Tag Archives: change

Timelessness versus Change


By Dom Nozzi

May 13, 2002

I am thoroughly convinced that our era of extremely auto-dependent design is a brief, failed, dysfunctional aberration in the course of human history. We are now starting to turn back toward timeless, HUMAN-SCALED, pedestrian-oriented design techniques that worked for several centuries (and remain our most lovable cities — Florence, Siena, Tetro_Student_Village_Renderings_003Charleston, etc. — cities that will NEVER go out of style). It will ALWAYS make sense for us to design for people instead of cars. The age of huge parking lots and multi-lane roads is a dinosaur age. Either we jettison that mistaken age, or we will lock ourselves into a downwardly spiraling path toward extinction.

Is there a reason that the pedestrian design that has worked so well for thousands of years will one day not make sense? I doubt it, UNLESS the planet is populated only by robotic cars, instead of people.

While there are certain fundamental, timeless design principles, there will also be, within those principles, some shifting about in societal desires. That is why so much of my work focuses on designing for housing and transportation choice. Like in ecosystems, human habitats that are able to adapt to change will better survive than those that cannot adopt to change. The latter are more likely to become extinct.

The car-based design I work so tirelessly against is PRECISELY the kind of approach we need to avoid if we are to adapt to these inevitable changes. We must be able to deal with change on a regular basis. We cannot afford to live in a world where EVERYONE is forced to drive a car and live in suburban, single-family housing. To be able to adapt to change, our communities MUST be designed for transportation and housing choice. Auto-based design does not give us any choices.

Therefore, I am convinced that the most responsible, durable method is for us to select designs that expand our choices, and to draw quite heavily from time-tested designs that have worked for thousands of years — tempered with a dose of pragmatism that incorporates contemporary lifestyle needs.

Adaptability is crucial in the face of such inevitable uncertainty about the future. We need to proceed with caution (and, I might add, with a sense of modesty, rather than the arrogance of, say, modernists, who arrogantly believe we can cavalierly jettison timeless design principles from our past).

The 911 attack on the World Trade Center buildings has influenced a move toward shorter buildings. I am sympathetic, as one of the time-tested design features I am supportive of is the idea that (non-civic) buildings should not exceed 5 stories in height. Above that height, we lose a human scale. For example, it is said that one cannot easily converse with someone on a sidewalk if one is on a balcony higher than five stories.

I think there are certain things we’ve tried in the past that we can say with a fair amount of confidence will NEVER be a good idea. I think that the Triple Convergence demonstrates that road widening will NEVER be a good idea in the future (to solve congestion). Studies in environmental science show that it will NEVER be a good idea to return to an age when we spewed hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants. Medical science shows that it will NEVER be a good idea for humans to smoke three packs of cigarettes each day.


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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

Will Most Americans Always Desire a Car-Based Lifestyle?

By Dom Nozzi

In 1999, when I was a senior planner for Gainesville FL, a local developer claimed that “we cannot turn back the clock” and go back to an age – the tradition — where most all of us lived in town centers. That we cannot go back to a time when we were not car dependent.

But I don’t buy this.

We are not doomed to a future in which most Americans want suburbia. It is not human nature to forever desire spending ones life driving countless miles each day.

Should we throw up our hands and resign ourselves to this fate? (Or in the case of this developer, celebrate the fact that Americans will always want the new. The modern. The suburban.)

I don’t think so.

Would we passively give up if we were talking about, say, teen pregnancies, teen drug use, teen smoking, energy conservation, divorce, etc.? Is it impossible to “turn back the clock” by trying to change those unhealthy, unsustainable rates to historic levels? Can the past teach us nothing? Is new and modern always better?

Historically, we did not build our cities for the car, and did not have state and federal government heavily subsidizing car travel and sprawl. As Rick Bernhardt (former planning director for Gainesville and Orlando) once said, if you wave a bunch of money in people’s faces, a lot of people are naturally going to opt for suburbia.

The fortunate thing in all of this is that car dependency will inevitably “hit a brick wall,” in terms of how much we can afford. How much we can stand the congestion and deterioration of a quality of life.

And fortunately, there are already signs of such a paradigm shift all over the country.

The suburban lifestyle, which many of us long recognized was unsustainable, is now becoming predictably and unaffordably high in cost. The value of suburban homes is tanking. And the escalating price of a gallon of gas is rapidly and unavoidably making our gas hogging American cars a big financial headache.

Because of this change in suburban price signals, the demand (and therefore the value) of walkable, town center housing (the traditional and sustainable way for humans to live) is rapidly rising.

Many Americans are “miraculously” seeing the light. These former suburbs-loving people – who we were told will never desire “old-fashioned” living – are increasingly coming to appreciate more compact, higher-density, mixed use development. They are suddenly finding themselves desiring transportation choice – that is, being able to choose to walk or bicycle or use transit, rather than being forced to make all their trips by car.

Who would’ve thunk it?

One wonders what my Gainesville developer friend is thinking about his former certitude. Whether he is regretting taking actions that he took in the past — such as the development and promotion of a suburban lifestyle without a future.


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.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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