Gaining Support for Walkable Urbanism and the Threat to Cities

By Dom Nozzi

I’m convinced that one very important way to build more citizen support for compact, walkable, loved urbanism is to insist that building architecture move back to timeless, traditional design. I believe modernism is a failed architectural paradigm that is giving urbanism and compact development a black eye due to the large number of us who find it to be jarring, non-contextual, and ugly. Here is a recent essay I wrote on this.

A friend then asked, “Why not move to a big city?” To which I replied…

There are a great many things I dislike about bigger cities. I’ll mention a few: They almost always tend to go WAY overboard on providing gigantic, car-based infrastructure such as high-speed and oversized highways and highway overpasses.

Human scale is obliterated.

I also find it much more difficult, as a result of this gigantism, to find a sense of community. Additionally, bigger cities tend to have big noise pollution problems due to either a lack of political will or lack of noise pollution knowledge.

I have always, by contrast, enjoyed living in smaller “college town” cities for a great many reasons. My biggest fear is that such cities — such as Boulder — will wrongly conclude that the way to protect “small town character” is to stop development (in other words, stop population growth), stop compact and mixed-use development, and demand huge suburban building setbacks. Doing this threatens cities such as Boulder with the Threat of Car-Based Suburbia.

Too many in Boulder equate happy car driving and parking with quality of life. This leads to the political demand that densities be kept at levels that are far too low to support anything but car travel. It makes housing unaffordable since too much (expensive) land is allocated to each home. Suburban objectives – which center around easy, unobstructed car travel and car parking – inevitably leads to oversizing roads and intersections and parking lots (all of which kill “small town character” far more than anything else).

Europe shows us many cities that are the size of Boulder yet have fantastic, lovable, walkable urbanism. Boulder, in other words, can be far more compact and accommodate far more people, while still retaining lovable, prideful small-town charm, if we design for people rather than cars. Here is one of my essays on this topic.

In other words, a city needs to resist the strong temptation to over-build for happy cars. Striving for “happy cars” is one of the most dangerous temptations — one of the most dangerous threats to our quality of life. It is so dangerous because it can garner a juggernaut of nearly universal, bi-partisan, unstoppable political support from a community that does not realize doing so is a powerful yet initially unrecognized way to foul your own nest.

Cities can grow and develop and infill and become more compact without over-designing for easy car travel and easy car parking.

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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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The Charming Italian Tradition of the Passeggiata – the Nightly Community Stroll

By Dom Nozzi

Each evening, between the hours of 5 pm and 8 pm, Italians take to the streets, to walk and socialize, in a nightly ritual called “La Passeggiatta.” Sociologists label la passeggiata a cultural performance, and on Saturdays and Sundays entire families participate, this frequently being the main social event of the day. Afterward, everyone heads home together for the evening meal.

For Maggie and I, la passeggiata is one of our favorite treats when we visit an Italian town. It is the much-loved evening community stroll, and we love encountering it.

The passeggiata in Palermo mostly occurs on their main walking street (Via Maqueda), and it is an unforgettable, inspiring sight to see. This link is a video I shot as we joined the stroll.

Via Maqueda is a large street, yet like our recent experience in Bologna, la passeggiata so fills the large street that it is a gridlock of pedestrian congestion that one normally only sees with a road clogged with cars.

But in contrast to car congestion, when everyone is angry with everyone else on the road, pedestrian congestion adds to the sociable joy of being on common ground with other people. As Dan Burden once said, cars are happiest when there are no other cars around. People are happiest when there are other people around.

One of many things that makes me proud to be an Italian is this lovely Italian tradition.

As I understand it, the size and popularity of la passeggiata on Via Maqueda has been growing over the years (it became a walking street in June 2018). I believe that is because such an event benefits from being a self-perpetuating virtuous cycle. That is, because humans are a social species and our world tends to isolate us from each other, something that draws people to sociably be with others is so enjoyable, so rare, and such a people-watching treat that others in the city start learning about the enjoyable event and join in. And this growing number of participants induces even more to join as word about it is spread (or people encounter it on their own). And so on and so on.

La passeggiata is, in the words of urban designers, a “social condenser” that most humans seek out to enjoy.

In my view, all cities, to be healthy, should have a nightly passeggiata.

In her book titled The Passeggiata and Popular Culture in an Italian Town,  Giovanna Delnegro states that this custom “reinforces a sense of belonging. Individuals greet their friends and acquaintances while sharing all the latest news and gossip. Women frequently hold hands, walking together in what appears as an informal parade. As they mark the end of the workday, men can be heard to say andiamo a fare qualche vasca, or ‘let’s go do some laps.’ Not only is the custom of la passeggiata a social bonding experience, but also good exercise, and I can use all that I can get!”

According to Margie Miklas, “one of the original purposes of la passeggiata was to display the charms of young women who were eligible to be married, and in this process, parents of these girls encouraged them to be flirtatious. They wanted their daughters to fare una bella figura, or to look good. This could be one of the reasons that generally people change their clothing after working, and put on their finer attire, dressing to impress, for the evening stroll. The goal is, after all, or to see and be seen.

“In the larger cities such as Rome, some streets are just packed with people, making it nearly impossible for cars to get by. One of these streets, in particular, is Via del Corso, known for its shopping. As people are walking, it is not uncommon for them to stop and do some window shopping. Another favorite spot for everyone to congregate during this evening ritual is the piazza, and Piazza Navona is a wonderfully entertaining spot. Usually in the early evenings, you will find mimes performing, musicians entertaining and vendors demonstrating the latest new items. Piazza di Spagna, or the Spanish Steps, becomes another crowded spot for la passeggiata.

 

“As an integral part of everyday life in Italy, la passeggiata is an endearing custom in Italy, one that I enjoy very much.  Italians like to share things and be with one another, and they like to be outside, as their homes are frequently small. Unless it is raining, you can count on la passeggiata to occur in every city, town, and village in Italy every day of every week.”

 

Source: https://italoamericano.org/story/2015-5-19/passeggiata%20

 

 

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The Colossal Blunder of 800 New Parking Spaces at Eldora Ski Resort

 

By Dom Nozzi

Eldora Ski Resort here in Boulder County, Colorado is preparing to commit a colossal yet still all-too-common blunder. After getting furious, enraged pushback last year when the Resort proposed to charge for existing parking (which, as an aside, is exactly the correct tool for managing their parking), the Resort was just given unanimous approval from the County Planning Board to install approximately 800 new “free” spaces at the Resort — which will require the clearing of about six acres of forest (assuming 325 square feet of parking lot per space).

This new parking would be in addition to the existing large parking lot, as well as at least one overflow parking lot.

This additional parking will result in more air emissions in the region (undercutting climate change reduction efforts by our community), cause a lot of forest removal (which will aggravate stormwater pollution, erosion, and flooding), increase “heat island” problems, increase the number of single-occupant vehicles driving through Nederland and to the Resort, increase congestion in Nederland and the length of the backup of cars trying to enter the Resort on popular snow days, reduce the number of carpoolers, reduce the number of transit users, and increase the need for shuttle buses at the Resort.

As an aside, I should note that for decades, whenever the Resort planned to engage in various modest expansions of recreation areas on their property (or any action that might increase the volume of cars in the nearby town of Nederland), they almost invariably got strong opposition. But in this case, the prospect of a six-acre asphalt parking lot replacing a forest is met with a consensus of happy, enthusiastic support.

I should also note that the Resort imposes an indirect tax on those who ride the bus to the Resort. In addition to the hefty charge for a bus ticket, bus riders usually have to pay for a locker to store their non-ski items while skiing — unlike motorists, who are able to use their car as a storage locker.

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Top Priorities for the Boulder Colorado City Council in 2020

 

By Dom Nozzi

I submitted the following recommended priorities for the Boulder City Council for the year 2020.

Reform Parking

Boulder suffers from significant affordability woes and excessive dependence on car travel. By requiring new development to provide parking for homes, offices, and retail, the City is substantially worsening these problems. Requiring a parking space for a home, for example, adds $10,000 to $20,000 to the price of a home. And abundant, free parking is a fertility drug for cars.

As is recommended by the Boulder Master Transportation Plan for several years, required minimum parking requirements need to be converted to maximum allowable parking, as is now the case in a large and growing number of cities in the nation. The City needs to require that when feasible, the price of parking is unbundled from the price of housing. Both of these parking reform measures are part of the “SUMP” principles that staff has been working on and proposing for a number of years now. (“Shared Unbundled, Managed, and Paid”).

Policy 6.11 of the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan states that “…[t]he city will accommodate parking demands in the most efficient way possible with the minimal necessary number of new spaces and promote parking reductions through a variety of tools, including parking maximums, shared parking, unbundled parking…based on SUMP principles to support transportation and GHG reduction goals as well as broader sustainability goals, including economic vitality and neighborhood livability.”

Action 5.E of the Boulder Master Transportation Plan calls for the City to “[m]odify the city parking code to support policies in the BVCP that promote mixed-use development and higher densities where appropriate. Transition parking to other uses as needs change.”

Reform Single-Family Zoning

Boulder suffers from an extreme affordable housing crisis that is now worsening each year. In addition, about 80 percent of Boulder is zoned single-family residential. Both of these factors lead to very low levels of racial and income diversity and results in nearly all lower- and middle-income households from being able to move to or remain in Boulder. It must be pointed out that the origins of single-family zoning a century ago had as its primary (but unspoken) objective, the promotion of racial and income discrimination.

Like a growing number of cities nationwide, Boulder needs to reform single-family zoning regulations so that smaller homes, smaller lots, duplexes, and neighborhood-scaled office and retail are allowed in that zoning district, as well as accessory dwelling units, co-housing and co-ops. In addition, the maximum number of unrelated people living in a household must be increased – at least to a level similar to that of most other cities in the nation. Allowing these new housing types in Boulder’s single-family zoning district must be coupled with:

  1. A visual preference survey that ensures that allowable building design is compatible and desirable to most residents of Boulder’s neighborhoods;
  2. Stepped up code enforcement; and
  3. Expansion of Managed Parking.

Policy 2.11 in the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan states that “…granny flats, alley houses, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and owner’s accessory units (OAUs)) will be encouraged by the city to increase workforce and long-term rental housing options in single-family residential neighborhoods.”

Policy 2.16 states that “[t]he city will encourage well-designed mixed-use and higher-density development that incorporates a substantial amount of affordable housing in appropriate locations, including in some commercial centers and industrial areas and in proximity to multimodal corridors and transit centers. The city will provide incentives and remove regulatory barriers to encourage mixed-use development where and when appropriate. This could include public-private partnerships for planning, design or development, new zoning districts, and the review and revision of floor area ratio, open space and parking requirements.”

Policy 2.14 states that “[i]n existing neighborhoods, a mix of land use types, housing sizes and lot sizes may be possible if properly mitigated and respectful of neighborhood character.”

Policy 7.06 states that “[t]he city…will encourage the private sector to provide and maintain a mixture of housing types with varied prices, sizes and densities to meet the housing needs of the low-, moderate- and middle-income households of the Boulder Valley population. The city will encourage property owners to provide a mix of housing types, as appropriate. This may include support for ADUs/OAUs, alley houses, cottage courts and building multiple small units rather than one large house on a lot.”

Policy 7.10 states that “…[t]he city will explore policies and programs to increase housing for Boulder workers and their families by fostering mixed-use and multi-family development in proximity to transit, employment or services…”

Be Effective with Vision Zero for Traffic Safety

Boulder’s Vision Zero program (intended to reduce traffic deaths and serious traffic injuries to zero) is far too timid to achieve meaningful traffic safety improvements. It continues to focus on the failed methods Boulder has used for over a century: An emphasis on Warning Signs, Warning Lights, Warning Paint, Warning Education, and Warning Enforcement. And for most of that century to this day, City roadway design has had the unintended consequence of inducing excessive speeds and inattentive driving. After a century of these methods, Boulder’s roads are now more dangerous than they have ever been.

To effectively reducing the appalling number of serious traffic injuries and deaths that continue to occur on Boulder roads, the City must emphasize the redesign of city roads. For example, there must be a much more thorough use of effective traffic calming methods that induce slower and more attentive driving: Narrowing streets with bulb-outs, lane width reductions, installation of more on-street (and priced) parking, and removal (or re-purposing) of unnecessary lanes. This effort should not include “vertical” interventions such as speed humps, as this creates problems for emergency vehicles as well as creating noise pollution and vehicle damage.

Action 1.D of the Boulder Transportation Master Plan states that the City should “[d]evelop and implement a Speed Management Plan to decrease travel speeds on city streets; and explore reducing the speed limit on residential (local) streets from 25 mph to 20 mph, and 15 mph in school zones.”

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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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Modernism versus Timeless: Some Benefits of Timelessness

 

By Dom Nozzi

Timeless, lovable design is inherently more sustainable and long lasting because it is much less likely to be demolished by a community. By contrast, the awful, unlovable, “innovative” stuff that modernists are tirelessly and single-mindedly focused on tends to be so dated and unloved that citizens cannot wait to get rid of it. Indeed, the author and architect Steve Mouzon has made these points in his writings on this topic.

What about “new design styles?” Shouldn’t we allow architecture to evolve over time?

In my view (and the view of a number of other urban designers), I think anything “new” needs to incorporate “new styles” incrementally and in a subtle way. Otherwise, like most modernist eyesore buildings, the “new style” will be too jarring and unfamiliar. This incrementalism is a way to slowly test new ideas. If they add to the beauty of a building, they will be retained and slowly incorporated in future buildings.

One big key for me – for those of us who seek to ratchet down the knee-jerk furious opposition to needed new housing (and needed infill in general) – is that we must stop giving new development a black eye by allowing builders to build jarring, look-at-me, sore thumb buildings. I’m utterly convinced that if we obligate developers to abandon jarring modernism and instead build timeless, lovable designs (and we know what those are), citizen support for new development/infill/housing will grow. For example, a Council member in Boulder Colorado made that precise point a few weeks ago at a council meeting. Following a presentation by my friend and designer Paul Saparito regarding his proposed compact housing at Alpine-Balsam (a property Boulder has purchased and plans to redevelop as a mixed-use development), this same Council member said that while she generally dislikes density, if the new buildings looked like what Paul showed, she’d be much more likely to support the project.

In sum, if new buildings fit the context of the neighborhood or city – if it is compatible in design or, in other words, if the design is FAMILIAR to Boulder residents, they are much less likely to oppose it, and much more likely to feel comfortable about the new building. Familiarity breeds acceptance. Unfamiliarity breeds hatred. And modernist design, which has as its leading sacrament the imperative that the building design be INNOVATIVE rather than familiar, is a recipe for broad and raging citizen opposition.

“Oh, that proposed new building is FAMILIAR to me. I’m therefore comfortable with it…”

Consistent design is very important. Urban designers like to recommend that houses and retail and offices should be consistent in building design. They should, in other words, be “soldier” buildings. It is only the “civic” buildings such as a church or a city hall that Hero bldgs vs soldier bldgsshould stand out and be taller, more grand, and more of a look-at-me style. The civic building – and ONLY the civic buildings – should be a “hero” building. Otherwise, we end up with unlovable chaos, as the attached image shows.

A few good examples right here in Boulder: The Holiday neighborhood in North Boulder, and the University of Colorado campus. Both of those places obligate a consistent style or theme that creates a sense of community and comfort. And coherence, I would add.

As I’ve said many times, there are only two advantages I can think of for modernist buildings (and the advantages are too small, compared to the downsides, to allow them to continue to be built). First, modernist style is so universally awful and disliked that future generations will have plenty of demolition jobs (an economic boost!). Also, because so few homebuyers are interested in buying someone else’s bizarre modernist innovation building (“is it a house or a spaceship or an insecticide factory?”), such homes will be more affordable to buy than the timeless, lovable home styles.

 

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Gaining Support for Walkable Urbanism and the Threat to Cities

 

By Dom Nozzi

I’m convinced that one very important way to build more citizen support for compact, walkable, loved urbanism is to insist that building architecture move back to timeless, traditional design. I believe modernism is a failed architectural paradigm that is giving urbanism and compact development a black eye due to the large number of us who find it to be jarring, non-contextual, and ugly. Here is a recent essay I wrote on this.

A friend then asked, “Why not move to a big city?” To which I replied…

There are a great many things I dislike about bigger cities. I’ll mention a few: They almost always tend to go WAY overboard on providing gigantic, car-based infrastructure such as high-speed and oversized highways and highway overpasses.

Human scale is obliterated.

I also find it much more difficult, as a result of this gigantism, to find a sense of community. Additionally, bigger cities tend to have big noise pollution problems due to either a lack of political will or lack of noise pollution knowledge.

I have always, by contrast, enjoyed living in smaller “college town” cities for a great many reasons. My biggest fear is that such cities — such as Boulder — will wrongly conclude that the way to protect “small town character” is to stop development (stop population growth), stop compact and mixed-use development, and demand huge suburban building setbacks. Doing this threatens cities such as Boulder with the Threat of Car-Based Suburbia.

Too many in Boulder equate happy car driving and parking with quality of life. This leads to the political demand that densities be kept at levels that are far too low to support anything but car travel. It makes housing unaffordable since too much (expensive) land is allocated to each home. Suburban objectives – which center around easy, unobstructed car travel and car parking – inevitably leads to oversizing roads and intersections and parking lots (all of which kill “small town character” far more than anything else).

Europe shows us many cities that are the size of Boulder yet have fantastic, lovable, walkable urbanism. Boulder, in other words, can be far more compact and accommodate far more people, while still retaining lovable, prideful small-town charm, if we design for people rather than cars. Here is one of my essays on this topic.

In other words, a city needs to resist the strong temptation to over-build for happy cars. Striving for “happy cars” is one of the most dangerous temptations — one of the most dangerous threats to our quality of life. It is so dangerous because it can garner a juggernaut of nearly universal, bi-partisan, unstoppable political support from a community that does not realize doing so is a powerful yet initially unrecognized way to foul your own nest.

Cities can grow and develop and infill and become more compact without over-designing for easy car travel/parking.

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On Being a YIMBY

 

By Dom Nozzi

In a discussion on a neighborhood email list, a person advocated more density in the neighborhood. Someone responded with a snarky comment about how this does not live near the place where the higher density is recommended.

I responded as follows.

I’m a YIMBY (yes in my backyard). I want higher density as close to where I live as possible (preferably across the street from me and in my backyard. More density means I have additional desirable things that enhance the walkable lifestyle I seek: More neighbors and potential friends, more people walking and cycling and using transit, and a higher likelihood that new, small scale retail and grocery and restaurants will be built near me.

This quote from Chris Leinberger (author of The Option of Urbanism) strongly resonates with me: “…walkable urbanity is entirely different than drivable suburbanism. The underlying financial and market principle of drivable development, aka sprawl, is that ‘more is less;’ more development reduces the quality of life and financial returns, leading developers and their customers to perpetually go further and further to the fringe in a fruitless search for very things (open space, drivable convenience, perceived safety, etc.) this development promises. It is a downward spiral. Walkable urbanity works under financial and market principles that “more is better”; as more dense development takes place with mixed-uses within walking distance and multiple transportation options to get there, the place gets better. Hence the environmental, fiscal (government tax base), community building AND project financial elements all become better. It is an upward spiral.”

 

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

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

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