By Dom Nozzi
“Suboptimization” occurs when efforts are made to achieve a lower-order goal to the detriment of a higher-order goal. A common instance of suboptimizing is when there is a single-minded effort to reduce fire truck response times, and doing so to the detriment of peace and quiet in a community (and to the detriment of traffic safety). A study has found, for example, that using excessive street geometries to speed fire truck response time results in a net increase in injuries and deaths, as the number of people saved from fires by faster fire trucks is overwhelmed by the big jump in car crashes due to excessive street dimensions.
When I was a town planner in Gainesville, Florida, I experienced what is surely a very common national occurrence: obsessively and emotionally suboptimizing on trees, to the substantial detriment of a walkable city.
During my time as a planner in Gainesville, I was forced to cram in several confusing, silly sentences in my “traditional neighborhood development” (TND) ordinance — designed to create a compact, walkable neighborhood — describing “engineered soil” (said by some to be needed for relatively large trees). Not only was the definition inherently confusing and complex. I was told by a number of local landscape architects that such soil would be quite expensive to install.
So the TND ordinance, which was already too onerous for a rational developer to use to build a subdivision, became even more difficult to use by developers because city-hating Gainesville citizens and elected officials wanted enormous trees above all else (including walkability).
This is yet another reason why we don’t see developers building walkable places. Huge trees are quite often incompatible with a modest, walkable, human-scaled building-street-sidewalk design. And a large number of Americans have strong emotional feelings toward protecting trees.
The tree suboptimizers also won another battle. I was directed to amend my walkable town center ordinance (somewhat similar to my TND ordinance) to make street trees a requirement in the Gainesville town center. Like most cities, Gainesville had properly exempted developers from needing to install tree landscaping in the town center, as the town center tends to require compact, human-scaled spaces to deliver the charming, quality urbanism we seek in a town center. The new suboptimizing rules ended up requiring that developers jam street trees into all developments and redevelopments in the town center. This added additional complexity, burden, and confusion to the ordinance, and added another disincentive to build or infill in a town center that has long been sorely in need of development and redevelopment (as so much development was being strongly pulled to sprawl locations).
At the same time, I learned that the new county courthouse parking garage planned for the Gainesville town center would NOT be getting desperately needed on-street parking (one of the most crucial amenities for pedestrians) along the garage. Why? Surprisingly, it was not for the goofy fears that kept on-street parking away from the courhouse itself. In that case, the embarrassing reason was that there was a childish worry of truck-bombing terrorists (which, coincidentally, also just happened to be in the interest of motorists who dislike being slowed by on-street parking, by the way).
No, on-street parking next to the garage is not going to be stopped because of a fear of Timothy McVeigh. On-street parking was stopped because the City desperately wanted big trees.
For the record, on-street parking and trees could be deployed together, but trees such as palm trees are “unacceptable” by those who wish to suboptimize tree ecology for quality walkability.
The end result was predictable and nearly certain: Gainesville would soon amend its walkablility codes (in particular, the two ordinances I mention above, as well as walkable ordinances for student-oriented neighborhoods adjacent to the University of Florida) to push buildings back from the street — so that the human-scaled sense of enclosure is lost — or discourage desperately needed in-town, infill, walkable development.
Thereby creating less-walkable streets.
I’ve stated this over and over again in my work as a town planner: In the town center, the needs of pedestrians come first. NOT the needs of live oak trees.
But only if we care about having a walkable, healthy downtown.
Maybe we really do want sprawl, and aspire to be another Atlanta. If so, we are using tactics that are sure to get us to be another Atlanta. And I was probably working in the wrong community…
The lush landscaping looks wonderful from your car windshield as you whiz by in your car in Atlanta and Gainesville. But where are the pedestrians?
Why are they not out walking? Isn’t it enough that we provided a lot of shading live oaks???
I was left to wonder: Was there ever a time over the past 30-40 years when Gainesville had not suboptimized on big trees as the number one priority? Has suboptimizing live oak trees done anything to stop us from taking big steps toward becoming a sprawling auto slum? Has that done anything to promote walking on our sidewalks?
Is it any wonder that the anti-city, tree-suboptimizing attitude in America led to such a nearly universal development of cities throughout America that are utterly unwalkable, uncharming, and unlovable? A nation with cities that only an Oldsmobile could love?