Tag Archives: downtown

Will Open Space Make a Town Center Better?

By Dom Nozzi

May 25, 2017

Despite the conventional wisdom, town squares are not improved via big setbacks and vegetated open space. Squares such as in this photo below feel wonderful, safe, convivial, and happy because of such things as human scale — the compact mixing of offices, retail, homes, services, bars, restaurants, and govt. Adding big setbacks, green open spaces, short buildings, big parking lots, and oversized roads suburbanizes a place and undercuts its ability to be a wonderful public gathering place.Untitled

It is tragic that we so badly failed to create human-scaled spaces at Boulder Junction in Boulder, Colorado, but instead have opted for over-sized, unlovable, uncomfortable spaces (see the second photo below).

We are unlikely to create human-scaled charm and vibrancy in the redevelopment of the Boulder Community Hospital site between Balsam and Alpine.

Or at any other place in American cities such as Boulder as long as we make the mistake of believing that big setbacks, big open spaces, vegetation, shorter buildings, and bigger roads and parking lots are important ingredients for new development.

Boulder Junction

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Urban Design

Is a Road Bypass (Beltway) a Good Idea for Cities?

By Dom Nozzi

November 12, 2016

An extremely common suggestion for “improving” or “easing” car travel in cities is to create a bypass road (sometimes called a “beltway”) to take regional motor vehicle trips not destined for the city center away from the city center to reduce congestion.

I question the conventional wisdom that traffic congestion is bad for cities. I have written and given speeches extensively on this topic. See here and here, for example.

For the sake of argument, however, let us assume that it is a good idea to reduce city traffic congestion. Will a road bypass reduce congestion and help make for a better city?

I think it is now clear that a bypass does not reduce congestion, and has been toxic for many cities throughout the nation.

By funneling a large number of motor vehicle trips away from the city center, a bypass drains the lifeblood from a city center: retail shops, offices, homes, and dollars depart from the city center and into remote, sprawling locations as they chase after the disappearing trips and dollars and vibrancy.

The idea that a road bypass would only accommodate regional trips not needing to go into the city center has not been realized, as a bypass tends to attract a large number of local trips (due to the promise of faster trips).

All of these big downsides for a city in exchange for saving seconds or minutes in a car trip — savings that usually end up being a loss of time for the motorist, as they tend to end up driving much greater distances.photo_verybig_174793

We also find (due to Anthony Downs Triple Convergence) that the bypass tends to become congested in a few short years, because the bypass induces new car trips that would not have occurred had the bypass not been built.

The solution, in my view, is not to funnel urban trips on a few large capacity roads and highways but to move away from the hierarchy of roads toward a more connected street system that more evenly distributes slower speed (and less congested) traffic. Such an approach also more successfully recruits transit riders, bicyclists and pedestrians (which, among other things, creates more parking spaces for motorists).

Another big plus: by avoiding building a bypass, there is a big reduction in the need for initial and on-going transportation dollars for capital projects and operation and maintenance expenditures.

Leave a comment

Filed under Transportation

Recreational Bicyclists and On-Street Parking

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 27, 2002

Ever since I started work as a town planner in 1986, Gainesville FL has had very loud bicycling advocacy.

As a lifelong bike commuter, I am obviously supportive of some of what is being advocated. Yet despite this city paying a lot of lip service to fighting sprawl or increasing the number of bike commuters or reviving our town center, much bike advocacy has been detrimental to such objectives.

The problem, as I see it, is that bike advocates tend to be mostly recreational bicyclists, have little understanding of the needs of a bike commuter, and have even less of an awareness of quality urban design. The result is that they tend to sub-optimize on the needs of recreational bicycling. That is, they overemphasize such needs to the detriment of other crucial community needs.

Bicycling advocates in Gainesville and other communities in America will often fight against on-street parking. In my opinion, such a fight is terribly counterproductive to not only quality of life, but the interests of bicyclists.

In my years as a city planner, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that the pedestrian is the design imperative for cities. Not bicyclists. Not transit users. Not motorists. Not Bambi. Not even seniors or the disabled.

Getting it right for the pedestrian is the most effective, efficient way to create and promote a city quality of life.

And one of the most important way to design for the pedestrian is to have on-street parking.garrett-street-glenwood-park-atlanta

A healthy town center (not to mention healthy transit, healthy Bambi, and a healthy place for seniors/kids/disabled) depends on a healthy pedestrian environment, as even AASHTO recognizes. And a healthy town center is an important way to protect or promote a compact city.

An unhealthy town center, by contrast, accelerates the abandonment of the town center and dispersal of important community destinations to destinations that are too remote to get to by bike, by bus, or by wheelchair.

This is an important reason why bicycling advocates should be advocates for pedestrian design — particularly for features such as on-street parking. A quality pedestrian design promotes the continuation of a compact city. A compact city reduces travel distances. Modest travel distances are, of course, crucial in making bike commuting viable, not to mention improving conditions for Bambi, the disabled, children, and transit users.

 

Leave a comment

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

Easing Our Guilty Conscience Can Subvert Quality Urban Design

By Dom Nozzi

September 19, 2003

Over the past few decades, environmental advocacy groups have had great success in making most people feel “sinful” for “damaging” nature. Such guilt leads to an increased desire to, for example, recycle soda cans. Or object to cutting down a few low-value trees. We ease our guilty conscience — guilt felt because many of us know, in the back of our minds, that we lead environmentally destructive lives. So recycling a few cans is our way to do penance and avoid damnation.

Another result is that arm-chair enviros often naively think that making our world tidy and neat is a meaningful and sufficient form of environmental conservation.

For both the can recyclers living in remote, car-dependent subdivisions with their SUVs, and the tidy and neat “enviros,” we see that most in our society have internalized the idea that “protecting the environment” is good. It is a cultural norm that most everyone takes for granted. It is now pretty much a bi-partisan consensus.

The end result of such a cultural victory, unfortunately, is unintended consequences. Many seem to believe that a tree or a shrub is ALWAYS a good idea in EVERY POSSIBLE location. It is inconceivable that a tree is not a good idea in some places.

That is, nature is sacred.

Given this cultural norm, naive enviros who don’t see the big picture too often decide to exclude a town design decision that has overall positive benefits for both humans and nature. For example, naive enviros will occasionally succeed in stopping an in-town project by convincing decision-makers to save a low-quality wetland or woodlot located in a town center. Naive enviros are often joined by commissioners who are naive about the needs of quality urbanism. Lacking any knowledge of what the ingredients might be for urbanism, it often seems case, that it is a no-brainer that we should save a few trees in exchange for loss of, say, a retail corner on an otherwise sterile building.

But is it really a no-brainer?

Is it really true that we can afford to give up a retail space in a part of a town center that is a scary, uninhabited prostitute- and drug-saturated no-man’s-land? A part of our town center where no one (except the homeless) walk, because there is nothing to walk to except empty parking lots and vacant buildings? (and a tired clump of trees)

The unintended consequence of saving every tree in a town center is that the town center ends up becoming, incrementally, a dead zone that no one wants to be a part of. Nothing happens there. It is not hip to be there, or be seen there. The hip, safe, happening places instead are in the outlying areas — areas that are incrementally wiping out our REALLY important woodlands and wetlands.

Preserving natural habitat by creating better human habitat. So says – correctly — the Smart Growth America’s web site.

The campaign over the past few decades to make environmental conservation (however naively practiced) a cultural norm has meant that we end up unintentionally harming other societal objectives — an example of “knowing just enough to be dangerous.” We strip commercial sidewalkoften fight and win easy “environmental” victories (such as saving a scraggly tree or degraded wetland), and pat ourselves on the back. But we are either blind to, or have given up on, the REAL war: stopping auto-oriented roadway and town design.

Because there are few, if any, citizens or decision-makers who know anything at all about what the ingredients consist of for a quality, compact, walkable habitat for humans, we easily and blindly harm that habitat as we zealously continue winning tiny, trivial battles to save Bambi.

No one objects, because no one sees any harm.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

On-Street Parking, Town Centers, Pedestrians and Bicyclists

 

By Dom Nozzi

December 30, 2008

If we are talking about the creation (or restoration and revival) of a town center, the litmus test for which strategies to use must consider whether the strategy will create a low-speed “park once” environment. For a healthy town center, the pedestrian must be the design imperative.

A common and effective way to create such an environment is with on-street parking. On-street parking, by itself, is not necessarily sufficient in creating a better environment for retail, bicyclists or pedestrians. But on-street parking is one of the most beneficial tactics that can be leveraged in an existing or up-and-comashevilleing low-speed town center. On-street parking should therefore be included whenever
possible.

Too commonly, a place that a community seeks to transform into a walkable town center is fronted by a six-lane corridor. But such a “stroad” design (as Charles Marohn calls a street that is designed poorly for both urbanism and suburbanism) is anything but low-speed or park once, typically. Such a “drive-through” design, to be transformed into a healthy town center, must do what it can to ratchet down speeds and the width of the street. On-street parking and travel lane removal tend to be the most effective ways to do that.

Note that when town centers are designed well, bike lanes can be incompatible with a low-speed walkable town center design. Even though bike lanes ARE usually a good idea in other settings.

In other words, street design must be context-sensitive. We need to be careful not to suboptimize certain forms of travel (such as bicycling) in inappropriate locations.

Leave a comment

Filed under Transportation, Urban Design

Improving Richmond Virginia

By Dom Nozzi

April 23, 2008

In the spring of 2008, I served on a volunteer citizen team offering suggestions to the city of Richmond about improving the city.

As I noted at one of the meetings, I wanted the team to consider recommending strategies that would attract and retain a high-quality workforce.

I urged the team, among other things, to “think outside the box” a bit, as was stated by someone during the introductory comments at an earlier meeting.

I am interested in promoting the attraction and retention of a quality workforce (along the lines of Richard Florida and his Creative Class) via quality urban design. I believe one important way that can be effectively done, as Florida would surely agree, is by restoring and nurturing a charming, walkable, hip, vibrant urban experience for those who might consider living and working in Richmond.

I wanted the team to recommend what I would call a “Think Outside the Box Urban Design Toolkit”. Elements could be such things as:

  1. Have the City start incrementally uncovering the goldmine that is found under many of the asphalt streets in the urban area. Namely, daylighting the brick and cobblestone that remains hidden by asphalt.
  1. Urge a speedy and comprehensive implementation of the impressive, quality-inducing downtown master plan prepared by the Dover-Kohl consultants.
  1. Identification, restoration, protection, or creation of a charming, walkable, community-building, civic pride-promoting town center or neighborhood. Is Richmond Cary St downtown Jun06there, in other words, a “there there” in Richmond and its surrounding “Edge Cities” that is unique, and a source of civic pride?

The first item might entail meeting with, say, the City traffic engineer to determine the practicality of incrementally doing this in appropriate locations. The second item perhaps involves meeting with City Planning Staff. The third item would possibly mean having the team visit examples of a walkable town center or urban neighborhood that may exist or be planned in Richmond and surrounding Edge Cities.

For Richmond, as the Crupi report indicates, this could include Shokoe Slip and Shokoe Bottom. Additionally, it could include the Fan District, perhaps.

Richmond can have a wonderful future. If it focuses on promoting walkable charm.

1 Comment

Filed under Urban Design, Walking

In Town Centers the Pedestrian is the Imperative, NOT Bicyclists or Cars or Transit or the Disabled

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 6, 2009

I applaud the desire to provide for all forms of travel. This is particularly important in (what should be) a low-speed town center environment.

For a town center to be healthy for retail and all forms of travel, low-speed car travel is essential, and a “park once” environment must be created. Here, the pedestrian, not the bicyclist or car or transit, must be the design imperative. If we “get it right” for the pedestrian in the town center, every stakeholder tends to benefit: not just Céret,_France,_main_street_2pedestrians, but bicyclists, transit, retail, residential, children, seniors, well-behaved motorists, the disabled and everyone else.

However, if we suboptimize bicycling, transit or cars to the detriment of other community objectives, the unintended consequence is that most everyone loses.

Too often, eager bicycling advocates loudly proclaim that a town center needs bike lanes and a removal of on-street car parking. But I believe that bike lanes and the removal of on-street parking in a town center serve to suboptimize bicycling — and I speak as a bicycle commuter.

How do we make the pedestrian the design imperative in a town center? Some of the more important tactics include reducing dimensions (such as street widths, building setbacks and the size of parking), increasing commercial and residential compactness, and obligating slow, attentive speeds by motorists.

Probably the most powerful, affordable way to achieve the above-mentioned tactics is on-street parking. Such parking effectively slows cars and obligates attentiveness by adding friction to the street. Such parking is also essential for healthy town center retail. And such parking sometimes dramatically improves pedestrian safety by reducing the street crossing distance.

In a town center, bike lanes tend to undercut each of those design objectives.

Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking” is perhaps the best book I’ve ever read in the field of planning/transportation (a must-read for all planners, designers and elected folks). In that book, Shoup identifies excessive parking as an enormous problem in nearly all American communities.

However, he points out that it is subsidized, underpriced OFF-STREET parking, required in excess by nearly all local governments, that is one of the most important problems in American cities. Shoup is a strong advocate of on-street parking (especially when it is properly priced and therefore efficiently used). I believe he would agree with me that for nearly all cities (even those with too much parking), an extremely important objective is to substantially INCREASE the amount of on-street parking and substantially reduce the amount of off-street parking. And that as much town center street frontage as possible be lined with on-street parking.

In a properly designed town center, car speeds are low enough that it is not only safe and pleasant for pedestrians and retailers and residences. Car speeds are also low enough to permit safe and pleasant sharing of the travel lane by bicyclists. And in a town center, for those bicyclists who are uncomfortable sharing even a slow-speed travel lane with cars, there tends to be nearby parallel lanes off the main street for the bicyclist.

Important downsides for removing town center on-street parking:

*Smaller retailers tend to suffer so much that empty storefronts result and retailers flee to more remote locations that are inconvenient/unsafe to walk or bicycle or bus to. In other words, bicyclists should be strong supporters of a healthy town center retail/residential environment, in part because it promotes a compact community with short travel distances.

*Unless travel lane width is dramatically reduced, bike lanes tend to add asphalt width to the main street. That can mean longer, more dangerous crossing distances for pedestrians, and higher speed and less attentive (and therefore more dangerous) car travel.

Again, town center designers must be careful not to suboptimize bicycle, transit or car travel in the town center, since doing so tends to be detrimental to the pedestrian, which is the town center design imperative. The irony for bicyclists calling for the removal of on-street parking in a town center is not only that it is detrimental to bicycling. On-street parking removal in a town center was (and still is) most loudly called for by the motorist lobby (which fought to increase town center street widths and car speeds beginning about 85 years ago).

And for the record, I am a strong advocate of in-street bicycle lanes on most all major streets in a city. I believe, however, that they tend to be incompatible with a low-speed, human-scaled ped-friendly town center.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Transportation, Urban Design, Walking