Tag Archives: city planning

City Planners Don’t Plan Anymore

By Dom Nozzi

February 8, 2018

I lost the enthusiasm I once had about a professional planning in the latter part of my 20-years as a long-range city planner for Gainesville, Florida. After retiring from that job, I had no interest in returning to city planning. Even though I was only 47 years old.

When this nation went to use-based zoning several decades ago – a form of “planning” which primarily focuses on separating homes from offices, shops, and jobs — it turned over community design to lawyers and traffic engineers.monstor hwy

Planners lost their role as designers, and are now little more than glorified secretaries.

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Leveling the Playing Field by Getting the Prices Right

A review by Dom Nozzi of “Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy, and Urban Sprawl” (2010), by Pamela Blais

January 16, 2012

Blais describes a dizzying, almost countless number of ways in which suburban sprawl is heavily subsidized. Such strong market distortions expose the extreme falsehood of sprawl apologists who claim sprawl is the result of an unfettered free market. Instead, Blais shows over and over again the perversity of those living efficient, sustainable, walkable lifestyles in town center locations who are significantly subsidizing andpe artificially increasing the demand for inefficient, unsustainable, car-dependent sprawl lifestyle. As Blais notes, it is as if those driving small, fuel-efficient cars are subsidizing the purchase of Hummers.

“Much of the attention [by governments seeking to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inducing global warming] has been focused on programs that aim to reduce consumption within the home – energy-efficient appliances, windows, insulation, furnaces, and so on.” But Blais then points out that because household car travel creates such significant levels of emissions, and such travel substantially increases when homes are located in remote suburban locations, “when it comes to reducing energy use and GHG emissions, the location of the home is far more important than are the green features of the house itself…even the greenest house located in the suburbs…and an energy-efficient car, consumes more total energy than does a conventional house with a conventional car located in [a town center].”

How are so many North American cities (inadvertently?) subsidizing sprawl? One extremely important way is by using average cost pricing rather than marginal cost pricing. “…prices charged for [various urban services] rarely reflect the higher costs of servicing a larger or more distant [residential or commercial] lot; rather, prices based on average costs are used. In other words, costs are averaged across a range of different types of development associated with a range of actual costs…those properties that incur lower-than-average costs pay more than their [fair share of] costs, while those properties that incur higher-than-average costs pay less than their [fair share of] costs.”

Examples that Blais cites of this pricing perversity include:

  • “those who live on small lots subsidize those living on large lots;
  • Smaller residential units subsidize larger residential units;
  • Those who don’t drive or drive less subsidize uses that generate more trips;
  • Land uses that generate fewer trips subsidize uses that generate more trips;
  • Those who live in less expensive-to-service areas subsidize those who live in more expensive-to-service areas;
  • Those who live nearer the centre of the city subsidize those who live farther from the centre; and
  • Urban dwellers subsidize rural dwellers.”

Blais also notes that average cost pricing also undercharges those living in remote locations for the following goods and services: “water and sewer services, roads, parking, electricity, natural gas, basic telephone, cable TV, broadband internet, postal service, municipal snow clearance, recycling collection, garbage collection.” Each of these, Blais reminds us, tends to cost more to provide in outlying suburbs, yet average cost pricing charges such residents less than their fair share of community costs (and therefore overcharges those living in efficient town center locations).

“Sprawl is underpriced, and so the demand for it is exaggerated. Efficient forms of development – denser development, smaller lots and buildings, low-, medium- or high-rise apartments, mixed use, and central locations – are overpriced, so demand for them is reduced [below what would naturally occur].”

Local governments have been their own worst enemy. “…it may be troubling to think that the problem of sprawl – one that governments have been struggling to solve for decades – has, in fact, been largely created by those same governments…”

Contrary to what we hear from the defenders of sprawl, “[s]prawl is not the result of market forces but, rather, of a particular variety of distorted market forces. Moreover, these distortions emanate largely from public policy.” We can be somewhat hopeful, however, because since many of these market distortions arise from government decisions, citizens and elected officials have it within their power to correct such distortions. And as Blais says, “[g]etting the prices right, and getting an unbiased market operating, would go a long way towards curbing sprawl…more accurate price signals will prompt new kinds of decisions, choices, and market responses, shifting demand and supply towards more efficient development patterns.”

I would note that this has already started happening over the past decade – albeit not because of government action, but where a noticeable shift toward more fuel-efficient cars and a growth in town center living has been sparked by such factors as rising and volatile gasoline prices, and overall economic woes.

Stronger local government regulations requiring smart growth, compact development, and prohibitions against sprawl have been tried for several decades throughout North America, yet have been almost a complete failure. “This failure is a very expensive proposition, given the considerable resources devoted to this effort compared to tangible results…one could say that we have the dubious honour of being blessed with both the costs of planning and the costs of sprawl.”

According to Blais, this is largely because “sprawl has been viewed narrowly within the planning paradigm – as a planning problem that calls for a ‘planning’ solution. The focus has been on solving sprawl with regulatory and design approaches. While these approaches are without question a critical part of the solution to sprawl, the problem is that they have not addressed, nor are they capable of addressing, other critical causes of sprawl, in particular, the mis-pricing issues [this book describes]. Unless these causes are addressed directly, sprawl will remain an elusive and intractable problem.”

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Does Transportation Drive Land Use?

By Dom Nozzi

June 15, 2000

Often, I notice people express the opinion that transportation is dependent on land use. Similarly, I’m often told that land use comes first, and transportation planning and development follows to accommodate the land use. That “land use drives transportation.”

But let’s keep in mind that transportation is profoundly a vicious cycle and significantly changes behavior and markets over time. For example, when/if we add capacity or widen major roads, we set into motion some enormous political and economic pressures, and behavior changes. Widening a road will inevitably reduce the number of bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users (because it is now more difficult, unsafe, and unpleasant to use the bigger road). This creates more car trips (“induced travel”). And the induced travel created by the widened road, is used, post facto, to justify the widened road (a classic self-fulfilling prophesy). Because the bigger road carries more high-speed traffic, it becomes unpleasant to live along the road. So, over time, housing values decline along the road, and single-family gets converted to student rental, multi-family for students, office and retail. And because it is now more pleasant and fast to drive a car, people are better able to live in remote areas and commute to their jobs in the city.

Why? Because cross-culturally and throughout history, the average daily roundtrip commute is 1.1 hours. Some people will relocate to more remote locations to create a new equilibrium when the road is widened.

Many people dream of living in a “cabin in the woods.” Therefore, wider roads create a strong demand for sprawl housing, because the wider road reduces travel time from home to daily destinations. Is sprawl possible without car travel? Could a huge number of us live in remote locations if our transportation system did not provide cheap and easy car travel?

Most people would be unwilling to live in low-density, outlying, sprawling areas — or drive a car for every trip — unless roads are designed for high speeds and high volumes, and parking is both free and abundant. All the conditions that people dislike about the city — whether real or perceived — such as noise, crime, etc., can be more easily fled if the newly widened roads allow you to get to work each day in a reasonable period of time, even if you live in an outlying area. The ultimate result is that as we add capacity to streets, we set in motion a pattern of sprawl and strip, we wipe out farms, and we accelerate the decline of in-town areas.

Another outcome is that our in-town streets become little more than “escape routes.”

Quite often, our transportation planning advisory boards are dominated by home building interests. Clearly, this industry realizes the fundamental importance of widening roads to create sprawl residential markets for them.

As for retail land use impacts caused by transportation, when there are so many cars being carried by a bigger road, business people cannot resist putting enormous pressure on staff and officials to rezone the businessperson’s property to retail in order to takearapahoe-ave-boulder-co advantage of all those potential customers driving by each day. This is precisely why we see so many big box retailers clamoring for sites at major intersections. In fact, in the planning department I work in, we get calls all the time from people who want to rezone from residential to office or retail along our major arterial streets.

High-volume big box retailers, except in large, high-density cities, are not viable unless the public sector provides large subsidies in the form of high-speed, high-capacity, multi-lane streets (big roads enable the big box to draw cars from a regional “consumer-shed”). Not only that. These retailers also depend on the public sector to allow them to build enormous and free surface parking lots, and enormous building footprints.

As expected, we so often have strip commercial – intense land use development pressure — on major roads near interstates. Could such streets have been anything else other than strip commercial, given the street design and the access to the Interstate? Are single-family homes viable along such a street? If you owned land along such a stretch, would it be rational for you not to do everything in your power to get the local government to grant you the right to sell to those 70,000 potential daily customers, as the “big box” retailer so often wants to do?

I’ve seen land use plans and maps prepared in the past, and I know that it is not a “plan” at all. Almost entirely, when we talk about a mostly built-out city, it is simply recording what is there already. Almost none of it is a proactive vision of what the planners want. If we engaged in wholesale land use changes in the land use map/plan to enact our sustainable, livable vision, all of the planners would be in fear of losing their jobs and all of the commissioners would be thrown out of office. Elected commissioners and staff are forced, by political realities, to be reactive in our land use “plan.” Transportation, on the other hand, is something we can make changes to, because it is often feasible, politically, to make the change.

It matters not a whit whether planners designate a site for retail or single-family residential. Over time, what will happen to the property is determined by the road design and traffic. If the land use designation does not correspond to what is happening on the road, the land use will get changed, or the land will be abandoned. If our street network is designed for modest car speeds, modest car volumes, connectivity, and access (in other words, transportation choice), we will get viable transit, bicycling, walking and neighborhood retail and mixed use, not to mention higher densities, more traffic congestion (which is, in cities, a good thing), compact development, and a control on sprawl. High-speed, high capacity roads will give us the reverse, regardless of what our land use “plan/map” says.

Is it not much easier to predict what will happen to the land uses along a street based on the way the street is designed than to predict what will happen to the street based on the land uses along it? Similarly, is it not more feasible to predict whether there will be a sprawled, dispersed, low-density community if we know, in advance, what the street system and form of travel will be, compared to whether there will be future sprawled community based on what the current land uses (or land use plans) are designated for various properties? For example, West Palm Beach FL is currently experiencing a dramatic, beneficial land use change throughout their city soon after they re-designed their streets by removing travel lanes, calming traffic, and doing substantial streetscaping. Land use improvements there are clearly driven by transportation changes.

Transportation engineers love to try to deny responsibility when their studies (which are flawed because they don’t accurately account for human behavior) show that a road must be widened. The engineer usually claims that land use drives transportation, and that their high-speed, high-volume roads are merely “meeting the demand created by the land uses.” “It’s not our fault that we must spend millions to widen roads, tear out houses, and ruin the environment. We are forced to because of the land use.” But this ignores the fact that high-speed, high-volume roads create a vicious cycle and substantially modify behavior, as noted above. The important danger of this highly misleading claim from many engineers is that it leads us to incorrectly believe that we have no choice. We must widen the road because of the land uses on the ground. Too often, we are mislead into believing that land use choices we made in the past are now forcing us to widen the road.

Engineers must not be allowed to wiggle out of culpability with such an excuse. The traffic engineer who explains it is the land use that “forces” the road widening seems sensible until you look closer and find out how the market brings enormous and unrelenting pressure to change the designations when we change the roads, and how human reactions to road conditions draws or repels residences. If we are incredibly courageous and true to our principles, we might be able to delay the re-zoning for a few years on a widened road that is now hostile for residences. But that just means that because the road carries so much high speed, high volume traffic, it is no longer feasible to keep the property residential because the quality of life is so miserable (as a result, the residential building eventually is abandoned, or is downgraded from owner-occupied to rental), or it is no longer rational to keep it as a farm because you can make millions by selling it for a shopping center or subdivision.

Here is what Newman & Kenworthy (Cities and Automobile Dependence, 1989) have to say:

“In general, [transportation] modeling has assumed that land use is “handed down” by land use planners and that transport planners are merely shaping the appropriate transport system to meet the needs of the land use forecast. This is not the case. One of the major reasons why freeways around the world have failed to cope with demand is that transport infrastructure has a profound feedback effect on land use, encouraging and promoting new development wherever the best facilities are provided (or are planned).” (pg 106)

Why is Europe so walkable and compact, and the U.S. is not? Is it that they are just more educated and appreciative of the merits of walkable communities? Or is it that they mostly developed before the auto age, whereas we developed after the emergence of the auto age? And why is it that Europe is now, after entering the auto age, starting to see the sprawl we are experiencing?

The Florida growth management law requires that “level-of-service” standards be created, and that new developments only be allowed if they are built “concurrently” with the infrastructure and services they would need. But the only concurrency measure from the Florida law that matters is the road level-of-service. Every other concurrency measure – recreation, utilities, solid waste, etc. – is, for all intents and purposes, ignored in comparison.

We are fooling ourselves and doomed to a life of permanent, never-ending battles with people who want to rezone singe-family land that they own and cannot use as single-family due to a wide road (granting that there are a few who could live in a single-family home and put up with the noise and reduced property value – sometimes, this is called “affordable housing”). Forty years from now, if we do not fix our major streets to make them more livable, we will, though incremental zoning changes, have those streets lined with offices and multi-family buildings and retail. And over those 40 years, we will have a bunch of planners, citizens, and officials burned out on fighting those never-ending battles. In the long term, as Walter Kulash points out, no force, not even five “no growth” commissioners, can stop that incremental change after we have designed a street for high-speed, high-volume traffic.

Yes, we can succeed, in the short term, in keeping property zoned single-family. But that will only mean that we’ll have a bunch of vacant homes, and depressed property values.

Once the transport system is in place, the market/political pressure to take advantage of that system is overpoweringly strong, and will overwhelm any countervailing efforts. It hardly matters how courageous, visionary, or progressive a planner or elected official is. If the roads are designed to encourage sprawl, we will get sprawl. No zoning or land use designations (such as “large-lot” zoning) can stop it, and there is no community in the US that has succeeded by trying to control sprawl with designations. When we create and construct our transportation plans, we have, essentially and indirectly (and often unintentionally), established our future land use plans, not vice versa. It is as simple as that, and it is time for us to realize it.

All that said, I’m willing to concede that we should have our road and land use plans work concurrently. So yes, we should designate outlying areas for conservation and farms. But unless we concurrently get the transportation right, we are wasting our time.

In sum, keeping a road at a modest width with a modest number of travel lanes in the face of projected car traffic growth will, over the long term, result in less per capita car trips on that road, less new sprawl into outlying areas, less big box retail, more viable neighborhoods, a higher quality of life, and more residential density near walkable, livable, neighborhood-scaled town centers. Widening the road by adding travel lanes, over the long term, would give us the reverse. The excessive capacities that we typically build for our cities gives us too much sprawl, densities that are too low, and auto dependence. I believe that we should put a moratorium on adding street capacity to streets in our cities, before we wake up one day and wonder how we let ourselves become another auto-dependent south Florida, instead of a sustainable, sociable community featuring transportation choice, safety and independence for our children and seniors, and a unique community we can take pride in.

In the long run, the street shapes the land uses that will form along it much more profoundly than how the land uses would shape the street that forms through them. Let’s not let the traffic engineer fool us. Let’s not put in big roads and then valiantly try (and fail) to stop the sprawl and strip, and then flog ourselves when we are unable to stop the land use degradation. Transportation comes before – and determines — land use. A high quality of life, and sustainable future, depends on our realizing that.

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Career Recommendations for a Young Student

By Dom Nozzi

Late in my career as a town planner for Gainesville FL, I received a very kind note from a student seeking advice in what studies to pursue in college.

I was immensely flattered.

When I hear comments such as his, it truly makes my writing efforts seem so much more rewarding and gratifying. I was very pleased to hear that my thoughts about SUBurban sprawl (“urban” sprawl is a misnomer) had been so influential to him.

He complimented me and asked for career guidance. He asked about my academic background, and what path he could take so that he could help make the world a better place as a town planner.

Below is what I told him…

My academic background is that I originally obtained a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, but realized that I have strong opinions and a desire to help elected officials make better decisions about how to improve the quality of life. Working with test tubes in a lab did not seem like a very effective way to achieve that. Because I’ve always read a lot and have a bit of knowledge in a lot of topics, I came to decide that town planning will be a satisfying way for me to best use my skills and interests (since the profession tends to be relatively “generalist” rather than “specialist”).

After graduate school and a master’s degree in urban planning, I was hired by Gainesville FL to be a planner. I eventually became a long-range senior planner and retired from that job in 2007 after 20 years in that job. Since then, I’ve been semi-retired as an independent town planning/transportation consultant. I write, give speeches, and read about urban design. I love doing each of those three things. (ironically, while I initially loved being a town planner early in my career, I eventually despised the job because I came to realize that the “smart growth,” new urbanist principles that I love and tonder ped ststrongly advocate are strongly opposed by almost all local governments and their professional staff – which meant that my job made me “part of the problem.” I was even banned from giving speeches by the city manager of the town I worked for.)

My planning job consisted of my writing land development regulations, long-range town plans, preparing professional recommendations to my city about the benefits and costs of a proposal to rezone land in the city (by a property owner), making presentations to the elected and appointed officials, and preparing planning reports. Mostly, the work I was asked to do focused on making cars happy (telling developers they MUST provide a huge amount of parking) and working on ways to reduce the negative impacts of cars on neighborhoods (mostly by requiring walls and berms and huge, unwalkable building setbacks).

Based on my experience, I would strongly recommend that your studies emphasize design rather than my academic emphasis of policy. And the design I would recommend you concentrate on is traditional, new urbanist town planning principles – an emphasis that strives to return to the timeless tradition of designing for people, not cars. I believe there are websites such as cnu.com where you can find listings of schools throughout the world which specialize in traditional, new urbanist design. The University of Miami School of Architecture is an outstanding example of such a school in the US, as is the University of Notre Dame. I would also recommend books to you, as listed on my walkablestreets.com website.

Ultimately, you may find, as I did, that a job in the private sector would be much more pleasant and rewarding than a job working as a planner for a public agency (city, state, county, etc.), as the later tend to be strongly opposed to the planning principles I recommend. In general, that would mean seeking to be hired by a firm using new urbanist principles, such as those listed on my walkablestreets.com website.

You may also find it very helpful to watch presentations found on the internet (YouTube, etc.) by such people as Andres Duany, Jim Kunstler, Michael Ronkin, Ian Lockwood and Victor Dover.

I envy your life situation, as I wish I had gotten the suggestions I mention above when I was starting out my college career. I ended up being mostly self-taught.

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