Category Archives: Environment

The Many Benefits of Higher Density Development Patterns

 

By Dom Nozzi

Those who work in the fields of town planning and transportation are well aware of the overwhelming evidence that there are a great many significant benefits of higher density development patterns. Tragically, nearly all Americans believe higher densities destroy neighborhoods and overall quality of life.

Why this disconnect?

Because nearly all Americans are utterly dependent on car travel, and higher densities make car travel much more costly and much more inconvenient.

Given this, it is clear that car-dependent Americans have a vested interest in fighting against efforts to improve community quality of life. This helps explain why so many community problems persist throughout the nation.

suburbia vs walkable3

In my 40 years of academic work in town and transportation planning, I have found that research studies show repeatedly and clearly that higher-density community and neighborhood development patterns provide the following benefits:

More affordable housing. This is due to smaller house size, the smaller amounts of land owned, and the ability of the household to survive with a smaller number of (extremely expensive) household cars. This is because more compact development patterns allow people to engage in many daily tasks without needing to travel by car.

Less per capita car travelThis reduces per capita air emissions and the overall per capita carbon footprint.

More physically fit community. With higher per capita levels of walking, bicycling, and transit use, residents of higher-density communities tend to be much more physically fit and less obese. Higher-density places promote social capital, and higher social capital is shown by studies to promote happiness, health, and longevity.

More financially sound households. A century ago, transportation was about 1 to 2 percent of household costs. Today it is about 23 percent and rising. The average annual cost of each car owned by a household is approximately $10,000. Higher-density neighborhoods substantially reduce the need for car ownership, car use, and overall household transportation costs. In addition, higher-density communities provide households with more job opportunities.

Lower startup costs. As Jane Jacobs noted several decades ago, higher-density town centers provide significantly lower capital startup costs for a small business. For example, it is much more financially viable for an individual to sell cooked food from a cart on a dense street corner than for an individual to buy or lease a restaurant building to sell cooked food.

More neighborhood-based (and smaller) retail. Only higher densities make smaller, neighborhood-based, locally-owned shops financially feasible. Lower-density communities tend to only be able to financially support franchise stores or large-format retail stores that draw customers from a regional consumer-shed.

More neighborly. Higher-density neighborhoods promote sociability. Lower-density neighborhoods promote isolation and suspicion.

Slower speed. Healthy cities are slower in speed, as slower speeds promote retail and residential health. And significantly reduces traffic injuries and deaths. These benefits explain why there is a global movement o create “slow cities.”

More abundant and diverse choices. Higher-density neighborhoods inevitably create much more in the way of choices for restaurants, other types of retail and specialty goods, and culture.

More innovation and creativity. Many studies show that higher-density cities are significantly more innovative and creative than lower-density cities. Higher-density cities attract more talented, skilled people.

More exchange. The main reason cities exist is to promote the exchange of goods, services, ideas, and sociability. Higher densities substantially increase the efficiency and amount of exchange.

More productive workforce. Higher-density cities not only attract more talented workers – which in itself promotes productivity – but also enhances productivity by reducing transportation costs in creating products or providing services.

More walking, bicycling, and transit use. Higher densities induce mixed-use development patterns, which substantially reduces trip distances. Relatively short travel distances to destinations is by far the most powerful way to increase walking, bicycling, and transit use.

Higher quality transit. Higher-density leads to higher transit ridership, which leads to better, more widespread, and more frequent transit service.

More housing choices. Lower-densities tend to deliver very limited housing choice. Nearly all of the housing consists of large single-family homes on large lots of land. Higher-density neighborhoods can provide townhouses, apartments, accessory units, co-ops, and live-work spaces.

More fiscal health for local government. Lower-density development, as shown by strongtowns.org, is a fiscal parasite because it fails to generate anywhere near the tax revenue needed to pay for its significant impacts (mostly road work) on the community. And minimizes per capita expenditures for infrastructure.

More security from crime. Higher densities promote citizen surveillance (often called “eyes on the street”). Higher densities lead to more regular use of sidewalks and observing the outside through house windows greatly contributes to our looking out for our collective security. Since criminals tend to rely on not being seen, this citizen surveillance greatly reduces crime. Many compact neighborhoods are now called “911” neighborhoods, as compactness increases the chance someone will spot an emergency and call 911.

More travel independence for those unable to drive a car. In a lower-density neighborhood, distances to destinations are far away and require the use of dangerous and high-speed roads. This makes car travel essential for nearly all trips, and those unable to drive (such as seniors, children, and the disabled) therefore lose travel independence. They must rely on others to get around.

More environmentally friendly. If we take, say, 100,000 people, that number of people will consume less environmentally sensitive land, produce far less air and water pollution, consume far less energy, and require less asphalt and concrete when living more compactly (ie, at higher densities). If we take that same 100,000 people and disperse them in lower-density patterns, the result is far higher levels of air and water pollution, far larger amounts of environmentally sensitive land consumed, far higher amounts of energy consumed, and far more asphalt and concrete needed.

Final Thoughts

A big part of the problem with the disconnect between the many benefits of compact development and the high level of citizen opposition to such development is that those who dislike density are thinking about the issue as a motorist and not as a human being. Since cars take up so much space, density is something that often and understandably makes the motorist furiously mad (so mad that the emotion tends to turn off a person’s brain). The idea of added density is seen as a direct threat to their ability to travel unhindered (or unfrustrated) by car.

It threatens the very core of their drivable lifestyle.

Car travel in a dense city is an effective recipe for infuriating a motorist. And again, because of the large space consumption of the car, nearly every trip the motorist takes puts them in a bad mood, as it is highly likely that driving a big metal box will be frustrating – even when densities are low.

Getting around by bicycle (or when I walk or use the bus), I pretty much never notice traffic congestion. In fact, almost every bike ride I take puts me in a better mood.

 

Some references:

http://www.lgc.org/wordpress/docs/freepub/community_design/reports/density_manual.pdf

https://theconversation.com/higher-density-living-can-make-us-healthier-but-not-on-its-own-34920

https://www.citylab.com/life/2012/11/cities-denser-cores-do-better/3911/

https://www.brookings.edu/articles/demand-for-density-the-functions-of-the-city-in-the-21st-century/

https://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/towns-and-cities/summary-value-urban-design-economic-environmental-and-social-benefi-10

https://www.citylab.com/life/2012/04/why-bigger-cities-are-greener/863/

https://www.britannica.com/topic/urban-sprawl/Costs-of-urban-sprawl

 

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Environment, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

Will the True Progressives and Promoters of a Quality, Sustainable Future Please Stand Up?

By Dom Nozzi

A “PINO” is a Progressive in Name Only. A person who holds deceptive political beliefs. A person who is engaged in virtue signaling, wherein the person seeks to give others the impression that they are ethical or part of the tribe.

Judith Renfroe questioned how progressives can support more housing, infill, smaller houses, expanded transportation choices, smaller and local retail, and a lower carbon footprint.

My questions to her: In what universe do progressives support preservation of low-density, low-slung and large-lot suburban housing? Or take a stance that is detrimental to affordable and healthy travel options (transit, walking, bicycling)? Or be anti-walkable city and pro-drivable suburb? Or support such restrictive single-family zoning that house prices continue to skyrocket and middle-income families are increasingly excluded from living in a city where their job is located?

Does it make sense for progressives to promote policies that maintain and heighten the “financial wall” surrounding Boulder to keep out the undesirables?

I have several additional thoughts about the absurd ideas that the anti-city and pro-car folks such as this author hold on to:

We are told that it is wrong for some Boulder progressives (the pro-city and pro-housing folks) to “be in bed with evil, greedy developers who can’t ever be trusted to build desirable developments.” That it is instead progressive and promoting quality of life if we instead “protect neighborhoods from development.” Or “protect our views of the flatirons.”

Really?

Let’s see if I understand correctly. I’m living in Boulder in, say, 1890. According to the above logic, I must urge my neighbors and my elected officials to “protect our neighborhood” by not allowing an “evil, greedy developer” to building my home. Or any other home for that matter. After all, how can we trust a greedy developer? My two-story home will block my views of the flatirons! And cause traffic gridlock!

In response, you tell me that when you arrived in Boulder in the 1950s and your home and your neighborhood were built, things were wonderful in Boulder and that desirable “small town character” should be protected. The developer of your neighborhood was not evil when you came to Boulder.

Why, I ask, were developers heroic when you arrived in Boulder, but now that you are here, developers have become greedy and evil?

Putting aside the double standard – or the idea that I’ve got mine, so we can pull up the ladder now – let us consider this proposition that your home and neighborhood were wonderful when you arrived.

In the view of a great many in the field of town planning, science, medicine, engineering, and sociology, the past several decades has seen the development of neighborhoods that are…

…the most unaffordability expensive in American history, in terms of housing, land consumption, and transportation.

…the most anti-social, suspicious-of-neighbors, and isolating in American history (Robert Putnam’s research has shown that America is now a nation of loners).

…the most energy-intensive, air-polluting, and consumptive in American history.

…the most unhealthy in American history (studies show neighborhood design triggers obesity, heart disease, and diabetes).

…the most architecturally ugly buildings in American history.

…the most restrictive in travel options in American history – only motorized travel is possible.

…the most low-quality in American history – in terms of the durability of building materials used.

…the most isolating in American history – for seniors and children who cannot get around without a car.

Is THIS the sort of neighborhood design we should be protecting in the interests of quality of life and sustainability? In this age of crisis regarding affordability, climate change, health woes, loss of lifestyle and travel choices, and loss of beauty, shouldn’t we instead be incrementally tweaking the design of the neighborhoods built over those decades so that they instead deliver a better quality of life and more resilient sustainability?

Eighty percent of the land in Boulder is zoned single-family and has these features, compared to about 0.1 percent allocated to a walkable, sustainable lifestyle. Is it possible that the neighborhoods with the features I list above are outdated and unsustainable in a world of climate change and affordability woes? A world where the demand for walkable neighborhoods is enormous (and growing) compared to a tiny supply of such neighborhoods?

Shouldn’t we perhaps reconsider the angrily held view that your neighborhood is wonderful in design and should not be “harmed” by more housing or compact development? That perhaps maybe a few mistakes were made back when Boulder had a “wonderful small-town character” at the time you arrived here?

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

The Many Benefits of Higher Density Development Patterns

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 6, 2019

 

Those who work in the fields of town planning and transportation are well aware of the overwhelming evidence that there are a great many significant benefits of higher density development patterns. Tragically, nearly all Americans believe higher densities destroy neighborhoods and overall quality of life.

Why this disconnect?

Because nearly all Americans are utterly dependent on car travel, and higher densities make car travel much more costly and much more inconvenient.

Given this, it is clear that car-dependent Americans have a vested interest in fighting against efforts to improve community quality of life. This helps explain why so many community problems persist throughout the nation.

In my 40 years of academic work in town and transportation planning, I have found that research studies show repeatedly and clearly that higher-density community and neighborhood development patterns provide the following benefits:

More affordable housing. This is due to smaller house size and smaller amounts of land owned.

Less per capita car travelThis reduces per capita air emissions and the overall per capita carbon footprint.

More physically fit community. With higher per capita levels of walking, bicycling, and transit use, residents of higher-density communities tend to be much more physically fit and less obese. Higher-density places promote social capital, and higher social capital is shown by studies to promote happiness, health, and longevity.

More financially sound households. A century ago, transportation was about 1 to 2 percent of household costs. Today it is about 23 percent and rising. The average annual cost of each car owned by a household is approximately $10,000. Higher-density neighborhoods substantially reduce the need for car ownership, car use, and overall household transportation costs. In addition, higher-density communities provide households with more job opportunities.

Lower startup costs. As Jane Jacobs noted several decades ago, higher-density town centers provide significantly lower capital startup costs for a small business. For example, it is much more financially viable for an individual to sell cooked food from a cart on a dense street corner than for an an individual to buy or lease a restaurant building to sell cooked food.

More neighborhood-based (and smaller) retail. Only higher densities make smaller, neighborhood-based, locally-owned shops financially feasible. Lower-density communities tend to only be able to financially support franchise stores or large-format retail stores that draw customers from a regional consumer-shed.

More neighborly. Higher-density neighborhoods promote sociability. Lower-density neighborhoods promote isolation and suspicion.

Slower speed. Healthy cities are slower in speed, as slower speeds promote retail and residential health. And significantly reduces traffic injuries and deaths. These benefits explain why there is a global movement o create “slow cities.”

More abundant and diverse choices. Higher-density neighborhoods inevitably create much more in the way of choices for restaurants, other types of retail and specialty goods, and culture.

More innovation and creativity. Many studies show that higher-density cities are significantly more innovative and creative than lower-density cities. Higher-density cities attract more talented, skilled people.

More exchange. The main reason cities exist is to promote the exchange of goods, services, ideas, and sociability. Higher densities substantially increase the efficiency and amount of exchange.

More productive workforce. Higher-density cities not only attract more talented workers – which in itself promotes productivity – but also enhances productivity by reducing transportation costs in creating products or providing services.

More walking, bicycling, and transit use. Higher densities induce mixed-use development patterns, which substantially reduces trip distances. Relatively short travel distances to destinations is by far the most powerful way to increase walking, bicycling, and transit use.

Higher quality transit. Higher-density leads to higher transit ridership, which leads to better, more widespread, and more frequent transit service.

More housing choices. Lower-densities tend to deliver very limited housing choice. Nearly all of the housing consists of large single-family homes on large lots of land. Higher-density neighborhoods can provide townhouses, apartments, accessory units, co-ops, and live-work spaces.

More fiscal health for local government. Lower-density development, as shown by strongtowns.org, is a fiscal parasite because it fails to generate anywhere near the tax revenue needed to pay for its significant impacts (mostly road work) on the community. And minimizes per capita expenditures for infrastructure.

More security from crime. Higher densities promote citizen surveillance (often called “eyes on the street”). Higher densities lead to more regular use of sidewalks and observing the outside through house windows greatly contributes to our looking out for our collective security. Since criminals tend to rely on not being seen, this citizen surveillance greatly reduces crime. Many compact neighborhoods are now called “911” neighborhoods, as compactness increases the chance someone will spot an emergency and call 911.

More travel independence for those unable to drive a car. In a lower-density neighborhood, distances to destinations are far away and require the use of dangerous and high-speed roads. This makes car travel essential for nearly all trips, and those unable to drive (such as seniors, children, and the disabled) therefore lose travel independence. They must rely on others to get around.

More environmentally friendly. If we take, say, 100,000 people, that number of people will consume less environmentally sensitive land, produce far less air and water pollution, consume far less energy, and require less asphalt and concrete when living more compactly (ie, at higher densities). If we take that same 100,000 people and disperse them in lower-density patterns, the result is far higher levels of air and water pollution, far larger amounts of environmentally sensitive land consumed, far higher amounts of energy consumed, and far more asphalt and concrete needed.

Final Thoughts

A big part of the problem is that those who dislike density are thinking about the issue as a motorist and not as a human being. Since cars take up so much space, density is something that often makes the motorist furiously mad (so mad that the emotion tends to turn off a person’s brain). The idea of added density is seen as a direct threat to their ability to travel unhindered (or unfrustrated) by car. Car travel in a dense city is an effective recipe for infuriating a motorist. And again, because of the large space consumption of the car, nearly every trip the motorist takes puts them in a bad mood, as it is highly likely that driving a big metal box will be frustrating – even when densities are low.

Getting around by bicycle (or when I walk or use the bus), I pretty much never notice traffic congestion. In fact, almost every bike ride I take puts me in a better mood.

 

Some references:

http://www.lgc.org/wordpress/docs/freepub/community_design/reports/density_manual.pdf

https://theconversation.com/higher-density-living-can-make-us-healthier-but-not-on-its-own-34920

https://www.citylab.com/life/2012/11/cities-denser-cores-do-better/3911/

https://www.brookings.edu/articles/demand-for-density-the-functions-of-the-city-in-the-21st-century/

https://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/towns-and-cities/summary-value-urban-design-economic-environmental-and-social-benefi-10

https://www.citylab.com/life/2012/04/why-bigger-cities-are-greener/863/

https://www.britannica.com/topic/urban-sprawl/Costs-of-urban-sprawl

 

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Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Energy, Environment, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

What kind of housing provides true quality of life?

By Dom Nozzi

A “PINO” is a Progressive in Name Only. A person who holds deceptive political beliefs. A person who is engaged in virtue signaling, wherein the person seeks to give others the impression that they are ethical. Or part of the tribe.

Camera guest opinion writer Judith Renfroe questioned how progressives can support more housing, infill, smaller houses, expanded transportation choices, smaller and local retail, and a lower carbon footprint.

My questions to her: In what universe do progressives support preservation of low-density, low-slung, and large-lot suburban housing? Or take a stance that is detrimental to affordable and healthy travel options (transit, walking, bicycling)? Or be anti-walkable city and pro-drivable suburb? Or support such restrictive single-family zoning that house prices continue to skyrocket and middle-income families are increasingly excluded from living in a city where their job is located?

The ideas that the anti-city and pro-car folks such as this author hold on to are absurd.

We are told that it is wrong for some Boulder progressives (the pro-city and pro-housing folks) to be in bed with “evil, greedy developers” who can’t ever be trusted to build desirable developments. That it is progressive and promoting quality of life if we instead “protect neighborhoods from development.” Or “protect our views of the Flatirons.”

Really?

Let’s see if I understand correctly. I’m living in Boulder in, say, 1890. According to the above logic, I must urge my neighbors and my elected officials to “protect our neighborhood” by not allowing an “evil, greedy developer” to build my home. Or any other home for that matter. After all, how can we trust a greedy developer? My two-story home will block my views of the Flatirons. And cause traffic gridlock.

Why, I ask, were developers heroic when you arrived in Boulder but, now that you are here, developers have become greedy and evil? Putting aside the double standard — or the idea that I’ve got mine, so we can pull up the ladder now — let us consider this proposition that your home and neighborhood were wonderful when you arrived.

In the view of a great many in the field of town planning, science, medicine, engineering and sociology, the past several decades have seen the development of single-family neighborhoods that are:

• The most unaffordably expensive in American history, in terms of housing, land consumption, and transportation.

• The most anti-social and suspicious-of-neighbors in American history (Robert Putnam’s research has shown that America is now a nation of loners).

• The most energy-intensive, air-polluting, and consumptive in American history.

• The most unhealthy in American history (studies show low-density neighborhood design triggers obesity, heart disease and diabetes).

• The most architecturally ugly buildings in American history.

• The most restrictive in travel options in American history — only motorized travel is possible.

• The most low-quality in American history — in terms of the durability of building materials used.

• The most isolating in American history — for seniors and children who cannot get around without a car.

Is this the sort of neighborhood design we should be protecting in the interests of quality of life and sustainability? In this age of crisis regarding affordability, climate change, health woes, loss of lifestyle and travel choices, and loss of beauty, shouldn’t we instead be incrementally tweaking the design of the neighborhoods built over those decades so that they instead deliver a better quality of life and more resilient sustainability?

Eighty percent of the land in Boulder is zoned single-family and has many of these features, compared to about 0.1% allocated to a walkable, sustainable lifestyle. Is it possible that the neighborhoods with the features I list above are outdated and unsustainable in a world of climate change and affordability woes? A world where the demand for walkable neighborhoods is enormous (and growing) compared to a tiny supply of such neighborhoods?

Shouldn’t we perhaps reconsider the angrily held view that your neighborhood is wonderful in design and should not be harmed by more housing or compact development? That perhaps maybe a few mistakes were made back when Boulder had a “wonderful small-town character” at the time you arrived here?

Dom Nozzi lives in Boulder.

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Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Energy, Environment, Peak Oil, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

There is No Mystery About What Needs to be Done

 

By Dom Nozzi

A friend of mine recently told me, with regard to climate change and excessive energy use, that “[i]t does all seem so overwhelming. I think a lot of people say, ‘What the hell, we are doomed, so I am going to buy the biggest car I can and drive it as much as possible. We are all going to die anyway so why try to make a change? Noting I can do will make a difference anyway.’ I wish we could all do something to make a change, but it is just so complicated, no one knows what to do.”

Here is my response to my friend:

The problem is not that the solutions are a mystery.

A great many of us know what works:

*Adopting a Carbon Tax.

*Establishing “dynamic pricing” of utility charges so that the price per unit of energy goes WAY up after a certain amount is used over the course of a month.

*Creating much larger government subsidies for “green” energy such as solar.

*Cutting the US military budget drastically.

*Putting way more government money into environmental research and the construction of a lot of new passenger rail.

*Pricing much of the “free” parking we have created all over the US.

*Tolling roads that are currently “free” to use.

There are nearly endless additional, effective tools, but I’ll stop there.

No, the problem is not the lack of knowledge about what to do. The problem is finding the political will to do effective things. As it stands now, the two major US political parties (Democrats and Republicans) are almost completely failing to give us leaders to vote for. Corruption is an important reason for that, as are unfortunate government subsidies for detrimental things.

In America, corruption leads to the widespread belief that socialism is a God-Given right when it comes to a great many ruinous features in our society (such as roads and parking and corn and energy). Corruption also leads too many of us to believe that socialism is only bad for things that benefit society (such as education, health, etc.).

As an aside, it is highly unlikely that paying attention to the entertainment, fear, anger, and outrage machine (ie, the US media) will inform us about what to do, or cast such tactics in a favorable light.

The media is almost exclusively striving not to inform us but to enrage us or amuse us or terrify us.

How did the media become this way?

Because the US media is going bankrupt by having to compete with such things as the Internet. They have learned, much to the detriment of our society, that if their reporting ramps up our OUTRAGE TOWARD OTHERS, FEAR OF OTHERS, and ANGER TOWARD OTHERS, they will make a lot of money and therefore sometimes survive – for at least a short while — the factors harming their bottom line. Their mission: to write news that obligates a great many of us to say to others, “OMG, did you hear xxxxxxx in the news???? We must tell everyone we know, and tune in more, or read more to learn more details!!!”

The emotions of outrage, fear, and anger do that better than anything else.

 

 

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Dinosaur Politics in Boulder

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 9, 2019

PLAN-Boulder County, the leading advocacy group in Boulder County for what they curiously call “good planning,” has become a dinosaur that leads the charge, ironically, for increasing per capita car use and car dependency, less affordable housing, more remote suburban commuters, more elitism (“pull up the ladder in Boulder because I’ve made it here!”), less traffic safety, and larger out of town retail establishments.

As an aside, one thing that exemplifies the counterproductive nature of groups such as PLAN and Together4Boulder (another local NIMBY group fighting against green/compact cities and for pro-car elitism) is that their messages heavily rely on fear-mongering. Fear is an inherently reactionary emotion in politics — in part because it turns off the rational part of human brains.

Painting all developers and developments as evil – as PLAN, T4B, and others are prone to do — is increasingly naive, mean-spirited, and counterproductive. What such unhelpful criticism leads to is setting up even more obstacles (there is already a great many) to well-managed development – development that can effectively promote a number of important Boulder objectives. Particularly when the development is compact, walkable infill in locations that are places where people find it relatively easy to use transit, walk, or bicycle to get to important, regular destinations.

Enlightened actions – in contrast to reactionary advocacy by PLAN, T4B, and others – promote quality of life in cities such as Boulder by tending to be pro-city rather than pro-suburb. That means supporting (in the many appropriate locations found in Boulder) compact and mixed development, more housing, buildings between 2-5 stories, slower speed street design, less surface parking, more agglomeration, and human-scaled infrastructure and geometries. These are among the essential attributes that make cities more healthy and city living more enjoyable. Groups such as PLAN and Together4Boulder advocate the opposite, which amounts to an advocacy of drivable, sprawling, unaffordable, unsafe suburbanism.

That, my friends, is a recipe for a lack of sustainability. And a grim future for Boulder.

 

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Boulder is at the Point of No Return on Car Travel

By Dom Nozzi

The drivable suburban experiment we have engaged in for the past century is one of the most wasteful, unsustainable paths ever taken by humanity. It is also one of the biggest traps.

Low-density suburbia (80 percent of Boulder) comes far short of paying its own way. The meager tax revenues it produces come nowhere near paying for its enormous impacts. Suburbia is a Ponzi Scheme. And a self-perpetuating downward spiral. It is financially unsustainable because it requires enormous subsidies. Yet because a driving lifestyle is highly inconvenient and costly when housing densities are higher, lower densities have been demanded for over a century, because nearly all of us insist our elected officials only allow that type of car-enabling development.

When car travel emerged a century ago, we began building our communities to facilitate such travel. We eventually overbuilt for cars and reached a tipping point. A point where driving was the only realistic way for the vast majority of us to travel. That threshold created a world where there is no turning back. We here in Boulder have reached a point of no return. Even Amsterdam is seeing a steady rise in car ownership.

Even if we realize that the costs of over-reliance on driving are unbearable – too many traffic deaths, too much climate change from car emissions, too much financial burden, too many health problems from our sedentary lifestyles — it is too late for us to reverse course and back away from excessive car dependence. Why? Because when nearly all of us can only travel by car, it is nearly impossible, politically, to enact measures that make non-car travel feasible. The vast majority of us – as motorists – are obligated to fight vigorously to retain our only means of travel. We are compelled to attack any and all effective methods to make walking, bicycling, and transit feasible. We angrily oppose efforts to allow affordable granny flats. To modestly narrow roads and intersections. To allow more compact development. To adopt equitable motorist user fees so motorists pay their own way. We scream against safety-promoting traffic calming plans. We yell about proposals to mix offices or retail within our residential neighborhoods. We demand that massive parking be provided for proposed development. We insist that the highway be widened.

A century ago, many of us were seduced by the “miraculous” nature of the car. “Look what cars can do! Easy to carry passengers and all the stuff we buy at the store! Protection from weather! High-speed travel! We can live in a Cabin in the Woods and escape the crime and noise and congestion and pollution of the city!”

The reality is that providing for high-speed, dangerous, space-hogging cars is a zero-sum game. Every time we make car travel easier – and nearly all of us demand our leaders do that — we make travel by walking, bicycling or transit more difficult.

That dynamic means nearly all of us are trapped. Car travel is now about the only way to get around.

Because our only way of travel takes up so much space, we must fight to ensure that there are severe limitations on how many others can move to our city. Because if more than a handful move to Boulder, our roads and parking lots are quickly congested.

Nearly all, therefore, want to “pull up the ladder” so no one else can move to our city because those people will ALSO be motorists congesting our roads and parking lots! Like anti-social hermits, we must conclude that new residents are not new neighbors and friends. They instead are threats to our car-based quality of life. Never mind that the car-based lifestyle is unsustainable and ruins the quality of the city. Oops.

When even timid efforts to create street design for bicycling are attempted, “enlightened” Boulder citizens unleash a torrent of rage – a growing national phenomenon known as “bikelash.” Hostile, impatient, aggressive motorists honk and throw trash at people on two wheels, and brush past cyclists at high speeds. Columnists and radio commentators rail against the “anti-car bicycling lobby,” and politicians remove bike infrastructure — thinking (wrongly) that car travel is otherwise impossible.

The self-reinforcing nature of the transportation trap explains why trapped cities such as Boulder (ironically) have made the auto and oil industries so obscenely profitable.

Our only way to escape the trap of car dependency is for our society to no longer be able to afford it. But that will not occur in our lifetimes.

We have ourselves an existential threat.

 

 

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Effective Conservation of Water

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 1, 2019

At the margin (that is, the point at which we are dying of thirst), water is more valuable than diamonds, my professor once said.

But we don’t price it that way.

By underpricing water, we inevitably use too much in arid western states. When water is underpriced, too much is used for low-value uses such as golf course irrigation. In parched Arizona, I recall from college that the majority of water in that state is used for golf courses, and irrigating soft wheat (an ingredient used to make donuts).

I have never forgotten that lesson. Proper price signals — instead of “education campaigns,” which do almost nothing to change behavior – are the only effective way to reduce waste.

How do we send proper price signals? Some utilities, such as in Boulder, discourage excessive water use by increasing the per-gallon cost of water once a household or industry goes above a threshold. For households, that might be something like 1,000 gallons per month, after which the price per gallon goes up substantially. This much more powerfully “educates” people about water waste. Price signals effectively teach people the value of conserving water (or, in the case of the recently adopted sugar tax, to not consume too much sugar).

High water prices for all levels of water use are a meat ax price signal. They do not recognize essential household and industrial water needs. We should, however, be dynamically pricing water to discourage wastefulness, such as extravagant lawn watering.

High prices slow growth, by the way, but water scarcity will not stop growth, despite the dreams of NIMBYs throughout the nation.

We need to nudge people toward water conservation, not prohibit wastefulness (or try to stop growth). Price signals retain the ability to opt for desired water use. That is how it should be.

The failure of Soviet-style economics was based on excessive government market intervention via prohibitions.

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Density is the New Green

The Many Benefits of Higher Density Development Patterns

By Dom Nozzi

 

Those who work in the fields of town planning and transportation are well aware of the overwhelming evidence that there are a great many significant benefits of higher density development patterns. Tragically, nearly all Americans believe higher densities destroy neighborhoods and overall quality of life.

Why this disconnect?

Because nearly all Americans are utterly dependent on car travel, and higher densities make car travel much more costly and much more inconvenient.

Given this, it is clear that car-dependent Americans have a vested interest in fighting against efforts to improve community quality of life. This helps explain why so many community problems persist throughout the nation.

suburbia vs walkable3

In my 40 years of academic work in town and transportation planning, I have found that research studies show repeatedly and clearly that higher-density community and neighborhood development patterns provide the following benefits:

More affordable housing. This is due to smaller house size and smaller amounts of land owned.

Less per capita car travel. This reduces per capita air emissions and the overall per capita carbon footprint.

More physically fit community. With higher per capita levels of walking, bicycling, and transit use, residents of higher-density communities tend to be much more physically fit and less obese. Higher-density places promote social capital, and higher social capital is shown by studies to promote happiness, health, and longevity.

More financially sound households. A century ago, transportation was about 1 to 2 percent of household costs. Today it is about 23 percent and rising. The average annual cost of each car owned by a household is approximately $10,000. Higher-density neighborhoods substantially reduce the need for car ownership, car use, and overall household transportation costs. In addition, higher-density communities provide households with more job opportunities.

Lower startup costs. As Jane Jacobs noted several decades ago, higher-density town centers provide significantly lower capital startup costs for a small business. For example, it is much more financially viable for an individual to sell cooked food from a cart on a dense street corner than for an an individual to buy or lease a restaurant building to sell cooked food.

More neighborhood-based (and smaller) retail. Only higher densities make smaller, neighborhood-based, locally-owned shops financially feasible. Lower-density communities tend to only be able to financially support franchise stores or large-format retail stores that draw customers from a regional consumer-shed.

More neighborly. Higher-density neighborhoods promote sociability. Lower-density neighborhoods promote isolation and suspicion.

Slower speed. Healthy cities are slower in speed, as slower speeds promote retail and residential health. And significantly reduces traffic injuries and deaths. These benefits explain why there is a global movement o create “slow cities.”

More abundant and diverse choices. Higher-density neighborhoods inevitably create much more in the way of choices for restaurants, other types of retail and specialty goods, and culture.

More innovation and creativity. Many studies show that higher-density cities are significantly more innovative and creative than lower-density cities. Higher-density cities attract more talented, skilled people.

More exchange. The main reason cities exist is to promote the exchange of goods, services, ideas, and sociability. Higher densities substantially increase the efficiency and amount of exchange.

More productive workforce. Higher-density cities not only attract more talented workers – which in itself promotes productivity – but also enhances productivity by reducing transportation costs in creating products or providing services.

More walking, bicycling, and transit use. Higher densities induce mixed-use development patterns, which substantially reduces trip distances. Relatively short travel distances to destinations is by far the most powerful way to increase walking, bicycling, and transit use.

Higher quality transit. Higher-density leads to higher transit ridership, which leads to better, more widespread, and more frequent transit service.

More housing choices. Lower-densities tend to deliver very limited housing choice. Nearly all of the housing consists of large single-family homes on large lots of land. Higher-density neighborhoods can provide townhouses, apartments, accessory units, co-ops, and live-work spaces.

More fiscal health for local government. Lower-density development, as shown by strongtowns.org, is a fiscal parasite because it fails to generate anywhere near the tax revenue needed to pay for its significant impacts (mostly road work) on the community. And minimizes per capita expenditures for infrastructure.

More security from crime. Higher densities promote citizen surveillance (often called “eyes on the street”). Higher densities lead to more regular use of sidewalks and observing the outside through house windows greatly contributes to our looking out for our collective security. Since criminals tend to rely on not being seen, this citizen surveillance greatly reduces crime. Many compact neighborhoods are now called “911” neighborhoods, as compactness increases the chance someone will spot an emergency and call 911.

More travel independence for those unable to drive a car. In a lower-density neighborhood, distances to destinations are far away and require the use of dangerous and high-speed roads. This makes car travel essential for nearly all trips, and those unable to drive (such as seniors, children, and the disabled) therefore lose travel independence. They must rely on others to get around.

More environmentally friendly. If we take, say, 100,000 people, that number of people will consume less environmentally sensitive land, produce far less air and water pollution, consume far less energy, and require less asphalt and concrete when living more compactly (ie, at higher densities). If we take that same 100,000 people and disperse them in lower-density patterns, the result is far higher levels of air and water pollution, far larger amounts of environmentally sensitive land consumed, far higher amounts of energy consumed, and far more asphalt and concrete needed.

Final Thoughts

A big part of the problem is that those who dislike density are thinking about the issue as a motorist and not as a human being. Since cars take up so much space, density is something that often makes the motorist furiously mad (so mad that the emotion tends to turn off a person’s brain). The idea of added density is seen as a direct threat to their ability to travel unhindered (or unfrustrated) by car. Car travel in a dense city is an effective recipe for infuriating a motorist. And again, because of the large space consumption of the car, nearly every trip the motorist takes puts them in a bad mood, as it is highly likely that driving a big metal box will be frustrating – even when densities are low.

Getting around by bicycle (or when I walk or use the bus), I pretty much never notice traffic congestion. In fact, almost every bike ride I take puts me in a better mood.

 

Some references:

http://www.lgc.org/wordpress/docs/freepub/community_design/reports/density_manual.pdf

https://theconversation.com/higher-density-living-can-make-us-healthier-but-not-on-its-own-34920

https://www.citylab.com/life/2012/11/cities-denser-cores-do-better/3911/

https://www.brookings.edu/articles/demand-for-density-the-functions-of-the-city-in-the-21st-century/

https://www.mfe.govt.nz/publications/towns-and-cities/summary-value-urban-design-economic-environmental-and-social-benefi-10

https://www.citylab.com/life/2012/04/why-bigger-cities-are-greener/863/

https://www.britannica.com/topic/urban-sprawl/Costs-of-urban-sprawl

 

 

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Is “Green Space” and “Low Density” the Solution for a Better Future for Our Cities?

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 15, 2019

 

A conversation with a few of my friends here in Boulder CO…

Donna and Jill: Thank you for your thoughts. I have a great many things to say in response, but in the interest of brevity, I will limit my comments.

Let me start by saying that because the word “density” has been tragically poisoned in American society to mean evil, disgusting, scary, awful, dirty, destructive and terrible — largely because nearly all of us see things from the point of view of our car rather than from the point of view of being human beings, by the way – I will instead substitute the term “compact, traditional, human scaled design.”

I say “tragic” because despite the conventional wisdom, compact, traditional, human scaled design gives us, by far, the best way to have the smallest ecological footprint, the least harm to the environment, the best chance to reduce per capita car travel, an excellent way to promote diversity and choices, the most effective way to create affordable housing and overall affordability, the best way to promote walking/transit/bicycling, the best way to reduce car crashes, the most important way to promote convenience, and the most effective way to create a high overall quality of life. By opposing compact, traditional, human scaled design so obsessively and angrily, Americans are thereby undercutting all of those important community objectives.

We have become our own worst enemy without realizing it.

Another important reason why so many Americans hate compact development is that Americans tend to create TERRIBLE versions of compact development. Compact development in the US is almost always badly done – and thereby given a black eye — because it is nearly always suburbanized, too often employs utterly unlovable and scary modernist building design, regularly strives to pamper motorists, and tends to fail to be human-scaled. By contrast, compact development is done so well in places like Europe that nearly all Americans are willing to travel thousands of miles to enjoy it in Europe.

Compact development is not to blame for crime, or dirty subways (the metro in DC and in much of Europe is very clean and hip), or poverty, or disease. What IS to blame is the century-long fact that Republicans and Democrats yearly pour obscene amounts of public dollars into endless and criminal wars/weapons, road widenings, parking, and police and fire services. With trillions thrown away in such a manner, funding for regular cleaning, repair, and quality design of our public facilities and public realm is shamefully inadequate.

I need to note early on that there is no humane or constitutional way to stop city growth or population growth. And I see no benefit to “slowing” growth (that would just amount to a form of “Chinese Water Torture,” as we would still end up with feared “awfulness” in the long term). Fighting to minimize the density of a proposed development, which is an EXTREMELY common tactic in Boulder (largely to promote happy motoring) is highly counterproductive, as it moves Boulder, incrementally, toward becoming another Phoenix or Houston. Two cities, by the way, that I think we can all agree have “lost their soul.”

Jill, you rightly mention that

“[w]e are replacing natural beauty with ugly houses and not planning a decent public transportation system.  Most streets are filled cars and franchises.  It all looks the same… the stores, the buildings, the parking lots.  We are in Anywhere, USA.”

But those things happen not because of compact development. They are happening because Boulder and nearly every other city is single-mindedly focused on creating a more convenient way to travel by car. Nearly all citizens, as well as their local government, fight tooth and nail to promote lower densities to achieve a happy car world. Doing that kills the chance to create “decent public transportation.” It ensures that we will be stuck in traffic (because development is too low density to travel without a car), and it ensures the city will be filled with franchises (because low density makes it impossible for locally owned, smaller retailers to financially survive).

As for “ugly houses” and “Anywhere USA,” that problem, again, has nothing to do with compact development. It is caused largely by the fact that the architectural profession has become a failed profession. It has adopted the utterly unlovable modernist design paradigm and thrown out the inherently lovable traditional design paradigm. It is also caused by Boulder being so ruinously and obsessively focused on stopping development or slowing it or reducing its density that it has been too distracted and put too little time into adopting building design rules that ensure lovability and local character. Other cities have adopted such rules, by the way.

The popular claim that compact, traditional, human scaled design causes “health and emotional problems” is nonsense. That claim has been completely debunked for decades. It is much more plausible that low-density suburban design causes such problems (there is growing scientific data to objectively confirm this).

To see a superb rebuttal to the claims that compact, traditional design is bad for health and the environment, see “Green Metropolis” by David Owen, “Cities and Automobile Dependence” by Jeff Kenworthy and Peter Newman, “Cities in Full,” by Steve Belmont, and “Bowling Alone,” by Robert Putnam. Also take note of the fact that the happiest, healthiest people live in compact, traditionally designed, human-scaled places. And the unhappiest, most unhealthy people live in low-density suburbs filled with green.

The most loved cities in the world (which is also the opinion of nearly everyone I know in Boulder) include such places as Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Siena, Montepulciano, Malmo, Delft, Utrecht and Copenhagen. In Boulder, similarly, the most loved places are the Mapleton Hill neighborhood and Pearl Street Mall.

By striking contrast, the most disliked cities in America include such places as Detroit, Phoenix, Houston, Buffalo, and Cleveland.

The “most loved” cities listed above are far MORE compact and have far LESS green space than the “most disliked” cities listed above. It is therefore quite clear that “more green space” (what urban designers call the “nature bandaid”) or “less density” are unhelpful or not necessary ingredients for improving the quality of life of a city. Almost no one travels thousands of miles to visit Dubrovnik or Amsterdam or Siena or Montepulciano to enjoy green spaces or the low-density suburbs of those cities. They nearly all go to enjoy the compact, traditional, human-scaled parts of those cities.

As is the case, not coincidentally, with the Mapleton Hill neighborhood and Pearl Street Mall, which are the most compact, traditional, human-scaled places in Boulder.

Almost no one wants to live in Mapleton Hill because it is low density or has a lot of green space (within its boundaries). Nor does anyone I know visit Peal Street Mall because it is low density or has a lot of green space. In both cases, nearly everyone is attracted to those places because they are compact, traditional, and human-scaled. Similarly, almost no one visits Boulder to enjoy its low-density suburbs (where the most green space is found). Be honest, Donna and Jill: Do you prefer the Mapleton Hill neighborhood, which is much more compact and has less green space than most any other neighborhood in Boulder, or do you prefer, say, Martin Acres, which is much more low-density and has a lot more green space?

I am told by comments sent by Donna that “growth” or “development” or compactness are “destroying” Boulder or the Front Range. Does that mean that, say, Donna should not have been allowed to move to Boulder when she did because when she moved here, she was “growth.” Why is “growth” okay when Donna moves here but not okay when others move here? Similarly, doesn’t this “destruction” mean that Donna should not be allowed to establish a duplex or an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or a Granny Flat or a Carriage House at her home? (something she has complained to me about not being allowed to do hundreds of times over the past several years)

After all, doing those things means MORE COMPACT DEVELOPMENT.

Why should Donna be allowed to have more compact development on her property but no one else is allowed to do the same anywhere in the region? Note: Boulder and all other Front Range cities are more than happy to allow people to create lower-density design on their property. They are totally free to remove buildings (unless they are historic) and install more green space. But it is completely illegal (at least for most of Boulder’s history) to make your property more compact by creating an ADU. Should Donna have been prohibited from building an ADU because it removed green space and increased compactness?

Should Boulder and other Front Range cities continue to PROHIBIT development that would make them more like Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Siena, Montepulciano, Copenhagen, Mapleton Hill, or Pearl Street Mall? After all, those cities and the most beloved places in Boulder are more compact and have less green space. Should Boulder and other Front Range cities continue to strongly encourage development that would make them more like Detroit, Phoenix, Houston, Buffalo, and Cleveland? After all, those cities are much lower density and have much more green space.

I am told by comments previously submitted by Donna that “Denver ranks nearly last among major U.S. cities, including New York, in park space as a percentage of total area. It also ranks nearly last in park acres per resident.” Again, the most loved cities, such as Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Siena, Montepulciano, and Copenhagen, are not loved because of abundant park space. They are loved because they are compact, traditional, and human-scaled. They are places focused on making humans happy rather than cars happy. Some of the most awful cities in the world, such as Anchorage AK, have an enormous amount of green space,

By the way. I am NOT saying that green space or open space is not desirable. But in American, cities too often have way too much of it in inappropriate places (such as town centers). Vast amounts of green space or open space has a place, but that place is in the suburbs, not in-town locations.

I am told by comments previously submitted by Donna that “City leaders are overriding residents’ desire for increased green space as they sign off on more high-density development.” First of all, City Council and Planning Board are obligated by law to follow the land development regulations that were in place when a development was proposed. I know of no instance over the entire history of Boulder (or any other city in the US) where Council or the Planning Board have violated the existing development regulations to allow the developer to have “high-density development” or require less green space be provided than is required by existing regulations. This comment is therefore an inflammatory falsehood.

In addition, as I have noted over and over above, requiring more “green space” (city regulations already require way too much “green space” be provided by new development – at least in the town center portion of the transect) or denying a developers desire for more compact development is a recipe for making the proposed project less like Montepulciano and more like Buffalo. It is the “nature bandaid” again.

I am told by comments previously submitted by Donna that “[t] he dwindling of nature in Denver could lead to potentially overwhelming increases in stormwater runoff.” European cities I mentioned above have far less “nature” in them than Denver, yet none of them have significant stormwater runoff problems that I know of. Speaking as a town planner and environmental scientist, I can assure you that low density suburbs (that are chock full of “nature”) and asphalt car parking lots are far and away the leading cause of stormwater flooding and stormwater pollution. But I never, ever hear people allegedly concerned about stormwater runoff calling for less car parking or less low density suburbs. I suspect that is because requesting those truly effective stormwater management tactics would make it less convenient for such people to drive a car.

Donna quotes the following: “There’s a ton at stake. This is something to be concerned about — not just for some big net loss of biodiversity, but for what it means for people to interact with nature on a regular basis,” said Liba Goldstein, a Colorado State University conservation biologist who has helped guide efforts to nurture nature north of Denver in Fort Collins.

First of all, since conservation biologists know a great deal about how to create quality habitat for, say, mountain lions, but next to nothing about urban design (ie, the town center HUMAN habitat), such specialists are notorious for recommending designs that significantly degrade the human habitat. The (unintended) result is that the degraded human habitat ratchets up the desire of people to not live in the degraded town center, but to instead live in an outlying suburb that has steamrolled highly sensitive and valuable ecological habitats over and over again all over the nation for the past few centuries. Had the town center human habitat been wonderful (ie, designed by traditional urban designers rather than mountain lion specialists and motorists), the net result would be a region with a much more healthy ecosystem for mountain lions and other wildlife, because there would be less pressure to flee the town center for the suburbs.

Second of all, I agree that regular human access to nature is very important. The good news is that such access can successfully be provided WITHOUT degrading the town center human habitat. The greenway trails, small neighborhood “pocket parks,” and greenbelt in and around Boulder are an excellent example of that, and provide the “spiritual retreat” that Jill rightly desires.

Abundant green space and relatively large building setbacks and very low densities and very short buildings are the features provided by nearly all development in America over the past century. They are called “suburbs,” and are in no sense whatsoever an endangered way to live (we have way more than we need). The lifestyle (or housing, or neighborhood) that IS endangered is the compact, traditional, human-scaled lifestyle.

Unlike the suburban lifestyle, where the SUPPLY of such housing is far higher than the DEMAND for such housing, the compact, traditional, human-scaled lifestyle features a DEMAND that is far higher than the SUPPLY – which makes it artificially expensive and endangered. This is largely because such a design is illegal almost everywhere in the US, and also because the large majority Americans (who are largely quite dependent on car travel) fight very aggressively to stop or suburbanize such a design — mostly because it is seen as a design that threatens easy car travel.

Donna says to me that “[y]ou should try to live on the Lower East Side of NYC or other similar neighborhoods void of green space and trees to be faced with nothing but towering concrete and asphalt…Only the very wealthy can afford to live near any green. It seems the epitome of your design sense is the greater the density the better.”

With all due respect, Donna, these are unfair exaggerations and red herrings. I have never said anything that remotely suggests my desire for unlimited density (or building height). I have always maintained that, say, Hong Kong densities are awful “anthills” not fit for man nor beast, and I have always maintained that in general, anything taller than 5 stories for a building is too tall for human scale – particularly for non-civic buildings.

What I DO firmly believe is that places like Boulder and the Front Range have, on 99% of their land area, unsustainably low “cow town” densities that are far, far too low to support walking, bicycling, transit, local and small retailers, or affordable housing.

It is also absurd to suggest there is a binary choice: Either a grimy skyscraper city or a grass- and tree-filled suburb of low density one-story single-family homes on 5-acre lots. There are hundreds (thousands?) of cities that nearly all of us find overwhelmingly lovable (such as Lucca or Utrecht or the Mapleton Hill neighborhood) that fall well within those two extremes. Such cities are NOT lovable because they stopped growth or required that development be very low density or required “green space” or lots of trees. Far from it. Such cities were developed at a compactness level that far exceeds ANYTHING we will see in the Boulder/Denver/Front Range region. They are places that have far LESS green space or trees than the awful American suburbs that make up nearly all of the available housing in the US. For me and most everyone else, give me the compact, traditional, human-scaled, relative green- and tree-free traditional centers of Barcelona and Malmo over the low-density, green- and tree-filled suburbs of Toledo and Dallas any day. No comparison whatsoever.

In sum, the problem is NOT “growth” or “development” or “compactness.” It is contemporary, car-oriented, modernist, car-scaled design. Because growth cannot be stopped and because lowering the density of a project gives us a Phoenix-oriented future, we must stop wasting valuable time, money and energy in a futile effort to do stop development or suburbanize it (ie, by lowering densities). Instead, we need to acknowledge that growth is inevitable (future Donnas will and should continue to move here), and focus our energy on ensuring that our development regulations obligate that new, inevitable development to happen in a way that enhances our quality of life (NOT that of our Ford or Chevy).

To do that, our regulations must insist that new development be compact, traditional, human-scaled, and fits into the context of our neighborhoods. THAT is the recipe for a better future. A future where we keep our soul. Where we keep our authenticity and small town character. Where we keep our community environmentally sound. Where we keep our civic pride.

Fighting to stop growth or reduce density or require more “green space” (and thereby ignoring the reform of our development design regulations) is a recipe for becoming another soul-less Houston.

And nearly no one wants that. Do you?

If you DO want that, what cities do you love that followed that path?

Do we prefer run down auto dealerships and dying shopping centers and massive parking lots across the Front Range? Or do we prefer seeing the emergence of Luccas and Malmos and Montepulcianos in the Front Range? To me, the choice is clear…

“Nature,” says Jill “– even as in tree lined streets — can provide a relief from the ills of city living.  I would have no problem with higher rise buildings that [had] trees next to them and along streets.  Just the simple act of planting more trees would help. The non-descript, Soviet era type housing is demoralizing to me…One thing I loved about NY was the transportation system — even the subways I just disparaged.  All one had to do was to step outside and choose whether to get on a bus, subway or taxi.”

Jill, I fully agree that trees are an important ingredient for urbanism. I have always been an open advocate of tree-lined streets, for example. However, for those of us who desire a walkable, urban lifestyle (and there is a very large and growing number of us, combined with a very inadequate supply of such housing), we must be very careful about incorporating trees or other forms of “green.” Why? Because in a town center, the pedestrian is the design imperative. And the most important ingredient for providing a high quality pedestrian environment is proximity and human-scale. Far too often, incorporating trees or other “greenery” undermines proximity and human scale, because plants need a lot of space in most cases. This problem is particularly severe because American society is almost entirely clueless about the important need for proximity and human scale (because our high car dependency makes such design irrelevant).

At the same time, there is a near consensus that trees or other “greenery” is ALWAYS a good thing. “The more the better!!!” is what nearly everyone believes. But this is untrue when it comes to pedestrians, as it is very common to have too much of a good thing. Again, while it is certainly possible to provide discreet amounts of greenery that retain human scale and walkability, the folks who make decisions about incorporating greenery nearly always tend to have zero knowledge about urban design, because they are arborists or ecologists or accountants or elected officials or traffic engineers. The result is that nearly always, incorporating “greenery” leads to enormous setbacks, unwalkable (and deadening) green open spaces, and loss of human scale.

Pearl Street Mall provides very good examples of the desirable use of greenspace. On the one hand, trees are incorporated discreetly so that the space between facing retail buildings retains human scale. It FEELS comfortable to pedestrians for that reason, and promotes friendly, convivial sociability. But unfortunately, an urban design blunder is demonstrated by the County building on Pearl Street Mall, which has a very large, grassy, deadening, suburban space in front of the building. That portion of the Mall is less vibrant than other parts of the Mall due to the deadening effect of that green space.

There IS a place for such large green areas and setbacks. That place is our suburbs, where driving is expected and walking is not.

We need to elect urbanists to serve on City Council, and hire urbanist staff for the city planning and transportation departments. That almost never happens because nearly all voters are suburban motorists who think as motorists and not as humans. Suburban Council members and suburban city managers don’t see any value in having urbanists on staff. Their agenda is happy cars (which, not coincidentally, reduces fury amongst the citizenry). Such an agenda brings us, incrementally and unintentionally, a Los Angeles and Houston future. No one sees that future coming until they wake up one day and say “HOW DID WE GET HERE??????”

By the way, the citizens of places like Phoenix or Houston never intended for those places to become what they are today. Cities such as those had activists fighting violently against growth and density. They fought brutally hard to have MORE GREEN SPACE and MORE OPEN SPACE incorporated in proposed projects. They DEMANDED larger setbacks and lower densities and shorter buildings.

Just like nearly everyone in Boulder.

Guess what? They ended up as the awful places they are today despite fighting those battles furiously. Their mistake, as is happening in Boulder, is that they wrongly thought that greenery and open space and easy car travel and large setbacks and low density would save them. What they ended up with is roads where the motorist has a more pleasant view during their eight car trips each day. No one walks or bicycles or uses transit despite all that greenery because their world has been designed for mandatory motoring.

No, the key for a better, more lovable future is to focus on the needs of the pedestrian: modest, slow-speed human-scaled dimensions for streets and buildings. Traditional, context-sensitive, lovable design of buildings. Compact, mixed use land use patterns.

The very tragic bad news is that despite its reputation for being “progressive” on transportation and land use, Boulder remains firmly in the Dark Ages on those critical quality of life measures.

 

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

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