Tag Archives: pedestrian

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

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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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Alienation from Walkability

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 1, 2001

I’m making the point in my upcoming book that some of the biggest opponents these days to compact, walkable development are often those who should know better and be our allies because they care about the common good.

An important problem we face is that because developers have largely designed for happy car travel since WWII, citizens are understandably fearful of their proposed projects. Not only do they not trust developers anymore. Because of this abysmal track record, they also tend to distrust professional government staff and elected officials.

Guilt by association?

The problems we face are greatly confounded because, given this state of distrust and hostility, even developers, staff, consultants, and elected officials who are well-intentioned, have the best interests of the community at heart, and are promoting pedestrian-oriented (instead of car-oriented) projects are vigorously attacked by these crusaders.

The origins of our distrusting, angry, NIMBY epidemic is designing for cars, yet crusaders saintreportpicture3are so angry that they lump the car advocates with the walkability advocates. ALL are evil, even if some have the remedy we need. It leads to gloom when one thinks about our prospects.

What this brings us to is this: ALL change is now feared. Even the changes our relatively enlightened leaders are convinced are good. It is feared because we cannot TRUST anyone anymore.

At last night’s Gainesville FL city commission meeting, the commission considered adoption of a future land use section I authored for the Gainesville long-range comprehensive plan. I wrote that land use section to be strongly influenced by my “the pedestrian is the design imperative” urban design philosophy. Here are some of the Gainesville citizen comments about the element that exemplify how foreign and feared walkable, compact development has become.

“We should not be so strongly promoting pedestrian travel because it is not safe for women to walk at night in Gainesville.”

“We should not require buildings close to the street/sidewalk because it is dangerous for women to use parking lots behind buildings. Same for alleys and cross-access mid-block crossings.”

“We should realize that Gainesville has a hot climate, which means that few will want to walk in this town.”

“If we allow the walkable “traditional neighborhood development” ordinance “by right” in our single family neighborhoods, the allowed mixed uses will destroy our neighborhoods.”

“Promoting bicycling and walking is not a good idea because people will be hot, smelly, and sweaty when they arrive at work.”

“The policies in your plan are “punishing” car use.”

“Infill and higher densities will “destroy” our neighborhoods.”

“You’re rushing this plan through adoption and not giving us enough time to understand it or comment on it. (This comment was submitted despite the fact that I had held at least 12 heavily-advertised public workshops on the land use plan throughout the city over the past few years.”

An enormous irony: These comments came primarily from local environmentalists and growth management advocates…

 

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Urban Creeks: Protecting Water Quality AND Urbanism

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 9, 2001

As an urbanist, I often make the point that “the pedestrian is the design imperative” within the urban core zones of the rural to urban community transect.

A crucial way to deliver a walkable, high-quality urbanism is to use modest, human-scaled dimensions.

Unfortunately for this design objective, environmental scientists (and arborists) often call for relatively large dimensions to achieve environmental conservation objectives (big stream setbacks, large tree planting areas, etc.).

The objectives obviously clash.

I enthusiastically support efforts to design walkable cities, and argue that successfully doing so results in better long-term regional environmental conservation, because designing great cities reduces the desire to flee the city in order to buy a home in remote residential subdivisions in sprawlsville. For this reason, it seems reasonable to me that those strongly seeking environmental conservation should buy into the urban-rural transect concept — the pedestrian/human is the design imperative in the core zone of the transect, and “the trout” (nature) is the design imperative in the rural conservation zone of the transect.

A dilemma here is that water in streams is flowing water — sometimes from the urban zone to the conservation zone. If the water is degraded in the urban zone with its pedestrian imperative, it can degrade the conservation zone when it reaches that zone, thereby harming the trout imperative. Nature often does not respect transect boundaries…

In my humble opinion, we should strive for a middle ground. That is, a stream within the urban zone needs to respect the pedestrian imperative by not creating pedestrian barriers. Yet the stream cannot be significantly degraded to the point of harming outlying conservation zones.

Must urban zone reaches of streams be “piped” or “paved over” to be walkable? Will they inherently suffer from ugly littering and dumping if they are not covered up? I don’t believe so.

Seems to me that a middle ground design would be to leave narrow, vegetated banks along the streams, and include a paved, hard-surface path along side it, as well as fairly closely urban-creekspaced pedestrian bridges over the creeks (say, every 200 feet, as we often call for such cross-access distances within a block).

By doing so, we achieve at least two things: First, the stream is walkable and does not create meaningful inconveniences to the pedestrian. Second, by establishing a hard-surface path nearby, we encourage a regular flow of pedestrian traffic along the stream. Such pedestrians become “eyes on the stream,” so to speak. They end up providing regular monitoring and voluntary clean-up when littering or dumping occur (or the “pedestrian police” will call city hall and demand that the clean-up be done). Greenways built around the nation have demonstrated the effectiveness of this form of citizen surveillance. A sense of stream/path ownership by path users typically results in clean up of litter problems that has sometimes persisted for decades before the path was installed. The key is that a formerly hidden, neglected stream is now visible to people on a daily basis, which means that we’ve created a chance for knowing about and caring for the stream. “Piping” or “paving over” a stream creates “out of sight, out of mind” problems, not to mention externalities that we would be blissfully unaware of…

Finally, I believe that the urban stream design I recommend above, while not creating a pristine water quality filled with healthy trout, will at least minimize exporting environmentally harmful water to outlying conservation zones.

 

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Recreational Bicyclists and On-Street Parking

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 27, 2002

Ever since I started work as a town planner in 1986, Gainesville FL has had very loud bicycling advocacy.

As a lifelong bike commuter, I am obviously supportive of some of what is being advocated. Yet despite this city paying a lot of lip service to fighting sprawl or increasing the number of bike commuters or reviving our town center, much bike advocacy has been detrimental to such objectives.

The problem, as I see it, is that bike advocates tend to be mostly recreational bicyclists, have little understanding of the needs of a bike commuter, and have even less of an awareness of quality urban design. The result is that they tend to sub-optimize on the needs of recreational bicycling. That is, they overemphasize such needs to the detriment of other crucial community needs.

Bicycling advocates in Gainesville and other communities in America will often fight against on-street parking. In my opinion, such a fight is terribly counterproductive to not only quality of life, but the interests of bicyclists.

In my years as a city planner, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that the pedestrian is the design imperative for cities. Not bicyclists. Not transit users. Not motorists. Not Bambi. Not even seniors or the disabled.

Getting it right for the pedestrian is the most effective, efficient way to create and promote a city quality of life.

And one of the most important way to design for the pedestrian is to have on-street parking.garrett-street-glenwood-park-atlanta

A healthy town center (not to mention healthy transit, healthy Bambi, and a healthy place for seniors/kids/disabled) depends on a healthy pedestrian environment, as even AASHTO recognizes. And a healthy town center is an important way to protect or promote a compact city.

An unhealthy town center, by contrast, accelerates the abandonment of the town center and dispersal of important community destinations to destinations that are too remote to get to by bike, by bus, or by wheelchair.

This is an important reason why bicycling advocates should be advocates for pedestrian design — particularly for features such as on-street parking. A quality pedestrian design promotes the continuation of a compact city. A compact city reduces travel distances. Modest travel distances are, of course, crucial in making bike commuting viable, not to mention improving conditions for Bambi, the disabled, children, and transit users.

 

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Suboptimizing Bicycling Part 2

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 28, 2003

I love bicycling. I have been a lifelong bicycle commuter, wrote my Master’s thesis on bicycle transportation, have been a member of several bicycle advocacy groups, worked professionally to promote bicycling as a town planner, and have had many books and articles published that promote bicycling.

But there is a problem I see here in my city all the time.

We are either removing on-street parking to install a bike lane, OR we are resisting on-street parking due to an existing bike lane. As an urbanist who strongly believes that in cities, the pedestrian is the design imperative, these street design decisions ENRAGE me.

Largely, what has happened in too many communities is that there emerges a strong, pro-bicycle lobby that suboptimizes on their needs to the detriment of other objectives. VERY FEW communities have a pro-pedestrian lobby to counter or at least balance the pro-bike lobby, and even fewer communities have engineers/designers who are well-schooled in pedestrian design.on-street-parking

In the low-speed town center environment, bike lanes tend to be inappropriate (what New Urbanists call a “transect violation”). They are inappropriate for such streets, in part because bicyclists can safely share the lane with motor vehicles. Bike lanes are suburban, large-street facilities.

Bike lanes in that environment are also a problem because they will increase the average motor vehicle speed and will create a street surface that is too wide for a human-scaled, walkable environment.

Ideally for pedestrians, the street cross-section is as narrow as possible. Bike lanes therefore degrade that ideal.

What I try to convince the bicycle advocates of is that an environment that is pleasant for pedestrians is an environment that benefits bicyclists as well. First, a pleasant pedestrian environment is one where car speeds are modest (which bicyclists prefer). Second, a pleasant pedestrian environment will improve the retail/office/housing markets so that those markets are less likely to abandon in-town locations for the remote locations in sprawlsville (which create excessive distances that bicyclists dislike).

It is only in the past 10 years that I have seen the light and realized that my design focus should be on pedestrians, not bicycles.

In the name of better cities (for both pedestrians AND cyclists), I hope a growing number of cities can win the battle to retain the on-street parking in the face of the over-zealous pro-bike lobby.

 

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Thoughts about the Virginia Department of Transportation Plans for Bicycling and Walking in Richmond VA

By Dom Nozzi

May 19, 2008

I’ve read over the review comments by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) bicycle and pedestrian coordinator pertaining to the bike and pedestrian elements of the draft Downtown Richmond Master Plan. Before I provide my thoughts about his comments, I’d like to point out that I met the coordinator recently at a VDOT complete streets workshop. In my brief chat with him, I found him to be likeable, informed, and smart. He seemed to “get it.” I enjoyed talking with him.

I agree with the coordinator that a shared, narrow outside lane proposed in the plan on the extremely wide, hostile, high-speed Broad Street will not be suitable for bicyclists (even commuter bicyclists). Broad Street would need fairly substantial redesign to induce low-speed motor vehicle travel in order for a shared lane to work on Broad. As far as I know, this sort of needed redesign has not been proposed by the plan. Until that happens, I agree with the coordinator that routes parallel to Broad need to be designated and designed, if necessary, for bicycling.

I agree with the coordinator that the Fan District needs more traffic calming mechanisms than are called for in the plan. The streets are overly wide, and encourage excessive motor vehicle speeds. On a related note, I agree with the coordinator that the frequent (and in my opinion, misguided) use of stop signs in the Fan for traffic calming is counter-productive. I agree with the coordinator that bulb-outs could be a better treatment for a number of intersections.

I strongly disagree with the coordinator that one-way streets are beneficial in the downtown area (he cites the benefits of reducing peak-hour congestion). In my view, he is speaking as a suburban motorist rather than a downtown bicycle commuter when he urges the use of one-ways. In my professional opinion (and as a life-long bicycle commuter and whose master’s thesis subject was bicycle travel), one-ways degrade property values, induce higher-speed car travel (due to reduced “friction”), reduce pedestrian comfort, increase motorist impatience with bicyclists and other motorists, harm retail, increase onewaystreetssidewalk bicycle riding, promote sprawl housing by speeding commuters into and out of downtown jobs, increase inconvenience for bicyclists and motorists (especially for visitors to the city), and increase wrong-way bicycle riding. I am a bicycle commuter in Richmond, and I find myself being obligated to wrong-way ride nearly every day.

In my opinion, the most essential thing that Richmond can implement from the draft Master Plan is the conversion of one-ways to two-way. No other recommendation in the Plan is so important and so potentially beneficial to the city.

I would note, as an aside, that there are no one-way streets in suburbia, in part because they are considered undesirable for suburbanites to live on. “One-way streets are okay, but only in your neighborhood, not mine.”

Another aside: Having been a bicycle commuter since I was a boy, and having lived in a great many communities as a bicycle commuter, my assessment of Richmond is that the city street system is relatively hostile to bicyclists. I have found that, by far, the most important reason that Richmond is not bike-friendly is the one-way street system. I am therefore astonished that the bike/ped coordinator supports them.

I disagree that the draft plan does not adequately address the needs of bicyclists.

By the way, I’d like to note here that the consultants propose using a “transect” system for the regional design of land uses and streets. This is a wonderful idea that the City needs to heartily embrace. Such a system requires that design be context-sensitive, and provides designs for the full range of lifestyle choices. There is a rural/peripheral/conservation zone at the edge of a community, suburban zones, and compact, low-speed, walkable urban zones. Speeds and dimensions increase as one moves from the urban zones to the suburban to the rural zones. Promoting quality lifestyles for each of those zones therefore requires design that is calibrated for each zone. That is, design is context-sensitive. For bicycling, for example, this means that in properly low-speed downtowns, bicyclists tend to be comfortable sharing the lane with cars. Painted bike lanes are unnecessary (and often counter-productive to the low-speed, human-scaled ambience). As speeds and sizes increase in suburban zones, bike lanes become more necessary. In rural zones, the highest speeds here often require fully separated bike paths.

My speculation is that the coordinator is unfamiliar with this transect concept, and his comments seem to suggest that he supports use of designs which I will here call “transect violations.” That is, he seems to inappropriately call for the use of bike lanes in the low-speed Richmond downtown. In a low-speed downtown environment, the lifestyle and design imperative is the pedestrian. Bike lanes can degrade this walkable lifestyle design intent by subverting the potential for future (and needed) street narrowing, and increasing motor vehicle speeds.

I agree with the coordinator that the increased bike parking called for by the plan is not a meaningful way to promote increased bicycling. I would note, however, that despite the fact that bike parking does not significantly increase bicycling, bicycle parking is an important way for the community to send a visible public message that the community recognizes, respects and supports bicycling.

I disagree with the coordinator that the transportation consultant (HPE) “doesn’t ‘get it.'” Indeed, in my many years of looking over bike/ped plans, these are some of the very best I’ve seen, despite what the coordinator indicates. Again, I think the problem here is that while the consultant is designing for a low-speed, walkable environment (downtown), the coordinator is thinking about the design necessary in higher-speed suburban applications.

The coordinator points out that the plan is woefully inadequate in its bicycling recommendations for downtown Richmond. Speaking as an urban designer and bicycle commuter, I find the recommendations to be adequate, appropriate and impressive. As the consultant notes, in a compact, low-speed environment, bicycling does quite well without the need for special treatments such as bike lanes (bicyclists tend to be able to comfortably “fend for themselves,” so to speak, in compact, low-speed environments).

It is therefore appropriate that the plan, in designing for a high-quality, low-speed, pedestrian-oriented downtown, devotes nearly all of its design focus on the pedestrian. Happily, properly designing for a quality low-speed environment for pedestrians also happens to be an effective way, indirectly, to improve conditions for bicycle commuting.

I would note that the coordinator makes almost no substantive comments regarding pedestrian design needs.

 

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

On-Street Parking, Town Centers, Pedestrians and Bicyclists

 

By Dom Nozzi

December 30, 2008

If we are talking about the creation (or restoration and revival) of a town center, the litmus test for which strategies to use must consider whether the strategy will create a low-speed “park once” environment. For a healthy town center, the pedestrian must be the design imperative.

A common and effective way to create such an environment is with on-street parking. On-street parking, by itself, is not necessarily sufficient in creating a better environment for retail, bicyclists or pedestrians. But on-street parking is one of the most beneficial tactics that can be leveraged in an existing or up-and-comashevilleing low-speed town center. On-street parking should therefore be included whenever
possible.

Too commonly, a place that a community seeks to transform into a walkable town center is fronted by a six-lane corridor. But such a “stroad” design (as Charles Marohn calls a street that is designed poorly for both urbanism and suburbanism) is anything but low-speed or park once, typically. Such a “drive-through” design, to be transformed into a healthy town center, must do what it can to ratchet down speeds and the width of the street. On-street parking and travel lane removal tend to be the most effective ways to do that.

Note that when town centers are designed well, bike lanes can be incompatible with a low-speed walkable town center design. Even though bike lanes ARE usually a good idea in other settings.

In other words, street design must be context-sensitive. We need to be careful not to suboptimize certain forms of travel (such as bicycling) in inappropriate locations.

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