Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Human Habitat is ALSO Important for Environmental Conservation

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 11, 2003

Environmentalism should be considered a subset of new urbanist design principles.

This is because in recent years, New Urbanism has made — as its centerpiece — the “transect” concept. The urban to rural transect stipulates that community design and the land development regulations implemented to achieve that design must vary as one moves from urban to suburban to rural to nature preserve.

Environmentalism, while in theory taking in the entire universe, in practice tends to be a concept that only looks at the protection of natural, non-human ecosystems. Important as that is, it leaves out any guidance or direction for how the human habitat is best designed. Indeed, as some have pointed out, if a person intends to best promote environmental conservation, she or he must broaden their perspective because if they don’t understand french-quarter-inn-charleston-city-view1and successfully advocate for quality, walkable design for humans, efforts to protect non-human habitats are ultimately doomed, as growing numbers of humans flee the low quality human habitat for the promise of bliss in the undeveloped, unspoiled regions. By contrast, urbanists using the transect methodology have a tool that instructs on what must be done in all habitats — be they urban/human, suburban/sub-human, or ecosystem/non-human. The transect recognizes that one size does not fit all. Environmental scientists often (not always) act as if one size does fit all.

Unfortunately, there tends to be an anti-human attitude of many (not all) environmental advocates. This attitude tends to include the belief that all that is natural is equally valuable, no matter where it is located. It is better to preserve a vacant, weed-choked lot in the middle of a city (to protect, say, squirrel habitat) than to let it become an urban building. Compact, walkable, mixed use development is always evil, no matter where it is located, because it does not include oak forests or grasslands. Ultimately, by taking this position (which only concerns itself with the non-human habitat), we make high-quality human habitat illegal. We are forbidden to build a Charleston. Or a Venice. Or a Sienna. We must save every possible dandelion. Every toxic mud puddle in our city is a precious wetland.  Why are we puzzled when so few want to live in American cities and so many want to live in (cocooned) woodlands surrounding a city?

Why are we not allowed to build pristine human habitats? Are we only allowed to preserve (or restore) pristine panther habitats? Are humans and their activity always to be considered evil or polluting? Is the idealized world one in which there are no humans and no human habitat?

When building compact, walkable, in-town projects in already developed, urbanized areas, the urbanist is simply looking for the same acceptance and societal admiration as the ecologist who preserves a wetland. The urbanist building a walkable, compact town center should not be attacked for not saving every weedy tree or degraded wetland in that location.

And I’ve seen that sort of thing from environmental activists all the time. Seems like an act of desperation to me. “We are losing so much woodland in sprawlsville. We therefore must make a stand to save every blade of grass everywhere.” Which, of course, ultimately speeds up environmental destruction due to how rarely we consequently build walkable places.

Should we attack the ecologist for not building sidewalks through every preserved wetland? If not, why is it okay to attack the urbanist for not preserving “nature” in every walkable place he or she builds? Why is only nature sacred, and never human urbanism?

We need to let the city be a city and let nature be nature.

Yes, I agree that we need to “push the market logic back to redevelopment.” But we live in a society that has poured trillions of dollars into building big roads that lock the market into fighting for remote sprawl. I believe it is naive to think that we can avoid a massive tidal wave of suburban sprawl when we have big roads and lots of free parking. No other tools, short of system-wide road diets and priced parking, can slow greenfield sprawl. Not environmental regulations. Not NIMBYs. Not no-growth commissioners. Not no-growth comprehensive plans. As long as we have lots of big roads and free parking in our community (and an absence of walkable places), we’ll see the vast majority of development proposals being made in greenfield areas. While I much prefer that those outlying greenfields be spared from development, I RELUCTANTLY accept the fact that I cannot stop the sprawl tidal wave that big roads bring. Given that agonizing reality, I much prefer that at least some of that tidal wave be in the form of walkable, compact, stand-alone villages (such as Haile Village Center in Gainesville FL).

And I eagerly await the revolution, when we move back from making cars happy to making people happy. Only then can we realistically expect to have a chance of stopping most greenfield development.

We have seen how extremely difficult it is to stop the tidal wave of drivable suburban development with a strong comprehensive plan — even with a majority of anti-sprawl commissioners. Such commissioners won’t stay in office forever. Not that it would matter, because even if they did, they would still be steamrollered.

To me, it is essential in this (hopefully) interim period of car-happy, big roads madness that we put walkable village standards into our code. In the end, if we don’t do that, we may win a few skirmishes by protecting a oak tree here and a weed-choked lot there, but we’ll still end up with the agony of the downward spiral of car-happy suburbia with no future. Will it be any consolation if there are tiny, degraded, preserved wetlands in the middle of a gigantic Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lots in a car happy community?

Should we just throw up our hands and give up in the only fight that really matters: stopping car-happiness and the road industry?

 

 

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“Hometown Democracy” in Florida

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 10, 2004

In 2004, there was a voter referendum proposed in Florida called “Hometown Democracy.” It was an effort to substantially increase the use of direct democracy over representative democracy (due largely to many Florida residents feeling as if their elected officials were not listening).

This is my take on this constitutional amendment to go to direct democracy…

In general, I am quite uncomfortable with the idea. In some ways, the amendment would be an obstacle to the “re-use of vacant/abandoned lands” efforts that have become an important issue, because citizens would have a high likelihood of voting against nearly all proposals to intensify a land use designation on a property — and such “upzoning” is often needed to make it viable to re-use abandoned lands.

It also strikes me that the direct democracy folks are an extreme form of NIMBYism (the Hogtown Greenway Bike/Pedestrian Path Debacle is a good, infamous example of the dangers of direct democracy in Gainesville). While I am sympathetic to the thought that nearly all upzonings in the past have delivered us bad development (auto-oriented national chains and big box retailers and huge asphalt parking lagoons), and that it would therefore be handy to have citizens be able to trump weak-kneed politicians who so often cave in to Supercenters and Drive-Throughs (etc.) by reversing a zoning or land use decision, it seems to me that this is a sledgehammer rule that would lead to a lot of unfortunate, unintended consequences.

Indeed, in so many places (including Gainesville), if we were to lock in the status quo by having NIMBY citizens always voting against upzonings, we’d be locking ourselves into a dispersed, suburban, auto-oriented downward spiral that we are in today. Often, we need to have selected properties upzoned from residential to non-residential so that we can have a more walkable, compact community that is vibrant, sociable, and less dominated by excessive car travel. But it would seem that with direct democracy, about 99 percent of all such upzonings would be voted down.

It strikes me that the crucial change we need is to revamp the land development codes for places like Gainesville so that in-town developments deliver us walkable, pleasant, friendly projects that don’t overwhelm neighborhoods with big roads, big traffic, big noise pollution, and big light pollution. In other words, requiring that development build in a neighborhood-friendly, traditional manner.

The key to a better future does not lie in stopping all growth and development. The key is stopping auto-oriented development, rapid land consumption at the periphery, and BIG roads. We desperately need well-designed, walkable, in-town development.

Gainesville’s land development regulations require project design that delivers suburban, auto-oriented development everywhere. In my opinion, we must move away from that destructive, one-size-fits-all approach that says everyone should live the suburban lifestyle. Some of us should have the option of living a walkable urban lifestyle or even a rural lifestyle. The Gainesville code largely says we have only one choice: suburban.

I say we should revise our codes so that we set up at least 3 lifestyle zones, with accompanying regulations. Urban Zone gets compact, walkable design regulations, Suburban Zone gets big setbacks and other car-oriented dimensions. The Rural Zone gets small village cluster and farm/woodland regulations. That way, citizens will increasingly urban-to-rural-transect-Duany-Plater-Zyberk-smbe accepting of new development projects in their neighborhoods. They will hopefully live in their lifestyle zone of choice, and will eventually find that the 3-tiered development code results in new projects that promote their lifestyle. The nearly universal desire to fear the next proposed development in the neighborhood (no matter what it might be) can transform to that happy time in our decades ago past when we actually looked forward to the new development proposal.

As Padriac Steinschneider once said, the opposite of bad development is good development, not no development.

However, I might be sympathetic to the idea if it were somehow restricted to unincorporated areas remote from cities where we don’t want any development.

 

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Using the Urban to Rural Transect to Make Urbanists and Environmentalists Allies

 

By Dom  Nozzi

September 12, 2004

Urbanists and environmentalists are natural allies. Instead of attacking each other, urbanists and environmentalists need to be saving energy to fight real enemies (The Making Cars Happy behemoth).

Speaking as someone schooled in both environmental science and urbanism, I must say that the new urbanist transect concept is one of the most powerful concepts I have ever come across, because its proper application informs us about how the entire spectrum of habitats — be they Charleston or the Everglades — is best designed. Neither the traditional discipline of urbanism or the traditional discipline of ecology incorporates the full spectrum of habitats and their needs. In principle, the transect achieves that.

The transect concept asks this question: What elements are immersive in the habitat we are working in — be it Charleston or the Everglades? For example, the transect instructs that a sidewalk is immersive in Charleston, and a “transect violation” when within the everglades-inlets_2026_600x450Everglades (at least the inner core wetland area of the Prairie). Conversely, a 200-acre marsh is immersive in the Everglades and a transect violation in Charleston. In other words, something is immersive if it promotes the quality of the habitat being designed. It is a violation if it harms the quality of the habitat being designed.

And frankly, this is where some of the conflict and impatience comes between new urbanists and many environmentalists. A good number of environmental advocates don’t have a conception of a transect or immersiveness. To such advocates, it is always a good idea to incorporate more nature EVERYWHERE — which fails to acknowledge that a 200-acre marsh in the middle of an in-town urban neighborhood harms the quality of a walkable Charleston. Natural features are not always immersive in all locations (it took me a while to realize that, since I came from an environmental academic background).french-quarter-inn-charleston-city-view1

Let the city be a city and let nature be nature. It goes both ways. Yes, many urbanists are guilty of not taking proper care of sensitive ecosystems in their projects. But it is also true that a many environmental scientists are guilty of not taking proper care of urbanism in THEIR advocacy. Both can harm the other.

Much of our culture fails to realize that nature can, in a sense, pollute urbanism in the same way that human development can pollute nature.

 

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Easing Our Guilty Conscience Can Subvert Quality Urban Design

By Dom Nozzi

September 19, 2003

Over the past few decades, environmental advocacy groups have had great success in making most people feel “sinful” for “damaging” nature. Such guilt leads to an increased desire to, for example, recycle soda cans. Or object to cutting down a few low-value trees. We ease our guilty conscience — guilt felt because many of us know, in the back of our minds, that we lead environmentally destructive lives. So recycling a few cans is our way to do penance and avoid damnation.

Another result is that arm-chair enviros often naively think that making our world tidy and neat is a meaningful and sufficient form of environmental conservation.

For both the can recyclers living in remote, car-dependent subdivisions with their SUVs, and the tidy and neat “enviros,” we see that most in our society have internalized the idea that “protecting the environment” is good. It is a cultural norm that most everyone takes for granted. It is now pretty much a bi-partisan consensus.

The end result of such a cultural victory, unfortunately, is unintended consequences. Many seem to believe that a tree or a shrub is ALWAYS a good idea in EVERY POSSIBLE location. It is inconceivable that a tree is not a good idea in some places.

That is, nature is sacred.

Given this cultural norm, naive enviros who don’t see the big picture too often decide to exclude a town design decision that has overall positive benefits for both humans and nature. For example, naive enviros will occasionally succeed in stopping an in-town project by convincing decision-makers to save a low-quality wetland or woodlot located in a town center. Naive enviros are often joined by commissioners who are naive about the needs of quality urbanism. Lacking any knowledge of what the ingredients might be for urbanism, it often seems case, that it is a no-brainer that we should save a few trees in exchange for loss of, say, a retail corner on an otherwise sterile building.

But is it really a no-brainer?

Is it really true that we can afford to give up a retail space in a part of a town center that is a scary, uninhabited prostitute- and drug-saturated no-man’s-land? A part of our town center where no one (except the homeless) walk, because there is nothing to walk to except empty parking lots and vacant buildings? (and a tired clump of trees)

The unintended consequence of saving every tree in a town center is that the town center ends up becoming, incrementally, a dead zone that no one wants to be a part of. Nothing happens there. It is not hip to be there, or be seen there. The hip, safe, happening places instead are in the outlying areas — areas that are incrementally wiping out our REALLY important woodlands and wetlands.

Preserving natural habitat by creating better human habitat. So says – correctly — the Smart Growth America’s web site.

The campaign over the past few decades to make environmental conservation (however naively practiced) a cultural norm has meant that we end up unintentionally harming other societal objectives — an example of “knowing just enough to be dangerous.” We strip commercial sidewalkoften fight and win easy “environmental” victories (such as saving a scraggly tree or degraded wetland), and pat ourselves on the back. But we are either blind to, or have given up on, the REAL war: stopping auto-oriented roadway and town design.

Because there are few, if any, citizens or decision-makers who know anything at all about what the ingredients consist of for a quality, compact, walkable habitat for humans, we easily and blindly harm that habitat as we zealously continue winning tiny, trivial battles to save Bambi.

No one objects, because no one sees any harm.

 

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Are We “Forced” to Drive a Car?

By Dom Nozzi

September 19, 2004

People often say to me that it is IMPOSSIBLE to survive without a car. Whenever I tell people that I’ve lived most of my adult life without owning a car, they look at me like I am some sort of dangerous lunatic. Or that I am from outer space.

They quickly rationalize about how “its possible for you, Dom, because you don’t have kids.” Or “you live close to work.” Or “you don’t have to run errands during the day.” Or “you don’t need to wear a dress.” And as I often say, it is IRRATIONAL not to drive a car quite often, because of the way we’ve designed our communities.

Sure, it is possible to live without a car. No one “forces” a person to use a car all the time. One has the “option” of walking or riding a bicycle seven miles, at night, in terrible weather, on a busy 5-lane road – a road without a safe space for wastreet without on street parkinglking or bicycling — to go shopping at the mall, or attend a meeting, or come home from work, or ferry kids and cargo. On a road that contains HUGE intersections that are extremely dangerous for a bicyclist or pedestrian to negotiate.

A person has the “option” of taking a bus filled with sketchy people, that arrives once every hour or so, and then takes an exceedingly slow route to your destination – assuming it actually goes anywhere near your destination.

But I question how many times a year that actually happens.

Our society makes it VERY difficult to travel without a car. I would say that on average, I attend about 5 events per week and I am almost always the only person there who has bicycled or walked. Indeed, bicycling and walking (or riding a bus) are considered so difficult and unlikely that almost no city government is willing to even set up a parking cash-out program — a program in which motorists would have the option of retaining the status quo of a free parking spot, or instead being awarded a higher salary [maybe $25-$100 per month] if they chose to walk, bicycle or bus to work. In other words, it is inconceivable to most all local government decision-makers that ANY employees would actually decide not to drive to work thru such an incentive. So why offer it?

So yes, no one is “forced” to drive a car. But it takes heroic efforts to NOT drive a car.

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