Tag Archives: open space

Is “Green Space” and “Low Density” the Solution for a Better Future for Our Cities?

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 15, 2019

 

A conversation with a few of my friends here in Boulder CO…

Donna and Jill: Thank you for your thoughts. I have a great many things to say in response, but in the interest of brevity, I will limit my comments.

Let me start by saying that because the word “density” has been tragically poisoned in American society to mean evil, disgusting, scary, awful, dirty, destructive and terrible — largely because nearly all of us see things from the point of view of our car rather than from the point of view of being human beings, by the way – I will instead substitute the term “compact, traditional, human scaled design.”

I say “tragic” because despite the conventional wisdom, compact, traditional, human scaled design gives us, by far, the best way to have the smallest ecological footprint, the least harm to the environment, the best chance to reduce per capita car travel, an excellent way to promote diversity and choices, the most effective way to create affordable housing and overall affordability, the best way to promote walking/transit/bicycling, the best way to reduce car crashes, the most important way to promote convenience, and the most effective way to create a high overall quality of life. By opposing compact, traditional, human scaled design so obsessively and angrily, Americans are thereby undercutting all of those important community objectives.

We have become our own worst enemy without realizing it.

Another important reason why so many Americans hate compact development is that Americans tend to create TERRIBLE versions of compact development. Compact development in the US is almost always badly done – and thereby given a black eye — because it is nearly always suburbanized, too often employs utterly unlovable and scary modernist building design, regularly strives to pamper motorists, and tends to fail to be human-scaled. By contrast, compact development is done so well in places like Europe that nearly all Americans are willing to travel thousands of miles to enjoy it in Europe.

Compact development is not to blame for crime, or dirty subways (the metro in DC and in much of Europe is very clean and hip), or poverty, or disease. What IS to blame is the century-long fact that Republicans and Democrats yearly pour obscene amounts of public dollars into endless and criminal wars/weapons, road widenings, parking, and police and fire services. With trillions thrown away in such a manner, funding for regular cleaning, repair, and quality design of our public facilities and public realm is shamefully inadequate.

I need to note early on that there is no humane or constitutional way to stop city growth or population growth. And I see no benefit to “slowing” growth (that would just amount to a form of “Chinese Water Torture,” as we would still end up with feared “awfulness” in the long term). Fighting to minimize the density of a proposed development, which is an EXTREMELY common tactic in Boulder (largely to promote happy motoring) is highly counterproductive, as it moves Boulder, incrementally, toward becoming another Phoenix or Houston. Two cities, by the way, that I think we can all agree have “lost their soul.”

Jill, you rightly mention that

“[w]e are replacing natural beauty with ugly houses and not planning a decent public transportation system.  Most streets are filled cars and franchises.  It all looks the same… the stores, the buildings, the parking lots.  We are in Anywhere, USA.”

But those things happen not because of compact development. They are happening because Boulder and nearly every other city is single-mindedly focused on creating a more convenient way to travel by car. Nearly all citizens, as well as their local government, fight tooth and nail to promote lower densities to achieve a happy car world. Doing that kills the chance to create “decent public transportation.” It ensures that we will be stuck in traffic (because development is too low density to travel without a car), and it ensures the city will be filled with franchises (because low density makes it impossible for locally owned, smaller retailers to financially survive).

As for “ugly houses” and “Anywhere USA,” that problem, again, has nothing to do with compact development. It is caused largely by the fact that the architectural profession has become a failed profession. It has adopted the utterly unlovable modernist design paradigm and thrown out the inherently lovable traditional design paradigm. It is also caused by Boulder being so ruinously and obsessively focused on stopping development or slowing it or reducing its density that it has been too distracted and put too little time into adopting building design rules that ensure lovability and local character. Other cities have adopted such rules, by the way.

The popular claim that compact, traditional, human scaled design causes “health and emotional problems” is nonsense. That claim has been completely debunked for decades. It is much more plausible that low-density suburban design causes such problems (there is growing scientific data to objectively confirm this).

To see a superb rebuttal to the claims that compact, traditional design is bad for health and the environment, see “Green Metropolis” by David Owen, “Cities and Automobile Dependence” by Jeff Kenworthy and Peter Newman, “Cities in Full,” by Steve Belmont, and “Bowling Alone,” by Robert Putnam. Also take note of the fact that the happiest, healthiest people live in compact, traditionally designed, human-scaled places. And the unhappiest, most unhealthy people live in low-density suburbs filled with green.

The most loved cities in the world (which is also the opinion of nearly everyone I know in Boulder) include such places as Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Siena, Montepulciano, Malmo, Delft, Utrecht and Copenhagen. In Boulder, similarly, the most loved places are the Mapleton Hill neighborhood and Pearl Street Mall.

By striking contrast, the most disliked cities in America include such places as Detroit, Phoenix, Houston, Buffalo, and Cleveland.

The “most loved” cities listed above are far MORE compact and have far LESS green space than the “most disliked” cities listed above. It is therefore quite clear that “more green space” (what urban designers call the “nature bandaid”) or “less density” are unhelpful or not necessary ingredients for improving the quality of life of a city. Almost no one travels thousands of miles to visit Dubrovnik or Amsterdam or Siena or Montepulciano to enjoy green spaces or the low-density suburbs of those cities. They nearly all go to enjoy the compact, traditional, human-scaled parts of those cities.

As is the case, not coincidentally, with the Mapleton Hill neighborhood and Pearl Street Mall, which are the most compact, traditional, human-scaled places in Boulder.

Almost no one wants to live in Mapleton Hill because it is low density or has a lot of green space (within its boundaries). Nor does anyone I know visit Peal Street Mall because it is low density or has a lot of green space. In both cases, nearly everyone is attracted to those places because they are compact, traditional, and human-scaled. Similarly, almost no one visits Boulder to enjoy its low-density suburbs (where the most green space is found). Be honest, Donna and Jill: Do you prefer the Mapleton Hill neighborhood, which is much more compact and has less green space than most any other neighborhood in Boulder, or do you prefer, say, Martin Acres, which is much more low-density and has a lot more green space?

I am told by comments sent by Donna that “growth” or “development” or compactness are “destroying” Boulder or the Front Range. Does that mean that, say, Donna should not have been allowed to move to Boulder when she did because when she moved here, she was “growth.” Why is “growth” okay when Donna moves here but not okay when others move here? Similarly, doesn’t this “destruction” mean that Donna should not be allowed to establish a duplex or an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or a Granny Flat or a Carriage House at her home? (something she has complained to me about not being allowed to do hundreds of times over the past several years)

After all, doing those things means MORE COMPACT DEVELOPMENT.

Why should Donna be allowed to have more compact development on her property but no one else is allowed to do the same anywhere in the region? Note: Boulder and all other Front Range cities are more than happy to allow people to create lower-density design on their property. They are totally free to remove buildings (unless they are historic) and install more green space. But it is completely illegal (at least for most of Boulder’s history) to make your property more compact by creating an ADU. Should Donna have been prohibited from building an ADU because it removed green space and increased compactness?

Should Boulder and other Front Range cities continue to PROHIBIT development that would make them more like Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Siena, Montepulciano, Copenhagen, Mapleton Hill, or Pearl Street Mall? After all, those cities and the most beloved places in Boulder are more compact and have less green space. Should Boulder and other Front Range cities continue to strongly encourage development that would make them more like Detroit, Phoenix, Houston, Buffalo, and Cleveland? After all, those cities are much lower density and have much more green space.

I am told by comments previously submitted by Donna that “Denver ranks nearly last among major U.S. cities, including New York, in park space as a percentage of total area. It also ranks nearly last in park acres per resident.” Again, the most loved cities, such as Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Siena, Montepulciano, and Copenhagen, are not loved because of abundant park space. They are loved because they are compact, traditional, and human-scaled. They are places focused on making humans happy rather than cars happy. Some of the most awful cities in the world, such as Anchorage AK, have an enormous amount of green space,

By the way. I am NOT saying that green space or open space is not desirable. But in American, cities too often have way too much of it in inappropriate places (such as town centers). Vast amounts of green space or open space has a place, but that place is in the suburbs, not in-town locations.

I am told by comments previously submitted by Donna that “City leaders are overriding residents’ desire for increased green space as they sign off on more high-density development.” First of all, City Council and Planning Board are obligated by law to follow the land development regulations that were in place when a development was proposed. I know of no instance over the entire history of Boulder (or any other city in the US) where Council or the Planning Board have violated the existing development regulations to allow the developer to have “high-density development” or require less green space be provided than is required by existing regulations. This comment is therefore an inflammatory falsehood.

In addition, as I have noted over and over above, requiring more “green space” (city regulations already require way too much “green space” be provided by new development – at least in the town center portion of the transect) or denying a developers desire for more compact development is a recipe for making the proposed project less like Montepulciano and more like Buffalo. It is the “nature bandaid” again.

I am told by comments previously submitted by Donna that “[t] he dwindling of nature in Denver could lead to potentially overwhelming increases in stormwater runoff.” European cities I mentioned above have far less “nature” in them than Denver, yet none of them have significant stormwater runoff problems that I know of. Speaking as a town planner and environmental scientist, I can assure you that low density suburbs (that are chock full of “nature”) and asphalt car parking lots are far and away the leading cause of stormwater flooding and stormwater pollution. But I never, ever hear people allegedly concerned about stormwater runoff calling for less car parking or less low density suburbs. I suspect that is because requesting those truly effective stormwater management tactics would make it less convenient for such people to drive a car.

Donna quotes the following: “There’s a ton at stake. This is something to be concerned about — not just for some big net loss of biodiversity, but for what it means for people to interact with nature on a regular basis,” said Liba Goldstein, a Colorado State University conservation biologist who has helped guide efforts to nurture nature north of Denver in Fort Collins.

First of all, since conservation biologists know a great deal about how to create quality habitat for, say, mountain lions, but next to nothing about urban design (ie, the town center HUMAN habitat), such specialists are notorious for recommending designs that significantly degrade the human habitat. The (unintended) result is that the degraded human habitat ratchets up the desire of people to not live in the degraded town center, but to instead live in an outlying suburb that has steamrolled highly sensitive and valuable ecological habitats over and over again all over the nation for the past few centuries. Had the town center human habitat been wonderful (ie, designed by traditional urban designers rather than mountain lion specialists and motorists), the net result would be a region with a much more healthy ecosystem for mountain lions and other wildlife, because there would be less pressure to flee the town center for the suburbs.

Second of all, I agree that regular human access to nature is very important. The good news is that such access can successfully be provided WITHOUT degrading the town center human habitat. The greenway trails, small neighborhood “pocket parks,” and greenbelt in and around Boulder are an excellent example of that, and provide the “spiritual retreat” that Jill rightly desires.

Abundant green space and relatively large building setbacks and very low densities and very short buildings are the features provided by nearly all development in America over the past century. They are called “suburbs,” and are in no sense whatsoever an endangered way to live (we have way more than we need). The lifestyle (or housing, or neighborhood) that IS endangered is the compact, traditional, human-scaled lifestyle.

Unlike the suburban lifestyle, where the SUPPLY of such housing is far higher than the DEMAND for such housing, the compact, traditional, human-scaled lifestyle features a DEMAND that is far higher than the SUPPLY – which makes it artificially expensive and endangered. This is largely because such a design is illegal almost everywhere in the US, and also because the large majority Americans (who are largely quite dependent on car travel) fight very aggressively to stop or suburbanize such a design — mostly because it is seen as a design that threatens easy car travel.

Donna says to me that “[y]ou should try to live on the Lower East Side of NYC or other similar neighborhoods void of green space and trees to be faced with nothing but towering concrete and asphalt…Only the very wealthy can afford to live near any green. It seems the epitome of your design sense is the greater the density the better.”

With all due respect, Donna, these are unfair exaggerations and red herrings. I have never said anything that remotely suggests my desire for unlimited density (or building height). I have always maintained that, say, Hong Kong densities are awful “anthills” not fit for man nor beast, and I have always maintained that in general, anything taller than 5 stories for a building is too tall for human scale – particularly for non-civic buildings.

What I DO firmly believe is that places like Boulder and the Front Range have, on 99% of their land area, unsustainably low “cow town” densities that are far, far too low to support walking, bicycling, transit, local and small retailers, or affordable housing.

It is also absurd to suggest there is a binary choice: Either a grimy skyscraper city or a grass- and tree-filled suburb of low density one-story single-family homes on 5-acre lots. There are hundreds (thousands?) of cities that nearly all of us find overwhelmingly lovable (such as Lucca or Utrecht or the Mapleton Hill neighborhood) that fall well within those two extremes. Such cities are NOT lovable because they stopped growth or required that development be very low density or required “green space” or lots of trees. Far from it. Such cities were developed at a compactness level that far exceeds ANYTHING we will see in the Boulder/Denver/Front Range region. They are places that have far LESS green space or trees than the awful American suburbs that make up nearly all of the available housing in the US. For me and most everyone else, give me the compact, traditional, human-scaled, relative green- and tree-free traditional centers of Barcelona and Malmo over the low-density, green- and tree-filled suburbs of Toledo and Dallas any day. No comparison whatsoever.

In sum, the problem is NOT “growth” or “development” or “compactness.” It is contemporary, car-oriented, modernist, car-scaled design. Because growth cannot be stopped and because lowering the density of a project gives us a Phoenix-oriented future, we must stop wasting valuable time, money and energy in a futile effort to do stop development or suburbanize it (ie, by lowering densities). Instead, we need to acknowledge that growth is inevitable (future Donnas will and should continue to move here), and focus our energy on ensuring that our development regulations obligate that new, inevitable development to happen in a way that enhances our quality of life (NOT that of our Ford or Chevy).

To do that, our regulations must insist that new development be compact, traditional, human-scaled, and fits into the context of our neighborhoods. THAT is the recipe for a better future. A future where we keep our soul. Where we keep our authenticity and small town character. Where we keep our community environmentally sound. Where we keep our civic pride.

Fighting to stop growth or reduce density or require more “green space” (and thereby ignoring the reform of our development design regulations) is a recipe for becoming another soul-less Houston.

And nearly no one wants that. Do you?

If you DO want that, what cities do you love that followed that path?

Do we prefer run down auto dealerships and dying shopping centers and massive parking lots across the Front Range? Or do we prefer seeing the emergence of Luccas and Malmos and Montepulcianos in the Front Range? To me, the choice is clear…

“Nature,” says Jill “– even as in tree lined streets — can provide a relief from the ills of city living.  I would have no problem with higher rise buildings that [had] trees next to them and along streets.  Just the simple act of planting more trees would help. The non-descript, Soviet era type housing is demoralizing to me…One thing I loved about NY was the transportation system — even the subways I just disparaged.  All one had to do was to step outside and choose whether to get on a bus, subway or taxi.”

Jill, I fully agree that trees are an important ingredient for urbanism. I have always been an open advocate of tree-lined streets, for example. However, for those of us who desire a walkable, urban lifestyle (and there is a very large and growing number of us, combined with a very inadequate supply of such housing), we must be very careful about incorporating trees or other forms of “green.” Why? Because in a town center, the pedestrian is the design imperative. And the most important ingredient for providing a high quality pedestrian environment is proximity and human-scale. Far too often, incorporating trees or other “greenery” undermines proximity and human scale, because plants need a lot of space in most cases. This problem is particularly severe because American society is almost entirely clueless about the important need for proximity and human scale (because our high car dependency makes such design irrelevant).

At the same time, there is a near consensus that trees or other “greenery” is ALWAYS a good thing. “The more the better!!!” is what nearly everyone believes. But this is untrue when it comes to pedestrians, as it is very common to have too much of a good thing. Again, while it is certainly possible to provide discreet amounts of greenery that retain human scale and walkability, the folks who make decisions about incorporating greenery nearly always tend to have zero knowledge about urban design, because they are arborists or ecologists or accountants or elected officials or traffic engineers. The result is that nearly always, incorporating “greenery” leads to enormous setbacks, unwalkable (and deadening) green open spaces, and loss of human scale.

Pearl Street Mall provides very good examples of the desirable use of greenspace. On the one hand, trees are incorporated discreetly so that the space between facing retail buildings retains human scale. It FEELS comfortable to pedestrians for that reason, and promotes friendly, convivial sociability. But unfortunately, an urban design blunder is demonstrated by the County building on Pearl Street Mall, which has a very large, grassy, deadening, suburban space in front of the building. That portion of the Mall is less vibrant than other parts of the Mall due to the deadening effect of that green space.

There IS a place for such large green areas and setbacks. That place is our suburbs, where driving is expected and walking is not.

We need to elect urbanists to serve on City Council, and hire urbanist staff for the city planning and transportation departments. That almost never happens because nearly all voters are suburban motorists who think as motorists and not as humans. Suburban Council members and suburban city managers don’t see any value in having urbanists on staff. Their agenda is happy cars (which, not coincidentally, reduces fury amongst the citizenry). Such an agenda brings us, incrementally and unintentionally, a Los Angeles and Houston future. No one sees that future coming until they wake up one day and say “HOW DID WE GET HERE??????”

By the way, the citizens of places like Phoenix or Houston never intended for those places to become what they are today. Cities such as those had activists fighting violently against growth and density. They fought brutally hard to have MORE GREEN SPACE and MORE OPEN SPACE incorporated in proposed projects. They DEMANDED larger setbacks and lower densities and shorter buildings.

Just like nearly everyone in Boulder.

Guess what? They ended up as the awful places they are today despite fighting those battles furiously. Their mistake, as is happening in Boulder, is that they wrongly thought that greenery and open space and easy car travel and large setbacks and low density would save them. What they ended up with is roads where the motorist has a more pleasant view during their eight car trips each day. No one walks or bicycles or uses transit despite all that greenery because their world has been designed for mandatory motoring.

No, the key for a better, more lovable future is to focus on the needs of the pedestrian: modest, slow-speed human-scaled dimensions for streets and buildings. Traditional, context-sensitive, lovable design of buildings. Compact, mixed use land use patterns.

The very tragic bad news is that despite its reputation for being “progressive” on transportation and land use, Boulder remains firmly in the Dark Ages on those critical quality of life measures.

 

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Too Little Open Space?

By Dom Nozzi

April 16, 2018

In March 2018, the “Transportation Psychologist” posted the following photo and comment on Facebook to illustrate the enormous amount of space that a passenger car consumes:

The Transportation Psychologist asked, “If you wouldn’t build your house like this, why would you build your community this way?”

car consumes a huge amount of space

I noted in response that similarly, a great many in Boulder, Colorado fear the loss of in-town “open space.” I often point out that within Boulder (and all other American cities), there is already way too much open space. But that open space is mostly devoted to cars in the form of overwide roads and oversized parking lots.

And since car-centric cities such as Boulder have a very strong interest in minimizing density (largely because walkable density makes car travel much more inconvenient), cities such as Boulder have building setbacks that are far too large — which creates an excess of private yard open space.

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Anti-City and Anti-Environment

By Dom Nozzi

March 27, 2018

Historically, anti-city and anti-environment folks were in force in places like Houston and Phoenix and Atlanta and Buffalo. They fought hard and successfully for:

  1. Easing car travel and car parking.
  2. Providing more open space and larger setbacks.
  3. Opposing parking supply restrictions and opposing parking pricing.
  4. Opposing road diets.
  5. Opposing road tolls.
  6. Supporting highway widenings and overpasses.
  7. Lowering densities and increasing fees to the point where new development is unaffordable (an indirect way to stop development and growth).
  8. Keeping buildings no taller than 1 or 2 stories.
  9. “Protecting” neighborhoods against infill, mixed use, co-ops, and backyard cottages.

All of these are anti-city (and anti-environment) efforts.315-0722092524-NSA-building-and-parking-lot

I don’t want Boulder, Colorado (the city I live in) to follow the path of Houston or Phoenix or Atlanta or Buffalo. And that is an important reason why I am so troubled that so many in Boulder have aggressively promoted (and continue to promote) the tactics I list above that were so strongly pushed in cities such as Houston and Phoenix.

Tactics that ironically made places such as Houston and Phoenix the awful places they are today.

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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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Should We Require Green Space in Front of a Large Building in a Town Center?

 

By Dom Nozzi

March 15, 2017

 

Some of my friends in Boulder, Colorado are bothered that a new Google corporation development project in the eastern town center lacks “open space” between the building and the street. I point out in response that Boulder town centers have WAY too much open space (Boulder Junction, for example, has far too much open space). Most of this excessive town center open space is for cars, by the way, but even if such space was for people, it would be inappropriate for a town center.

I’d rather our town centers be like Siena. Why do such people want our town centers to be like Buffalo or Phoenix? Large open spaces are inappropriate in what should be compact, walkable, human-scaled town centers (what new urbanists would call a “transect violation”).

Given this, it would be a terrible mistake if Google had a huge, windswept dead zone open space in front of their building. It would kill walkability and vibrancy.

Similarly, I strongly dislike the dead zone concrete open space “plaza” in front of the new Pearl West building in original Boulder town center. It is another form of deadening. Walkable design principles that reliably deliver vibrancy instruct us that such a space is a dumb thing to do.

But we don’t seem to care much about walkability.

We then scratch our heads when so many drive instead of walk short distances.

If I was in charge, all Boulder town centers would make it illegal to create large (even “green”) open spaces. An occasional hard surface piazza or square would be okay if designed well – which is, of course, HIGHLY unlikely.

Would anyone use the open space in front of Google if they installed such a space? Does anyone use the open space in front of, say, Celestial Seasonings or IBM? Those open boulder_signspaces make us more like Houston and less like old town Bologna.

Why do we want that???

By pulling their buildings up to the streetside sidewalk (instead of separating the buildings from the street with “open space”), Google will put more people on buses, on sidewalks, and in retail shops.

Those are all WONDERFUL things for urbanism.

Why do we instead want green space in front of buildings that put less people on sidewalks, less people on buses, and less shoppers for smaller retail? Do we want green space in front of Google so it will look nice as we drive by in our cars at 40 mph?

That is desirable for a suburb, not a city.

 

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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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Oversizing Our Community

By Dom Nozzi

January 29, 2016

The first task of the urbanist is to control (horizontal) size. American cities have utterly failed to do that.

Either America has too few urbanists who understand that, or too rarely listen to the urbanists who do understand this.

Despite the conventional wisdom, most all of Boulder’s areas intended to be urban have WAY too much “open space.” By space, I refer to the crazy wide stroads (motor vehicle traffic routes that try and fail to be both a street and a road), the over-sized building arapahoe-ave-boulder-cosetbacks, the over-sized parking areas, and the place-killing plazas that are not human-scaled (and therefore become dead zones). Why is Boulder so allergic to creating human-scaled, lovable, charming spaces? Why are we so in love with horizontal gigantism?

Perhaps the biggest offender when it comes to oversizing our communities is parking for motor vehicles.july-2015

Parking is a fertility drug for cars. Yet Boulder – despite decades of lip service paid to reducing car use – continues to be quite far behind the times when it comes to parking. Boulder continues to use outdated, conventional, excessive parking requirements for new development.

What are the effective tools that will result in some people owning and using a car less? (and therefore reducing the ruinous demand for more parking space)

First, compact, mixed-use development to reduce travel distances and increase the financial desirability to create neighborhood-based retail.

Second, less car subsidies and other financial inducements. Tools to do this include priced parking, unbundling the price of parking from housing, tolling roads, and higher gas taxes.

Third, less space for cars. We need to shrink size of roads, parking lots, and building setbacks so motorists are obligated to drive/park more slowly and attentively.

Fourth, we need a lot more traffic calming to reduce motorist speeds.

Designing for People or for Cars?

It is highly appropriate and extremely important that space-hogging motor vehicle drivers not feel happy, that parking (and pricing) is a “bitch,” and that driving a vehicle be a huge, inconvenient pain in the ass. That is exactly the recipe for creating places people love (rather than places that only a car could love).

Nearly all environmentalists in Boulder furiously fight against even modest density increases. For the stunningly powerful PLAN Boulder County advocacy group I served on for a few years, it is nearly the be-all and end-all of “protecting” Boulder.

It would appear that the only thing Boulder environmental activists care about is fighting to stop density increases (even modest ones). Such activists are convinced that more density means more emissions, more loss of wildlife, more cars, and more loss of open space. The opposition to density is much more pronounced in Boulder than in Alachua County, where I lived and worked as a town planner for 20 years. Understandable, since many came to places such as Boulder seeking wide open spaces they assumed the West would deliver.

As my “The Frustration Syndrome” essay points out, because most environmentalists must drive a car everywhere, it is understandable that so many environmentalists are ENRAGED by more density because it seems obvious that more density means more cars, which means more driving frustration (ie, loss of quality of life, as they understand it). Many environmentalists express concern that more density will be environmentally harmful, but I have come to learn that for most environmentalists, the unspoken agenda is the fight to retain easy motoring.

Yes, there is a diverse range of environmentalists (and Feminists and LBGT advocates and Republicans and parents…), but in extremely car-dependent America, the one thing that unites nearly all advocacy groups is the nearly universal desire to find easy driving and easy parking. After all, as my essay notes, nearly all of us drive a car multiple times every day of our lives, and it is therefore very frustrating multiple times a day for both Republicans and Conservationists to FIND A DAMN PARKING SPACE or AVOID THOSE SLOW DRIVERS. The inevitable consequence for nearly all Americans (regardless of their ideology) is to confuse easy driving with quality of life. Since increased density seems like such an obvious culprit for our daily driving frustrations, nearly all of us (regardless of whether we love money or Bambi) hate more density. I’d say 95 percent of the environmentalists I know in Boulder hate more density (and they disingenuously claim it is due to environmental harm, rather than unhappy motoring).

I don’t believe that this can be explained away by referring to where a person lives in a community. I’d say nearly all residents of my very compact, walkable, mixed use Boulder neighborhood are VIOLENTLY opposed to more density. And in Boulder, since we are ringed by a 55,000-acre greenbelt, nearly all proposed increases in density are for in-town development. Yet opposition to more density is huge here. Regardless of location.

I fully agree, as an aside, that compact development is inappropriate in sensitive outlying areas.

Too many residences in the US now front hostile, high-speed, dangerous, noisy 4- to 8-lane highways (streets that were improved to “meet contemporary needs.”) Healthy cities require lower speeds and agglomeration economies and adaptability. Too often, “contemporary needs” in road design undercut those essential ingredients. In my view, in-town streets should not generally exceed three lanes. Anything more will undercut the healthy cities factors I mention above. We need to draw the line somewhere. I choose to draw it in such a way as to not go beyond street designs which induce excessive motorized speeding, excessive sprawl, and loss of transportation choice.

Very, very few traffic engineers understand the needs of a healthy city and end up being single-mindedly focused on the sole objective of moving as many cars as they can as quickly as possible through a road. By confusing that objective with quality of life or an “improvement,” they (or their elected officials) end up pushing for a design that is toxic for a city.

For the record, no one I know is seeking to “intentionally inflict pain and inconvenience” on motorists. However, many of us do seek to design cities so that we have fairness, transportation choices, a thriving city, and lifestyle choices. Designing cities in such a way has the unavoidable consequence of increasing the inconvenience of motorists (because the size required by cars is excessive).

It comes down to a few simple questions: Do we design for a financially and socially healthy town with a high quality of life for people? Or do we design our town in such a way as to enable ease of car travel? (which delivers us places like Detroit or Houston) This is not a win-win game. It is a zero-sum game. I would add that this is NOT a call for the elimination of travel by car. It IS a call for a return to designing for fairness, choices, and resilience. The century-long effort to pamper cars has reduced fairness, reduced choices, and reduced resilience. We need to restore a balance. A big way to do that is to move much more toward user fees for travel. But that is another topic…

Imagine if we had a quiet two-lane neighborhood street, and a traffic engineer wants to design it to allow convenient 18-wheel tractor trailer use of that street (they have faced this issue countless times). In my view, it is important that for a quiet neighborhood street to remain pleasant for its fronting homes, the street SHOULD feel inconvenient for an 18-wheeler. If it was convenient for such a large vehicle, wouldn’t that street therefore be unsafe and unpleasant for homes?

None of the four tools I mention above will mean that ALL people will opt to not own or use a car. It will mean that SOME people will own less cars, use their car less often, or both.

By contrast, stopping development, reducing development densities, or fighting against population growth are not effective in reducing car trips or car ownership — because it is pretty much impossible to stop development or population growth locally and especially regionally. On the contrary, Boulderites who try to stop development or population growth and force development to be less compact (lower density) actually INCREASE the per capita car ownership and use in the area — both in the short term and long term.

For too many in Boulder, compact development means more cars. More cars means less free flowing traffic and less parking spaces. The only tool such folks see to address this is to battle for lower density and slowing the rate of development. And battle they must, as they wrongly mistake free flowing cars and easy parking as equivalent to quality of life. They thereby fail to understand the transportation feedback loops that result in more cars as a result of their only tool.

Such people cynically believe that the reduction in per capita car ownership and car trips elsewhere in the nation (following the establishment of compact development patterns) will not be seen here in Boulder if we provide compact development. Of course, ALL communities have that same cynical view of their own town.

Who needs enemies when we have ourselves?

An important problem is that in the US, we have way too often designed streets (“improved them”) so that it feels convenient for a car that consumes way too much space. I have been to Europe many times, and the streets that tourists flock to from all over the world are extremely inconvenient for cars. Would those streets be “better” if they were convenient for cars? It seems clear to me that the massive size of cars is a big problem. We face a choice between conveniencing big metal boxes or designing streets for happy, safe people (which, almost inevitably, feels inconvenient when you are in a huge metal box).

Personally, I would opt for designing for happiness and safety for people. Every time.

 

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Human Scale in Urban Design

 

By Dom Nozzi

March 11, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Different Types of Open Space

By Dom Nozzi

October 22, 2001

In my opinion, it is crucial that a distinction be made between rural and urban open space. Open space requirements are based on where the open space appears on the rural-urban community transect.transect_0

At the rural end of the transect, open space design is less formal, more curvilinear, more natural, more focused on environmental protection and habitat, more picturesque and random in landscape layout, and less defined — space-wise.

In other words, NATURE is the design imperative in rural areas on the transect.

At the urban end of the transect, open space design is more formal, more aligned in straight lines (particularly with trees, sidewalks, streets — think plazas and squares), more intensively maintained, more hardscaped with concrete and brick, and more defined — space-wise — with fronting streets and buildings.

In other words, THE PEDESTRIAN is the design imperative in urban areas on the transect.

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