We are “Pro-Growth”… But Only on Our Terms
By Dom Nozzi
Frequently, citizens striving to protect their neighborhood or community quality of life find themselves opposing most, if not all, proposed new developments in their community.
And who can blame them?
After all, communities across the nation have seen the charming, unique, pleasant characteristics of their towns and cities degraded over and over again by a new development paradigm that emerged roughly at the time of World War II. Prior to that time, we designed our communities to make people happy. But since then, our primary development imperative has been to make our Fords and GMs happy. Our pick-up trucks and sedans have vastly different needs than little Judy and Aunt Suzie. Cars like vast spaces for enormous asphalt parking lots and high-speed roads. People like modest, safe, human-scaled, slow-speed, quiet places.
As Fred Kent once said, whatever a traffic engineer tells your town to do, do the opposite and you’ll improve your community.
By focusing on making our cars happy, we have unintentionally made it harder to live without a car, because happy cars make it so much more difficult and unpleasant to be a pedestrian, a transit user or a bicyclist. Therefore, a growing number of us are increasingly dependent on car travel and are increasingly obligated to argue for the needs of our SUVs instead of our kids. It is a vicious cycle, because the more we improve conditions for cars, the more we need our cars and the more, in turn, a growing army of us plead for improved conditions for cars.
Note, too, that because “improved” conditions for cars undercuts the quality of life for people, there is a growing desire to flee the degraded, car-happy community for remote, sprawling locations. Locations that lock people into even more car dependency because trip distances are now so enormous.
We are, then, trapped in a vicious cycle. And become our own worst enemies. Which helps explain why it has become so very common today for citizens to loudly protest against nearly all development—development that for the past 60 years has suggested to citizens that, once again, the proposed project is another crappy, car-happy, community-tarnishing project to be inflicted on us.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Even the not-in-my-backyard “no growthers” can, slowly, become pro-growth if we return to the timeless tradition. The tradition of designing for happy people instead of happy cars.
For example, let’s say a new development is proposed in our community. Due to its car-friendly design and remote location, it is expected to produce a great many new car trips.
But instead of deciding to spend an enormous amount of public dollars to widen our roads or install new intersection turn lanes to “accommodate” the new growth (thereby harming our quality of life and small town charm), a community can choose to draw a line in the sand. Your growth can happen here, but only on our terms.
We welcome your new development if it exemplifies some or all of the following:
1. The development is a form of infill development. A new development within the heart of our community which either replaces an underused property (such as a parking lot) or refurbishes and re-uses a vacant building.
2. The development is modest, quiet and human-scaled. A new development that is modest in height and not a skyscraper (no more than 5 stories). That uses a modest parking lot behind its building. That pulls the building up to the sidewalk to provide a vibrant, walkable ambience. That does not create noise problems for nearby properties. That does not use glaring, obnoxious signs or lights, or day-glow building colors. That builds modest, narrow streets with low design speeds. Indeed, modest building setbacks and narrow streets are the fundamental building blocks of place-making. That is, instead of creating an over-sized no-man’s-land where only a car could be happy, the new development creates intimate spacing which delivers a sense of place. A sense of community. A place where people feel pleasant, sociable, safe, and proud of their town.
3. The development respects the public realm. A new development that uses buildings which respect the public realm, instead of turning its back to it. An entrance faces the street. Building ornamentation is incorporated (instead of bland, boxy design). Generous sidewalk-level windows are used. The building fits into the context of the neighborhood.
4. The development is self-sufficient and sustainable. A new development contains a mix of uses, incorporates energy-efficient strategies and is walkable in scale and design. Such a design promotes proximity, which promotes transportation choice and sustainability.
5. The development obligates cars to be “well-behaved” and optional. A new development that accepts being served by off-site streets that remain modestly-sized, instead of obligating that 2- or 3-lane roads become high-speed, 5- or 7-lane superhighways. Any streets internal to the development are similarly modest in size, connected, and low speed. Similarly, any off-street parking that is part of the development is small in size, hidden from view, and has its price “unbundled” from the price of any housing that is part of the development.
Ultimately, by following most or all of the above principles, a great many of the “no growth” NIMBYs can become pro-growth “YIMBYs” (yes in my back yard).
If the developer finds the traffic “intolerable” with our small-town streets, perhaps the developer should consider not building in our town. We are fiercely proud of our community, and want to retain our charm. We refuse to be a doormat and let you have your way with us.
We insist on building and protecting a quality habitat for people, not a habitat for cars.
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]walkablestreets.com
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/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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