Tag Archives: human scale

NIMBYs and the Environmentalists Fighting the Wrong Battle

By Dom Nozzi

November 26, 2000

While I agree that it is nearly always suburbanites who are cloaking their NIMBY arguments under the moral-high-ground mantle of environmentalism, it is far too often the case that strong, intelligent environmentalists (who perhaps should know better) often get caught up in the NIMBY hysteria. It has only been recently that the national Sierra Club has started to stop (at least in some of their public statements) their widespread NIMBY efforts and focused more attention on the real culprit — sprawl.

In the Florida town where I worked as a town planner, a number of 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 (sprawl) areas.

In the grander scheme of things, the natural environment is much better off if a few urban trees are lost, a disturbed urban woodland is replaced by housing, or the habitat for a few raccoons and squirrels is removed rather than the common alternative: 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 NIMBY-protest-Toronto-Boston-SanFrancisco-neighbourhood-airport-housing-preservation-Condo.ca_-512x341environmental conservation when it comes to urban development. I shall not name names, but there are local environmentalists who were guilty of this just this past week. There is little that I can think of that is a more ruinous strategy for our future in this county 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 higher, livable densities (or to give it a less controversial name, “compact development”) in proper locations. If this does not happen, we will have no chance of averting a car-happy south Florida future…

My experience, in other words, is that it is not just suburbanites cloaked as environmentalists.

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 (and, implicitly, modest community and neighborhood size). Modest building setbacks. By stark contrast, sprawl is most accurately defined by large size. Big setbacks, large distances to destinations, tall lights, massive parking lots, and huge street dimensions. In other words, sprawl is characterized by being scaled for cars, not people.

Far too many environmentalists fight, ironically, for excessive sizes in their advocacy regarding local development.


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The Emperor is Wearing No Clothes: Exposing Town Planning for the Ruinous Travesty It Has Become

By Dom Nozzi

October 31, 2017

Back in 1985, I somehow managed to obtain a master’s degree in town planning. But it was not until about eight years into my professional planning career that I was to realize that for several decades, my chosen profession had become a sham.

This epiphany happened to me about 25 years ago when a friend of mine in Gainesville FL gave me a videotape of what I believe is one of the most important, influential, revolutionary speeches ever given on the topic of town planning. It was a speech delivered in 1989 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by a young Florida architect by the name of Andres Duany.

Duany’s speech gave town planning a well-deserved, much-needed kick in the pants.

I was shocked to learn from Duany that a century ago, town planners and developers were heroes. For several decades, of course, the opposite has become the case. Planners have become powerless incompetents and developers are more evil than Satan.

What caused this 180-degree shift in perspective?

What we learn in the Duany speech is that the reputation of town planners and developers was destroyed because the timeless tradition that communities followed for time immemorial was abandoned. That is, about a century ago, communities decided that instead of designing our community and our transportation system to make people happy, we would instead design to make cars happy.Road to Ruin book 2003

This powerful take on what has happened to our world explains so much.

It explains why town planners have become little more than mindless, robotic bureaucrats who have but one overriding mission: Become paper pushing clerks who issue or deny development permits based on whether the proposal will promote easy car travel or inhibit car travel.

It explains why developers are now villains. In nearly all cases, developers up to a century ago built things that improved quality of community life because the design objective was to promote human happiness. But the model for developers changed about a century ago. Now, the objective was to promote car happiness.

There are two primary reasons why this changed mission by town planners and developers is ruinous.

First, those community attributes that most people find appealing – compactness, human-scale, slower speeds, sociability, civic pride, timelessness, a subdued ambiance, and safety – are nearly the exact opposite of what is needed to make for easy car travel. Happy motoring requires dispersion, gigantic car scaling, dangerously higher speeds, glaring lights, and isolation – and each of these things undercuts civic pride, timelessness and safety.

The second reason this change is ruinous is that it is a self-perpetuating downward spiral. Car travel is a zero-sum game, because nearly everything we do to promote car travel makes walking, bicycling and transit more difficult. Car ownership also creates a strong vested interest on the part of the car owner to see to it that car travel is cheap and easy. By making walking, bicycling, and transit more difficult, car ownership continuously recruits new car owners. This century-long recruitment now means that even in the most bicycle-friendly US cities (including Boulder CO), there are more cars than people.

The result is that nearly all of us make nearly all of our trips by car. We angrily demand that our elected officials ease our car travel – after all, our cars make it so difficult to get around by walking, bicycling, or transit! We have therefore become our own worst enemies because as I note above, promoting car travel is an exceptionally powerful means of destroying quality of life.

Because cars require an enormous amount of space, motorists feel crowded even with just a tiny number of fellow citizens also in cars. As Dan Burden once said, “cars are happiest when there are no other cars around. People are happiest when there are other people around.” Given this, a large percentage of Americans are NIMBYs on steroids who engage in ongoing pitched battles with developers and elected officials and town planners to demand ultra low development densities (including short buildings), huge parking lots, and massively wide roads.

Developers, citizens, town planners, and elected officials therefore tend to have one overriding mission: promote easy car travel! We must have wide roads. More (and free) parking. More car subsidies and more glaring lights. We must stop compact development.

It is a mission of community ruin.

The key for a better future, then, is to return to the timeless tradition of designing for people, not cars.


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A Squandered Opportunity at Boulder Junction

By Dom Nozzi

November 15, 2017

I am very disappointed that Boulder is squandering a golden opportunity to create a high-quality town center that promotes significant levels of cycling, walking, and transit at Boulder Junction. The location was a blank slate that gave us the opportunity to create a vibrant, thriving, highly desirable lifestyle option that is nearly non-existent in Boulder, despite the very high and growing demand for a walkable lifestyle.Amsterdam, May 8, 2017 compared to Bldr Junction

At my November 13, 2017 Transportation Advisory Board meeting, we were presented with a dizzying amount of data regarding observed transportation at Boulder Junction. But it was data without a clear description of our objectives (or tactics to reach the objectives). It therefore amounted to little more than context-less bean counting.

As I see it, the objectives at Boulder Junction should be to create a walkable, compact, human-scaled town center where residents and employees rarely have a need for car travel. Where walking and bicycling and transit use constitute most trips (ie, such trips are normalized), and where driving a motor vehicle is unusual.

Boulder Junction, in other words, should be more like an Amsterdam or a Copenhagen (see photo comparison above of Boulder Junction and Amsterdam). It should have lovable building architecture (like the Boulderado Hotel in town center Boulder, which local polls show to be the most loved building in Boulder). It should have rowhouses and tiny residences.

Our land development regulations, though, are instead giving us a Phoenix or an Orlando. Buildings are unlovable in design, and spacing for building setbacks and streets are in most cases not human-scaled. We are, in other words, failing to use or obligate dimensions that would create a sense of place.

Future reports about Boulder Junction should answer the following questions:

  • Is it easy, safe, and enjoyable to live at Boulder Junction without a car? And is it (appropriately) difficult and expensive to own and use a car?
  • Is Boulder Junction compact enough to offer a full set of mixed-use destinations to jobs? Medical/doctor services? Culture? Groceries?
  • Would you feel comfortable letting your 5-year old walk or bicycle alone throughout Boulder Junction?
  • How scarce are the available parking spaces at Boulder Junction? Is it easy to find parking (which is toxic to walkability and discourages non-car travel), or is it appropriately difficult?
  • How many residents at Boulder Junction are opting to unbundle parking from their housing? A low rate of unbundled parking is a sign that the design of Boulder Junction – and destinations outside Boulder Junction – is not conducive to reducing car dependence.
  • How many Boulder Junction residents and employees are parking for free at their internal or outside-of-Boulder-Junction destinations?
  • Do Boulder surveys show that Boulder residents envy the lifestyle and amenities offered by Boulder Junction?
  • Are driveway and street turning radii, as well as street and clear zone dimensions, small enough to induce slower and more attentive speeds? Are there any streets in Boulder Junction that can be converted to shared, slow streets?
  • What land development regulations need to be revised to better achieve place-making? What street design standards need revision for slower, more attentive motorized travel?

The worthy objectives of minimizing the ownership and use of cars by Boulder Junction residents will be severely constrained by the fact that Boulder Junction is surrounded by areas of unwalkable suburban design where only car travel is feasible. Which means that a large number of destinations outside of Boulder Junction will need to be reached by car. This is also true for the Steelyards neighborhood.

In addition, I don’t see Boulder Junction achieving a sense of place – even at build-out. Streets are too wide (particularly the Pearl Parkway stroad that bisects Boulder Junction), and setbacks are too large.

Future reports need to avoid a “silo” problem, where transportation and urban design are considered separately from each other. Transportation and urban design staff need to jointly author future reports, because transportation tactics can strongly promote or inhibit important urban design objectives at Boulder Junction. Likewise, urban design tactics can strongly promote or inhibit important transportation objectives. Without combining transportation and urban design expertise, we risk unintentionally undermining objectives.

Let’s strive for Boulder Junction to be a Copenhagen. Not an Orlando.


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Boulder Junction compared to Amsterdam

By Dom Nozzi

June 5, 2017


A comparison of Boulder Junction in Boulder CO (image on left) and a street we stumbled upon during our recent trip to Amsterdam (right).Amsterdam, May 8, 2017 compared to Bldr Junction

Note the walkable, comfortable, human-scaled, romantic character of the Amsterdam street compared to the new street in Boulder. Boulder Junction is a new town center in Boulder intended to be compact and walkable, but the center fails to provide a comfortable, enclosed, walkable human scale.

Open space that is too vast, setbacks that are too large, and streets that are too wide.

If we can generalize the Boulder design experience with that of much of America – and I think we can fairly do so — this comparison clearly shows that Americans have failed to learn how to build walkable places in recent decades. Or find the political will to do so, since much of the unwalkable design was requested by citizens who do not know the ingredients of quality urbanism and quality streets. Citizens tend to request large building setbacks, low densities, oversized roadways, and excessive open spaces.

In part, this is done to seek to retain or restore convenient, comfortable car travel. Failing to create quality urbanism, then, is a signal that Boulder is much more of a car culture than a walking (or transit or bike) culture.

Efforts to promote happy car travel, ironically, worsens car travel as such efforts result in increased per capita car travel, which crowds roads and parking lots. And worsens the quality of life (and safety) for people — particularly people not in cars.


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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


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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.


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.


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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