Monthly Archives: April 2006

What is the most important lesson I have learned as a city planner?

American communities tend to beat around the bush or otherwise mince words when their spokespeople proclaim they would like to “improve the quality of life.” But we are often left hanging by such proclamations. How do we promote quality of life? What are the details?


To me, it is quite clear how a community achieves and maintains a quality of life.


The most profound influence on community quality of life is directly related to how much effort the community puts into catering to cars. And the astonishing fact is this: Most all of us either don’t realize, or are too timid to point out, that there is an inverse relationship between happy cars and happy people. That is, the happier we try to make cars by building wide, multi-lane, high-speed roads and enormous (and unpriced) parking lots, and setting buildings an enormous distance away from these now hostile roads, the worse conditions become for people.


This is not to say that “we need to get rid of all cars,” the common red herring whenever someone points this out.


Not at all. What it means is that we must return to the timeless design tradition that our societies adhered to for hundreds of years. The tradition of designing to make people happy first, not cars.


Instead, cars must be obligated to behave themselves. To be slowed down. To be driven carefully. Attentively. To be subservient to the needs of people. For when we make cars our imperative, they dominate and overwhelm everything else, including the habitat that creates happy conditions for humans.


Clearly, the communities most of us recognize as having an awful quality of life are the places where design for cars has been most prominent. The Houstons. The LAs. The Detroits. The South Floridas. The Anywhere USA places, in other words, that have been overwhelmed by big roads, big parking lots and big setbacks.


Solving their quality of life problems is not primarily achieved by “cleaning their air or water.” Or “reducing crime.” Or “creating more open space.” Or “protecting wetlands.”


No, the essential key is to restore the human habitat. So that pedestrians are not inconvenienced or in danger. So that going for a walk is a joy. Primarily, that means incrementally putting roads on diets (removing travel lanes on 5- or 7-laners, for example), replacing parking lots with buildings (preferably higher density residential mixed with office and retail), and reducing building setbacks to restore a human scale.


It is no coincidence that walkable, human-scaled new urbanist developments have become so popular and carry such a premium price. Nor is it a coincidence that the towns and cities that are most loved in the world—Rome, Paris, Florence, Venice, Charleston, Nantucket, Key West, Vienna, Copenhagen, Amsterdam (and other places with “old” urbanism)—all feature, most prominently and importantly, the taming of cars and the emphasis on making people happy instead.


With modest, human-scaled (not car-scaled) dimensions. With quiet streets that have on-street parking. Streets that are low-speed and narrow. With buildings that face the street and are ornamental. That are pulled up to the street to form a highly satisfying, enclosed outdoor room. With a magnificent tree canopy enveloping the street. Parking is modest and parking lots are unseen. The overall size of the community is compact, higher density, full of small and healthy markets and shops. Vibrant with sociable pedestrians and mixed in use. Housing types and household incomes are diverse.


Each of these commonly recognized, admired features are incompatible with designing for happy cars.


Which is precisely the point.


Quality of life, if we don’t beat around the bush, is largely the quest to use the timeless tradition to design for people first, and to ensure that cars—while certainly not banished—are obligated to behave themselves when they are within the people habitat.


Note that I recognize there are a number of people in our society who enjoy the suburban, car-happy lifestyle. I am just unable to bring myself to acknowledge their values when it comes to a question of defining what “quality of life” means. When it comes right down to it, even though I strongly support the new urbanist “transect” concept (that says we need to design for all lifestyle choices), I am unable to accept the “durability” of the car-based value system. In other words, I am convinced that when gas prices go to $8 per gallon, there is no free parking, and there is no public money for widening gridlocked roads anymore, very, very few people will continue to value a suburban, auto-dependent lifestyle. Indeed, the great majority of us will be either urbanists or rural-ists.




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.


Or email me at: dom[AT]

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

Getting Out of Our Own Way to Design a Better Community

By Dom Nozzi

It has been said that the great cities were built before planners and land development laws. This is absolutely true, and the shock value of it helps us see that we need to get out of our own way, so to speak.

I’ve been harping on this point for several years in my books, writings, and speeches.

In 2006, I came upon a quote from the “Smart Growth Network,” where the leader indicated that the “free market” will not be able to deliver us quality of life. My response to this is to reference an outstanding book I read a few months before. The book is by Jonathan Levine, who was the Director, at that time, of the University of Michigan Department of Urban & Regional Planning. The book, called Zoned Out, points out that pretty much every community in America has land development laws that set up enormous obstacles to “smart growth” in every single one of its ordinances.

Almost to the complete exclusion of other community quality of life objectives, our land development laws overwhelmingly care about creating parking lotconditions for happy car travel: strict separation of land uses, minimizing residential densities, and providing ample free parking for cars.

Each of these anachronistic commandments, of course, strongly promotes car-dependent sprawl and, ironically, worsens our quality of life. Such rules may have been important when they were first established 100 years ago, since cities were crowded with tenement housing, and many businesses were hazardous to health and needed to be kept away from residences.

Today, those problems don’t exist in any meaningful way in America. So why do we not fundamentally reform our land development laws?

Indeed, because Baby Boomers and especially millennials are much more interested than older generations in “city” living (higher density, 24-hour, mixed-use, vibrant, walkable), there is a growing demand for the development community to provide such development.

But as Levine importantly points out, when developers want to build these types of development — what is now called Smart Growth — they are forced to fight tooth and nail against development laws, elected officials and town planners who fight them until they revise their development plans to give us dumb growth.

This is despite the fact that a large percentage of elected officials and town planners pay lip service to smart growth.

We have met the enemy, and he or she is us.

Therefore, despite the quote from the Smart Growth Network, that the free market cannot deliver quality of life, I’d argue the reverse.

Today, the free market (if we can get rid of the huge market distortions for roads, parking, and gasoline caused by enormous subsidies) can indeed more effectively provide quality of life.

We just need to get govenment (ie, the land development laws) out of the way.

It is an awful realization for me that after almost 30 years of working in a profession that I expected to be focused on improving communities, it turns out that I am part of a huge force that is subverting our quality of life.


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