by Dom Nozzi
For decades, supporters of sustainable, walkable, “smart growth” development projects have been stymied by angry, hostile citizens who, while mostly telling pollsters that they oppose drivable suburban sprawl, end up being publicly and violently opposed to nearly all effective tools that would create more walkable town center development rather than sprawl.
Such people, who represent a very large percentage of the American public, are known as NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard!).
While smart growth advocates are rightly frustrated by such a common attitude in America, we should not be surprised by it. After all, America has experienced several decades of hideous, unsustainable, car-happy
development that is rightly opposed by the neighborhoods that have been besieged and degraded by such a relentless parade of these development atrocities. NIMBYs, then, cannot be blamed for opposing all new development proposals, as nearly 100 percent of all development proposals since the 1930s have been awful. NIMBYs rightly expect all new development to be terrible, if our past 80 years is any indication.
Why should a new development be any different?
But for America to have any sort of a sustainable, pleasant future, this knee-jerk NIMBY reaction that all new development is necessarily bad must end. The attitude must end because it ends up rejecting the good with the bad. Preserving the status quo is unsustainable because the American status quo is a collection of vast overbuilding of car-dependent sprawl (that a dwindling number of Americans want, fortunately), and a nearly non-existent offering of walkable, compact neighborhoods (that a rapidly growing number of Americans seek, yet are mostly unable to find due to its scarcity).
We have overbuilt sprawl and underbuilt walkability.
For America to have a future, we need to restore a balance that more accurately matches sustainability and demand for housing. America therefore needs a significant increase in walkable, compact neighborhood development. Rather than the NIMBY effort to stop all development, America needs to strongly encourage a significant amount of new development.
But this time, in contrast to the past 80 years, it must consist of walkable, compact neighborhoods that add value to communities by promoting both sustainability and overall quality of life.
When it comes to walkable, compact development proposals, then, we need YIMBYs (yes in my backyard!) instead of NIMBYs.
What is an example of how a YIMBY would react to a proposed walkable, compact development in a town center?
A few months ago, an opportunity came up in my neighborhood. The proposed project is located within a walkable, compact, pre-1930s historic neighborhood within walking distance of the town center.
Citizen comments were requested by the town planning department. I submitted the following YIMBY comments.
The intent of my recommendations for the project is to see that the design of the project promotes walkability, sociability, neighborhood safety and security, travel choice (particularly for seniors and children), relatively low noise levels, timeless styles and design, and low per capita car trip generation.
Providing two-car garages for each unit is radically out of character within our walkable neighborhood, undercuts pedestrian ambience by creating more sterile facades that send the message that the area is suburban drivable, rather than walkable. If any is provided, the project must unbundle the cost of the parking provided for each residential unit so that owners/renters have the option of paying less for the residence in exchange for having less parking provided to the unit. Ideally, no parking should be provided off-street for any of the residential units. On-street metered parking is highly preferable. Should this project provide any publicly-accessible parking, such parking must be modest in number and priced or metered.
In street fronting this project, must be traffic calmed. On-street parking – perhaps pocketed on-street parking formed with bulb-outs to reduce curb-to-curb width – should be at least one component of the traffic calming. Calming tactics should be focused on horizontal interventions (such as a road diet, roundabouts or bulb-outs) rather than vertical strategies such as speed humps. Sidewalk on the street must be provided along the length of this project. Any street lighting provided for/by the project on the street must be pedestrian-scaled (i.e., no more than 15 feet in height) and full cut-off.
As Christopher Leinberger notes in his book, The Option of Urbanism (2007), in a drivable suburban location, lower densities, less development, and single-use development patterns are more conducive to a car-based lifestyle. Residents in such locations therefore are more likely to be NIMBYs (“not in my back yard”). In other words, “more is less” in such locations. More density, more development, and more mixed use are all detrimental to the quality of life in a drivable suburb – largely because more development tends to lead to more road and parking congestion for cars. However, in a compact, walkable neighborhood, by contrast, the reverse tends to be true. Here, more density, more development, and more mixed use (offices and corner stores interspersed with houses) contribute to improvements in the quality of the lifestyle. Here, “more is better,” as it means more vibrancy, more places to walk to, and more sociability (all of which tend to be sought as part of a walkable lifestyle). Residents in such locations therefore are more likely to be YIMBYs (“yes in my back yard”). This project, therefore, should achieve the maximum allowable density and floor area ratio allowed by the land development code. If allowed by code, this project should incorporate accessory dwelling units. Front porches should be aligned and either abut the front ROW/sidewalk or be no more than a “conversational distance” from the sidewalk (i.e., front porches no more than 10 feet from the back of ROW/sidewalk).
If allowed by code, this project should incorporate small scale retail and office components to better promote a walkable lifestyle.
“Nothing if more dated than yesterday’s vision of tomorrow.” Modernism, therefore, is completely incompatible with the timeless, historic character of this historic neighborhood and should not be included as a style for this project. Pre-1930s styles are more appropriate. Front porches should be provided for all units fronting the street.
Re-Zoning (amendments to the land development code)
If not allowed by the land development code, the project property should have its land development codes revised to allow higher densities, accessory dwelling units, more than one-family allowed per property, mixed use (to allow small-scale retail and office), smaller (or no) yard setbacks, a prohibition on modernist architectural styles, and elimination of any minimum parking requirements (maximum parking requirements should replace any minimum requirements).
This essay did not address another problem that significantly inhibits the creation of walkable, compact new development. In addition to NIMBYs, such desirable development is also significantly impeded by our local government land development regulations, which nearly universally prohibit walkable, compact development, and REQUIRE drivable suburban sprawl.
So in addition to the need for more YIMBYs, American communities need to substantially revise its development laws so that it is legal for new projects to build walkability.
America and its neighborhoods will have a much better future if a large number of YIMBYs start submitting comments such as those above for future proposed projects in our community. Freezing the status quo, as NIMBYs would have it, freezes America in an unsustainable world of a declining quality of life.
America can do better. And being a YIMBY for walkable, compact development (and revising our development laws to legalize walkability) is an essential way to do that.
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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