Tag Archives: land development regulations

Questions and Answers About My Planning Career and Lessons Learned

By Dom Nozzi

September 26, 2013

In September of 2013, a college student asked me about my city planning career and the lessons I learned in my work.

  1. What were your primary responsibilities in City of Gainesville, FL?

DN: As a long-range senior comprehensive planner, I prepared staff recommendations for proposed zoning, special exception, special use permit, and land use changes. I authored several environmental, transportation, and urban design land development regulations for Gainesville. I also authored the long-range transportation, land use, urban design, environmental conservation, recreation, and solid waste plans for Gainesville. My specialties and passions were promoting quality of life by properly designing for walkable streets, form-based codes, transportation choice, and employing “plain English” when writing land development codes.

  1. Could you share some of the highlights of your career?

DN: In 1989, I heard a speech by Andres Duany, and read essays by Walter Kulash, Jeff Kenworthy, Anthony Downs, and Peter Newman. The remarks by these individuals were an epiphany for me. I realized that the key way to design a community for quality of life was to return to the timeless tradition of making people happy, not cars. Particularly in town centers, I realized that the pedestrian was the design imperative. And that tactics which promoted or convenienced car travel were counterproductively degrading quality of life. The professional achievements I am most proud of were being the lead planner for creating a bicycle and pedestrian greenway path system in Gainesville, and being the lead planner for creating creek setback regulations. I am also proud of writing the long-range transportation, land use, and urban design plans for Gainesville, and authoring the “Traditional City” form-based code for Gainesville’s town center. Most importantly, the Traditional City code eliminated parking minimums for cars, and inverted those minimums so that they became parking maximums. I prepared land development regulations for large-format retailers, customized form-based codes for the University Heights and College Park neighborhoods, substantially revised and updated Gainesville’s noise ordinance, substantially revised the definitions used in Gainesville’s Land Development Code, created an urban design toolbox, prepared a sustainability indicators report for Gainesville, and incorporated a great deal of “Plain English” and drawings in Gainesville’s Land Development Codes to make them more understandable. Late in my career, I published a book called Road to Ruin about suburban sprawl, transportation, and quality of life, and gave speeches throughout the nation describing ideas from that book. More recently, I published The Car is the Enemy of the City, which touched on many of the same topics. After I retired, I became a nationally certified Complete Streets instructor, and served as a co-instructor to help communities throughout the nation design more complete streets.

  1. What is the most significant planning issue you have met during your career? What is the solution?

DN: Establishing tactics that promote quality of life, realizing that the most effective way to do that was to reduce the promotion and conveniencing of car travel as well as promoting quality pedestrian design, and recommending such tactics in a society where nearly all citizens are fierce proponents of car travel. One solution was to adopt the new urbanist tactic of creating a “transect” which calibrates land development regulations for a walkable town center, a drivable suburbia, and a rural lifestyle. In other words, creating transportation and lifestyle choices.

  1. Which school of ideas had the most influence on you as a planner?

DN: New Urbanism

  1. Do you have any advice for someone entering the field?

DN: Academic emphasis should be on design: architecture or urban design. The ideological focus of the school and its professors should be the new urbanism. The future will be to design for happy people, not happy cars. Tragically, most all planning schools (and nearly all communities) put too much emphasis on promoting happy cars. Become a highly skilled writer, a highly skilled public speaker, and a person highly skilled in drawing. Strive to emphasize speaking and writing in “Plain English” and conveying information that is both inspirational and understandable to a non-professional audience. Become passionate in recommending tactics that promote quality of life for people rather than cars. Such passion will be more rewarding and sustainable than a high salary.

  1. When you first entered the field, how did you apply what you had learnt in the college to practice?

DN: Primarily, when I first entered the profession of planning, I used planning terminology I had learned in college, and applied a number of planning concepts such as zoning to my work as a planner. I regret that my college studies were overly focused on policy rather than design.

  1. From your view, what’s the biggest barrier to create walkable streets?

DN: Allocating too much road space, too much parking space, and too many subsidies to car travel. The most effective way to induce more walking (as well as bicycling and transit use) is NOT to provide sidewalks, bike lanes or new transit facilities. It is to take away road space, parking space, and car subsidies, as well as shortening distances to destinations via compact, mixed use development. By doing those things, an environment conducive to walkability will inevitably evolve. Street widths and distances between buildings will be more human-scaled rather than car-scaled, travel distances to destinations will be considerably shorter, car speeds will be much more modest and attentive, residential and commercial densities will be higher and interspersed, and it will be less financially and physically rational to drive a car.

  1. Sustainable transportation has become a hot issue, how can new urbanism play a role in sustainable transportation?

DN: Americans devote an excessive amount of space to motor vehicle travel, which is enormously unsustainable, and greatly reduces the transportation choices needed for a more sustainable future. Because a motor vehicle consumes so much space (on average, a person in a car consumes as much space as 17 people sitting in chairs), cities in America are dying from a disease I call “Gigantism.” New urbanism, by making the timeless traditional focus on pedestrians the design imperative, is effectively restoring the pattern of building neighborhoods that are human-scaled rather than car-scaled. Because this creates a charming, lovable ambience, new IMG_3045urbanist design is highly profitable, which makes such design sustainably self-perpetuating (developers are self-motivated by the profitability of new urbanism to design in such a human-centered way, rather than being unsustainably forced to use such design due to government regulation). New urbanism has introduced the tactically brilliant idea of the urban to rural transect, which calibrates design and regulation differently in each transect zone so that all lifestyle and travel choices are provided for in each zone (forcing everyone to live in a compact, walkable town center setting is, today, politically unsustainable). But in the walkable, town center portion of the new urbanist transect, the compact design is inherently rich in transportation choices. A person is able to easily and safely walk, bicycle, use transit, or drive a car. Transportation choice is the most politically successful way to create sustainable transportation. Over time, as the cost of car travel becomes unsustainably expensive, the compact, walkable, design created by new urbanists – a design, again, rich in transportation choices – will become increasingly desirable to a larger percentage of Americans, which will mean that a larger percentage of Americans will be living in a setting that makes more sustainable transportation more feasible and less costly.

  1. What’s the best way for citizens to be involved in the planning process?

DN: Citizens should insist that new planning and development projects in the community use the “charrette” process, where skilled presenters, drawers, and designers begin by making a brief, educational, inspiring presentation about town design and transportation principles to an audience of citizens. When done well, charrettes abundantly employ many drawings of ideas by the charrette professionals as well as ideas from citizens. As a result of such a presentation, citizens become skilled and empowered to make town and transportation design decisions for the new plan or proposed development (or road) project. When citizens are making such decisions in a charrette format, there is much more community buy-in as to the design of the plan or project, and elected officials are thereby more likely to approve of such designs. The end result is commonly a design that makes sense to professionals, even though much of the design has been recommended by citizens and elected officials (ordinarily, design recommendations by non-professional citizens and elected officials is misinformed and prone to not-in-my-backyard opposition to even the best, most sustainable and well-designed plans and projects).

  1. Brief introduction of your latest book “The Car is the Enemy of the City”. Do you think people can maintain the same life quality without a car?

DN: Car travel and over-designing cities to accommodate such travel is deadly to cities. Healthy town centers need low speeds, human scale, and proximity. Yet a town center over-designed for free-flowing car travel is a city designed for high speeds, gigantic sizes, and sprawling dispersal of jobs, housing, shopping and culture. This book describes why cars and their “habitat” are toxic to town centers, and the features that create a walkable, lovable quality of life that a well-designed town center should provide. The book therefore illustrates how we can return to the timeless tradition of designing town centers to make people happy, not cars.

I am convinced that a person can maintain not only the same quality of life without a car, but a HIGHER quality of life. Owning a car in America today costs, on average, over $8,000 per year. Instead of spending that money on cars, a person can afford to buy or rent significantly better housing, and can have more money for education, better food, recreation, and so on. Indeed, in my own personal life, despite the fact that I did not earn a large amount of money in my job, I was able to retire at the relatively young age of 47 due to how much lower my expenses were without a car.

By not owning a car, a person tends to be more physically healthy, as more travel by walking, bicycling, or transit means that a person is exercising more and suffering less from growing health problems such as obesity and diabetes.

By reducing travel by car (because a person does not own a car), a person tends to be more sociable with neighbors and other citizens in the community. The car, after all, is an extremely isolating way to travel, because when one is commonly alone inside a car, interaction or serendipity with others is much less likely. Such interaction is also much more likely to be hostile towards others (via such things as “road rage”) rather than being friendly towards others.

When a person travels by walking, bicycling or transit, enjoyment of the trip route is much more likely. Sounds, smells, and enjoyment of other details of life and buildings are much more possible than when inside a car.

Finally, by not owning a car, a person is more motivated to see that her or his community is designed to be more friendly to people rather than cars. And there is no better way to enhance quality of life and sustainability than to do that.

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A Pedestrian Call to Arms: A Manifesto

By Dom Nozzi

Each year, America experiences an outrageous carnage due to car crashes. In 2011, 4,432 pedestrians were killed and 69,000 were injured in traffic crashes.

Such bloodshed is incompatible with a civilized society. Are we too barbaric to do what is necessary to end this slaughter? Will we continue to blame the victim?

For several decades, there have been organized advocacy groups for bicycling. For transit. For environmental conservation. For local businesses.

But there is no group lobbying for the needs of pedestrians.

This is very bad news for the health of cities, because particularly in a town center, the pedestrian is the design imperative.

Below is a manifesto I have written that I hope is a step toward rectifying this ruinous disregard for the pedestrian.

 A Pedestrian Manifesto

Our community strives to protect and promote a walkable lifestyle as its design imperative. We believe that future development in areas of our community intended to be walkable should make walkability the primary emphasis of design. It is the lynchpin for the quality of life in the walkable areas of our community, for a quality transit system, for safety, for travel choice, for affordability, for human scale, for civic pride, for sustainability, for public health, for environmental conservation, and for the protection and enhancement of property values.admin-ajax (9)

Given these overwhelmingly beneficial outcomes for a walkable community, we have adopted the following manifesto which, to the extent possible, should be followed in all actions taken by the public and private sector for projects in the areas that out community intends to preserve and promote as walkable.

Most imperatively, improving walkability (and civic pride, comfort, convenience and sociability) means scaling down spaces in places we intend to be walkable. This “human-scaled” need acknowledges that in American cities, our walkability problem is that we have TOO MUCH space. Too much distance. Not that we have too much in the way of parks or squares or plazas or other “open spaces,” but that we have buildings that are set back too far from sidewalks. Too many “sea of asphalt” parking lots. Roads that contain too many travel and turn lanes. Too much distance between the home both neighbors and the corner store.

Our first and most important task for creating the walkability that people the world over love in places like Rome, Siena, Paris, and Venice, is to create human-scaled city spaces – particularly in our town centers. A large number of roads need to be put on a “road diet” by removing travel lanes and calming down (slowing) the speed of cars so that streets are welcoming, safe and sociable. Buildings need to be pulled up to the streetside sidewalk. Parking lots need to be shrunk in size—preferably by replacing some of them with active buildings, and moving more of them to on-street parking spaces. Streets need to be gracefully enveloped by street trees. Houses need to be mixed with shops and offices.

Most of these design practices were followed for most of human history (in America, up until approximately World War II). It is time to start returning to that tradition.

Neighborhood Streets

In general, the following principles shall be used:

A. Streets should be two-way. Existing one-way streets should be restored to two-way operation.

B. Streets should be modest in width. Turning radii should be modest in size.

C. On-street parking should be encouraged to the extent possible over off-street parking.

D. Design speeds should be relatively modest.

E. Emergency service and public service vehicle needs should be secondary to the quality of life and life safety needs.admin-ajax (10)

F. Particularly in areas affected by spillover parking, parking should be priced (metered) or allowed only by permit. Pricing should be calibrated for 85% occupancy, and the revenue returned to neighborhoods for neighborhood improvements.

Larger Regional and Main Streets

In general, the following principles shall be used:

A. Streets should be a maximum of 3 lanes in size, and those which are larger should be reduced to 3 lanes.

B. To promote permeability and walkability, mid-block crossings should be designed at regular intervals in locations near walkable neighborhoods and in town centers.

C. Traffic signals are preferably post-mounted and should be relatively modest in height.

D. Design speeds should be relatively modest.

E. Turning radii for these streets should be relatively modest.

F. On-street parking is the preferred form of parking, and parking meters used to achieve an 85% occupancy rate. Revenues from these meters should be used for the neighborhood where the meters are placed.admin-ajax (11)

G. To the extent possible, these streets should contain raised, low-maintenance medians.

Street Lights

In general, the following principles shall be used:

A. Street lights should be relatively modest in height and historic in character.

B. Street lights should be full cut-off.

C. Street lights should maximize full color spectrum, such as Halogen.

D. Because they are the most invisible color in the landscape, street light structures (and other public equipment) should typically be black in color.admin-ajax (12)

Sidewalks

In general, the following principles shall be used:

A. As soon possible, the community should fill remaining sidewalk gaps in neighborhoods.

B. Sidewalk gap filling should be a significantly higher priority than sidewalk repair.

C. In town centers, the trajectory of sidewalks should be rectilinear rather than curvilinear.

Building Disposition in Town Centers

In general, the following principles shall be used:admin-ajax (13)

A. Buildings should butt up to the sidewalk, face the sidewalk with a main entrance, contain sufficient windows along the sidewalk, and have a first floor that is at least 10 feet in height.

B. Buildings should be parallel to the street, rather than rotated.admin-ajax (14)

C. Buildings should be encouraged to be at least two stories in height and mixed in use (retail, office and residential).

D. High levels of building ornamentation should be encouraged.

E. Auto parking should never be in front of a building.

 Homeless Population

In general, because the homeless/panhandling population is an important impediment to walking, the following practices should be employed:

A. Minimize or reduce the number of free meals provided in town centers.

B. Enforce the “no sleeping in public parks” law.

C. Use park facilities that discourage sleeping.

D. Consider adopting a “no smoking” law for parks and other public spaces.

Street Trees

In general, the following principles shall be used:

A. The community should install and maintain a dense, formally aligned, large, canopy trees along streets.

B. Trees of the same species or at least the same size and shape should be used along individual streets. Tree diversity should only be established, if necessary, from street to street.

C. Tree pruning along power lines should be consistent with practices described in “Trees in Urban admin-ajax (15)Design,” by Henry Arnold (1985).

Parking

In general, the following principles shall be used:

A. To the extent possible, and as soon as possible, existing surface parking lots in and near town center neighborhoods should be converted to buildings.

B. Multi-family housing developments in and near walkable neighborhoods should “unbundle” the price of parking from the cost of the housing so that those who choose not to own a car are not forced to pay for expensive, unneeded, ugly, unwalkable parking.

C. Parking requirements should be relaxed in and near walkable neighborhoods. “Minimum” parking regulations for new development should be converted to “maximum” parking requirements, for example.

Summary

By adhering to these design guidelines, our community will be dramatically safer, more pleasant, more instilled with civic pride, more physically fit, more sustainable, more equitable, more affordable and more prosperous. These guidelines are essential if we ever hope to be able to dramatically reduce the utterly barbaric, unacceptable number of pedestrian injuries and deaths we experience each year.

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Filed under Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

The Boondoggle List

By Dom Nozzi

Boondoggles are actions that are unnecessary, and wasteful of time and money. I use the term more broadly to refer to things that are counterproductive, tragic, and bankrupting. They are, in this view, substantially detrimental to sustainability and quality of life.

I was thinking about how both the American wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq War are horrific examples boondoggles. Actions that show we are our own worst enemy. They are exercises that significantly worsen our national objectives — largely by throwing away enormous sums of public dollars, killing or injuring a huge number of people, destroying villages and nations, and breeding or otherwise recruiting a huge number of new “terrorists” who will grow up with a lifelong vow to punish the US for what we have done.

These boondoggles are elephants in the bedroom. But are there only two?

It then occurred to me that there is a nearly endless (and growing) list of boondoggles. So I’ve prepared a list of a whole herd of elephants in the bedroom.

If someone intent on torpedoing America was to devise a set of tactics to destroy the US, it is hard to imagine that foe selecting tactics that would more effectively ruin us than this list of boondoggles we are imposing on ourselves.

They are a recipe for the collapse of the American Empire.

1. The Afghanistan War & the near consensus that militarism is desirable (otherwise known as The War on Terror).

2. The Iraqi War (otherwise also known as The War on Terror).

3. The Drug War.

4. Focusing health care on catastrophic instead of preventive medicine, and the extreme over-reliance on insurance to pay for health costs that are not extremely catastrophic or otherwise unaffordably expensive.

5. The Legal System and the Penal System, which mostly fail to arrive at justice due to the nearly single-minded focus on making a lot of money instead of finding justice.

6. An electoral system distorted by campaign contributions.

7. The death penalty, which, among other things, is financially ruinous because it costs far more to execute someone than to keep the person in prison for life.

8. Unconditional support for the Israeli government.

9. Forgiving road design.

10. Local land development regulations that almost exclusively promote sprawl and car dependency.

11. Excessive local funding for police and firefighting.

12. Property tax exemption for churches.

13. Massive government agricultural subsidies – particularly for corn.

14. Agribusiness, processed food and the overuse of corn syrup in our food.

15. The flood of guns freely available to nearly anyone in the US.

16. The massive motorist subsidy of “free” parking.

17. The massive motorist subsidy of continually widened & “free” roads.

18. An income tax system that is excessively complex, & punishes job creation & investment.

19. A property tax system that punishes infill development.admin-ajax (16)

20. Gas taxes that are too low & only dedicated to roads, not transit, walking or bicycling.

21. The massive federal subsidies for airports (and the absence of such subsidies for rail).

Can you think of any others to add to the list?

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Protecting Local Government Land Development Regulations from being “Watered Down”

By Dom Nozzi

An important point is often made that for effective, durable implementation, land development codes (the rules that local developers need to abide by) need to be “bullet-proofed” to survive subversion (being “watered down”) from staff, elected officials, or citizen review boards.

While I agree with the need for bullet-proofing (and always strive to achieve it in the codes I write), my experience over the years has been that even the best land development regulations we adopted in the city I worked for in Florida were frequently unable to survive significant suburbanizing pressure from staff, officials and board members (which ends up giving projects and urbanism a black eye).

By “suburbanizing,” I am referring to the century-long American tradition of revising land development regulations to make it easier, more convenient, and less costly to drive a car. Densities, Floor Area Ratios, and building heights are reduced. parking_seaRequirements for the amount of car parking are increased. Setbacks are enlarged. Streets are widened. Intersection turning radii are increased. Sidewalk requirements are weakened. Mixing housing with offices or retail is minimized. Car parking is allowed in front of buildings.

Besides the graphics-supported, relatively objective urban codes I prepared, my city had urban land development regulation “overlays” prepared over the past 10-15 years by Dover-Kohl and DPZ (“overlays” are regulations that are applied to unique locations which “overlay” the underlying development regulations that apply elsewhere in the city). In my opinion, many of those overlay codes were better than average.

But because most all of the planners and engineers working for the Florida city I was employed at (as well as elected officials and board members) were rather “suburban” in their preferences, the City often ended up with development site plans that were degraded by appalling, transect-violating suburban design strategies in walkable, town center overlay areas (places where compact, walkable design is appropriate and dispersed, drivable design is inappropriate).

These modifications to the design requirements were clearly are in conflict with the compact, walkable standards within the overlay. For example, excessive car parking and excessive building setbacks were regularly imposed on the proposed development, which were shockingly in conflict with the walkable intent of the overlay regulations.

Note that sometimes, it is not so much a clear (objective) violation of a development standard so much as a “creative (subjective) interpretation” of the standard.

It is true that a potentially useful tool is to write a code that does not allow variances or exceptions for the crucial walkability standards. But there end up being so many conditions that allow relief by variance (such as oak trees, which I found I was the only one in my community willing to sometimes sacrifice for better walkability), that it was very difficult to protect walkability standards from variance in the code. The suburbanite insurgents nearly always found many ways, in other words, to suburbanize a proposed development as a way to ease car travel. Even in a location proposed for walkability.

The question, therefore, is this: Is it even possible to “bullet- proof” walkability codes from suburban pressure? Or is it perhaps necessary that a community establish TWO SETS of staff reviewers and citizen boards? One set would be villagewalkability staff reviewers and a walkability citizen board which would only review site plans in town center locations, and another set which would be suburban, drivable staff reviewers and a suburban citizen board which would only review site plans in the suburban transect zones.

Note that I find it enormously undesirable to create two sets of these groups, due to costly administrative and bureaucratic nightmares a dual system would amplify. However, I don’t know if there is another option if we seek to effectively protect compact, walkable development regulations from being watered down in the name of easier car travel (and, therefore, worse conditions for walking).

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking