Tag Archives: planning

Bean Counting is Bad for Boulder

 

By Dom Nozzi

August 15, 2015

Boulder voters are being asked this fall to vote on a seemingly wonderful measure called “Growth Shall Pay Its own Way.”

I spent 20 years, as a professional town planner, implementing such a law in Gainesville FL, a college town the same size as Boulder. In Florida, we called it “growth management concurrency.” Cities in Florida were required to adopt “level of service” standards (for example, at least 5 acres of parks per 1,000 people). New development, to be “concurrent,” needed to demonstrate that they were not degrading the adopted levels of service. There were many features or services that had adopted levels of service.

Who could be opposed to the fairness of development paying its own way?

At the end of the day, however, Gainesville’s citizens and elected officials (and nearly all of the other cities and counties in Florida) only cared about was the bean counting of ROAD level of service. This was the only standard where developers were required to be “concurrent.” The only standard that was important enough to stop the development in its tracks if the project was not “concurrent.” None of the many other level of service standards mattered at all. “Concurrency” was therefore code language for “road concurrency.”

The right-sizing project on Folsom Street in Boulder makes it crystal clear that like nearly every other community in the nation, many Boulder residents equate easy, higher speed motor vehicle travel with quality of life. It is therefore dangerously likely that Boulder – if it adopts a concurrency rule such as “growth paying its own way” — will follow Florida’s concurrency path of putting easy car travel, and nothing else, on a privileged pedestal. Big roads and intersections become far more important than any other quality of life measure.

It is easy to be seduced by confusing happy car travel with quality of life. After all, most all of us get caught every day in rush hour traffic going to and from work at rush hour, or can’t find an available parking spot near our restaurant.

But ruinously, putting easy car travel on a pedestal is precisely the OPPOSITE of what we should do to protect and promote quality of life in Boulder. Easy car travel delivers more sprawl, higher taxes, more strip commercial “sellscapes,” more injuries and deaths, huge turn radius for roadreduced travel by walking or bicycling or transit, less affordability, more air pollution due to more of us driving, more huge parking lots and huge intersections and huge roads, and more noise pollution.

What do we consider to be measures of quality of life in Boulder? For many of us, the list includes Pearl Street Mall; proximity to the Flatirons, the Foothills, the Rocky Mountains, and great outdoor recreation; desirable climate and air quality; transportation choices; the feeling of safety and relative freedom from crime (particularly for seniors and children); our greenbelt; quality culture and good restaurants; small town ambience; a highly educated, healthy, and physically fit population of creative people; housing choices; low noise levels; and abundant, high-paying, rewarding jobs.

Having “growth pay its own way” does NOTHING to promote any of these quality of life measures, and because it is possible that the law will induce Boulder to focus heavily on easy car travel (partly because it is an easy bean-counting measure), it will do quite a bit to DEGRADE many of these measures.

Adequate Facilities laws (such as “concurrency” or “growth paying its own way”) incentivize bigger, wealthier projects and developers, because the smaller, local projects and developers are less able to afford to jump through the Adequacy hoops.

Yes, many recent buildings are ugly – largely because they are creepy and weird modernist buildings that are unlike anything from Boulder’s past. Such buildings have thrown away the timelessly lovable nature of traditional design exemplified by the Boulderado.

But the way to have more lovable buildings is in no way helped by having growth pay its own way. We can move in that direction by implementing things like a “form-based code,” which will soon regulate building design at Boulder Junction.

Having Boulder follow Florida’s “Growth Pay Its Own Way” path will likely lead to a grim future for this city because Adequate Facilities laws are a form of bean counting for happy cars. Quality of life is about qualitative measures, not drowning in bean counting minutiae for SUVs.

 

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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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Parks and Recreation Planning for a City

By Dom Nozzi

September 9, 2003

A friend of mine asked if I could help a person with an interesting question: Are there any standards, codes, recommendations for number, location, density of parks? Specifically as it helps with creating more active community environments?

The following is what I told my friend…

Having authored a long-range recreation and parks plan for a college town in Florida about 14 years ago, I can add a few comments about this issue:

  1. A huge percentage of communities can only find the political will to allocate a tiny, token pittance to public parks and recreation — while pouring millions into parking, roads, police, and fire protection. A number of these cities prepare a parks plan that is overly ambitious, thinking that an aggressive parks plan will magically create the money and political will to pay for a decent park program without any political pain such as cutting other services or raising taxes. Such plans are better than nothing, since, on VERY rare occasions, a community might be shocked to learn that a pot of money has come from somewhere – such as a benefactor, a state or federal grant, or a drug forfeiture, etc. A plan in place — even if financially infeasible at the time — would allow such an extremely fortunate community to spend that new money wisely. Mostly though, such plans just collect dust on the shelf because no miraculous Sugar Daddy ever arrives.
  1. Another approach is to define “parks” creatively. I am a big supporter of having a park within walking distance of most homes in neighborhoods. But since communities have spent several decades forgetting about parks (and the public realm generally), there are hardly any neighborhoods that have parks within them. It is unbelievably expensive to retrofit parks into existing neighborhoods. The “creative” approach is to call schools, cemeteries, private fitness clubs, YMCAs, churches and similar facilities “parks.” After all, such places can often be used by the public for recreation. Public schools are particularly appropriate for being called public parks, for a number of reasons. The biggest problem is that public schools tend to be extremely hesitant to have school grounds be considered public parks, since that raises liability and maintenance cost issues.
  1. Perhaps the best hope are these options:

(a) Elect people who sincerely prioritize recreation (i.e., are willing to cut police and fire department budgets, raise taxes, or both.

(b) Establish level of service standards that at least require NEW subdivisions or neighborhoods to incorporate the proper amounts of parks and recreation that is then dedicated to the local government.

National standards from the National Parks and Recreation Association are not very helpful with regard to having parks and recreation facilities within walking distance of parks-161homes. They simply state the nationally-recognized standards for amount per 1,000 people (only quantity is addressed, not location). I do not believe that there are any national recreation standards for walking distance. I suspect that there are only standards at the neighborhood level that have been prepared by some new urbanist design firms, since the new urbanist design is so admirably focused on walkability.

In the end, I’ve concluded that the only real way to have a community properly prioritize recreation in a reactive democracy like ours is to somehow “create the proper crisis.” That is, attempt to convince the community that crime rates are exploding due to lack of parks. Or start calling parks something like the Detroit Police Department Park to leverage dollars from a municipal budget that is bloated already.

 

 

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Why I Became a Town Planner

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 28, 2005

Several years ago, while I was an undergraduate in environmental science, I came across a study that sought to determine if there were correlations between a person being an environmental activist (or living a low-impact lifestyle) and childhood experiences. A vast number of experiences were analyzed. One experience stood out head and shoulders above any other experience to explain why a person was a conservationist as an adult.

The person, as a child, enjoyed free, unrestricted access to unstructured play in natural areas (open spaces, woodlands, etc.).

That finding motivated me to enter the field of urban planning, as I realized that in such a profession, I could perhaps help a community design itself so that children would not be denied such a crucially important childhood experience.

In recent years, I have come to learn that even if such places remain in or near neighborhoods, our car-happy culture has made it increasingly impossible for children (or adults, for that matter) to walk or bicycle to such places. Roads have become treacherous death zones that isolate children from their desired locations (unless Mom is able to serve as a taxi driver). boy biking low speed street

I have therefore turned much of my interest to the design of communities that employs traditional, timeless, walkable, human-scaled principles. Mostly embodied in the techniques used in the new urbanist, place-making movement, I have become convinced that a walkable community is an essential lynchpin in creating a high quality of life for all people—and, importantly, provides children with access to unstructured play.

 

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Planners Recommending Road Widening?

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 29, 2008

The author of “Our Daunting To-Do List” (Planning Magazine, October 2008) rightly points out the pressing need to address the staggering and neglected backlog of infrastructure repair needs throughout the U.S.—particularly with regard to roads and bridges. But in the next sentence, he informs us that our failure to widen roadways has resulted in growing congestion.

Am I to understand that “sufficient” road widening would allow us to avoid this costly congestion? That a growing amount of “induced demand” research is wrong? That we can, in fact, build our way out of congestion?Carmageddon highway

And even if widening could eliminate congestion, where would this debt-ridden nation find the revenue? Furthermore, given the scarcity of public revenue, is it advisable to continue expanding infrastructure when we cannot come close to maintaining the infrastructure we already have?

The last time I checked, we have entered the 21st Century. Don’t we know by now that widening does not ease congestion? That widening will induce catastrophic, unaffordable and unsustainable sprawl? That widening results in substantial increases in motor vehicle greenhouse gas emissions and gasoline consumption? That wider roads make it more difficult to walk, bicycle or use transit. That widening subverts quality of life?

Shouldn’t planners be urging travel choices, sustainable and lovable communities, environmental conservation and fiscal responsibility? Don’t we have a professional responsibility to point out that widening results in the undercutting of these essential objectives?

Is there anything worse, in other words, for American planners to advocate than widening roads?

 

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“Concurrency” for New Development?

By Dom Nozzi

“Concurrency” is a regulatory rule that seeks to ensure that new development does not result in a diminishment of the amount of parks or schools or potable water per person. Some communities call it an “adequate facilities” rule.

I worked as a town planner for 20 years as a long-range comprehensive planner in Florida, and a great deal of my work involved helping my community implement the state concurrency rule adopted a year before I started my job.

This state growth management law goes into great detail and requires an enormous amount of study to determine, precisely, concurrency needs for facilities (primarily adequacy for roads to avoid congestion). The concurrency rule seems, on the surface, to be a good proxy for our determining if we are “managing” growth and protecting our quality of life.

In fact, it is an incredibly bad measure for sustainability and quality of life.

Despite first impressions, the rule tends to move communities in the opposite, downwardly-spiraling direction.

The rule is fairly harmless for, say, parks or schools. But for roads, maintaining per capita road capacity with a concurrency or adequate facilities rule is ruinous.

In most or all instances where concurrency is adopted by a community to manage new development, the rule says nothing meaningful about needing to maintain a level-of-service for the most important elements of a quality community: quality neighborhoods, transportation choice, housing choice, urban design quality, compact development, mixed use, or quality of life.admin-ajax (3)

Instead, nearly all applications of the rule forces the community to divert an enormous amount of time and energy into putting together a huge amount of data that is nearly meaningless for creating quality communities — data that is often counter-productive. And little more than mindless, bureaucratic bean counting.

Because of this, communities with a concurrency rule often have very little available staff time that can be devoted to putting together a vision for quality of life and sustainability. Such communities could have time, but it would require more money to hire more planners — and visionary planners at that. By setting up a concurrency rule, most communities get lowest common denominator planning.

The smaller towns with no planning staff or history of planning are helped to at least start doing something to fight the Wal-Marts and sprawl developers, but for bigger, more sophisticated cities, the rule typically means that planning staff squander a huge chunk of their time on bean counting: working up huge amounts of numbers that don’t help the community — and usually hurts the community.

Almost never does a community with a concurrency rule ask or expect any visioning or designing for quality of life. They are so busy counting beans that they kill themselves to assess concurrency numbers, and then delude themselves into thinking that such a number-crunching effort will somehow give them, magically, a pleasant, walkable town.

We need to start over again on concurrency.

Concurrency must start finding proxies for quality of life.

The road concurrency rule (which is the only concurrency rule that matters for most or all of the communities which have adopted concurrency regulations) means, instead, that all the community cares about is a quality of life for cars.

The unintended consequence of such a misguided focus on a quality car habitat rather than a quality people habitat? The community makes it inevitable that sprawl will be accelerated and the quality of life trashed. Indeed, both sprawl and quality of life end up being much worse than had the community not adopted a concurrency rule.

And what a bitter irony that would be.

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Will Better Public Transit Reduce Traffic Congestion?

It is quite common for advocates of transit to argue that such improvements will reduce traffic congestion.

But advocates must be very careful when stating this.

While I am confident that quality transit coupled with effective transit incentives will take car trips off of roads, I am not at all sure that even the best transit can noticeably reduce congestion (a congestion reduction that is so substantial that motorists are easily able to see congested conditions become free-flowing conditions).

Motor vehicles consume such an immense amount of space, per traveler, that even a tiny number of motorists can quickly fill a road to congestion (see image photo 40PeopleFig7.3Insertedseries). Therefore, it seems to me that if a city does NOT have congestion, there must be something terribly wrong with the city, since it only takes about 40 motorists to gridlock a street – not a lot of people.

Even if large percentages were using transit/carpools/bicycles, etc., and only a small percent are single-occupant vehicles (SOVs), it only takes a small number of SOVs to create congestion.

Even if it were true that transit could noticeably reduce congestion, induced demand and the triple convergence would quickly fill up the newly free-flowing roads. The triple convergence informs us that in any reasonably healthy community, roadway space that is freed up will quickly be filled again because the newly-available road space induces new car trips that would not have occurred had the road not been made free-flowing. Those new trips come from motorists converging on the new road space who were formerly driving at non-rush hour times, using alternative routes, or traveling by bicycle, walking or transit.

I therefore believe that it is strategically problematic to claim in a debate with those who oppose improvements for transit (and who instead want to spend money to make motor vehicle travel easier) that transit reduces congestion. The motor vehicle advocates are placed in a strong debate position when the argument is framed in such a way as to suggest transit reduces congestion, because almost no one is able to point to a single community where transit has noticeably reduced congestion, even where there is good transit. Are the great cities of the world – Rome, Paris, DC, NYC – free of congestion because they have quality transit? I think most everyone perceives each of those wonderful cities to be grid-locked.

Therefore, argues the motor vehicle advocate, transit is wastefully ineffective.

I think we are in a much better debate position when we don’t get caught up in that sort of debate framing. Instead, the point I try to make is not that transit will significantly reduce congestion, but that it will provide choices. One can choose to get stuck in traffic by stubbornly continuing to drive a car. Or one can decide they are unwilling to tolerate the congestion, and instead choose to use transit (or better yet, live closer to their destination). Or avoid rush hour. Or take an alternative route.

Are there effective tactic for reducing congestion? Yes. I am supportive of congestion-pricing and proper parking management as an effective, if politically unrealistic, strategies to reduce congestion.

The key, in my opinion, for a healthy community is not to fight against congestion. Fighting against congestion too often leads even the most progressive communities to not only set up ineffective, “empty bus syndrome,” transit systems – which gives transit a black eye, but also encourages the default solution: road widening. While I don’t tend to say this publicly, I am passively supportive of congestion because it delivers compact, higher density development, more transit use, and less severe crashes, among other community benefits.

In sum, my vision for a healthy community is not to strive to reduce congestion (which may not be possible at the local level, anyway, and can easily be counter-productive), but to ensure that there are transportation and lifestyle choices so that one can choose to opt out of what is probably intractable congestion. I believe it is a mistake, tactically, to suggest that transit will reduce congestion.

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