Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Dom Nozzi Answers a Questionnaire About Being a Town Planner


By Dom Nozzi

November 15, 1999

  • What made you choose this particular profession?

When I was a young boy, I found tremendous satisfaction and pleasure by playing in the woodlots near my home. As I grew older, I started noticing that these lots were rapidly being converted to subdivisions, which apparently created a passion in me to adopt a career that would allow me to protect and create similar play opportunities for future children. I simply could not imagine how it would be possible to grow up without such opportunities.

Since I am an “information junkie” and love to provide information to decision-makers to help them make good, public interest decisions, and because I am adept at preparing plans and regulations that promote quality of life, and because I have strong opinions about how to create a quality of life, I felt that city planning and urban design would be a proper career path for me.

  • What classes best prepared you for this position?

Environmental science (ecology, chemistry, soils, etc.), urban design, economics, sociology.

  • Please describe your profession.

I am given policy direction by elected and appointed officials and department supervisors to prepare or amend land development regulations and long-range comprehensive plans (recreation, transportation, urban design, solid waste, conservation, land use) that protect and promote the local quality of life. I do this primarily by combining my own personal wisdom with information/concerns from citizens and elected officials, gathering research articles and ordinances from other local communities, evaluating local conditions, and information/advice from related professional staff. Much of the work includes making staff recommendations on these issues (both written and oral) at public meetings. I also answer a great deal of citizen/developer questions about city land development regulations and plans.

  • What do you like/dislike about this job?

Enjoy: Gathering and presenting useful information/plans/regulations, being looked upon as a professional expert on many important local issues (including issues that are important to my own life as a city resident), and meeting and working with a large number of interesting and intelligent people.

Dislikes: I am bothered by how often my supervisors and elected and appointed officials make what I believe are foolish, uninformed, spineless decisions that will result in a less pleasant future. It is painful to have knowledge that allows me to see what needs to be done, and observing that we are not doing it. I dislike having to spend long hours at public meetings at night where boring issues are discussed endlessly. I dislike how often I am not given any respect or recognition as a professional, and how much we try to squeeze more and more out of our public sector staff as a way to save taxes, instead of hiring more staff. I am annoyed that there is no support in my department for using techniques that make our planning/technical information more understandable to our audience. Instead, we focus on strictly following the rules or following tradition.

  • Do you have any suggestions to help me prepare for this career?

Increasingly, transportation is the key driving force to sustainability and quality of life. Traffic engineers have become defacto urban designers, because they are respected when they speak, and because their decisions profoundly determine how the community will develop. I would recommend obtaining a fair amount of knowledge in this field, especially one that focuses on making people instead of cars happy — one that promotes transportation choice. (new urbanists such as Walter Kulash and Peter Calthorpe are good). I’d also recommend obtaining education/training in architecture, since the design of buildings is important, as is the ability to draw a vision. Obtain a thorough understanding of, and appreciation for, new urbanism, since this will be the paradigm we’ll use in future decades. Also important to do some environmental science.  It is important to understand human behavior, so I’d recommend economics, anthropology (esp. Marvin Harris), psychology, and sociology.

  • What do you think it means to be successful in this career?

Playing an integral role in creating a community that is designed to make people instead of cars happy, to create real-world models for establishing transportation choice, to gain the admiration and respect of the citizens of your community, and to give citizens the awareness of how to sustain such a community without the need for professionals.

  • Would you choose this profession again? Why or why not?

Yes, I would choose it again. Urban design is the love of my life. The only thing I would do differently is obtain more transport and architectural education (from the masters) to be a better urban designer. Mostly, I love it because I enjoy engaging in a profession that is connected to my own quality of life, the quality of life of my friends and family, and because I find myself wanting to talk or read about it in my spare time.

  • What is your background (education, etc.) in this career?

Mostly answered above. I have a BA in environmental science and an MS in urban and regional planning.

  • What is the future in your profession? Great demand?

The demand is currently high in rapidly growing areas of the country, and is certain to be an increasingly sought-after skill in the future by communities trying to save themselves.

  • What skills are involved?

Mostly answered above. Important to be a good public speaker, a good writer, passionate about making the community more livable, a good typist and editor, good at doingpu drawings, a visionary, in love with learning, and wise about how to make things happen politically.

  • Are you happy with your career?

I’m deliriously happy and proud of my career — especially after learning about new urbanism and urban design.

  • Do you have anything else to add?

Persistence almost always pays off more than wisdom. But wisdom still needs to be the background foundation. The best ideas in the world will not save us unless the time is right.


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Using Plain English

Using Plain English
what-language-is-he-speakingToo often, bureaucrats use terminology in their presentations and reports that are unnecessarily confusing or hard to understand. The result is that many undesirable government actions face less public opposition because citizens are unable to understand the implications of the proposal. Many believe that this lack of using “Plain English” is a deliberate form of obfuscation, as it gives bureaucrats more power (citizens must rely on the bureaucrat to explain the communication), or protects the bureaucrat from criticism (because citizens are unaware of the implications of the proposal). In a democracy, government must be as transparent as possible, which means that communications from government must strive to use as much plain, simple language as possible.

The following provides examples.

The phrase on the left contains a lot of useless deadwood that we commonly see. Following it is a more succinct, understandable use of words.

a majority of – most

a sufficient amount of — enough

according to our data — we find

accordingly — therefore, so

after the conclusion of — after

along the lines of — like

as is the case — as is true

ascertain the location of — find

at such time as — when

at the present time — now

at this point in time — now

be deficient in — lack

be in a position to — can, be able

by a factor of two — two times, double, twice

by means of — by

come to a conclusion — conclude

despite the fact that — although

due to the fact that — because

during the time that — while

equally as well — as well, equally well

fewer in number — fewer

for the purpose of — to, for

for the reason that — because

for this reason — thus, therefore

give consideration to — consider, examine

give indication of — show, indicate, suggest

happen(s) to be — am/is/are

has been proved to be — is

if conditions are such that — if

in a number of — several, many

in all cases — always

in case — if

in close proximity to — near

in excess of — more than

in large measure — largely

in many cases — often

in most cases — usually

in no case — never

in order that — so that

in order to — to

in some cases — sometimes

in terms of — in

in the amount of — for

in the case of — for

in the event that — if

in the field of — in

in the near future — soon

in the neighborhood of — near, about, nearly

in the vicinity of — near

in this case — here

in view of the fact that — because, since

is capable of — can

is found to be — is

is in a position to — can

it has been found that — (nothing)

it has long been known that — (nothing)

it is a fact that — (nothing)

it is evident that — (nothing)

it is interesting to note that — note that

it is noted that — (nothing)

it is our opinion that — we think

it is possible that — perhaps

it is well known that — (nothing)

it may be said that — (nothing)

make inquiry regarding — ask about, inquire about

manner in which — how

not with standing the fact that — although

on the basis of — from, because, by

on the order of — about, approximately

present in greater abundance — more abundant

prior to — before

provided that — if

put an end to — end

reach a conclusion — conclude

serves the function of being — is

subsequent to — after

the question as to — whether

there can be little doubt that — probably

utilize or utilization — use

with reference to — about

with the exception that — except that


Another kind of deadwood is needless repetition of the same sense in different words. Phrases like the following are easily cut in half:


adequate enough — adequate (or enough)

advance planning — planning

appear(s) to be — appear(s)

basic essentials — basics (or essentials)

close proximity — proximity

consensus of opinion — consensus

cooperated together — cooperated

definite decision — decision

elongate in length — elongate

first priority — priority

future predictions — predictions

general rule — rule

green colored — green

increase in increments — increase

initial prototype (model) — prototype

joint cooperation — cooperation

major breakthrough — breakthrough

modern science of today — modern science

most optimum — optimum

necessary requirement — requirement

outside periphery — periphery

rate of speed — speed

resemble in appearance — resemble

true facts — facts

twelve in number — twelve

usual rule — rule

very unique — unique


Difficult —- Simple

Administer —- manage

allocate —- give, divide

deem —- consider

enter (on a form) —- write

for the duration of —- during

herein —- here

heretofore —- until now

implement —- carry out

indicate —- show

in the event that —- if

mode —- form of travel

on behalf of —-for

procure —- get

promulgate —- make, issue

pursuant to —- under

render —- make, give

represents —- is

said, same, such —- the, this, that

submit —- Send

subsequent to —- After

to the extent that —- if, when

utilize —- Use

with regard to/respect to —- For


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By Dom Nozzi

March 15, 1990


“Live simply so that others may simply live”

“Think globally, act locally”

Noble sentiments, these are. And ones often proclaimed by environmentalists (usually through bumper stickers or at public meetings). But do we really mean it? When an environmental activist goes before local elected officials to self-righteously condemn officials and developers for raping the environment, does s/he do so from a position free of hypocrisy? Is the activist, in other words, able to cast the first stone because s/he is free of sin?

My observations lead me to believe that environmentalists are often guilty of many of the environmental crimes they so loudly accuse others of committing. Don’t take this to mean that I oppose activists who speak out against environmental crimes. On the contrary, I strongly support such efforts, and encourage it even by those who commit eco-crimes themselves. The earth is being so severely abused that it needs all the help it can get.

My point here is that we are all relatively destructive of the environment simply by being American citizens, and only a very select few of us (perhaps a couple of hermits living in caves) are ecologically safe for the earth. Because we are so likely to be committing various eco-crimes unknowingly, we should temper our advocacy with a bit more humility, especially because an observant, wetlands-destroying developer may embarrass us in a public meeting (and undercut our argument) by pointing out our “eco-hypocrisy.”

Below is my list of the most significant, yet commonly unrecognized, eco-crimes committed by even the most careful and politically correct environmentalist.

Having Babies

Environmentalists often pride themselves in having “only” one or two children, thereby doing their part to ease overpopulation. However, it is commonly estimated that despite having only 6 percent of the earth’s population, the U.S. consumes about 33 percent of the earth’s resources.

And we produce a similar amount of waste. For example, a study in 1990 estimated that the U.S. produces 50 percent of all solid waste generated worldwide, and 95 percent of all hazardous and special waste.

Using these assumptions, a simple calculation indicates that the average American child will have the same environmental impact on the earth as eight children from any other nation. (Remember that the next time you feel anger over a Third-World parent having five kids.) Have we exceeded the earth’s capacity to accommodate humans?

What You Can Do: (1) Vigorously support sex education in schools (especially information telling kids it’s okay not to have children when they grow up); (2) Support freely available contraceptives and access to sterilization services; (3) If you want a family, try adoption (after all, what’s so important about “passing on your genes” when we’re trying to save the earth?); (4) Oppose efforts which penalize people for not having children or reward people for having children (such as tax laws).

Driving a Car

I laugh a cynical laugh when I see bumper stickers advocating efforts to save endangered species. Road kills and habitat fragmentation are just two of the many ways in which roads are rapidly destroying our remaining wildlife. Excessive roads ROADRAGE1and cars are the leading cause of noise pollution, air pollution, and water pollution in our cities. They have destroyed our sense of community, ruined the appearance of our landscape, killed thousands of our citizens in accidents every year, promoted very costly forms of suburban sprawl, and bankrupted us through car payments, insurance payments, gasoline expenditures, and repair costs.

What You Can Do: (1) Use your car only when absolutely necessary. Someday, in-city driving will be either extremely costly or prohibited (due to fees, car costs, or regulations). Now is the time to get accustomed to this inevitability. Walk, ride a bike, take the bus, carpool; (2) Support compact urban development and fight sprawl. Sprawl forces people to use cars because the distance to work, shopping, or recreation areas is too great to do otherwise; (3) Live in a location where you can go to work, shopping, and recreation areas without needing to do so by car; (4) Strongly support increases in the gas tax and parking fees. The pocketbook is the only effective educator when it comes to transportation and most elections; (5) Support a local moratorium on new roads and parking lots.

Shopping at the Local Mall or Other Non-Locally-Owned Stores

Locally-owned stores keep your purchasing dollar circulating mostly in the local economy, where it can be used to improve our local quality of life, rather than buy yachts in the Caribbean. Shopping at the mall means another instance where you must hop into your pollution-belching car for a cross-town drive. It also harms the smaller in-town stores that are losing customers to the mall. When the in-town stores go bankrupt, the tax base of the town is harmed. The town then has less tax money to improve our quality of life, yet has to pay for services made more costly by remote developments such as the mall. Shopping at other stores where the owners live outside the county means you are supporting people who have little or no concern for our quality of life because they don’t live here to see what damage they are doing.

What You Can Do: (1) Patronize in-town, locally-owned stores exclusively; (2) Shop at stores less often. Try garage sales more often (they’re a great way to recycle and keep things out of the landfill).

Watching Television

TV is extremely effective at teaching us to be insatiable consumers and unending wasters. It also teaches us to be passive and submissive, rather than the eco-activist citizens we should be. How many times in the past have we decided to tranquilize ourselves in front of the tube rather than running downtown to attend an important meeting of our elected officials? How many of us opt for an episode of “Cheers” rather than reading the latest book by a leading environmentalist?

What You Can Do: (1) Throw out your TV, or keep it in a closet; (2) If you must keep the TV out in the living room, keep your kids away from it (buy a lock) to prevent their becoming TV addicts.

Living Near an Environmentally Sensitive Area

I have been shocked in recent years by the large number of self-styled environmentalists who live in a home next to a creek, river, marsh, or lake. They apparently feel the need, as environmentalists, to “commune with nature” on a daily basis. Amazingly enough, some of these people were not only living in the home but were actually the ones who had the home built in that location. By clearing the land and building a home, they are pouring tons of sediment and other pollutants into their formerly pristine creek or lake. And because these areas surrounding such water bodies are critical wildlife habitat areas, they are destroying essential habitat for huge numbers of wildlife. Of course, any time a new home is built in a formerly undeveloped rural area, important wildlife habitat is being lost to provide habitat for the invasive Environmentalicus humanis species.

What You Can Do: (1) Buy or rent an existing home, rather than buying or building a new home; (2) If you must buy or build a new house, do it on vacant land within town and away from water.

Air Conditioning

Up until several decades ago, Floridians lived without air-conditioning. You wouldn’t think it was possible if you asked most Floridians today. We merrily drive around in air-conditioned cars and cool our homes to the point of converting them into huge refrigerators. We are oblivious to the polluting power plants needed to run the air conditioners, the gas our cars burn to run the air conditioners, and the ozone-depleting “CFCs” being emitted by air conditioners.

What You Can Do: (1) Cool your home with shade trees, ceiling fans, and attic vents; (2) Roll down your car windows; (3) Stay in the shade; (4) Dress comfortably; (5) Go for a swim.

Eating Meat

How many of us eat hamburgers one day and denounce rainforest destruction the next? According to John Robbins (Diet for a New America), the livestock industry supporting our carnivorous diet is a significant cause of soil erosion, deforestation, water waste, energy waste, cropland waste, protein waste, water pollution, and pesticides in our diet.

What You Can Do: (1) Consult with a vegetarian or the public library to learn how to wean yourself from meat; (2) If you must continue eating meat, find a small farmer who raises meat in an ecologically sound manner, or switch to less polluting meats such as chicken, fish, or tuna.

Lawn and Household Maintenance

How many of us have a big lawn which is regularly manicured with gas-powered lawn mowers, noisy air blowers, and massive amounts of water, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers? How many of us clean and maintain our homes with caustic drain cleaners, bleach, rug cleaners, paint thinners, polishes, pool chemicals, and ammonias?

What You Can Do: (1) Consult with local landscaping companies, the public library, the university, or the County Extension Office to learn how to “xeriscape” your yard (that is, a landscape needing little or no maintenance); (2) Consult with your local environmental protection office about earth-friendly alternatives to those nasty chemicals used to clean our kitchens and bathrooms.




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Random Thoughts Regarding Town Planning

By Dom Nozzi

We must avoid further subsidizing dysfunctional suburban locations at the financial and quality-of-life expense of urban residents (for the sake of equity, among other reasons). And stop throwing good public money after bad.

Congestion, in cities, is our friend. It effectively delivers infill, redevelopment, multi-story buildings, less car use, more walking/bicycling/transit travel, healthier in-town retail by smaller and locally-owned business, more density, more compact development, more migration from remote to in-town locations, less severe crashes, less speeding, less air pollution and gas consumption (at the regional level), and more political support for non-car travel.

I like the idea of passively letting dysfunctional suburban development become white elephants that are increasingly abandoned. I like the idea of people increasingly looking upon urbanists as saviors for our cities.

I like the idea of leveraging envy. Having suburban folks increasingly look with desire upon a walkable lifestyle.

Having worked as a city planner for 19 years, there is little that is more naïve than the idea that we can create more connectivity in suburbia by buying Right-Of-Way and demolishing homes to build new, connecting roads (both of which are essential in creating travel choices). With the exception of places wiped off the face of the earth by hurricanes, has this happened ANYWHERE?

I am concerned that urbanists might squander scarce resources fighting, in a futile way, for such things as more connectivity or other efforts against the suburban juggernaut.

I believe we are rapidly approaching the time when we can no longer afford the road fly-overs. The road widenings. The sound walls.

I’m a materialist. I don’t believe we can convince a meaningful number of people to agree to progressive change (such as increased connectivity, compactness, or more transit) through education-based persuasion. Such change in values comes from changes in material conditions. Effective persuasion and meaningful behavior change comes, in this case, from dramatically increased financial costs and inconvenience associated with our transportation system.

Until suburban auto dependency becomes intolerably costly, there is little that can be done to shift our system toward a sustainable, equitable way of doing things. We’ll continue to privilege cars. The habitat for Fords and Chevys will “improve” while the habitat for Dick and Jane declines.

Given all of the above, the best I can do is work to equitably increase the costs of auto dependency. And establish envious urbanism. An urbanism that, as Andres Duany once said about Winter Park FL, stands as an indictment to Kunstler’s suburban fiasco.

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Transportation is Destiny: Design for Happy People, Not Happy Cars

by Dom Nozzi

The following is a summary of a talk I was invited to give at a PLAN-Boulder County forum on Friday, January 24. As a town and transportation planner, I cautioned Boulder not to put too much emphasis on easing car traffic flows—particularly by such conventional methods as adding a second turn lane at intersections or requiring a developer to provide too much car parking. I described the ingredients of a healthy, vibrant city, summarized how a seemingly beneficial city objective of reducing traffic congestion can often undermine important Boulder objectives, and offered a number of strategies that would help Boulder both properly manage transportation and promote its long-range goals.

A great city is compact, human scaled, has a slow speed center, and promotes gatherings of citizens that catalyze “synergistic interaction” (brilliant ideas and innovations, as the sum becomes greater than its parts). Most importantly, a quality city does exceptionally well in promoting “exchanges” of goods, services, and ideas, which is the most important role of a city, and is best promoted by the interaction that occurs through compact community design.

About 100 years ago, automakers, home builders, and oil companies (“the Sprawl Lobby”) started realizing that they could make lots of money by creating what has since become a self-perpetuating vicious cycle in communities. If communities could be convinced to ease the flow of car traffic by building enormous highways and parking lots (and subsidizing car travel by having everyone—not just motorists—pay for such roads, parking, and gasoline), huge amounts of money could be made selling cars, homes and gasoline. The process eventually was feeding on itself in a growing, self-perpetuating way, because the highways, parking and subsidies were forcing and otherwise encouraging a growing number of Americans to buy more and more cars, use more and more gasoline, and buy sprawling homes that were further and further from the town center. Why? Because the subsidized highways and gasoline were powerfully promoting community dispersal, high speeds, isolation, and an insatiable demand for larger highways and parking lots. Each of these factors were toxic to a city, led to government and household financial difficulties, destroyed in-town quality of life (which added to the desire to live in sprawl locations), and made travel by transit, bicycle or walking increasingly difficult and unlikely (an added inducement to buy more cars).

The inevitable result of the Sprawl Lobby efforts has been that cities throughout America are dying from the “Gigantism” disease.

The “Gigantism” Disease

One of the most important problems we face is that cars consume enormous amounts of space. On average, a person in a parked car takes up about 17 times more space than a person in a chair. And when moving, a motorist can take up to 100 times as much space as a person in a chair. Cities are Untitledseverely diminished by this level of wasteful use of land by cars—particularly in town centers (where space is so dear), and especially in communities such as Boulder, where land is so expensive.

Overemphasis on car travel breeds and spreads the gigantism “infection,” and promotes ruinously higher travel speeds. What happens when we combine the gigantism and high speeds with the “travel time budget” (humans tend to have a budget of about 1.1 hours of round-trip commuting travel each day)?

People demand larger highways and parking lots. Gigantic highways, overpasses, and asphalt seas of parking are necessary to accommodate the space-hogging, high-speed needs of the growing number of cars. This process dramatically increases the “habitat” for cars, and because such places are so utterly inhospitable to people, substantially shrinks the habitat for people.

Because it is so dangerous, unpleasant, and infeasible to travel on these monster highways by bicycle, walking, or transit (what economists call “The Barrier Effect”), an endlessly growing army of motorists and sprawl residents is thereby created, which, of course, is a financial bonanza for the Sprawl Lobby.

It is surprising and disappointing that Boulder has, on numerous occasions, shown symptoms of the gigantism disease (surprising because citizens and city staff are relatively well-informed on transportation issues). A leading concern in Boulder is the many intersections that have been expanded by installing double left turn lanes. Installing a single left turn lane historically resulted in a fair improvement in traffic flow, but when a second left turn lane is installed, intersections typically suffer from severely diminished returns. There is only a tiny increase in traffic accommodated (and often, this increase is short-lived) and this small benefit is offset by a huge required increase in walk time for crosswalks that are now very lengthy to cross on foot (which necessitates a very long “walk” phase for the crosswalk). Indeed, some traffic engineers or elected officials are so intolerant of the time-consuming long walk phase that many double-left turn intersections actually PROHIBIT pedestrian crossings by law.

These monster double left turn intersections destroy human scale and sense of place. They create a place-less, car-only intersection where walking and bicycling (and, indirectly, transit) trips are so difficult and unpleasant that more trips in the community are now by car, and less by walking, bicycling and transit. And those newly-induced car trips, despite the conventional wisdom, actually INCREASE greenhouse gas emissions (due to the induced increase in car trips).

Double left turn lanes (like big parking lots and five- or seven-lane highways) disperse housing, jobs, and shops in the community, as the intersection—at least briefly—is able to accommodate more regional car trips. Because the intersection has become so inhospitable, placeless and lacking in human scale, the double left turn repels any residences, shops, or offices from being located anywhere near the intersection, and thereby effectively prevents the intersection from ever evolving into a more walkable, compact, village-like setting.

The following chart shows that, because of the enormous space consumption caused by higher-speed car travel, land consumption rate increases are far out-pacing growth in community populations. For example, from 1950 to 1990, the St. Louis population grew by 35 percent. chartYet land consumption in St. Louis grew by 354 percent during that same period.

Given all of this, a centerpiece objective of the Boulder Transportation Master Plan (no more than 20 percent of road mileage is allowed to be congested) may not only be counterproductive in achieving many Boulder objectives, but may actually result in Boulder joining hands with the Sprawl Lobby.

The congestion reduction objective has a number of unintended, undesirable consequences. The objective tells Boulder that the highly desirable tactic of “road diets” (where travel lanes are removed to create a safer, more human-scaled street that can now install bike lanes, on-street parking, and wider sidewalks) are actually undesirable because they can increase congestion. The objective provides justification for looking upon a wider road, a bigger intersection, or a bigger parking lot as desirable, despite the well-documented fact that such gigantic facilities promote sprawl, car emissions, financial difficulties, higher taxes, and lower quality of life, among other detriments.

The objective also tells us that smaller, more affordable infill housing is undesirable—again because such housing can increase congestion.

The Shocking Revolution

The growing awareness of the problems associated with easing car travel (via such things as a congestion reduction objective) is leading to a shocking revolution across the nation. Florida, for example, now realizes that if new development is only allowed if “adequate” road capacity is available for the new development (which is based on “concurrency” rules in Florida’s Growth Management law), the state is powerfully promoting sprawl. Why? Because the available road capacity tends to only be found in sprawl locations. In-town locations, where new development tends to be much more desirable, is strongly discouraged by this Florida concurrency rule because in-town locations tend to have no available road capacity (due to existing, more dense development in town).

As an aside, “concurrency” is a rule that says new development is not allowed if it will lower service level standards adopted by the community. For example, standards might state that there must be at least 10 acres of parkland provided for every 1,000 residents. While concurrency is clearly a good idea for such things as parks and water supply and schools, it is counterproductive for roads.

The shocking revolution in Florida, then, is that the state is now allowing local governments to create “exception areas” for road congestion. If the community can show that it is providing adequate bicycle, pedestrian and transit facilities, the state will grant the local government the ability to create road exceptions so that the road congestion avoidance strategy brought by Florida’s road concurrency rule does not significantly encourage new sprawl and discourage in-town, infill development.

Similarly, California is now acknowledging the unintended, undesirable effects of past efforts to ensure that roads are “free-flowing” for car traffic. “Free flowing” car traffic tends to be measured with “level of service” (LOS) measures. Road LOS is a measure of traffic delay. An intersection (or road) where a car must wait for, say, three cycles of a traffic signal to be able to proceed through the intersection might be given an LOS rating of “F.” An intersection where a car can proceed through an intersection without such delay is given an LOS rating of “A.”

California now realizes that too often, building wider highways or stopping new development as a way to maintain free-flowing car traffic (LOS “A”) is substantially counterproductive. The state now realizes that maintaining or requiring easy, free-flowing car traffic increases greenhouse gas emissions (shocking, since the opposite was formerly believed), increases the number of car trips, and decreases the number of walking, bicycling and transit trips. Free-flowing road “LOS” measures are therefore now being phased out in California.

The “congestion reduction” objective in Boulder’s transportation plan is, in effect, a “happy cars” objective that equates easy car travel with quality of life and sustainability. One important reason why this “happy cars” objective is counterproductive is that cars and people have dramatically different needs and desires—needs and desires that are significantly and frequently in conflict. For example, designing shopping for happy people means the creation of smaller, human-scaled settings where buildings rather than parking lots are placed next to the streetside sidewalk. Where streets are only two or three lanes wide and designed for slow-speed car travel. Where street trees hug the street.

Designing shopping for happy cars, by strong contrast, requires huge car-scaled dimensions. Giant asphalt parking lots are placed between the now giant retail store and the street, which invites easy car parking (but loss of human scale, sense of place, and ease of walking). Streets become what Chuck Marohn calls “stroads”:  5- or 7-lane monster roads intended for dangerous, inhospitable high-speeds. They are roads where streets belong, but their big size and high speeds make them more like roads. Street trees are frequently incompatible with happy cars, as engineers fear cars might crash into them.

Again, this comparison shows that by promoting “happy cars,” Boulder’s congestion reduction objective is undermining its important quality of life and city-building objectives.

Indeed, Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Columbia, once stated that “a city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both.” Boulder’s congestion reduction objective is in conflict with this essential truth.

Fortunately, congestion regulates itself if we let it. Congestion will persuade some to drive at non-rush hour times, or take less congested routes, or travel by walking, bicycling, or transit. Congestion therefore does not inexorably lead to gridlock if we don’t widen a road or intersection, because some car trips (the “lower-value” trips) do not occur. Many of those discouraged trips are foregone because of the “time tax” imposed by the congestion.

But widening a road (or, in Boulder’s case, adding a second left-turn lane) short-circuits this self-regulation. A widened road or a double-left turn lane intersection induces new car trips because the road/intersection is now (briefly) less congested. The lower congestion encourages formerly discouraged car trips to now use the route during rush hour. Car trips that used different routes to avoid the congestion now converge back on the less congested route. And some get back in their cars after a period of walking, bicycling or using transit.

The process is very much like the infamous Soviet bread lines. The Soviets wanted to reduce the extremely long lines of people waiting for free bread. Their counterproductive “solution” was to make more free bread. But more free bread just induced more people to line up for bread. Likewise, the conventional American solution to traffic congestion is to make more free space for cars (widening the road or adding a second turn lane). The result is the same, as the bigger roads and intersections inevitably induce more car trips on those routes. The efficient and effective solution, as any first-year economics student will point out, is to NOT make more free bread or wider, free-to-use roads or second turn lanes. The solution is to price the bread and the car routes so that they are used more efficiently (and not wastefully by low-value bread consumers or car travelers). Or, to let a moderate level of congestion discourage low-value rush hour trips.

Given all of this, widening a road or adding a second left-turn lane to solve congestion is like loosening one’s belt to solve obesity. Similarly, despite conventional wisdom, car traffic does not behave like water flowing through a pipe (i.e., flowing easier if the pipe is expanded in size). Car traffic, instead, behaves like a gas. It expands to fill the available, increased volume provided.

Boulder’s Overriding Objectives

Boulder (and PLAN-Boulder County) has outlined key community objectives.

1. One is higher quality of life and more happiness. But counterproductively, happy cars lower quality of life due to clashing values and needs.

2. Another objective is for a more compact, walkable, vibrant city. Unfortunately, over-emphasizing cars means more sprawl.

3. An objective that is much talked about in the area is more affordability. By inducing more car dependence via easier car travel, the congestion reduction objective undermines the affordability objective by making Boulder less affordable (more on that later).

4. Given the growing concern for global warming, Boulder is placing more emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Easing traffic congestion, however, induces new car traffic, which increases car emissions.

5. Boulder and PLAN-Boulder County seek more travel (and lifestyle) choices. But the congestion reduction objective in Boulder’s plan is again undercutting other objectives because it leads to bigger car infrastructure (bigger roads and intersections), thereby reducing travel and lifestyle choices.

As shown above, then, Boulder’s congestion reduction objective undermines each of these five essential community objectives.


Conventional methods of reducing congestion include wider roads, bigger parking lots, one-way streets, and huge intersections. These tactics are a “win-lose” proposition. While they can reduce congestion (briefly), they also cause a loss of human scale and charm; a loss of social gathering; sprawling dispersal; more car dependence and less bicycling, walking, transit; higher taxes; economic woes (for government, shops and households); a decline in public health; and more air pollution.

By striking contrast, other less commonly used but much more beneficial transportation tactics are “win-win” propositions. Some of these tactics include road diets, designing streets for slower speeds, and designing for travel and lifestyle choices. They can result in:

  • More parking spaces
  • More civic pride (induced by human scale)
  • More social gathering
  • A more compact and vibrant community
  • Less car dependence and more bicycling, walking, and transit
  • Lower taxes
  • Economic health (for both government and households)
  • Improvement in public health
  • Less air pollution

If we can’t get rid of congestion, what CAN we do? We can create alternatives so that those who are unwilling to tolerate the congestion can find ways to avoid it. Congestion can be better avoided if we create more housing near jobs, shops, and culture. Doing this allows more people to have better, more feasible ways to travel without a car. We can also create more travel routes, so that the congested routes are not the only routes to our destinations. Some of us can be given more flexible work schedules to shift our work hours away from rush hour. And some of us can be given increased opportunities to telecommute (work from home).

How Can We Design Transportation to Achieve a Better Destiny?

An important way to start Boulder on a better destiny for the city is to revisit the “No more than 20 percent congested road miles” objective in the Boulder transportation master plan. Some possibilities: adopt a “level of service standard” not for cars, but for bicycle, walking and transit travel; “Level of service” standards for cars is becoming outdated because it is being increasingly seen as counterproductive, as described earlier. Other alternatives to the “congestion” objective is to have a target of controlling or reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) community-wide; or set a goal of minimizing trip generation by individual new developments in the city.

Another option is to keep the congestion objective, but create “exception” areas where the congestion rule does not apply. Those exception areas would be places where Boulder seeks to encourage new development.

Boulder needs to ensure that the community land development and transportation design tactics are appropriately calibrated within each “transect zone” of the community. (The “transect” principle identifies a transition from urban to rural, whereby the town center is more compact, formal, low-speed, and walkable; the suburbs are more dispersed, informal, higher-speed, and drivable; and the rural areas most remote from the town center are more intended for a farming and conservation lifestyle. Development regulations and transportation designs are calibrated so that the differing lifestyle and travel objectives of each zone are best achieved.) However, the difficulty with the transect principle in places like Boulder is that the demand for compact, walkable lifestyles and travel choices is much higher than the supply of such places in Boulder. There is, in other words, a large mismatch. By contrast, the supply of suburban, drivable areas is quite high. To correct this imbalance, Boulder should strive to create a larger supply of compact, walkable places similar to Pearl Street Mall, the Boulder town center, and even the CU campus. Opportunities now being discussed are the creation of new, compact villages and town centers at places such as street intersections outside of the Boulder town center.

As an aside, the community transect concept informs us that in the town center, “more is better.” That is, the lifestyle being sought in the community center is one where more shops, more offices, and more housing enhances the lifestyle, as this more proximate, mixed, compact layout of land uses provides the thriving, sociable, convenient, vibrant, 24-hour ambience that many seeking the walkable lifestyle want more of.

By contrast, in the more drivable suburbs, “more is less.” That is, the drivable lifestyle is enhanced in quality when there is less density, less development, more dispersal, and more isolation of houses from shops and offices. The ambience generally desired is more quiet and private.

While town center housing is increasingly expensive compared to the suburbs—particularly in cities such as Boulder—such in-town housing provides significant cost savings for transportation. Because such a housing location provides so many travel choices beyond car travel, many households find they can own two cars instead of three or one car instead of two. And each car that a household can “shed” due to the richness of travel choices provides more household income that can be directed to housing expenses such as a mortgage or rent. Today, the average car costs about $9,000 per year to own and operate. In places that are compact and walkable, that $9,000 (or $18,000) per year can be devoted to housing, thereby improving affordability.

In addition to providing for the full range of housing and travel choices, Boulder can better achieve its objectives through road diets, where travel lanes are removed and more space is provided for such things as bike lanes or sidewalks or transit. Road diets are increasingly used throughout the nation—particularly converting roads from four lanes to three. Up to about 25,000 vehicle trips per day on the road, a road that is “dieted” to, say, three lanes carries about as much traffic as a four-lane road. This is mostly due to the fact that the inside lanes of a four-laner frequently must act as turn lanes for cars waiting to make a left turn. Four-lane roads are less desirable than three-lane streets because they induce more car trips and reduce bicycle, walking and transit trips. Compared to three-lane streets, four-lane roads result in more speeding traffic. As a result, four-laners create a higher crash rate than three-lane streets. Finally, because the road-diet (3)three-lane street is more human-scaled, pleasant, lower-speed, and thereby place-making, a three-lane street is better than a four-lane street for shops. The three-lane street becomes a place to drive TO, rather than drive THROUGH (as is the case with a four-lane street).

If Boulder seeks to be transformative with transportation—that is, if the city seeks to significantly shift car trips to walking, bicycling and transit trips (rather than the relatively modest shifts the city has achieved in the past)—it must recognize that it is NOT about providing more bike paths, sidewalks, or transit service. It is about taking away road and parking space from cars, and taking away subsidies for car travel.

Another transportation tactic Boulder should pursue to achieve a better destiny is to unbundle the price of parking from the price of housing. People who own less (or no) cars should have the choice of opting for more affordable housing—housing that does not include the very expensive cost of provided parking. Currently, little or no housing in Boulder provides the buyer or renter the option of having lower cost housing payments by choosing not to pay for parking. Particularly in a place like Boulder, where land values are so high, even housing intended to be relatively affordable is more costly than it needs to be because the land needed for parking adds a large cost to the housing price. Indeed, by requiring the home buyer or renter to pay more for parking, bundled parking price creates a financial incentive for owning and using more cars than would have otherwise been the case.

Boulder should also strive to provide parking more efficiently by pricing more parking. Too much parking in Boulder is both abundant and free. Less parking would be needed in the city (which would make the city more affordable, by the way) if it were efficiently priced. Donald Shoup recommends, for example, that parking meters be priced to ensure that in general, 2 or 3 parking spaces will be vacant on each block.

Efficient parking methods that could be used more often in Boulder include allowing shops and offices and churches to share their parking. This opportunity is particularly available when different land uses (say churches and shops) don’t share the same hours of operation. Again, sharing more parking reduces the amount of parking needed in the city, which makes the city more compact, walkable, enjoyable and active.

Like shared parking, leased parking allows for a reduction in parking needed. If Boulder, for example, owns a parking garage, some of the spaces can be leased to nearby offices, shops, or housing so that those particular land uses do not need to create their own parking.

Finally, a relatively easy and quick way for Boulder to beneficially reform and make more efficient its parking is to revise its parking regulations so that “minimum parking” is converted to “MAXIMUM parking.” Minimum parking rules, required throughout Boulder, are the conventional and increasingly outmoded way to regulate parking. They tell the developer that at least “X” amount of parking spaces must be provided for every “Y” square feet of building. This rule almost always requires the developer to provide excessive, very expensive parking, in large part because it is based on “worst case scenario” parking “needs.” That is, sufficient parking must be provided so that there will be enough on the busiest single day of the year (often the weekend after Thanksgiving). Such a provision means that for the other 364 days of the year, a large number of parking spaces sit empty, a very costly proposition.

In contrast, maximum parking rules tell the developer that there is an upper limit to the number of spaces that can be provided. This works much better for the community and the business because the business is better able to choose how much parking it needs and can finance. Since financial institutions that provide financing for new developments typically require the developer to provide the conventional (read: excessive) amounts of parking as a condition for obtaining a development loan, the big danger for communities in nearly all cases is that TOO MUCH parking will be provided rather than too little. The result of setting “maximum” instead of “minimum” parking rules is that excessive, worst case scenario parking developments become much more rare.

The reform of parking is easy: simply convert the existing minimum parking specifications to maximum parking standards (“at least 3 spaces per 1,000 square feet” becomes “no more than 3 spaces per 1,000 square feet). An incremental approach to this conversion is to apply maximum parking rules in those places that are already rich in travel choices, such as the Boulder town center.

Again, what will Boulder’s destiny be? As the preceding discussion sought to demonstrate, much of that destiny will be shaped by transportation decisions.

Will destiny be shaped by striving for happy people and happy places for people? Or will it be shaped by opting for the conventional, downwardly-spiraling effort of seeking easy car travel (and thereby unpleasant places where only a car can be happy – such as huge highways or parking lots)?

Will Boulder, in other words, retain or otherwise promote place-less conventional shopping centers full of deadening parking, car-only travel, lack of human interaction, and isolation? Or will the city move away from car-happy objectives such as the congestion reduction policy, and instead move toward a people-friendly future rich in sociability, pride in community, travel choices, sustainability, place-making and human scale?

An example of these contrasting destinies is Pearl Street. West Pearl features the charm and human scale we built historically. West Pearl Street exemplifies a lovable, walkable, calm, safe and inviting ambience where car speeds are slower, the street is more narrow, and the shops—by being pulled up to the streetside sidewalk—help form a comfortable sense of enclosure that activates the street and feels comfortable to walk. The shops tend to be smaller—more neighborhood-scaled.

East Pearl Street near 28th Street is starkly different. There, the street is a “stroad,” because it is an overly wide road that should be a more narrow, lower-speed street. Shops are pulled back long distances from the street. The street here is fronted not by interesting shop fronts but enormous seas of asphalt parking. The layout is car-scaled. The setting is hostile, unpleasant, unsafe, stressful and uninviting. The shops tend to be “Big Box” retail, and serve a regional “consumershed.” There is “no there there.”

East Pearl Street was built more recently by professional planners and engineers who have advanced degrees that far exceed the professionalism and education of those who designed the more lovable West Pearl Street. Where has the charm gone? Why have our streets become less pleasant in more recent years (by better trained and better educated designers, I might add)? Is it perhaps related to our more expensive and sophisticated efforts to ease car traffic and reduce congestion?

There is an inverse relationship between congestion and such measures as vehicle miles traveled and gas consumption. At the community level—despite the conventional wisdom—as congestion increases, vehicle miles traveled, gas consumption, air emissions DECREASE. And as conventional efforts to reduce congestion intensify, quality of life and sustainability also decrease.

Again, is Boulder aligning itself with the Sprawl Lobby by maintaining an objective of easing traffic flow – by striving to reduce congestion?


On Controlling Size

David Mohney reminds us that the first task of the urban designer is to control size. This not only pertains to the essential need to keep streets, building setbacks, and community dispersal modest in size. It also pertains to the highly important need to insist on controlling the size of service and delivery trucks. Over-sized trucks in Boulder lead the city down a ruinous path, as street and intersection dimensions are typically driven by the “design vehicle.” When trucks are relatively large, excessive truck size becomes the “design vehicle” which ends up driving the dimensions of city streets. A healthy city should be designed for human scale and safety, not for the needs of huge trucks. Indeed, because motor vehicles consume so much space, a sign of a healthy, well-designed community is that drivers of vehicles should feel inconvenienced. If driving vehicles feels comfortable, it is a signal that we have over-designed streets and allocated such excessive spaces that we have lost human scale and safety.

A proposal for human-scaled streets: in Boulder’s town center, no street should be larger than three lanes in size. Outside the town center, no street should be larger than five lanes in size. Anything more exceeds the human scaling needed for a pleasant, safe, sustainable community.

It is time to return to the timeless tradition of designing to make people happy, not cars. Boulder needs to start by revisiting its congestion reduction objective, putting a number of its roads on a “road diet,” and taking steps to make the provision of parking more efficient and conducive to a healthy city.


 More about the author

 Mr. Nozzi was a senior planner for Gainesville FL for 20 years, and wrote that city’s long-range transportation plan. He also administered Boulder’s growth rate control law in the mid-90s. He is currently a member of the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board.

 Studies Demonstrating Induced Traffic and Car Emission Increases

Below is a sampling of references to studies describing how new car trips are induced by easier car travel, and how car emissions increase as a result.

TØI (2009), Does Road Improvement Decrease Greenhouse Gas Emissions?, Institute of Transport Economics (TØI), Norwegian Centre for Transport Research (; summary at

Robert Noland and Mohammed A. Quddus (2006), “Flow Improvements and Vehicle Emissions: Effects of Trip Generation and Emission Control Technology,” Transportation Research D, Vol. 11 (, pp. 1-14; also see

Clark Williams-Derry (2007), Increases In Greenhouse-Gas Emissions From Highway-Widening Projects, Sightline Institute (; at

TRB (1995), Expanding Metropolitan Highways: Implications for Air Quality and Energy Use, Committee for Study of Impacts of Highway Capacity Improvements on Air Quality and Energy Consumption, Transportation Research Board, Special Report #345 (

D. Shefer & P. Rietvald (1997), “Congestion and Safety on Highways: Towards an Analytical Model,” Urban Studies, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 679-692.

Alison Cassady, Tony Dutzik and Emily Figdor (2004). More Highways, More Pollution: Road Building and Air Pollution in America’s Cities, U.S. PIRG Education Fund (


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Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Energy, Environment, Miscellaneous, Peak Oil, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

2013 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 13,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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The Boondoggle List

By Dom Nozzi

Boondoggles are actions that are unnecessary, and wasteful of time and money. I use the term more broadly to refer to things that are counterproductive, tragic, and bankrupting. They are, in this view, substantially detrimental to sustainability and quality of life.

I was thinking about how both the American wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq War are horrific examples boondoggles. Actions that show we are our own worst enemy. They are exercises that significantly worsen our national objectives — largely by throwing away enormous sums of public dollars, killing or injuring a huge number of people, destroying villages and nations, and breeding or otherwise recruiting a huge number of new “terrorists” who will grow up with a lifelong vow to punish the US for what we have done.

These boondoggles are elephants in the bedroom. But are there only two?

It then occurred to me that there is a nearly endless (and growing) list of boondoggles. So I’ve prepared a list of a whole herd of elephants in the bedroom.

If someone intent on torpedoing America was to devise a set of tactics to destroy the US, it is hard to imagine that foe selecting tactics that would more effectively ruin us than this list of boondoggles we are imposing on ourselves.

They are a recipe for the collapse of the American Empire.

1. The Afghanistan War & the near consensus that militarism is desirable (otherwise known as The War on Terror).

2. The Iraqi War (otherwise also known as The War on Terror).

3. The Drug War.

4. Focusing health care on catastrophic instead of preventive medicine, and the extreme over-reliance on insurance to pay for health costs that are not extremely catastrophic or otherwise unaffordably expensive.

5. The Legal System and the Penal System, which mostly fail to arrive at justice due to the nearly single-minded focus on making a lot of money instead of finding justice.

6. An electoral system distorted by campaign contributions.

7. The death penalty, which, among other things, is financially ruinous because it costs far more to execute someone than to keep the person in prison for life.

8. Unconditional support for the Israeli government.

9. Forgiving road design.

10. Local land development regulations that almost exclusively promote sprawl and car dependency.

11. Excessive local funding for police and firefighting.

12. Property tax exemption for churches.

13. Massive government agricultural subsidies – particularly for corn.

14. Agribusiness, processed food and the overuse of corn syrup in our food.

15. The flood of guns freely available to nearly anyone in the US.

16. The massive motorist subsidy of “free” parking.

17. The massive motorist subsidy of continually widened & “free” roads.

18. An income tax system that is excessively complex, & punishes job creation & investment.

19. A property tax system that punishes infill development.admin-ajax (16)

20. Gas taxes that are too low & only dedicated to roads, not transit, walking or bicycling.

21. The massive federal subsidies for airports (and the absence of such subsidies for rail).

Can you think of any others to add to the list?

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The Need to Control Noise Pollution

By Dom Nozzi

As a senior planner for Gainesville, Florida in the 1990s, one of my accomplishments was that I substantially re-wrote the noise ordinance for Gainesville. In combination with my environmental science degree, I came to learn a number of things in revising the City noise regulations.noise

1. Noise pollution is the most neglected form of pollution in America, and it is growing steadily worse for a number of reasons.

2. Motor vehicles tend to be the primary source of noise in cities.

3. Emergency vehicle sirens are an enormous and growing problem — particularly in town center locations, and especially when elected officials don’t have the awareness or courage to rein in their use by their emergency service staff.

4. Even the best noise ordinances do little to control noise unless there is effective enforcement of the noise regulations. It is very common to assign enforcement to the police, but since the police department understandably gives noise enforcement a low priority (compared to, say, murders), police don’t tend to do well in regularly enforcing noise violations. The best strategy I learned about at the time was in Boulder, Colorado. Back in the 1990s, that city hired full-time staff who were charged with noise enforcement full time.

5. Effective noise control is near the top of my list of quality of life strategies — particularly when a community seeks to promote more in-town (vs sprawl) housing. I’m certain that a number of people who refuse to live in a town center are avoiding that location because of noise problems.

Therefore, noise control is essential to discourage sprawl and promote more town center residential.

6. An important reason why noise pollution has become a growing problem is that there is a growth in the amount of uncivil behavior engaged in by citizens. In a “Me Generation,” we find that many people often act as if there is no need to be concerned about others. I was horrified recently to hear a comment a young college student gave a code enforcement officer when the officer asked why the student was maintaining an unkempt, litter-strewn front yard. The student responded by indignantly claiming that his right to litter was due to his living in a “free” country.

It scares me that a large number of Americans may actually believe that uncivil behavior is a form of political liberty. “The US Constitution gives me the right to blast my stereo at 120 decibels at 2 am.”

Is this belief a widespread cause of many of our societal problems today?


Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.


Or email me at: dom[AT]

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = Hardcover =

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: is the Enemy book cover

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My Adventures blog

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My Town & Transportation Planning website

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2012 in review for this Plan B blog site

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 24,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 6 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

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Collective Effervescence: The Lost Tradition of Ecstatic Dance

By Dom Nozzi

I just finished reading an extraordinary book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Haidt, 2012).

The author of this important book unveils the lost cultural tradition that so many societies practiced for centuries, yet has faded in recent centuries. “…in the late 15th Century…European travelers to every continent witnessed people coming together to dance with wild abandon around a fire, synchronized to the beat of drums, often to the point of exhaustion.”

While such collective behavior was essential to the health and bond strengthening of a community, the suppression of such joyful communal activity led Europeans to not only fail to recall their own traditions in this
imagesrealm, but to look upon its continuation in other cultures as an abomination. “In Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich describes how European explorers reacted to these dances: with disgust. The masks, body paints, and guttural shrieks made the dancers seem like animals. The rhythmically undulating bodies and occasional sexual pantomimes were, to most Europeans, degrading, grotesque, and thoroughly ‘savage.’”

Haidt points out that “[t]he Europeans were unprepared for what they were seeing. As Ehrenreich argues, collective and ecstatic dancing is a nearly universal ‘biotechnology’ for binding groups together…It fosters love, trust, and equality.”

Why had such a beneficial tradition been lost to Europeans? Haidt finds the explanation to be based on Christianity and the emergence of the drive for individual achievement in the Middle Ages, as noted by Ehrenreich. “It was common in ancient Greece…and in early Christianity (which she says was a ‘danced’ religion until dancing in church was suppressed in the Middle Ages)…But if ecstatic dancing is so beneficial and widespread, then why did Europeans give it up?…[Ehrenreich argues that it was due to] the rise of individualism and more refined notions of self in Europe, beginning in the sixteenth century…”

Haidt’s book describes the meaning and lost value of “collective effervescence.” “…[The scholar Emile Durkheim referred to activities such as ecstatic dancing as] higher-level sentiments [he called] ‘collective effervescence,’ which describes the passion and ecstasy that group rituals can generate. As Durkheim put it: ‘The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation.’”

In the spring of 1986, I attended a “rave” dance at a downtown Gainesville, Florida nightclub that gave me an unforgettable taste of collective effervescence. That night, the dance floor throbbed to the beat of high-energy, high-volume disco music, and the effervescence of a packed, feverish group of happy, exhilarated college-age dancers who danced synchronistically in a trance, as if we were one organism,disco990-saidaonline to the music and the strobing colored lights. I felt as if time had ended. As if there was no shame. No paralyzing and fun-destroying self-consciousness. Or right or wrong. All that existed was that very moment of joy, shared euphorically with others at the nightclub at 3 a.m.

It was one of the most pleasant, enjoyable, unforgettable experiences of my life.

Haidt refers to Durkheim, who noted that “in such a state, the vital energies become hyperexcited, the passions more intense, the sensations more powerful.” “Durkheim,” says Haidt, “believed that these collective emotions pull humans fully but temporarily into the higher of our two realms, the realm of the sacred, where the self disappears and collective interests predominate. The realm of theprofane, in contrast, is the ordinary day-to-day world where we live most of our lives, concerned about wealth, health, and reputation, but nagged by the sense that there is, somewhere, something higher and nobler…”

Haidt believes that “…[activities such as ecstatic dancing by a community] generally makes people less selfish and more loving.”

Haidt uses the metaphor of “turning on the switch” as a way to describe such ecstatic collective behavior, and provides these examples of this important behavior our culture has abandoned:

Awe in Nature … [Ralph Waldo] Emerson argued that the deepest truths must be known by intuition, not reason, and that experiences of awe in nature were among the best ways to trigger such intuitions. He described the rejuvenation and joy he gained from looking at the stars, or at a vista of rolling farmland, or from a simple walk in the woods.”

The author notes that Darwin cited such an experience in his work. He quotes Darwin to say that ‘in my journal I wrote that whilst standing in midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest, it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion which fill and elevate the mind…’

Haidt also refers to the sort of rock dance experience that closely mimics what I experienced and described above when I lived in Gainesville, Florida.

Raves…Rock music has always been associated with wild abandon and sexuality. American parents in the 1950s often shared the horror of those seventeenth-century Europeans faced with the ecstatic dancing of the ‘savages.’ But in the 1980s, British youth mixed together new technologies to create a new kind of dancing that replaced the individualism and sexuality of rock with more communal feelings….young people began converging by the thousands for all-night parties… There’s a description of a rave experience in Tony Hsieh’s autobiography…The first time Hsieh and his ‘tribe’…attended a rave, it flipped his hive switch…’What I experienced next changed my perspective forever…Yes, the decorations and lasers were pretty cool, and yes, this was the largest single room full of people dancing that I had ever seen. But neither of those things explained the feeling of awe that I was experiencing…As someone who is usually known as being the most logical and rational person in a group, I was surprised to find myself swept with an overwhelming sense of spirituality – not in the religious sense, but a sense of deep connection with everyone who was there as well as the rest of the universe. There was a feeling of no judgment…Here there was no sense of self-consciousness or feeling that anyone was dancing to be seen dancing…Everyone was facing the DJ, who was elevated up on a stage…The entire room felt like one massive, united tribe of thousands of people, and the DJ was the tribal leader of the group…The steady wordless electronic beats were the unifying hearbeats that synchronized the crowd. It was as if the existence of individual consciousness had disappeared and been replaced by a single unifying group consciousness.”

Again, the collective nature of such activity is essential to its importance for a society. “…The scene and the experience awed him, shut down his ‘I,’ and merged him into a giant ‘we.’”

Where does happiness come from, asks Haidt? “When I began…I believed that happiness came from within, as Buddha and the Stoic philosophers said thousands of years ago. You’ll never make the world conform to your wishes, so focus on changing yourself and your desires. But by the time I finished writing, I had changed my mind: Happiness comes from between. It comes from getting the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself…We evolved to live in groups…”

One of the great, tragic losses of our age is the loss of these forms of collective effervescence through such activities as ecstatic community dancing. If we are to bond or cooperate or be happy as a community, we must restore the tradition of such collective effervescence, and shed the religiously-inspired puritan attitudes that have diminished our joy and productiveness as a community for so long.


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