Monthly Archives: May 2021

Can We Define Walkability?

By Dom Nozzi

In my career, I’ve often thought about whether it is possible to objectively quantify walkability. It seems to me that the question will always be subjective in many important ways.

This does not mean – I would hasten to add — that we should give up on creating plans or land development regs that strive to get us walkable design.

In looking to buy a walkable home in Boulder CO, Asheville NC, and now Greenville SC in recent years, I’ve decided it is essential for me to walk or bicycle the street where the home is located. I need to get subjective “feelings” for the vicinity. Does it FEEL walkable? Will the home offer me a “front-porch” lifestyle?

For me, only by walking down the street will I be able to evaluate how neighborly or convivial or human-scaled a neighborhood happens to be.

I ask myself the following questions when I walk.

How many homes have a well-designed front porch (and a porch that is a conversational distance from the sidewalk)? How many friendly people do I tend to encounter on my walk? Are there any gap-toothed dead zones (vacant lots)? Is the architecture interesting and pleasantly ornamental? How old are the homes? (for me, housing stock newer than about 1940 tends to fail to provide the walkable, charming character I seek) Is the street designed for low-speed car travel? Is there well-used on-street parking? Is the street one-way or two-way? How long is the street block? Is there a tree canopy? How tall are the street lights? Are signal lights mast-arm or post-mounted? What is the ambient noise level? Are there sidewalks on both sides of the street? Are the buildings five stories or less?

Regarding the very important proximity question (distance to regular destinations), the 100-year old cottage we renovated in Asheville NC had a crazy high walkscore (80). But it is debatable whether this home was “walkable.” For example, I have a 15-minute walk to the center of downtown, but I must walk over a large and loud interstate highway to do so. We are just a few steps away from a huge number of cafes, restaurants, bus stops, and large grocery stores, but that is because we are very close to a very noisy, high-speed, dangerous arterial road. And before we bought the house, a number of historic homes across the street from us were demolished and replaced by a large, conventional, ELEVATED shopping center that looms over us when we sit on the front porch.

I believe it is also the case that a “walkable distance” (15 minutes for regular “utilitarian” walks is the conventional rule of thumb for maximum distance) varies depending on the quality of the walk. If I find a lot of quality elements I mention above on my walk, I’m happy to regularly walk for 20-30 minutes. If the nearby elements are unpleasant or dangerous, I’m not going to enjoy regularly walking, say, a 5-minute distance.

Walter Kulash made this point about strip commercial “stroads” (the Chuck Marohn term): Driving down one mile of stroad FEELS like it takes longer than driving down one mile of a convivial, low-speed, tree-canopied street.

The same is true with walking.

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Making Town Centers Healthy

By Dom Nozzi

Town centers are made healthy with projects that add proximity, human scale, and mixed use density — each of which activates or energizes sidewalks with vibrant, interesting experiences that induce people to hang out and feel a sense of place, a sense of sociability, and sense of security.

This sort of design also promotes town center financial health through what economists call “agglomeration economies.”

Greenery (what James Howard Kunstler calls The Nature Band-Aid) tends to deaden a town center and kills both a sense of place, conviviality, and sense of security.

Sadly, nearly all calls to “improve” a town center are calls to add “greenery” or “open space” or parking. Nearly all US cities have far too much greenery and open space (and parking).

US cities over the past century have suffered mightily because almost no citizen, city staff person, or elected official understands much at all about what makes a town center healthy. Indeed, nearly all “remedies” proposed for the past century have harmed US town centers.

Tellingly, the great town centers in Europe that are so lovable that they draw people from all over the world have very little greenery, setbacks, open space (except piazzas!), or parking.

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On Living in a Tourist Town

By Dom Nozzi

I don’t have the aversion to tourist towns the way others seem to.

The way I look at it is that a town center (it is nearly always the town center) becomes “touristy” because people all over the world LOVE the experience of being in that town. In other words, the quality (of life) in the town is so high that people all over the world are willing to travel long distances to be there.

Having lived in one of the most popular tourist cities in the US (Boulder) for almost 13 years, I can say that the high number of tourists in town was something I never really noticed.

Maybe I would have if I was trying to find parking for my car. But since I don’t get around or own a car, “finding parking” is not a concern of mine.

I LOVED living in Boulder due to the high quality of life. I don’t know of a city in the US with anywhere near the same level of quality.

Because a high quality of life is so rare — particularly in America, where nearly all cities are awful because we focus on designing for happy cars rather than happy people — it goes with the territory that a quality city would be a popular tourist destination. I’m more than willing to accept the tradeoff of living in a tourist town and, say, not having nearby stores catering to locals like me.

I very much regret living almost my entire life in a place that is not easy or pleasant to walk in. I very much want that walkable, front-porch lifestyle.

Again, it is tragic that a walkable lifestyle is so rare that we will inevitably have a lot of tourists in the towns that have a tiny sliver of that lifestyle remaining. I’m Hoping to live to see the day when we will have a huge number of towns that are charming and human-scaled and lovable and walkable so that the few towns that now have that will not have so many tourists who will travel thousands of miles to enjoy it.

I’m still trying to understand things like I hear about tourist towns that draw a lot of tourists due to the beauty of the town. Things like “loved to death” or “tourism drives out locals.”

Besides losing stores that serve locals and gaining stores that serve tourists  — which I see as a problem, but not a dealbreaker for my wanting to live in a town —  I’m still wanting to better understand the downside of a town attracting a lot of tourists.

I am so in love with the human-scaled, traditional feel of small — preferably cobblestoned — streets and small intersections and small setbacks (and buildings no larger than 5 or so stories) that I’m willing to put up with a lot of possible or realized negatives. Very few of the things in my life bring me a bigger smile or sense of euphoria than the feeling of being in a medieval town center.

Conversely, there are almost no conveniences or pleasures or comforts that would allow me to experience adequate compensation for the misery of living in a neighborhood or city that is overly designed for motor vehicles.

I’d rather live in a cardboard box in Siena than in a $50 million mansion in Phoenix.

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Looking Forward Rather Than Looking Backward?

By Dom Nozzi

Modernist architects are fond of disparaging traditional architectural design by stating that we should be “looking forward rather than looking backward.” We should “design for the future rather than the past.”

However, in countless cases, looking forward to the future has led to terrible outcomes that have created problems that society has spent a long time trying to correct.

The following are a few examples of how “looking forward” was an extremely bad idea…


Lead-based paint

Mercury-based dental fillings

Leaded gasoline

Interstate highways, widened highways, and beltways in urban areas

Trans-fats/Hydrogenated oils

Low-fat diets

Polyester and corduroy clothing

Invasive plants and animals imported from other countries

Bean bag chairs

Use-based zoning

Nuclear weapons

High-fructose corn syrup


Car-based suburbs


Agent Orange


Red Dye No. 2




Subprime mortgages

Hydrogen blimps

Ford Pinto and Edsel

Tanning beds

Pop-up ads

Plastic grocery bags

8-track tape

Polaroid instant camera

It is far past time to add the failure of modernist architecture to this list. “Looking forward rather than backward” (or “designing for the future rather than the past”) has ruined the beauty and civic pride of cities throughout the world.

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Is Growth and Development Killing Our Cities?

By Dom Nozzi

Boulder Colorado is one of the hottest of the hotbeds of NIMYism – the misguided belief that trying to stop development is the best path to protecting quality of life.

But Boulder has been degraded NOT by new residents moving to Boulder, but by land development codes that do not require lovable, timelessly classical, people-oriented design. Instead, the codes are ANYTHING GOES.

There is no desire to force the traffic engineers to design for happy people rather than happy cars, which means the motorists have been having a field day in Boulder for several decades, and nearly all citizens are firmly convinced that a car-happy transport system is essential for a better life.

Boulder could have a large percentage of wonderful, much-loved buildings in its city, but gets unlovable, hideous modernist buildings because residents and elected officials are distracted by thinking that all efforts must be devoted to punishing and stopping growth. Forgotten in this rush to NIMBYism on steroids is the pressing need to obligate the inevitable growth to be lovable.

Boulder makes the tragic mistake of thinking that happy cars equals happy people.

The reverse is true.

Growth and development DESIGNED BY MODERNISTS AND TRAFFIC ENGINEERS is what is killing our cities. NOT growth and development, per se.

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