Questions and Answers About My Planning Career and Lessons Learned

By Dom Nozzi

September 26, 2013

In September of 2013, a college student asked me about my city planning career and the lessons I learned in my work.

  1. What were your primary responsibilities in City of Gainesville, FL?

DN: As a long-range senior comprehensive planner, I prepared staff recommendations for proposed zoning, special exception, special use permit, and land use changes. I authored several environmental, transportation, and urban design land development regulations for Gainesville. I also authored the long-range transportation, land use, urban design, environmental conservation, recreation, and solid waste plans for Gainesville. My specialties and passions were promoting quality of life by properly designing for walkable streets, form-based codes, transportation choice, and employing “plain English” when writing land development codes.

  1. Could you share some of the highlights of your career?

DN: In 1989, I heard a speech by Andres Duany, and read essays by Walter Kulash, Jeff Kenworthy, Anthony Downs, and Peter Newman. The remarks by these individuals were an epiphany for me. I realized that the key way to design a community for quality of life was to return to the timeless tradition of making people happy, not cars. Particularly in town centers, I realized that the pedestrian was the design imperative. And that tactics which promoted or convenienced car travel were counterproductively degrading quality of life. The professional achievements I am most proud of were being the lead planner for creating a bicycle and pedestrian greenway path system in Gainesville, and being the lead planner for creating creek setback regulations. I am also proud of writing the long-range transportation, land use, and urban design plans for Gainesville, and authoring the “Traditional City” form-based code for Gainesville’s town center. Most importantly, the Traditional City code eliminated parking minimums for cars, and inverted those minimums so that they became parking maximums. I prepared land development regulations for large-format retailers, customized form-based codes for the University Heights and College Park neighborhoods, substantially revised and updated Gainesville’s noise ordinance, substantially revised the definitions used in Gainesville’s Land Development Code, created an urban design toolbox, prepared a sustainability indicators report for Gainesville, and incorporated a great deal of “Plain English” and drawings in Gainesville’s Land Development Codes to make them more understandable. Late in my career, I published a book called Road to Ruin about suburban sprawl, transportation, and quality of life, and gave speeches throughout the nation describing ideas from that book. More recently, I published The Car is the Enemy of the City, which touched on many of the same topics. After I retired, I became a nationally certified Complete Streets instructor, and served as a co-instructor to help communities throughout the nation design more complete streets.

  1. What is the most significant planning issue you have met during your career? What is the solution?

DN: Establishing tactics that promote quality of life, realizing that the most effective way to do that was to reduce the promotion and conveniencing of car travel as well as promoting quality pedestrian design, and recommending such tactics in a society where nearly all citizens are fierce proponents of car travel. One solution was to adopt the new urbanist tactic of creating a “transect” which calibrates land development regulations for a walkable town center, a drivable suburbia, and a rural lifestyle. In other words, creating transportation and lifestyle choices.

  1. Which school of ideas had the most influence on you as a planner?

DN: New Urbanism

  1. Do you have any advice for someone entering the field?

DN: Academic emphasis should be on design: architecture or urban design. The ideological focus of the school and its professors should be the new urbanism. The future will be to design for happy people, not happy cars. Tragically, most all planning schools (and nearly all communities) put too much emphasis on promoting happy cars. Become a highly skilled writer, a highly skilled public speaker, and a person highly skilled in drawing. Strive to emphasize speaking and writing in “Plain English” and conveying information that is both inspirational and understandable to a non-professional audience. Become passionate in recommending tactics that promote quality of life for people rather than cars. Such passion will be more rewarding and sustainable than a high salary.

  1. When you first entered the field, how did you apply what you had learnt in the college to practice?

DN: Primarily, when I first entered the profession of planning, I used planning terminology I had learned in college, and applied a number of planning concepts such as zoning to my work as a planner. I regret that my college studies were overly focused on policy rather than design.

  1. From your view, what’s the biggest barrier to create walkable streets?

DN: Allocating too much road space, too much parking space, and too many subsidies to car travel. The most effective way to induce more walking (as well as bicycling and transit use) is NOT to provide sidewalks, bike lanes or new transit facilities. It is to take away road space, parking space, and car subsidies, as well as shortening distances to destinations via compact, mixed use development. By doing those things, an environment conducive to walkability will inevitably evolve. Street widths and distances between buildings will be more human-scaled rather than car-scaled, travel distances to destinations will be considerably shorter, car speeds will be much more modest and attentive, residential and commercial densities will be higher and interspersed, and it will be less financially and physically rational to drive a car.

  1. Sustainable transportation has become a hot issue, how can new urbanism play a role in sustainable transportation?

DN: Americans devote an excessive amount of space to motor vehicle travel, which is enormously unsustainable, and greatly reduces the transportation choices needed for a more sustainable future. Because a motor vehicle consumes so much space (on average, a person in a car consumes as much space as 17 people sitting in chairs), cities in America are dying from a disease I call “Gigantism.” New urbanism, by making the timeless traditional focus on pedestrians the design imperative, is effectively restoring the pattern of building neighborhoods that are human-scaled rather than car-scaled. Because this creates a charming, lovable ambience, new IMG_3045urbanist design is highly profitable, which makes such design sustainably self-perpetuating (developers are self-motivated by the profitability of new urbanism to design in such a human-centered way, rather than being unsustainably forced to use such design due to government regulation). New urbanism has introduced the tactically brilliant idea of the urban to rural transect, which calibrates design and regulation differently in each transect zone so that all lifestyle and travel choices are provided for in each zone (forcing everyone to live in a compact, walkable town center setting is, today, politically unsustainable). But in the walkable, town center portion of the new urbanist transect, the compact design is inherently rich in transportation choices. A person is able to easily and safely walk, bicycle, use transit, or drive a car. Transportation choice is the most politically successful way to create sustainable transportation. Over time, as the cost of car travel becomes unsustainably expensive, the compact, walkable, design created by new urbanists – a design, again, rich in transportation choices – will become increasingly desirable to a larger percentage of Americans, which will mean that a larger percentage of Americans will be living in a setting that makes more sustainable transportation more feasible and less costly.

  1. What’s the best way for citizens to be involved in the planning process?

DN: Citizens should insist that new planning and development projects in the community use the “charrette” process, where skilled presenters, drawers, and designers begin by making a brief, educational, inspiring presentation about town design and transportation principles to an audience of citizens. When done well, charrettes abundantly employ many drawings of ideas by the charrette professionals as well as ideas from citizens. As a result of such a presentation, citizens become skilled and empowered to make town and transportation design decisions for the new plan or proposed development (or road) project. When citizens are making such decisions in a charrette format, there is much more community buy-in as to the design of the plan or project, and elected officials are thereby more likely to approve of such designs. The end result is commonly a design that makes sense to professionals, even though much of the design has been recommended by citizens and elected officials (ordinarily, design recommendations by non-professional citizens and elected officials is misinformed and prone to not-in-my-backyard opposition to even the best, most sustainable and well-designed plans and projects).

  1. Brief introduction of your latest book “The Car is the Enemy of the City”. Do you think people can maintain the same life quality without a car?

DN: Car travel and over-designing cities to accommodate such travel is deadly to cities. Healthy town centers need low speeds, human scale, and proximity. Yet a town center over-designed for free-flowing car travel is a city designed for high speeds, gigantic sizes, and sprawling dispersal of jobs, housing, shopping and culture. This book describes why cars and their “habitat” are toxic to town centers, and the features that create a walkable, lovable quality of life that a well-designed town center should provide. The book therefore illustrates how we can return to the timeless tradition of designing town centers to make people happy, not cars.

I am convinced that a person can maintain not only the same quality of life without a car, but a HIGHER quality of life. Owning a car in America today costs, on average, over $8,000 per year. Instead of spending that money on cars, a person can afford to buy or rent significantly better housing, and can have more money for education, better food, recreation, and so on. Indeed, in my own personal life, despite the fact that I did not earn a large amount of money in my job, I was able to retire at the relatively young age of 47 due to how much lower my expenses were without a car.

By not owning a car, a person tends to be more physically healthy, as more travel by walking, bicycling, or transit means that a person is exercising more and suffering less from growing health problems such as obesity and diabetes.

By reducing travel by car (because a person does not own a car), a person tends to be more sociable with neighbors and other citizens in the community. The car, after all, is an extremely isolating way to travel, because when one is commonly alone inside a car, interaction or serendipity with others is much less likely. Such interaction is also much more likely to be hostile towards others (via such things as “road rage”) rather than being friendly towards others.

When a person travels by walking, bicycling or transit, enjoyment of the trip route is much more likely. Sounds, smells, and enjoyment of other details of life and buildings are much more possible than when inside a car.

Finally, by not owning a car, a person is more motivated to see that her or his community is designed to be more friendly to people rather than cars. And there is no better way to enhance quality of life and sustainability than to do that.

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