inspiring view when we are away from cities). It adds dangerous glare to streets that is distracting or blinding to motorists. It makes our community less of a pleasant place because so many retailers use the lights to create the “building as sign” effect. It wastes a tremendous amount of electricity. And it makes it easier for lawbreakers to hide, since excessive lighting darkens shadows that they hide in.

 

Public Safety Effort

Surface parking lots in front of buildings, which is justified because some people feel unsafe at night if the parking lot is behind the building.

 

Unintended Consequences

When buildings are moved away from the streetside sidewalk, walking on the sidewalk becomes much less safe, less pleasant, and less convenient – therefore, more trips are made by car instead of by foot. In addition, we lose the cozy feeling created when buildings close to the street form wonderful “outdoor rooms.”

 

Public Safety Effort

Trees severely pruned or chopped down, or kept outside of the “clear zone” of streets, which is justified to protect overhead power lines, and guard against drivers crashing into trees if they veer off the street.

 

Unintended Consequences

Trees cut back or moved away from streets make our community and neighborhoods substantially less attractive and less shaded.  Pulling trees back from the street also makes the street more “forgiving” and creates more of a “racetrack” feeling, which results in more reckless, high-speed, dangerous travel by cars.

 

I’m sure you can add your own favorites to this disturbing list…

 

Public safety is certainly not something we should trivialize or not strive to improve. But we need to guard against “suboptimizing.” That is, we need to remember that it is possible to have too much of a good thing, if for no other reason than that we can undercut other essential public objectives, such as quality of life, if we put all of our eggs into the public safety basket.

 

And as I note above, sometimes we get consequences we did not intend or foresee.

 

_________________________________________________

Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

My Adventures blog

http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

My Town & Transportation Planning website

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

My Plan B blog

https://domz60.wordpress.com/

My Facebook profile

http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

My YouTube video library

http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi

My Picasa Photo library

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534

My Author spotlight

http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

 

 

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Fixing Downtown Parking

By Dom Nozzi

In a research article written by Jeff Kenworthy and Peter Newman — famed and respected transportation and livable cities experts — an analysis of downtown parking was conducted. Part of their work was to survey 32 cities worldwide for the amount of parking and lane mileage provided downtown, and then look for correlations between these factors and both gasoline consumption and the livability of the city.

Based on this analysis, they came up with a rule of thumb for a CBD (Central Business District) parking. Their conclusion was that beyond 200 parking spaces per 1,000 jobs, the city becomes noticeably ugly, congested, polluted, auto dependent, energy intensive, and deteriorated.Houston Downtown

When I did this parking assessment for Gainesville, where I was working at the time as a town planner, I was astounded to learn that despite all the crying and moaning about insufficient downtown parking, the city has over four times more parking spaces than this rule-of-thumb ratio established by Kenworthy and Newman.

Ouch.

Here are some spaces-per-1,000-jobs numbers for perspective:

Phoenix = 1,033

Houston = 370

Detroit = 473

LA = 524

DC = 264

Chicago = 96

New York City = 75

Gainesville, Florida = 840

It seems to me that if we decide it is “unreasonable” to expect people to walk a couple of blocks from their parking space, or unreasonable to build garages (with first floor office and retail), cities such as Gainesville, which have such excessive parking already, are in trouble.

Does this mean that cities with overly abundant parking should not add ANY additional downtown parking?

No.

Nothing mentioned above should be taken to mean that we should not add ANY form of parking in a downtown with more parking than this 200-space threshold suggests. I generally support REPLACING less desirable parking with more desirable parking. For example, I strongly like the idea of replacing surface parking in a town center with a parking garage, in part because multi-story garages provide “verticality,” which helps define the all-important public realm in a town center. And multi-story garages are especially desirable when they include a first floor “wrap” of retail and office. In addition, most American cities — particularly in smaller cities —desperately need more on-street parking in the town center. On-street parking buffers pedestrians from the noise and danger of cars, and helps slow cars to a more pleasant and safe speed.

In addition, on-street parking is extremely helpful for retail, since retail does better when pedestrians find a more pleasant place to walk (or enjoy an outdoor cafe), and because the parking provides a handy place to park near the front doors of the businesses.

In my opinion, it is off-street surface parking — especially FREE off-street parking — that we need to be careful about in a town center. Such parking creates “gap tooth” dead zones that harm the downtown ambiance and unique character, create ugliness, and increase crime and safety problems.

The space used for off-street surface parking is usually better used for residences, retail, offices, or cultural buildings — all of which help enhance the quality of the public realm and build town center vibrancy.

My biggest concern is that there is probably a town center parking threshold beyond which it will not be desirable for people to live downtown because of the excessive number of dangerous, unpleasant surface parking “gap tooths.” In addition, most town centers need more culture, service and retail to increase the attractiveness of living in the town center — and some prime locations for more of this would be where existing surface parking is now located. As a result, since it is a critically important objective that more residences be created in most town centers, we need to be sure that we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot by putting in too many surface parking lots. Too much town center parking kills the desirability of the town center as a place to live.

We need to strike the proper balance in our efforts to revive the downtown, instead of putting too much emphasis on providing free, abundant off-street parking.

As an aside, one significant reason why many American town centers provide excessive surface parking is that many landowners prefer to speculate with their town center properties. They will hold the property in a low-cost form of revenue generation such as off-street parking until their property increases sufficiently in value to make it desirable to sell the property.

Is “quality transit” a necessary prerequisite for town centers?

Many people believe that the only way to reduce the amount of off-street parking in a town center is to first provide higher quality transit. While it is certainly true that the bigger cities often have higher quality transit, I believe we need to realize that this is a “chicken and egg” issue. Which comes first? Quality transit, or the conditions that demand the installation of quality transit? While it is possible that a city can achieve quality transit before transportation conditions such as scarce and priced parking is found in the town center, it is not probable. After all, we live in a democracy. Our elected officials are not dictators who will take actions that do not have political support. In nearly every city with quality transit, conditions emerged which led the citizens to choose to support whatever it took to install quality transit. The political demand for better transit, in nearly all cases, can only emerge when there is significant citizen discontent about such factors as traffic congestion, or the scarcity and expense of parking. If streets are free flowing, and parking is both free and abundant, it is highly unlikely that citizens will be motivated to demand better transit. It is just too easy to drive a car into the town center.

In summary, we need to strike a balance between the need to provide parking and the need to create a livable, vibrant, transit-supportive, attractive town center.

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