Category Archives: Environment

Inverse Relationship Between Buildings and the Splendor of the Local Environment?

 

By Dom Nozzi

March 18, 2017

I have heard it said that there is — in America at least — an inverse relationship between the beauty of architecture and overall community design in a community, and the beauty of the surrounding natural landscape. The more spectacular the surroundings, the more mediocre the architecture and community design.

If true, I would speculate that this can be said because a community fortunate enough to be within a gorgeous natural setting having a tendency to single-mindedly focus on protection of the spectacular natural landscape as the be all and end all of community beauty.

But community beauty is far more than protecting the natural beauty (as important as that is). The community must ALSO not lose sight of the extreme importance of adopting regulations that obligate the construction of beautiful buildings and neighborhoods and streets.

I believe that Boulder has failed to sufficiently focus on these aspects of community beauty.boulder flatirons

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Nudging Not Commanding

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 14, 2017

I recently participated in a Facebook discussion regarding the huge environmental impact of air travel.

Many people rightly have serious concerns about the enormous environmental impacts of flying. Many are so concerned that they advocate a strict prohibition on such travel.

Since reading the book Nudge, by Richard Thaler (2009), however, I have become a much stronger advocate of “nudging” people towards socially desirable objectives. Nudging retains choice for those who must have that choice, but makes it more difficult or costly to opt for socially undesirable options (such as less obligatory behavior including recreational travel).

Thaler cites the example of elevator and stairs location: the elevator should be lesopen-silver-elevators visible and hidden away when you walk into a front door. The stairs, which are more socially desirable than an elevator, should be right at the front door.

Command economies (think prohibition laws in the Soviet Union) ignore the fact that it is necessary to give some people the choice to do certain things, and the Soviet example shows that commanding instead of nudging is not particularly sustainable or compatible with human nature and human needs.

I say these things as someone with an environmental science degree, and as someone who has lived life with a very, very small ecological footprint (never owned a car, no kids, low-meat diet, etc.).

It HAS been very tempting to me to outlaw things that are environmentally harmful. But I have come to learn that as painful as it might be, we must allow for choices.

We just need to make less desirable choices less easy.

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Filed under Economics, Environment, Politics, Transportation

Is It a Good Idea to Build Walkable Developments in Greenfields?

And Will a Strong Plan and Strong Elected Officials Be Sufficient?

By Dom Nozzi

August 2, 2000

I think as a culture, we need to make sprawling, poorly-located projects and happy cars the Great Satan, the Number One Moral Evil.

And we need to figure out what conditions will result in such a change.

Frankly, I think one of them is building traditional, walkable neighborhood developments (TNDs) in greenfields. Admittedly a compromise, but it is one of the few market-based leverage points we have. I think that once most of us become convinced that our future development can ONLY be TND, contiguous, properly located development rules will inherently follow. As it stands now, only a few pointy-headed intellectuals understand seasideaerialthat important need, because we’ve poured trillions into building big highways and thereby locking ourselves in to having a huge majority that wants to flee the city for the cabin in the woods.

It seems to me that broadly speaking, we have two realistic tools for reversing unsustainable sprawl:

 

  1. Use TNDs as a leverage and educational tool in greenfields; or
  2. Stop widening roads and starting road dieting a great many roadways.

In the near term, I think #1 is much more likely. The outrage is that #1 means the loss of important natural areas (not to mention fragmentation), but it is almost certainly the price we must pay in the near term for committing the sin of pouring trillions into highways. I do not think it is feasible for us to find the political will and cultural values shift in the near term to fight for:

  1. TNDs, and only contiguous to an existing town.

Yes, polls encouragingly show that the majority across the US oppose sprawl. But we know that there have been huge majorities that support environmental conservation for DECADES. Of course, this has merely been lip service. It is so easy to tell a pollster what you think is best, based on what our culture says is moral, but then not walk the walk in our own lives.

It is a concept known as “Social Desirability Bias,” where people dishonestly tell pollsters how they think or behave not because they actually think or behave in such a way, but because they do not want to admit to the pollster that their thoughts or behaviors are unethical.

We need to be careful and not kid ourselves about how successful we can be in the near term to discourage development in undesirably remote places. Boulder CO, for example, typically elects Council members who are strongly in favor of tightly controlled growth and development. And history shows that south Florida somewhat similarly fought hard for environmental conservation and against sprawl.

The results are not pretty.

Reaction to such elected officials in Boulder sometimes results in the election of folks relatively supportive of unrestrained development, and even with a majority of Council members supporting strong growth management, such an aggressive stance tends to result in poorly designed sprawl occurring in towns around Boulder that are not affected by Boulder’s regulations. Most of that sprawl houses people who commute into Boulder. And we know what has been done in south Florida.

I wish we could successfully manage new development with nothing more than political will and well-crafted plans. But if the market, HEAVILY DISTORTED BY GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIES, calls for the opposite, we will get what the market wants, regardless of having even the most impressive elected officials and plans.

I often get into a shouting match with my Gainesville, Florida planning department supervisors, who still fail to realize that the long-range comprehensive plan merely records what has already been decided or what is already on the ground. This is the case despite Gainesville currently having a majority of “liberal” (albeit spineless) commissioners for a number of years. I’m hoping to have a minor effect with the transportation plan, but my early call to have “no net increase in road capacity” has already been chopped out by my supervisors.

The comprehensive plan is nearly irrelevant with regard to development that occurs, even if it calls strongly for no sprawl and is backed by five no-growthers on the city commission. What matters is the market. We must change that, with the few tools we have, if we want to have an impact. End public subsidies that fuel sprawl, stop widening roads, stop requiring a huge amount of parking, stop making mixed use and slow and narrow streets and granny flats illegal, encourage admirable model TNDs, etc.

More Thoughts on the Above Topics

We are nowhere near putting a halt to sprawling, remote, car dependent development. Given that political reality, I’m much happier with a TND in remote locations than a conventional sprawl project in such a location.

We certainly need to determine what it will take to muster the political will to effectively stop sprawl. Mostly, we need to stop widening roads, start putting a huge number of roads on a diet, start requiring pedestrian-friendly and auto-inconvenient mixed use projects via development regulations, and modify market preferences for cabins in the woods. How can we do that? I’m hoping that part of the solution will be to get some of the sprawl subdivisions (which is 99.9% of what is built) to be TNDs instead, so they can stand as visible INDICTMENTS of auto-dependent shlock. We need more envy on the part of the upper classes (who tend to be opinion-leaders and power-brokers) for new urbanism, and an excellent way to do that is with greenfield TNDs.

We need greens to stop fighting like mad — and burning themselves out in the process — to stop an infill project in order to save a few trees. They will win a few battles, but lose the war as they turn a blind eye – comparatively speaking — to the eco-rape happening at a much larger, more environmentally costly scale, in our greenfields. Too often, it seems like greens fight hard against TNDs, yet barely raise a peep when it is an auto-friendly project in a remote location.

It is fortunate that Sierra Club is finally starting to realize that a key lynchpin on saving our remaining, important natural areas is to address transportation. Transportation drives what happens with our land use (and, indirectly, our conservation). If we fail to stop our single-minded efforts to make cars happy, our natural areas are doomed to the sprawl steamroller even if every single elected official in the US supports strong growth management.

I agree that time is of the essence. We must therefore work quickly to reverse our car dependency trends, since, more than anything else, such trends are wiping out our greenfields with a HUGE number of new  subdivisions every week. I don’t think it is healthy or sustainable for us to keep fighting against greenfield developments. There are too many battles, and not enough of us. And the market forces — mainly due to the huge roads we’ve built — are too overwhelming.

As for concerns about such things as habitat fragmentation, it is a clear threat. And the number one cause? Not greenfield TNDs. The big culprit is roads and auto dependence.

I agree that requiring only contiguous development will buy us time. But our car culture makes that rather unlikely, since the market pressure to leapfrog is huge.

I like the jujitsu concept here. I’m often trying to figure out a way to use the power of the enemy against it. We need to get the market to help us. Remove subsidies. Build admirable models. Tax what we dislike…

I guess our ultimate dilemma is that stopping the road-builders remains a MONSTROUS undertaking. Perhaps as difficult as finding the will to simply stop sprawl development through, say, an urban growth boundary. I’m convinced one of our best hopes is that it soon becomes unaffordable for us to continue widening.

Then we need traffic congestion to do its many positive things.

 

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Filed under Economics, Environment, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

Educated Environmentalists and Missing the Forest for the Trees

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 22, 2000

It is common for those opposed to new development (the extreme form of this being the “not in my back yard” NIMBY) to cloak their opposition to a new development under the moral-high-ground mantle of environmentalism.

Nearly always, it is suburbanites who do this.

But it is far too often the case that intelligent environmentalists — who perhaps should know better — get caught up in the NIMBY hysteria. It has only been recently that the national Sierra Club has stopped their widespread NIMBY efforts and focused more attention on the real culprit — sprawl.

When I worked as a town planner in Gainesville, Florida, there were many neighborhood development proposals (including a bike path, of all things!) that were battered by NIMBYs. In each case, these in-town projects were hammered by intelligent environmentalists — environmentalists who were comparatively silent in the face of the incremental, relentless, profound, larger-scale ecological destruction that happens in outlying areas (and, ironically, at an accelerated pace due to the actions of in-town NIMBYism).

By the way, I did not hold up most of those proposed developments in Gainesville as models of good design. I just think they are, in the grander scheme of things, in much more ecologically preferred LOCATIONS — I prefer the loss of a few trees in urban, disturbed woodlands, and the loss of a few raccoons and squirrels, to the loss of hundreds of acres of nearly pristine woodlands, and high-quality habitat that is home to, say, eagles, fox squirrels, and gopher tortoise. I honestly don’t believe there is a third choice: Loss of neither. I believe that south Florida and southern California are testaments to the belief that there WAS a third choice.

I continue to remain highly annoyed (but not surprised) that for many intelligent environmentalists, minimizing residential densities is the be-all-and-end-all of environmental conservation when it comes to urban development. There is little that I can think of that is a more ruinous strategy for our future than to persist in the strategy of thinking that low densities will save us. Environmentalists MUST get on board with the idea that we need more compact development in proper locations. If this does not happen, we will have no chance of averting a south Florida future…

My experience, in other words, is that it is NOT just suburbanites cloaked as environmentalists. Many educated environmentalists must share the shame.

The key to a future rich in sustainability, quality of life, transportation choice, and civic pride is modest size. Modestly sized street dimensions. Modest distances between land uses french-quarter-inn-charleston-city-view1(and, implicitly, modest community and neighborhood size). Modest building setbacks. By stark contrast, sprawl is most accurately defined by LARGE size. Big setbacks, huge street dimensions. Monstrous setbacks.

In other words, the latter is scaled for cars, not people.

 

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Urban Creeks: Protecting Water Quality AND Urbanism

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 9, 2001

As an urbanist, I often make the point that “the pedestrian is the design imperative” within the urban core zones of the rural to urban community transect.

A crucial way to deliver a walkable, high-quality urbanism is to use modest, human-scaled dimensions.

Unfortunately for this design objective, environmental scientists (and arborists) often call for relatively large dimensions to achieve environmental conservation objectives (big stream setbacks, large tree planting areas, etc.).

The objectives obviously clash.

I enthusiastically support efforts to design walkable cities, and argue that successfully doing so results in better long-term regional environmental conservation, because designing great cities reduces the desire to flee the city in order to buy a home in remote residential subdivisions in sprawlsville. For this reason, it seems reasonable to me that those strongly seeking environmental conservation should buy into the urban-rural transect concept — the pedestrian/human is the design imperative in the core zone of the transect, and “the trout” (nature) is the design imperative in the rural conservation zone of the transect.

A dilemma here is that water in streams is flowing water — sometimes from the urban zone to the conservation zone. If the water is degraded in the urban zone with its pedestrian imperative, it can degrade the conservation zone when it reaches that zone, thereby harming the trout imperative. Nature often does not respect transect boundaries…

In my humble opinion, we should strive for a middle ground. That is, a stream within the urban zone needs to respect the pedestrian imperative by not creating pedestrian barriers. Yet the stream cannot be significantly degraded to the point of harming outlying conservation zones.

Must urban zone reaches of streams be “piped” or “paved over” to be walkable? Will they inherently suffer from ugly littering and dumping if they are not covered up? I don’t believe so.

Seems to me that a middle ground design would be to leave narrow, vegetated banks along the streams, and include a paved, hard-surface path along side it, as well as fairly closely urban-creekspaced pedestrian bridges over the creeks (say, every 200 feet, as we often call for such cross-access distances within a block).

By doing so, we achieve at least two things: First, the stream is walkable and does not create meaningful inconveniences to the pedestrian. Second, by establishing a hard-surface path nearby, we encourage a regular flow of pedestrian traffic along the stream. Such pedestrians become “eyes on the stream,” so to speak. They end up providing regular monitoring and voluntary clean-up when littering or dumping occur (or the “pedestrian police” will call city hall and demand that the clean-up be done). Greenways built around the nation have demonstrated the effectiveness of this form of citizen surveillance. A sense of stream/path ownership by path users typically results in clean up of litter problems that has sometimes persisted for decades before the path was installed. The key is that a formerly hidden, neglected stream is now visible to people on a daily basis, which means that we’ve created a chance for knowing about and caring for the stream. “Piping” or “paving over” a stream creates “out of sight, out of mind” problems, not to mention externalities that we would be blissfully unaware of…

Finally, I believe that the urban stream design I recommend above, while not creating a pristine water quality filled with healthy trout, will at least minimize exporting environmentally harmful water to outlying conservation zones.

 

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The Importance of Easy Access to Natural Areas

 

By Dom Nozzi

December 17, 2002

People appreciate something if they are exposed to it.

The only way for most kids to have EASY, regular access to vacant, weedy woodlots that tend to be sprinkled throughout a community is that they be within walking distance of residences in neighborhoods.

In other words, if we expect to raise kids that grow up to be conservationists, it is not enough for us to teach them about ecology in classrooms and have large natural preserves way outside a city in a place that cannot be reached by a kid on foot or bike. The woodlots need to be within easy reach of where kids live, so we need to be sure that neighborhoods are designed so that most homes are within walking distance of small parks — parks that are active and utilitarian. And not necessarily supportive of a rare, sensitive, valuable ecosystem.

These are, of course, important reasons why I have always been a big supporter of running greenway trails through or near neighborhoods.Boulder Greenway Canopy

How many subdivisions in America have no woodlots that kids can walk to? And how much do we encourage people to relocate into remote, environmentally sensitive areas because we failed to create walkable neighborhoods where it is easy to walk to small urban parks and trails?

 

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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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