Tag Archives: human scale

The Problem of Gigantism

By Dom Nozzi

January 13, 2017

Gigantism, in my opinion, is a HUUUUUGE problem in America.

Enormous roads, enormous setbacks, enormous (and improperly located) parking lots, enormous (and improperly located) stormwater basins, enormous distances between destinations, enormous road intersections, enormous subdivisions, enormously tall street lights, enormous signs, enormous retail areas.Monster road intersection

The enormity of the American land use pattern is obvious when one walks the historic center of so many European cities and towns. My recent visit to Tuscany with my significant other was, once again, so saddening and maddening because the streets we walked were so stunningly lovable, charming, and romantic. Americans have thrown all of that charm away in our car-happy world.

Not only is it impossible to love most all of urban America. It is also, as Charles Marohn points out so well, impossible to afford to maintain. A double whammy of unsustainability. And extreme frustration in my career as a town planner who toiling for decades to try to nudge our society toward slowing down our ruinous love affair with making the world wonderful for car travel. And finding that even most smart people in America strongly oppose going back to the timeless way of building for people instead of cars.

It is said that dinosaurs went extinct due in large part to gigantism. I believe the same fate is likely for America, unless our society wakes up and realizes we are way better off in so many ways if we get back to building our world at the (walkable) human scale.

A friend asked me recently what I would do if I were in charge, had a blank slate, and could design a community any way I desired.

If I had such an opportunity, my community would be much more compact and human-scaled. One can walk historic town centers in Europe for models of what I speak of here.

WAY less “open space” for cars is essential.

I would ratchet down our extreme (and artificial) auto-centric value system by making roads and parking and gasoline purchases and car buying directly paid for much more based on USER FEES rather than having all of society pay for happy cars via such things as sales taxes, property taxes, and income taxes.

In other words, making our world much more fair and equitable.

We have over-used and over-provided for car travel and car housing in large part because the cost to do so is mostly externalized to society rather than directly paid for via user fees. Eventually — maybe not in our lifetimes? — car travel will be mostly paid for via user fees and externalized costs will be more internalized. Car travel will therefore become much more expensive, signaling us to cut down on our over-reliance on it.

When that happens, we will inevitably see the re-emergence of the lovable, human-scaled world we once had. Fortunately, we are starting to see car travel becoming much more expensive and unaffordable — even though it continues to fail to be user-fee based.

And we are seeing the Millennial generation showing much more interest in compact town center living and much less interest in being car happy.

It is way past time for our society to a people-happy rather than car-happy world.

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A Quality Future for Boulder CO Means Something Vastly Different from What No-Growthers Seek

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 8, 2017

The great irony of those in Boulder, Colorado who seek to protect the low-density character of neighborhoods (and to allegedly protect the “small town charm” of Boulder) is that by following the tactics recommended by too many “no-growthers,” Boulder will continue to take the Anywhere USA path that so many other American cities have taken (and continue to take).

Fighting against compact development is a recipe for keeping this city from becoming more walkable, charming, and human scaled. Such a fight will make it more likely that our future will be more car-dependent, more isolated, less walkable, more filled with surface parking lots, and less affordable (due to a growing lack of travel choices). Much of Boulder was built in an era of failed community design ideas that are unsustainable. Many of those who seek to “protect” neighborhoods are those who like the privatopia of suburbs and don’t like cities, and therefore don’t understand or appreciate those elements that make for healthy cities: slow speeds, human scale, compact development, agglomeration economies, diversity, conviviality, and choices.

Such advocates, instead, ruinously seem to believe that free-flowing and high speed traffic and easy car parking are the keys to quality of life. Actually, such objectives are toxic to a 51df393d218c6-imagehealthy city because they undermine the elements I list above.

The lifestyle of those who live in low-density Boulder neighborhoods compels them to fight for a halt to population growth, fight to minimize density and building heights, fight to oppose traffic calming and modest street and parking allocations, and fight to oppose mixed use.

Why?

Because fighting for those things helps protect their ability to travel easily by car. Because their neighborhood design obligates them to make most or all trips by car, they must fight for these things to protect their suburban lifestyle. Car travel becomes highly inconvenient when a community is more compact and slow speed. Densities over 2 or 3 units per acre make car travel much more inconvenient.

Conversely, densities below 3 or 4 units per acre make walking, bicycling, and transit nearly impossible.

It is therefore easy to understand why so many in suburban Boulder have concluded that easy driving and parking are equivalent to quality of life. Tragically, easy driving and parking are enemies of a quality city.

It is important to note, despite the unfair, inflammatory falsehoods we often have thrown at us urbanists, that this is NOT a call to make all neighborhoods in Boulder more compact. It IS a plea to recognize that for too much of Boulder’s history, the only acceptable form of development is high speed, car-happy suburban.

And that it is NEVER acceptable for there to be slow speed, compact walkable development.

Anywhere.

The result is a vast oversupply of drivable suburban development — which has no future, by the way — and a substantial undersupply of compact walkable development. Indeed, I would be hard-pressed to point to ANY compact development in Boulder. Because there is a big and growing demand for a walkable lifestyle — particularly among the younger generations — the price of such housing is skyrocketing (there are other reasons, but this one is substantial).

Boulder must do what it can to provide a larger supply of walkable housing — in appropriate locations.

Not doing so will lead to a grim, more costly future for Boulder.

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Will Our Communities Inevitably Become Worse If Our Population Grows?

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 22, 2016

I have at least one friend – probably more than one – who believes that humans always foul their own nest, which means to her that population growth in the community necessarily means the community will worsen due to population growth.

We must therefore do whatever we can to stop population growth.

I disagree. It does not have to be that way.

In my view, making cars happy by fighting against traffic congestion and fighting for more free parking WILL inevitably and powerfully fouls the human habitat – our neighborhoods and cities. Many of us have fled our car-happy fouled nests for greener pastures.

Why did we foul our original nest to make cars happy? Why don’t we return to the timeless french-quarter-inn-charleston-city-view1tradition of making our nest PEOPLE-happy places? Indeed, because humans tend to be hard-wired to be sociable – and tend to be happier and healthier when there is a good amount of social capital – more people can add to the pleasures of life and the community. Some of us who have visited places such as the historic towns in Europe know from experience that some places are wonderful despite their being home to more people than we are familiar with. It is a matter of how they designed their community. Does it feel charming? Human scaled? Romantic? Or is it choked with massive roadways and parking lots?Macys-at-29th-St-July-2015-sm

We foul our own nest to make our cars happy because it is inconceivable to us to make car travel inconvenient and costly. We have made the awful mistake of equating happy, cheap car travel with quality of life. It is a recipe, tragically, for fouling our own nest and fleeing to the “untouched” outlying areas.

In sum, this pattern has little or nothing to do with population growth or humans being hard-wired to want to destroy what they love. It has a LOT to do with our drive to make the car habitat wonderful, which unintentionally and unknowingly fouls the human habitat.

Humans don’t hate compact living arrangements. Indeed, we LOVE such design when we travel to ancient European cities. Humans in space-hogging cars hate compact living arrangements.

When we get behind the wheel of a car, we think like a car. We think paradise is wide open highways and huge free parking lots. What we don’t realize until it is too late is that our cities then become like Houston. Or  Buffalo. Or Detroit. Or Phoenix.

 

 

 

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Human Scale in Urban Design

 

By Dom Nozzi

March 11, 2013

As I often point out, reducing sizes of spaces is one our most essential tasks (at least in the walkable town centers of our city), which means I regularly want to refer to the need to achieve or protect human scale. I guess a reason I like “human-scaled” is that I commonly point out that we have ruined ourselves by designing to make cars happy, rather than meatmarketpeople. “Human-scaled” ties into that. I strive to be clear about what I mean by “human-scale” by talking about what I consider to be appropriate building heights, size of setbacks, and number of travel lanes (or width of street) in various contexts.

In my view, anything more than 5 stories exceeds human-scale (Paris does quite well at 5 stories, and we can get a LOT of density at that height). In my opinion, when we talk about a town center (where I believe human-scale is essential), two or three lanes of street width SHOULD be the limit. I believe places like Hong Kong, Manhattan, and the Champs-Elysees are wonderful DESPITE their over-sized buildings and over-sized streets, not because of such features.

I LOVE the concept of the transect partly because it provides design choice for the entire continuum of lifestyle choices. There are many different preferences for what people seek out in how their environment or neighborhood is designed. However, while I am a strong advocate of providing several different “transect zones” for different lifestyle preferences, I also am a strong advocate of insisting that WITHIN a transect zone, we stick with the theme and avoid transect violations. There should not, in other words, be a design continuum WITHIN a transect zone. My personal preference is to live in and celebrate the compact, walkable transect zone, so I tend to talk about that design almost exclusively. And I insist on certain design elements within that zone. I oppose things I view as violations of such a transect.

One of my best friends in Boulder regularly tells me not to ever mention to any of my friends or family (or on my Facebook posts) any good things about Boulder Colorado because she is very worried that too many people will want to move to Boulder. I usually respond by telling her that Boulder can benefit from having a lot more people move here. One important thing Boulder needs, I tell her, is to increase the low, suburban densities we have in places that need to be more compact and walkable.

Despite my frequent comments along those lines, she continues to believe (like most in Boulder) that the most important way to keep or improve quality of life in Boulder is to STOP LOCAL POPULATION GROWTH.

By contrast, one of my most important agenda items for the city is to REMOVE EXCESSIVE OPEN SPACE (mostly for cars) so that the city has more intimate, human-scaled spacing. Examples of excessive open space: big streetside parking lots, big roadway dimensions, big building setbacks, and big private yards.

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Educated Environmentalists and Missing the Forest for the Trees

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 22, 2000

It is common for those opposed to new development (the extreme form of this being the “not in my back yard” NIMBY) to cloak their opposition to a new development under the moral-high-ground mantle of environmentalism.

Nearly always, it is suburbanites who do this.

But it is far too often the case that intelligent environmentalists — who perhaps should know better — get caught up in the NIMBY hysteria. It has only been recently that the national Sierra Club has stopped their widespread NIMBY efforts and focused more attention on the real culprit — sprawl.

When I worked as a town planner in Gainesville, Florida, there were many neighborhood development proposals (including a bike path, of all things!) that were battered by NIMBYs. In each case, these in-town projects were hammered by intelligent environmentalists — environmentalists who were comparatively silent in the face of the incremental, relentless, profound, larger-scale ecological destruction that happens in outlying areas (and, ironically, at an accelerated pace due to the actions of in-town NIMBYism).

By the way, I did not hold up most of those proposed developments in Gainesville as models of good design. I just think they are, in the grander scheme of things, in much more ecologically preferred LOCATIONS — I prefer the loss of a few trees in urban, disturbed woodlands, and the loss of a few raccoons and squirrels, to the loss of hundreds of acres of nearly pristine woodlands, and high-quality habitat that is home to, say, eagles, fox squirrels, and gopher tortoise. I honestly don’t believe there is a third choice: Loss of neither. I believe that south Florida and southern California are testaments to the belief that there WAS a third choice.

I continue to remain highly annoyed (but not surprised) that for many intelligent environmentalists, minimizing residential densities is the be-all-and-end-all of environmental conservation when it comes to urban development. There is little that I can think of that is a more ruinous strategy for our future than to persist in the strategy of thinking that low densities will save us. Environmentalists MUST get on board with the idea that we need more compact development in proper locations. If this does not happen, we will have no chance of averting a south Florida future…

My experience, in other words, is that it is NOT just suburbanites cloaked as environmentalists. Many educated environmentalists must share the shame.

The key to a future rich in sustainability, quality of life, transportation choice, and civic pride is modest size. Modestly sized street dimensions. Modest distances between land uses french-quarter-inn-charleston-city-view1(and, implicitly, modest community and neighborhood size). Modest building setbacks. By stark contrast, sprawl is most accurately defined by LARGE size. Big setbacks, huge street dimensions. Monstrous setbacks.

In other words, the latter is scaled for cars, not people.

 

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Filed under Environment, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

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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Suboptimizing on Trees

By Dom Nozzi

June 14, 2002

“Suboptimizing” occurs when one objective is so single-mindedly and aggressively pursued that other important objectives are neglected.

I observed a stark example of this when I was a town planner for Gainesville, Florida. Gainesville strongly suboptimized trees, to the substantial detriment of walkable urbanism.

For example, few years ago, I was forced by my supervisors to insert in several confusing, silly sentences into a “traditional neighborhood development” (TND) ordinance I had written to promote compact, walkable, human-scaled neighborhood development.

The inserted language needed to describe “engineered soil.”

Not only was the definition inherently confusing and complex. I was told by a number of local landscape architects that (a) they have never heard of such soil and/or (b) that such soil would be quite expensive to install. So the TND ordinance I had drafted — which was already too onerous for a rational developer to use to build a subdivision — became even more difficult to use by developers because Gainesville’s elected officials wanted big trees.

This is yet another reason why it is rare for developers to build walkable places. In this case, this unfortunate state of affairs persists because big trees are quite often incompatible with a modest, walkable, human-scaled building-street-sidewalk design.

All of the above is not to say that street trees are expendable. No, street trees are essential for a great street, but are not sufficient. And it is important that when street trees are selected that they not be too large to undercut the essential, human-scaled needs of the pedestrian.

In another example, I had been directed to amend my “Traditional City” ordinance (also designed to promote compact, walkable, human-scaled design) to make street trees required in the Gainesville town center (landscaping was currently not required in the town center). The rules would require that the City require town center developers to jam street trees into all developments and redevelopments. This would add additional complexity, burden, and confusion to the ordinance, and add another disincentive to build or infill in the town center.

A third example was when I heard there was a very good chance that for a proposed new county courthouse parking garage, the town center would not be getting desperately needed on-street parking (one of the most crucial amenities needed for a quality pedestrian experience) along the courthouse street frontages.

Why?

Well it was not, at least, for the goofy reason that stopped the designer from installing on-street parking in front of the new courthouse itself. In that case, the reason was that there is a childish fear of truck-bombers.

No, on-street parking next to the new garage was not going to be stopped because of a fear of a terrorist boogie monster like Timothy McVeigh.

On-street parking was not going to be possible because Gainesville was requesting big trees. The city could have both on-street parking and trees, but trees such as palm trees were unacceptable…

The end result was predictable and nearly certain: Gainesville would soon amend its walkablility codes (in particular, walkability regulations for TND, Traditional City, University Heights, and College Park) for the all-important suboptimizer of big trees. Doing that would push buildings back from the street, discourage desperately needed in-town, infill, walkable development, and substantially increase the cost of infill development. Thereby creating less-walkable streets.

By suboptimizing on big trees, Gainesville misses an essential design principle: In the town center, the needs of pedestrians come first. Not the needs of live oak trees. By neglecting this principle, Gainesville shows either a lack of awareness of the important needs of a town center. Or has no real interest in creating a healthy town center.

The lush, big-tree landscaping looks wonderful from your windshield as you whiz by in your car in Atlanta and Gainesville. But where are the pedestrians? Why are they not img_0263out walking? Isn’t it enough that we provided a lot of shading live oaks?

Has there been a time over the past 30-40 years when Gainesville has not suboptimized on big trees as the number one priority? Has that done anything to stop Gainesville from taking big steps toward becoming a sprawling, car-happy place? Has that done anything to promote walking on Gainesville’s sidewalks?

Lessons from Other Parts of the World

Which cities and streets are the most popular tourist destinations in the world? Are they the cities with streets that look like a forest due to being lined with oaks? Nope. They are the cities with narrow, treeless streets. Why? If it were true that street trees were the most essential element to a street that the world loves to flock to, we’d find everyone flocking to the streets with the most incredible canopy.

But it is very rare for one of the most popular, famous, loved streets in the world are famed because of their tree canopy.

Again, while street trees are nearly always essential for a quality street, they are not sufficient and are not the top priority for designing a street that the world loves. The top priorities for creating a great street are these:

  1. Higher residential density along the street.
  2. A mix of residences, offices, and shops along the street.
  3. Modest dimensions for street widths and building setbacks.

The “3 Ds” — density, diversity, dimensions — when in place together, are usually sufficient. They are the first things we must require of a street when looking for the ingredients to create a great street. Only then do we worry about installing those important street trees.

A number of great Italian cities demonstrate this — Florence, Venice, Siena, Rome. The 3 Ds are therefore the first things we must require of a street. Only then do we think about installing trees, and maybe more ample sidewalks.

The problem all over America: We always put in way too much space on our streets, we prohibit density, and we separate homes from offices and shops. We then wonder why streetscape tactics such as street furniture, street trees and wide sidewalks don’t “fix” such a street. Unless we install the 3 Ds up front, street trees and wide sidewalks are a trivial band-aid for a terminally ill patient.

The issue is not whether we could fit shade trees within our most narrow streets. That is a given. In a city where it is all about trees, it is a given that we will find a way to retrofit trees on such streets. No, the real issue is what our land development codes require for new development. That is the battle I’m interested in here. It is very difficult for me to live in a city (Gainesville) in which so much auto-oriented slum has been built so consistently for so many decades.

This was somewhat mitigated for me as a town planner for Gainesville, as I was able to find I had a marginal amount of influence in not seeing car-happy design dominate all development in Gainesville. What drove me to persist was that I did everything I could to see that the new stuff that was built without making the same suburban mistakes — at least in zones I mentioned above (such as Traditional City and TND).

And that is the rub. Gainesville was consistently watering down and suburbanizing their codes. Staff, commissioners, and citizens see to it that any time modest, walkable, human-scaled dimensional standards are proposed that we immediately emasculate the regulations by enlarging the dimensions for our fire trucks and live oaks. In other words, the new stuff will continue to march us towards being an Atlanta instead of a Florence.

An enormous problem all over America: We always put in way too much space, we prohibit density, and we separate uses. We then wonder why street trees and wide sidewalks don’t “fix” such a street. Unless we do density/mixed use/modest dimensions up front, street trees and wide sidewalks are a trivial band-aid for a terminally ill patient.

 

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