By Dom Nozzi
I prepared land development regulations for Gainesville, Florida’s town center in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I dubbed the regulations the “Traditional City” overlay regulations that were intended to promote walkable, vibrant, rewarding pedestrian design in Gainesville’s town center.
A friend suggested that such regulations should be applied citywide. I responded that doing so would be unwise.
First, it would be very difficult, politically, to apply the Traditional City development regulations to areas that were built exclusively for cars — places where, as the area was first developed, pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users were only considered as afterthoughts. Places that Christopher Leinberger calls the “drivable suburbs.”
Another part of the problem with applying walkable design features to drivable locations is that doing so would be restricting lifestyle choices in the community. In essence, requiring walkable design in drivable locations would be forcing walkability down the throats of people that prefer suburbs and car dependency. By contrast, my overall approach to community design is that we want to protect and promote choices in neighborhood design. Walkable traditionalism or suburbs, not one or the other.
It is hard enough to require the walkable design in more compact, town center locations, let alone applying walkability tactics to places in the community that are so utterly unwalkable today that they would need to start from scratch by being mostly bulldozed before made walkable.
In addition, there is something to be said for creating a striking, obvious contrast between a walkable town center location and the outlying drivable suburbs. A more striking contrast, for example, could accelerate the process of growing the proportion of citizens who seek a more sustainably walkable lifestyle.
This is not to say we should necessarily give up on the outlying areas. But if we must prioritize due to a lack of resources — and in this age of fiscal and economic woes, it seems clear that we must prioritize — I think we should start with saving and improving our town centers, where most people already seek walkable design.
Town center areas will, I’m convinced, increasingly outcompete the drivable suburbs due to the inevitable future of rising resource and fuel costs we face in our future, and the unsustainability of regional, sprawling, car-based design. Such inescapable trends will convince a growing number of people that it is rational and desirable to live and travel more walkably. The walkable lifestyle, for several decades, has been less popular — even though more sustainable – mostly because of the distorted, unsustainable price signals of exceptionally low fuel costs and heavy car subsidies, among many other reasons. Distorted signals that make it seem rational to live in outlying areas and to be auto dependent.
We’ve got plenty of work to do in our town centers to enhance the walkable lifestyle such locations best provide. Let’s not delay the long-needed repair of such places by diverting scarce public resources to areas that will be much more costly to retrofit into walkability. Places that may never be able to provide high-quality walkability regardless of the money we sink into that effort.
If we apply a triage concept to community design, it may be that we realize we can save some of our town centers with some restoration efforts, but also realize that the drivable suburbs may have been built initially with such unsustainable design that money and effort might be mostly unable to save much of it. And might divert resources from town centers that could have been saved had we not diverted money and effort to unsalvageable suburbs.
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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