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Modernist Architecture is a Failed Paradigm Ruining Our World

By Dom Nozzi

April 19, 2017

Nothing is more dated than yesterday’s vision of tomorrow.  – Unknown

 Modern architects recognize 300 masterpieces but ignore the other 30 million [modernist] buildings that have ruined the world. – Andres Duany

 Recently, a Boulder CO online newsletter published an essay I had written describing my vision for the redevelopment of the Boulder Community Hospital site (also known as Alpine-Balsam) that the City of Boulder had purchased and was planning to redevelop. Two Boulder friends of mine, who admirably tend to express support for compact, walkable urban design, noted as well to me their support for modernist architectural design in the redevelopment.

It was very disheartening for me to hear of their support for modernism. I believe that modernism would greatly contribute to undermining the potential success of this redevelopment – success that could serve as a model for future development in Boulder.

I prefer traditional design over modernist design.

Banks

Some Merits of Traditional Design

Traditional architectural design tends to be much more readily loved by most people. This makes a great deal of sense, since by definition, traditional design has stood the test of time. Not surprisingly, there is a fair amount of research suggesting that traditional architecture, such as Georgian and Victorian terraces and mansion blocks, contributes to our wellbeing. Beauty makes people happy.[1] By contrast, modernist architecture tends to be shocking or repellent to most. Visual preference surveys by Tony Nelessen conducted throughout the nation consistently shows this to be the case.

Traditional design tends to be more kind and interesting to pedestrians due to the use of ground floor windows, front-facing entryways, and building ornamentation. By contrast, modernist design has a bad habit of offering sterility and lack of place-making at the ground level.

Throwing Away Timelessness

The Modernist paradigm makes “innovation” the design imperative, which arrogantly assumes that there is no reason a new, untested design cannot reliably achieve admiration and greatness.

Modernists throw away design rules that have stood the test of time in creating buildings that are pleasing and comprehensible to most. Throwing away rules is a recipe for creating incomprehensible, unappealing, unsustainable garbage in the vast majority of cases. It is akin to handing a typewriter to a monkey and expecting the monkey to type out the works of Shakespeare.

Consider this example of a written paragraph, where rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, consistency in font, and other writing conventions are ignored:

red moss teeaere         eeaapoiere   STRAIGHT method.   Tether: highlight. totalitarian doctrines. Fight, Might.  BreaD    Moss tree  Goofballs. Magnet; Tennis   Jodding. Running_____ Break. Slow! Aspirin. Hockey hockey hockey hockey. Shoes and purple.   WHISPER###  ****&&&&&&@@@@@

An “innovative” paragraph, perhaps, but incomprehensible, utterly ugly, and chaotic.

Note that I do not intend to suggest that architects are as uneducated as monkeys. To the contrary, architects tend to be highly intelligent. But by throwing out time-tested design rules, architects voluntarily blind themselves to design intelligence.

To me, it is exceptionally tragic that modernists are doing to our communities what the above paragraph does to writing. To abandon writing rules, and to abandon the timeless rules of neighborhood design, we abandon what should be (and has been throughout history) the beauty and elegance of the written word, and the beauty and elegance displayed by so many of our historic neighborhoods.

Look the Other Way with Greenwashing

It is quite common for a modernist architect to “green” the design of his or her building by covering much of it with vegetation. Modernists do this to soften the otherwise brutal, sterile nature of their “innovative” designs. By doing so, they leverage the human tendency to love nature and vegetation. “Maybe if I hide my unlovable design behind ivy and shrubs, people will like the appearance of my otherwise distasteful structure!”

High-tech conservation and solar energy methods, similarly, are often used by modernists to gain favor and have people look the other way with regard to the unfortunate, unpleasant building design. “Are you not impressed by my triple platinum LEED-certified building that conserves so much energy?” Pay no attention to the fact that the building looks like Soviet-era brutality.

The Conservation Benefits of Traditional Design

Despite the conventional wisdom that contemporary buildings perform far better than older, traditional buildings when it comes to energy conservation and overall environmental sustainability, it turns out that traditional, older buildings tend to be inherently much more “green” environmentally than modernist building design.

Why?

One reason is that traditional design tends to more often deploy passive conservation methods such as overhanging pitched roofs. Such roofs are much more effective than modernist flat roofs in shedding  snow and rain. The traditional pitched roof much more effectively avoids costly moisture leaks from pooled water, or collapse from excessive snow weight. The roof overhang provides shade from a hot sun. Traditional buildings tend to be more appropriately oriented to take advantage of the cooling and heating cycles of the sun throughout the day and in various seasons. Modernist buildings tend to “innovatively” disregard such passive strategies.

Traditional building design also tends to use more durable building materials (such as brick, masonry, and wood), and use locally-sourced materials. This reduces the energy costs of initial cost, maintenance, repair, and replacement. By contrast, modernist buildings tend to use more exotic, difficult to maintain materials such as vast amounts of glass or polished steel.

Because traditional building design is more likely to be loved than modernist design, the building is more sustainable and environmentally friendly simply by the fact that by being lovable, citizens are more likely to want to protect and repair the building, rather than tear it down. The prolific tearing down of modernist buildings we have already seen in great numbers (due in part to their unlovable nature) is extremely costly in terms of energy conservation and environmental conservation. This frequent demolition of modernist buildings is certain to continue in the future.

Modernist Non Sequiturs

To win political and societal support for modernist design, modernist architects frequently use non sequiturs. Modernist buildings are praised for being “progressive” or “optimistic about the future.” Such buildings are called “democratic” or “egalitarian.” By Officescontrast, traditional buildings are disparaged as being “authoritarian” or “regressive” or “pessimistic.” Traditional buildings are often ridiculed as being “nostalgic” (implying an effort to create a fake historical appearance), or “not forward looking.”

Nonsense.

It is entirely inappropriate to associate political or ethical values with building style or design.

Giving Compact Development a Black Eye

Boulder residents have a long, unfortunate history of counterproductively opposing higher-density development with the justification that such development harms Boulder’s small town character, is environmentally destructive, or creates traffic and parking congestion.

Ironically, it is low-density development that is more responsible for such problems.

The essential need to shift Boulder’s politics toward support for more compact development shows why it is extremely important that compact, walkable, higher-density buildings be lovable in design. Using more lovable traditional design is a powerful way to gain more acceptance of compact design in Boulder. A great many people in Boulder dislike compact development because it is associated with “boxy” or “monolithic” or “sterile” buildings. The last thing Boulder needs is for ugly buildings to give compact development a black eye. Modernist buildings are also infamous for not fitting in with the context of their location (an inherent problem when “innovation” is the key design objective). Each of these traits are typical of a modernist building, whereas a traditional building is more likely to feel friendly or compatible in or near existing neighborhoods.

Traditionally designed neighborhoods tend to be unified in style and follow a design pattern. By being more compatible and lovable, traditional buildings are much better able to gain neighborhood and community acceptance when the project is more dense or compact. By contrast, modernist design theory, again, tends to celebrate “eclectic” and “innovative” design. Such design ignores context and tends to feel disconcertingly chaotic, incompatible, and bizarre. This is a surefire recipe for amplifying neighborhood opposition. “There are…reasons that more British cities are not beautiful. Firstly, there are the architects themselves, who tend to prefer innovative buildings over traditional ones.”[2]

The Absence of Mimicking Modernism

It is quite telling that in Boulder, as elsewhere, there are zero neighborhoods which people look upon with affection that are mostly or entirely modernist (similarly, I know of no predominantly modernist towns or neighborhoods that are tourist destinations). As John Torti, principal of Torti Gallas & Partners, has stated, “…could you imagine an entire city made out of Frank Gehry buildings? There’s a notion of the monument versus the fabric. Michael Dennis called it hero buildings versus soldier buildings. In most New Urbanist practices we create the soldier buildings, the fabric buildings that make cities.”[3]

Modernism vs Traditional in Boulder, April 2017

But there are many examples of admired neighborhoods in Boulder that are primarily traditional: Mapleton Hill, Iris Hollow, Dakota Ridge, Washington Square, and Holiday.

The Rejection of Context

The modernist paradigm is focused on creating individualistic “statement” buildings that have no relation to their neighbors. Context, pattern, time-tested design, rules, and fabric are tossed into the waste can. Instead, the focus is on innovation, which tends to result in odious, unlovable buildings that almost never draw affection – particularly when modernist buildings are grouped together in a neighborhood (is it even possible to group together “statement” buildings into a coherent whole?)  Instead, modernist buildings are parasitically, invasively, and incrementally added into an existing traditional neighborhood, allowing the modernist building to piggyback on the affection for the traditional neighborhood.

Torti notes that:

“The notion of understanding and respecting the traditional city—rather than showing off a particular site or building—is the essential difference. Christopher Alexander, the great planning and architectural theorist, says it in a very poignant way. When you come to a place, a city, or a site, you must look and try to understand the whole place. It sums up what I think new urbanists are all about, which is being humble enough when we work on buildings to let the city take preference.”[4]

Similarly, Stefanos Polyzoides, principal of Moule & Polyzoides, Architects and Urbanists, says that

“…the prime ingredient of urbanism is really public space and the public realm. So the urban plan comes first and the building second. It becomes an issue of whether the building is a monument or a piece of fabric. Then does this building dominate what’s in place or does this building add to it or transform it? New urbanists essentially believe in compatibility between building and place, in the sense that buildings having specific intentions when placed in a particular location in the urban fabric.”[5]

Incrementally Destroying Affection

Tragically, over time, this incremental invasion by modernist buildings erodes the affection felt for the traditional neighborhood as it slowly loses its charm to the invader buildings. Each modernist building added to a traditional neighborhood is a new blight on the neighborhood, and the neighborhood takes another step toward being unloved.

Modernist buildings, by design, stick out like a sore thumb. They take pride in the amount of shock value they induce. They thumb their nose at conventions and timeless design and fitting into a context. A modernist building tends to call attention to itself, Homeswhich is most unfortunate for the neighborhood, as the modernist design is so commonly wretched.

There is a reason that modernists fear and oppose visual preference surveys. Their modernist designs always fail to gain support. The modernist excuse for this? “Citizens are too stupid or lacking in architectural knowledge to realize that the modernism was brilliant and beautiful!”

Rubbish.

Repetition and Making Lovable, Compatible Design Illegal

It is said, rightly, that imitation is the highest form of flattery. When a building design stands the test of time and is loved for many generations, it is natural and desirable that it be mimicked by new buildings. Traditional buildings, by definition, have long been 3718677272_880f14ecdc_bloved and should therefore become a pattern that should be followed by new buildings. Tellingly, the chaotic, no-rules modernist building tends to NEVER be replicated. I know of no examples.

One of the things we tend to love is a city that shows order, repetition, balance, and symmetry. Without an emphasis on repetition, it seems chaotic, like no one is in charge, which is disconcerting. Diversity and variety should be introduced gently so as not to take away from an overall design pattern (such as building height or shape). Variety might be introduced through differences in fencing style, color, or cornice, for example.

Much of Pearl Street Mall is a good example of lovable repetition with a dash of variety.

Given all of this, it is an atrocity that in America, communities have been saddled for several decades by federal historic preservation guidelines that REVERSE this time-honored method I have just summarized. In historic neighborhoods full of lovable, charming historic buildings, the federal historic preservation guidelines PROHIBIT additions to existing traditional buildings that mimic or are even compatible with the existing traditional building style. Instead – insanely – the federal guidelines REQUIRE that the addition to an existing historic and traditional building be “of its time.” Today, since “of its time” buildings happen to be unlovable modernist buildings, federal historic preservation rules make it mandatory that lovable historic buildings be degraded in all their charm and glory by being appended by a hideous modernist abomination.

Additions

Most modernist architects proudly – triumphantly – design “of its time” modernist buildings when new buildings are to be built in a traditional historic neighborhood.

Who needs enemies when we have ourselves?

What does it say about a society when it requires new construction to only use a failed, unlovable building design? Modernist architecture is, after all, a failed paradigm. We are now obligated to keep adding more and more failure to our neighborhoods so that the construction is “of its (failed) time.”

Today, it tends to be that only arrogant, elitist, pompous modernist architects who have “drank the Kool Aid” admire modernist buildings. The rest of us are too stupid to realize the brilliance of modernist buildings.

Unfortunately for me, it would seem that nearly all architects who design buildings in Boulder prefer modernist design, which makes it extremely likely that modernist design will once again be the dominant (exclusive?) design at the hospital site being redeveloped.

I believe that more modernist building design is likely to meet with strong citizen opposition to the redevelopment of the hospital site, thereby undermining this golden opportunity to have the City show how compact development is properly and popularly done.

Affordability and Jobs?

Having said all of this, there are one or two advantages to modernist buildings. First, they are so strongly disliked by so many people that they will therefore not see a significant increase in price over time. They will not retain their value. Or, if there is an appreciation in housing value in the community, the appreciation for modernist homes will be lower than the appreciation that traditional buildings will see. Very few people will be interested in buying a home that seems so dated and so bizarre, which will put downward pressure on the price of the home. Because modernist homes will be so difficult for an owner to sell, such homes will be relatively affordable to lower income people who don’t have much choice about how attractive their homes might be.

A study from the Netherlands showed that ‘even controlling for a wide range of features, fully neo-traditional houses sell for 15 per cent more than fully non-traditional houses…London terraced houses built before the First World war went up in value by 465 per cent between 1983 and 2013, compared to 255 per cent for post-war property of the same type. Beauty sells, but because it’s rare, it’s exclusive.[6]

So providing more affordable housing in an expensive housing market is one benefit.

Another benefit is that because modernist buildings tend to be so unlovable to the vast majority of people, modernist buildings will provide more jobs in future years because they will be more frequently demolished and in need of reconstruction to other buildings.

Time to Sunset Modernism

It is far past time that America end its failed architectural experiment of modernism. The modernist paradigm has destroyed lovability throughout the nation, and has bred widespread cynicism about our ability to create buildings worthy of our affection.

Hotels

Our quality of life and any hope of civic pride depends on our returning to the tradition of using time-tested building design.

[1] West, Ed. “Classical architecture makes us happy. So why not build more of it?”, The Spectator. March 15, 2017.

[2] West, Ed. “Classical architecture makes us happy. So why not build more of it?”, The Spectator. March 15, 2017.

[3] https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/2017/03/09/great-idea-architecture-puts-city-first

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] West, Ed. “Classical architecture makes us happy. So why not build more of it?”, The Spectator. March 15, 2017.

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

The Modernist Cult of Innovation Is Destroying our Cities

By Dom Nozzi

April 27, 2015

Nothing is more dated than yesterday’s vision of tomorrow.  – Unknown

One of the great ironies in the field of architecture is that the most effective way to create buildings that look dated very soon after construction is to design them to be futuristic or modernist in design.

A recently proposed “modernist” building in my city has appropriately been disparaged as a “popcorn ball” apartment building.

To me, such a building is unlovable. It is chaotic. Innovative for the sake of being innovative. No connection to time-tested design or to the city context or history.

It reminds me of the important need for a form-based code for this part of my city (which is soon to see substantial infilling of new buildings). A form-based code puts priority on the design of a building and its location on the property, rather than the conventional use-based code, which concerns itself almost exclusively with the uses that are allowed within the building (residence, shop, office, etc.).

Rules are needed to reign in the “Anything Goes” Cult of Innovation that Modernist architects have followed. A Cult that has obliterated charm and lovability in our communities. It is a Cult that moronically and catastrophically rejects timeless design.wrightguggenheimriba3072-361269px

Too many architects see “innovation” as an imperative, and end up creating buildings that don’t behave themselves. Too many “look-at-me” buildings. Too many buildings as art objects. Art belongs inside buildings, not as shocking, jarring “artistic” buildings imposed on the public realm.

Unless a building is a civic or government building, it generally should not stand out as a look-at-me object standing out like a sore thumb. If too many buildings try to stand out, the ambience is disorienting and anxiety-producing. Residential and commercial buildings, in a compact town center, should be background buildings. Their front facade should be abutting (or very close to) sidewalks, and have glazing and interesting first floor uses (preferably day and night uses). Buildings are set close to the sidewalk to form an outdoor room. Each of these elements are basic, fundamental ingredients for activating the public realm and making for a comfortable experience for the pedestrian. Too many architects have forgotten about these basic elements. A form-based code therefore is more important today than in the past.

Quality development is not about creating high-quality INDIVIDUAL buildings.

It is largely about the ENSEMBLE of a collection of buildings. How they relate to nearby buildings to form comfortable spaces. How they are set on their parcel of land. How rewarding they are to the pedestrian. How lovable they are because they use time-tested designs. How they fit into the vision established in their neighborhood.

The modernist paradigm has become a regrettable problem because it so commonly violates these principles. Much of it is based on the idea that timeless rules should be abandoned in favor of innovation. That anything goes. That the imperative is the startling nature of the individual building. The community vision, spaces created between buildings, local materials, and how the building relates to other buildings typically are irrelevant.

Many of us love Prague, Siena, Budapest, or Montepulciano not because of innovative individual buildings, but largely because of how the assemblage of the buildings create a

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

place that feels wonderful. Many of us, in other words, love historic, pedestrian-scaled areas not because an individual building is “inspiring” or “green.”

We love it largely because of how the collection of buildings are set along the street to create a lively, human-scaled ambiance that feels good.

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Boulder NIMBYs make quality of life in Boulder worse

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 22, 2015

When it comes to development, Boulder is most well-known for its well-deserved reputation for an extreme, hostile, antagonistic attitude that a large number of Boulder citizens express toward development. This hyper NIMBYism is almost entirely driven by ruinous demands that new development not congest roads or parking. Boulder NIMBYs are convinced that keeping roads and parking uncongested is simply a matter of stopping development (population growth) in its tracks. If that is not possible, to minimize the building height and density. It seems commonsensical: Minimizing people minimizes cars crowding our roads and parking!

This leads to both neglect and incoherence regarding reform of conventional land development regulations here in Boulder.

The fundamental, tragic mistake is that many in Boulder conflate happy, free-flowing, easy parking cars with quality of life. This blunder is highly counterproductive. Happy cars are toxic to quality of life. When cars are inconvenienced and seemingly free to drive or park, quality of life for a city is powerfully undermined, as communities with such an agenda end up with over-sized parking and roads and intersections, excessive and inattentive car speeds, unlovable building design (because there are no coherent, contextual design regulations), sprawl, light and noise pollution, high air emissions per capita, and unwalkably low density development.

Designing roads and parking for happy cars also induces excessive car dependence (yes, even in Boulder), because oversized, high-speed road and parking lot dimensions make 40-peopletravel by walking, bicycling or transit less safe, desirable, or feasible. Coupled with the excessively low densities that NIMBYs demand, and the enormous amount of space cars consume (17 times more than a person in a chair), Boulder’s roads and parking lots quickly and ironically become rapidly congested. This congestion, caused at least partly by NIMBYism, motivates NIMBYs to scream for even MORE opposition to development and compact design.

Which, of course, causes more road and parking congestion…

Allowing planning board and council to apply random, discretionary, subjective demands on proposed development (rather than a predictable, objective form-based code) plays well with those opposing development, as it means further torture and cost increases for developers, yet does nothing to make buildings more lovable or contextual. Ironically, NIMBY attitudes therefore make a visionary form-based development code (which calls for lovable, contextual building design) less possible, even though adopting a good one would, over time, reduce NIMBY hostility.

Example in this photo: the Boulderado hotel in town center Boulder. The most loved building in all of Boulder has been made either illegal or highly unlikely. Maximum Hotel_Boulderado1-T1building height even in the most urbanized areas of Boulder is now a crazy low 35 feet in the town center (Boulderado is 55 ft). In addition, the building design regulations say almost nothing about creating similar buildings going forward.

By naively concluding that free-flowing car traffic is the path to protecting quality of life, and deciding that the only way to preserve such a nirvana is to stop population growth, Boulder NIMBYs force the City to devote too much time and effort towards development opposition, and too little time and effort toward adopting visionary form-based coding that would deliver a more lovable future.

Instead, Boulder NIMBYs increase the likelihood that development which DOES occur (and it WILL occur, since there are no feasible ways to stop population growth) will be regrettable and unworthy of our affection.

The NIMBYism is therefore self-perpetuating, as it ensures an on-going growth in citizens who oppose development of buildings that are at least partly unlovable due to NIMBY distraction from the important task of creating visionary form-based development codes.

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The Gigantism Disease

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 17, 2008

The most important task of the urbanist is controlling size. – David Mohney

American cities, like most others in the world, are dying. Despite an emerging downtown renaissance being led by a notable growth in downtown residential development, changing demographics, and escalating gasoline prices.

Cities are dying due to an affliction I call “Gigantism.”

Like overeating, inactivity and obesity, gigantism is not being imposed on us by an evil outside force. It is largely self-inflicted.

We have become our own worst enemy because we have spent over 80 years building a world in which it is nearly impossible to navigate without a car. The Barrier Effect, as described by Todd Litman, when applied to transportation planning, refers to the “barriers” that over-design for car travel creates for other forms of travel. To put it simply, designing an “incomplete” street (a street that is designed exclusively or predominately for cars) makes travel by walking, bicycling and transit extremely difficult, if not impossible. In effect, an incomplete street creates a self-perpetuating vicious cycle because the travel barriers created by incomplete streets tend to continuously recruit new motorists who were formerly non-motorists—non-motorists who now find that on the incomplete street, travel by walking, bicycling or transit is unacceptably unsafe, inconvenient or otherwise unattractive.

Over time, the incomplete street increases the proportion of community members who are now traveling by car. Tragically, this on-going recruitment of new motorists compels many communities to spend large sums of public dollars to widen and speed up roads to (unsuccessfully) strive to accommodate the growing number of motorists. And these newly widened, higher speed roads create an even larger barrier effect. Which recruits even more motorists (“induced demand”), which then builds pressure for even wider roads, resulting in roads that drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users find unpleasant and unsatisfactory, fueling the demand for further “improvement,” usually widening.

We are therefore compelled to insist, at every opportunity, that new development promote car travel. Yet cars and people have vastly different needs. Due to their large size, motor vehicles require vastly over-sized parking lots, large building setbacks and wide, multi-lane roads reasonably free of other motor vehicles (despite the conventional wisdom, most cities actually have too much open space — but this open space is for cars, not people). To achieve that, widely dispersed, low-density, single-use patterns of development are necessary. Street lighting must be tall and bright, and retail signage must be enormous to promote visibility and readability in high-speed motor vehicles.

Because motor vehicles enable us to travel greater distances more conveniently, growing regional “consumer-sheds” are created, which has enabled the rise of gigantic “big box” retail development which takes advantage of such retail regionalism.

We are left with an overwhelming and disheartening amount of auto-centric architecture. Architecture that no one can be proud of.

This brutalization of our everyday world, amplified by the over-sizing of roads and parking lots, leaves a public realm that Americans have understandably fled. Instead, we are compelled to increasingly turn inward into the private realm of our accessorized, huge turn radius for roadluxurious homes and cars. Without a public realm worth caring about and participating in, we seek alternative outlets for a meaningful life. And this is exemplified by the substantial growth in the average size of the now gigantic American house, which has enlarged from 1,385 square feet to 2,140 square feet (a 54-percent increase) from 1970 to 2000.

Our over-sized world stands in stark contrast to what many people tend to prefer, which is smaller building setbacks, human-scaled and low-speed streets, modest lighting, signage and parking. People feel exposed and uncomfortable in gargantuan spaces—spaces over-designed for motor vehicles.

On average, a person in a car consumes 17 times more space than a person in a chair, which means that cars devour an enormous amount of space. The average car is 14 feet long by 6.2 feet wide = 55 square feet. The average person in a chair is 2.25 feet by 2.25 feet = 5 square feet.  Thus, a car consumes 17 times more space than a person sitting in a chair (even more if person is standing). By multiplying the number of cars in Florida in 2005 by 17 square feet, we can estimate that cars consume 1,581,100 square feet or 35,677 acres or about 27,444 football fields.

Planner Victor Gruen, in 1973, estimated that every American car is provided with four parking spaces.

In The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup estimates about 1 billion parking spaces for cars in the U.S.  If this were all surface parking, parking lots would consume approximately 12,375 square miles (roughly the size of Maryland). As a rule of thumb, a parking lot typically requires an additional 10 to 20 percent of its land area as stormwater basin area, although this can vary rather significantly based on such factors as soil type. Therefore, we can assume that a 300 square-foot parking space (the amount of space a typical car needs for parking, as well as maneuver space in the parking lot) would require 300 x 0.15 = 45 square feet of stormwater basin. In other words, if we include both space taken up by the typical parked car, maneuver space, and stormwater basin space, each car requires 345 square feet of land area just for parking.

The above means that to promote ease of motor vehicle travel, there is no alternative but to build sprawling, dispersed, low-density cities.

Of course, the growing size of American vehicles—particularly the SUV phenomenon—has fueled a need to build bloated roads and parking areas to accommodate these over-sized vehicles. Making matters much worse, however, is the decades-long trend of the growing size of trucks—particularly fire trucks.

Unfortunately, some fire chiefs are choosing to purchase larger and often less maneuverable fire apparatus. An unintended consequence is that such choices will dictate future community decisions about street dimensions. Larger truck decisions can prevent a community from designing safer, more human-scaled streets.  Fortunately, wise fire chiefs who are aware of a need for a more charming, safe, human-scaled community are able to make fire apparatus choices that are in line with such objectives (buy purchasing smaller fire vehicles, for example, or at least buying “articulated” vehicles that allow maneuvering in tight streets). If some parts of a community must have larger, less maneuverable fire apparatus for safety reasons, it would be wise to consider having both larger and smaller vehicles. One size, after all, does not fit all when one considers both the larger dimensions found in suburbia and the more modest dimensions found in urban settings.

For engineers, therefore, the design vehicle obligates the design of colossal lane widths and turning radii, which moves cities further from a livable human scale.

Where has the charm gone?

When we look for charming locations in our communities, we find that this charm is invariably found in our historic districts—places built, in general, over 100 years ago. We Catania Italy walkablelove to visit places like Paris and Geneva, with their ancient, intimate architecture, their layout of streets and neighborhoods, and their romantic ambience. And newer places are most valued when they mimic that style. We find that the more contemporary development—the more contemporary streets and roads—are invariably not charming. We have apparently lost the ability to build lovable places.

Why?

Is it because of the need to promote public safety? Is cost an issue?

Hardly.

It is because charm is impossible when we must design for the colossal spaces required to accommodate the car. Buildings must be set back enormous distances from the street to accommodate vast fields of parking (even the turning movements of the motor vehicle require that a building be pulled back from the street intersection to create the “vision triangle” and turning radius necessitated by a large, high-speed vehicle).

One unintended consequence of this dispersal and pulling back of buildings is that buildings lose the ability to “hold” an intersection. Or frame an “outdoor room” ambience on a street. Place-making is not possible when these human-scaled spaces are lost. There is no “there there” anymore.

Nothing to induce civic pride.

The gigantism disease is also aggravated by our decades-long road design efforts to maximize vehicle speeds, and to implement the related “forgiving streets” design paradigm. High-speed road geometries create enormous dimensions for intersection turning radii, lane width, shoulder recover zones, and size of roadside signage.

Forgiving street design delivers tree-less streets, over-sized vision triangles, and a removal of on-street parking, among other things. The motorist is “forgiven” for not paying attention while driving. Forgiven for driving at excessive speeds. Forgiven for careening off the road.

An unintended consequence of such design is that a large and ever-growing number of motorists are found to be driving too fast, too inattentively and too recklessly. Ironically, the intended safety improvements from the forgiving street actually result in less road safety.

High-speed design and forgiving streets, then, result in a loss of human-scaled streets, and the promotion of speeding, inattentive, road-raged motorists completely incompatible with quality urban areas.

Buildings must also be dispersed from each other to accommodate car travel, as the placement and agglomeration of buildings in a walkable, human-scaled pattern quickly creates intolerable vehicle congestion that gridlocks an area.

Induced demand, where a road widening breeds new car trips that would not have occurred had we not widened, locks us into a never-ending cycle of congestion, widening, more congestion, and more widening. Endlessly.

Or until we run out of public dollars.

This vicious cycle brings us 4-lane roads. Then 5. Then 6. Then 8. Ultimately, we are left with dangerous, high-speed, overly wide, increasingly unaffordable roads that we dread and are repelled from. Roads that, again, are car-scaled and not human-scaled. Ironically, the roads we hate most are those we’ve spent the most of our tax dollars to build. What does that say about what we are doing to ourselves?

Agglomeration Economies

Cities, to be healthy, must leverage “agglomeration economies.” That is, thriving, vigorous cities are characterized by densification, concentration, compactness and clustering of people, buildings, and activities. As Steve Belmont points out in Cities in Full (2002), an intensification of property is a sign of city fitness and dynamism. As city property is converted to a less intense activity such as parking, widened roads or over-sized building setbacks, the energy of the city is dissipated, and is a sign of a city in decline. Therefore, the gigantism borne from the gap-tooth dead zones created when property is cleared for vehicular parking or roads is toxic to a city.

The vehicle “habitat” in cities (parking and highways) drains the lifeblood from the metropolis.

It is not only the directly deadening effect of replacing buildings and activities with roads and parking that kills a city. Highways and parking also indirectly eviscerate a city by powerfully fueling the residential and commercial dispersal of communities through sprawl.

Finding Our Way Back to the Future

It is said that both the dinosaurs and the Roman Empire collapsed due to gigantism. For our society to avoid that fate—to restore safety and quality of life to our cities in the future—will require us to return to the timeless tradition we have abandoned for several decades. For cities to become sustainable, safe, enjoyable places to live, we must return to the tradition of designing for people first, not cars. In cities, that means that we return to low-speed street geometries and compact building placements.

We already have models. The historic districts of our cities. The charming, lovable places that tourists flock to the world over. As James Howard Kunstler noted in 1996, “[From]  1950 to 1990…we put up almost nothing but the cheapest possible buildings, particularly civic buildings. Look at any richly embellished 1904 firehouse or post office and look at its dreary concrete box counterpart today.” “The everyday environments of our time, the places where we live and work, are composed of dead patterns…They violate human scale. They are devoid of charm. Our streets used to be charming and beautiful…[in] Saratoga Springs, New York, there once existed a magnificent building called the Grand Union Hotel…”

One element of this return is that the “forgiving street” design paradigm be replaced by the “attentive street” paradigm in cities. That is, streets must be designed not to “forgive” reckless driving, but to instead obligate motorists to drive more slowly and attentively, which, as European demonstration projects have found, improves traffic safety. Doing so will also restore human scale.

Ideally, given the enormous space consumed by motor vehicles and the much smaller spaces that most people (as pedestrians) prefer, the motor vehicle must feel squeezed and inconvenienced when it finds itself within the city.

Only then will quality of life for people, not cars, flourish.

References

Belmont, Steve. (2002). Cities In Full. APA Planners Press.

Downs, A. (1992). Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak Hour Traffic Congestion.  Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Kunstler, J. (1996). Home from Nowhere. New York: Simon and Schuster, pp. 88, 90.

Litman, Todd. (2002). “Evaluating Nonmotorized Transport.” TDM Encyclopedia. Victoria Transport Policy Institute. http://www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm63.htm

McNichol, Tom (2004). “Roads Gone Wild.” Wired Magazine. December.

 

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Filed under Transportation, Urban Design

The Persistent Difficulty of Creating Walkable, Lovable Places

Why is it so difficult to create walkable places? Places that we love?

I am convinced a primary cause is that we are trapped — even in Boulder, Colorado — in a self-perpetuating, downwardly spiraling, growing dependence on travel by car.

Many talk out of both sides of their mouths: We want to promote bike/walk/transit. But we also tragically and wrongly think we can simultaneously achieve free-flowing happy cars with plenty of free parking.

We naively think we can attain the latter with very low, dispersed densities. We forget, though, that very low, dispersed densities make bike/walk/transit nearly impossible for nearly all of us.

In Boulder, too many have made the terrible mistake of equating happy cars with quality of life, thinking it will allow us to retain “small town charm.” Instead, it will move us closer to becoming more like Houston.

Livable places and happy cars are diametrically opposite in so many ways.

“A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both.” – Enrique Peñalosa

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