Tag Archives: quality of life

Happy Cars are Ironically a Recipe for Ruining Quality of Life

 

By Dom Nozzi

Recently, someone on Facebook responded to an article that pointed out the hypocrisy of many political liberals. Such liberals support social justice, yet aggressively protect their snobbish low-density single-family neighborhoods from efforts to make such neighborhoods more inclusive by allowing more compact living arrangements.

In his response to this news article, he noted that he strongly dislikes the idea of “living in a real city with cars and people on top of me, noise, threats, vile smells, and just a general feeling of being under siege. Too much stimulation of a certain kind.” He concluded by saying that he “honestly can’t imagine how other people in these living situations find it appealing.”

A Facebook friend responded by pointing out that while this is true to some extent with some larger US cities, many cities have comfortable densities offering a pleasant quality of life.

I responded by pointing out that these more pleasant conditions are also found in a great many cities in Europe.

But this conversation brings to light one of the most tragic ironies of human history. The fact that today, we find ourselves in an auto-dependent world that compels us to equate easy, low-cost car travel with a high quality of life. The irony is that this is precisely backward.

Conveniencing car travel is a powerful recipe for destroying our quality of life.

By far, the biggest problem with the design and quality of life in American cities is that nearly all of them were and are built for the convenience of car travel. That inevitably means a loss of human scale, noise pollution, air pollution, water pollution, excessive lighting, excessive speeds, dangerous conditions, too many dead zone parking areas, loss of the agglomeration economies that allow cities to thrive, enormous inconvenience and danger for pedestrians and cyclists, excessive financial burdens for households and businesses and governments, a ruination of public health due to physical inactivity, an inability to maintain or repair the massive amounts of infrastructure that cars require, and ugly streetscapes due to the inevitable need for retailers to scream at high-speed motorists with glaring lights and signs. There are a great many other things I could list here.

Again, this is a great tragedy. Nearly all of us are car-dependent, which understandably makes most of us angrily demand that we continue to convenience cars. Which makes us our own worst enemies, as doing so, as I noted above, substantially worsens our quality of life.

In sum, promoting car travel inevitably creates cities that are in many ways unpleasant. This is a bitter, ruinous irony, since car dependency deludes many of us into thinking that making it easier to drive a car is IMPROVING our quality of life.

Making cars happy means that our generation is leaving an awful legacy for future generations. In the future, much of what we have built will need to be demolished and replaced.

A future time when we have finally regained our senses.

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

Excerpts from Jeff Speck’s Walkable City Rules (2018)

 

By Dom Nozzi

In February 2018, I read an excellent book regarding walkable design. Jeff Speck’s Walkable City Rules turned me on to this inspiring 15-min video. It shows how a city being run down by a high-speed, high-volume, massive, dangerous, car-only intersection full of angry motorists could be reborn into a much more courteous, safe, welcoming, healthy, shared place with right-sized roads (diets), removal of traffic signals and traffic regulation signs, expansion of pedestrian areas, and street design that obligates slow and attentive driving.

Please share this with friends and your local traffic engineers!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vzDDMzq7d0

Excerpts from the book:

“There are many things that can be measured in cities, each of which has its own impact on success. Density, diversity, walkability, property value, resource conservation, life expectancy, educational attainment, the production of patents, GDP, carbon footprint, free-flowing traffic: all of these relate to a city’s well-being, attractiveness, and future prospects. Yet only one of them, the last one, is routinely used to direct decision making around a city’s growth, and ironically, it is the one that works to the detriment of all the others. Let that sink in. The one aspect of urban life that has the most impact on city planning, traffic flow, exists in almost perfect opposition to all the other good things a city can have…The more dense, diverse, walkable, and desirable a city is, the more it is likely to be congested. The less fuel it burns and the lower the obesity rate, the worse the traffic. Ditto that on educational attainment, patents per capita, and GDP (Every 10% increase in traffic delay correlates to a 3.4% increase in per capita GDP). In the US at least, greatness brings congestion. Why, then, is design controlled by congestion, and not by greatness?”

“In every major American city, pedestrian deaths are a part of life…The news cycle is predictable: first comes the victim blaming, then the driver blaming – sober drivers are almost never punished – then perhaps a discussion about speed limits and enforcement. Through it all, the crash is called an ‘accident’ as if it was not preventable. Rarely is the design of the roadway itself considered. And never – NEVER – is there any reconsideration of the professional engineering standards that created the hazard in the first place. The Swedes, those geniuses of driving safety, know better. For some time, the leadership of the Swedish traffic safety profession has acknowledged that street design is at the heart of traffic safety, and modified its engineering standards with an eye to lowering speeds in urban areas. The results are astounding. Their traffic fatality rate as a nation is about one quarter of the US, but the biggest difference is in the cities. In 2013, Stockholm, with a similar population to Phoenix, lost six people to car crashes. Phoenix lost 167. Remarkably, Stockholm made it through 2016 without a single pedestrian or cyclist dying. Welcome to ‘Vision Zero’…In Seattle, too – where city engineer Dongho Chang tweets daily about bike lanes, curb extensions, and other safety improvements his department is installing – the impact of Vision Zero is clear…While not stated outright, both its goals and execution fly in the face of a half-century of negligent engineering practice…Advocates should rally publicly around the tragedy of road deaths to overcome hurdles to its adoption.”

“Level of service is the system that traffic planners use, often exclusively, to determine the success of a street network. Level of service (LOS) rankings run from A to F, with A representing unimpeded flow and F representing bad delays…Many engineers aim for an LOS of A or B, because…A’s and B’s are best, right? To an engineer’s mind, the less congestion the better. But this belief ignores the fact that an LOS of A or B corresponds to cars moving at higher speeds than are safe for an urban center. Moreover, experience teaches us that there hardly exists a single successful, vital, main street that would earn an A or B rating. When it comes to retail performance and street life, LOS could aptly be said to stand for Lack of Success…It is clear that the LOS system, which was created to assess highways, is the wrong measure for determining the success of a city. Or, it perhaps is useful, but only if we consistently aim for an LOS of E…Only as a LOS of D emerges into E do we see a significant drop in driving speeds. Even a high F would seem to provide a slow but steady flow of traffic, ideal for a main street…Because congestion is spuriously associated with pollution, it once seemed wise to impose upon new development a burden of maintaining a high LOS. This approach ignored the fact that the most free-flowing traffic is found in those places where people drive the most miles – that smooth traffic is indeed an inducement to driving – and thus our most congested cities make the lowest per-capita contribution to greenhouse gases. In light of this new understanding, the State of California recently eliminated LOS from its environmental review process, and replaced it with a focus on reducing VMT: Vehicle Miles Traveled. Under the old rules, ironically, environmental regulations would stop you from adding a bike lane to a street if a traffic study showed a negative impact on the flow of cars. This still happens in many places. But California has regained its sanity and is once again leading the way in limiting the environmental impacts of driving.”

 

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Filed under Road Diet, Transportation, Walking

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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Filed under Environment, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

The Death of the City Planning Profession

By Dom Nozzi

May 28, 2019

A few years ago, I let my American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) certification expire because AICP and the American Planning Association represent a profession (public sector planning) that has lost its way.

The profession has lost any sense of an admirable or societally desirable mission. It has lost the inspiring vision it once had.

Conventional city (and county or regional) planning has become sterile and drowns in the minutia of “needed” parking and “needed” throughput of cars. Of an obsession with separating “incompatible” land uses from each other (such as homes and retail) through strict and mindless adherence to zoning regulations.

Both of these single-minded efforts are tragically quite counterproductive, as they are precisely the opposite of what a vibrant, healthy, sustainable city needs.

The profession has shedded any interest in urban design, human scale, pedestrian quality, timeless design, and quality of life. In my 20 years as a town planner, I was little more than a paper pushing clerk who signed off on developers seeking to create car-happy places.

For example, nearly all of my day-to-day work involved confirming that a proposed development had “sufficient” (ie, excessive) parking. Parking requirements that had no basis in reality or science or what a given development or neighborhood actually needed. Given how toxic car parking happens to be for a quality city, what could be more misguided? Eventually, I was marginalized and censored by administrators, supervisors, and my elected officials when I started to move toward designing for people rather than cars.

The desire to “make no one unhappy” is now a single-minded obsession for nearly all American public sector town planners. And in our car-based world where there is nothing anywhere near as important to achieve as easy motoring, this translates into an almost exclusive focus on promoting car travel.

This, of course, is a rode to ruin, as such a mission leads to a perpetuation of the downwardly spiraling car-oriented status quo.

Shame on public sector planners, the APA, and AICP for leaving such a terrible legacy for future generations.

 

 

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

Making Cars Happy Is America’s Most Serious Mistake

By Dom Nozzi

October 14, 1999

One of America’s most serious societal mistakes is that since WWII, we’ve designed our communities to make cars instead of people happy. The better we “move automobile traffic,” the more we inevitably get:

  1. Costly, environmentally destructive, low-density, dispersed sprawl;
  2. Characterless, “Anywhere USA” strip commercial development featuring”auto architecture;”download
  1. A loss of a sense of place and sense of community;
  2. Unpleasant, unsafe neighborhoods;
  3. A loss of independence for those who cannot drive — especially seniors and children, who become captive to those that can give them a car ride; and
  1. A lack of transportation choice, because every trip is forced to be made by car, and because the relentless efforts to make cars happy is a zero-sum game: Every time we make car travel more pleasant, we discourage all other forms of travel (a classic viscous cycle).

To save ourselves, we must wean ourselves from our utter dependence on the car. A guy by the name of Pit Klasen recently said that “It’s true that Germans have always had a special love affair with the car, but there’s no reason you have to remain trapped in a bad and unhealthy relationship.”

 

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

The Town Planning Medical Metaphor

By Dom Nozzi

March 20, 2018

It has been said that town planners are doctors for cities. The job of the town planner, according to this metaphor, is to prescribe medicine (zoning and transportation recommendations) that will improve or maintain the health of a city.

To borrow an analogy from Donald Shoup, let us say that the town planning “doctor” lives in the 18th Century in Colonial America. It has been claimed by historians that George Washington’s doctors hastened the death of our ailing former president by administering blood-letting, which was a widely accepted medical treatment at the time. Indeed, had the American Medical Association been in existence in those days, they would have strongly recommended blood-letting due to the guidelines established by medical science and books of medicine of that age.bl

Let us say that you were a doctor in Colonial America, yet you had come to learn that blood-letting was detrimental to the health of patients. But the AMA, your medical books, and nearly all of your patients were strongly demanding that you administer blood-letting. If you agree to administer blood-letting, you will keep your patients (patients that are otherwise threatening to use another doctor who favors blood-letting) and will therefore keep your job as a doctor.

But if you abide by your Hippocratic Oath to do no harm, you will not administer blood-letting. You recognize that doing so would be a form of medical malpractice. However, you will therefore lose your occupation as a doctor.

What do you do?

Similarly, let us say you are a town planner in contemporary America, and you had come to learn that requesting developers to provide the “free” off-street parking was toxic to the health of your town – particularly your town center. But your land development code, your elected officials, your planning supervisor, and nearly all of the citizens in your community were strongly demanding that you request abundant off-street parking from developers. If you agree to demand that required off-street parking, you will keep your job as a town planner (your office is otherwise threatening to replace you with another planner who will follow parking guidelines and the orders of your supervisor and citizens).

But if you go along with requesting off-street parking, you will do so knowing that you are violating your duty as a town planner to promote the health of your town.

What do you do?

To borrow from Victor Brandon Dover, this analogy works even better if we look upon off-street parking as an addictive drug (Donald Shoup calls off-street parking a fertility drug for cars). As a town planner, your citizens (and the banks that finance development loans) are addicted to the off-street parking fix. As an addict, they must get their fix, yet they can never get enough of it. Giving them their fix is a downward spiral, as it pulls them more strongly into their addiction. The same is true with providing wider roads and larger parking lots, as doing so makes citizens increasingly wedded to their cars because other forms of travel become less safe or feasible when roads and parking are enlarged.

Do you, as a town planner, keep administering a (off-street parking) fix to your addicted patients (citizens)? Is it not true, though, that doing so would be a form of malpractice?

315-0722092524-NSA-building-and-parking-lotIn sum, given the state of affairs I outline above, is it not true that the very heavy contemporary town planning emphasis on enabling car travel (particularly via the demand for providing off-street parking – which is so much of what American town planners now do in their jobs) exemplifies the premise that town planning has become an outdated, failing profession? That it is trapped in the role of administering medicine (or a drug) that is clearly toxic to its “patients” (the town)?

It is time for us to reform town planning so that it returns to the timeless tradition of planning for people, not cars. To return to restoring city health, rather than pushing papers (issuing permits) for cars.

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Florida Growth Management Has Put Gigantism on Steroids

By Dom Nozzi

September 17, 2017

Florida Growth Management and its “concurrency” is a high falutin’ term which has, almost single-mindedly, been directed toward ensuring that new growth happens concurrently with widened roads and more parking. All other concurrency concerns arestreet without on street parking trivial by comparison (such as parks, water, schools, etc.). “Sufficient” roads and parking is equated with maintaining quality of life.

Tragically and ironically, these obsessive efforts to ensure happy motoring is about the most effective way to undermine quality of life, not protect it.

For Florida Growth Management regulations to truly protect and advance quality of life, those regulations should be focused on promoting the people habitat, not the car habitat. State and local growth management regulations must insist on quality urban design, which is largely achieved by requiring new development to be compact and human-scaled.

Since Florida started state-directed growth management back in the early 80s, the state has gotten the opposite.

Communities have instead been degraded by dispersed, car-scaled design. Why? Because to be happy, cars need dispersed, low-density, single-use development. A car-based society induces gigantism, and the gigantism disease has been administered growth hormones via “growth management” and “concurrency.”

Maybe someday Florida will wise up and adopt planning laws that promote quality of life. It has done the opposite for 35 years.

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Thoughts about the 2005 Florida Growth Management Legislation

by Dom Nozzi

May 18, 2005

The 2005 Florida State Legislative session was billed as the most substantial growth management legislative modifications since the Growth Management Act was adopted in 1985. This legislation has been hailed by a large number of groups—from builders, to public interest groups and environmental groups—as something that “will finally allow Florida to make growth management much more effective.”

Not by legislating a sustainable, walkable, timeless vision for how communities should be designed. Not by providing quality of life tools such as required growth boundaries, reformed land development regulations, parking reforms, acknowledging that road concurrency is fueling sprawl and harming communities (recognizing, in other words, that in urban areas, congestion is our friend), property tax reform (to stop promoting sprawl and downtown ruin), or calling for road diets.

None of these actions were urged by legislators.

No, what our legislators decided to do to “improve” growth management and the future quality of life of Floridians was precisely what should NOT have been done to achieve these objectives.

The major action by the legislature? “Starting to properly funding growth management after 20 years of insufficient funding.”

Our state “leaders” voted to proclaim that the solution to protect our future quality of life is to pour billions of public dollars into building bigger roads so that we can “prevent growth from congesting our roads.”Untitled

So there you have it. Bigger roads means happier Floridians.

Oh, sure. The legislature took some baby steps with regard to water supply and schools. A tightening of the concurrency rule that requires development to “pay its own way.” But each of these were comparatively trivial actions.

By far, the big message from our legislators in 2005 was that we have “growth management” if we widen roads to “prevent further congestion.” The be all and end all of quality of life in Florida is “free-flowing traffic.” Happy cars is our sole focus to create happy communities.

At least that is what one is led to believe, when it is recognized that about 75 percent of the funding the legislators found to “fund growth management” is being directed toward roads.

Oops.

We forgot (again) that we cannot build our way out of congestion. We forgot that widening soon makes congestion worse. We forgot that wider roads is like throwing gasoline on the fire of sprawl, auto dependence and community decline. We forgot that happy cars and happy people mix like oil and water. We forgot that widening roads is the most effective way to destroy community quality of life. We forgot that the impossible task of widening our way out of congestion will further bankrupt state and local government—thereby starving other essential public programs.

We forgot that what is good (in the short term) for our SUVs is NOT good for our communities.

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Leverage and “No Growthers”

by Dom Nozzi

December 20, 1999

There is a national epidemic of people, over the past few decades, who oppose all forms of development. There are not only NIMBYs = not in my back yard. There are also CAVEs = citizens against virtually everything, NIMTOOs = not in my term of office, BANANAs = build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything, and my personal favorite: NOPEs = not on planet earth.

Clearly, much of this opposition has arisen because, since approximately WWII, we’ve developed our neighborhoods and cities to make cars happy instead of people. Suburban sprawl is primarily fueled by our single-minded efforts to make cars happy. And sprawl gives us horrific government and household financial crises, massive environmental destruction and loss of farmland in our outlying areas, declining and unsafe “in-town” areas, visual blight, excessive dependency on our cars, loss of civic pride, distrust of (and anger towards) government and developers, hopelessness and despair. It is no wonder that we are a nation infested with a “no growth” attitude. And it is no surprise that our costly and ugly development patterns make such an attitude justifiable.

The problem is that a “no growth” attitude is ultimately unsustainable, since you cannot stop growth — you can merely push it into other areas.

Unfortunately, these “other areas” are usually the outlying natural areas and farms surrounding our cities. After all, outlying land is usually less costly and more abundant than in the city, and there are fewer NIMBYs in outlying areas. Perhaps most disturbing is that development of these outlying areas inevitably leads to the destruction of vast amounts of relatively sensitive natural areas, guarantee excessive dependency on the car, make walking and transit nearly impossible, destroy any sense of neighborliness, and give us unbearable service and household costs.nimby-web-2

Today, we seem to have a new problem emerging — or at least a problem becoming more sophisticated. Increasingly, “no growthers” have found potent new leverage to achieve their agenda. The new leverage is now primarily coming from environmentalists, and elected officials who lack the courage to be leaders in the face of emotional, angry NIMBYs.

Environmental Leverage

Environmentalists are understandably disturbed by the destruction of wildlife and habitat by most conventional development, and usually work to stop any development — no matter its design or location. But environmentalists must pick their battles. Is it wise to burn out the troops by fighting to save every single tree in every development proposal, especially when doing so encourages developers to find less contentious outlying areas, where development will harm more important and more sensitive natural areas? Shouldn’t environmentalists understand that excessive dependence on car travel is perhaps the most profound threat to the environment (air pollution, water pollution, sprawl, etc., are mostly due to the car), and that fighting in-town development will push more new development to areas where it is impossible to travel except by car?

Most of our project-specific environmental battles have been won. We have strong water, air, and tree rules. The most important environmental, economic and quality of life threat is not the smokestack. It is car-oriented sprawl into our outlying areas.

It seems to me that the priority for environmentalists is to slow sprawl to outlying areas, and to create cities with a wealth of transportation choices and quality of life — a quality of life that reduces the desire to flee the city. An effective way to do that is to return to the age of designing our in-town locations to make people instead of cars happy.

Elected Officials Leverage

The second form of leverage is the elected official who lacks courage and leadership, which seems to be another epidemic in America. Here, the “no growther” can realize success because fearful elected officials are often anxious — in the face of angry citizens opposed to a development project — to find a rationale to deny development approval. A handy way to find such reasons without appearing to be lacking in courage, or appearing to be “caving in” to a hostile group of citizens, is to simply state that you would support the in-town development if only it was not going to remove trees. Or harm a wetland.

Ultimately, these are fertile times for the “no growther.” People understandably assume that any new development will be bad, given what has happened over the past several decades. Environmentalists are understandably enraged by environmental destruction. The level of anger and hysteria has reached such a fever pitch that we understandably find ourselves with elected officials who live in fear of such strong emotions. It is a vicious cycle that is contributing to sprawl and a decline of our quality of life.

These new forms of leverage allow the “no growther” to be increasingly successful in stopping in-town development. But to the extent that the “no growther” is successful, our fate will be to suffer a decline in quality of life and a loss of sustainability because outlying sprawl will accelerate and our in-town locations will continue to stagnate.

What is needed is the courage and will to incrementally move Back To The Future so that we again design for people instead of cars. Inevitably, such an approach will restore trust, confidence and respect for our elected officials and our developers.

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Should We Stop Growth or Promote Quality Development in Boulder?

By Dom Nozzi

September 10, 2017

In Boulder, Colorado, it is quite common to hear the suggestion that we must stop growth in our community to protect our quality of life.

In response, I point out that there are no realistic, humane, ethical, or constitutional ways to “stop growth.”

Given that, the key to our avoiding wasting time and energy is to ensure that the growth that does come to our community is quality growth. Growth that is sustainable and promotes human happiness.

As an aside, it needs to be pointed out that in very expensive cities such as Boulder, Colorado, there has long been an effective way to slow population growth. Slow growth in expensive cities occurs because of the extreme expense of living in the expensive city. Many cannot move to the expensive city because they cannot afford to.

The problem is the form of growth we allow, not the growth itself.

The car-oriented growth so many American cities have mandated in our land use plans, zoning regulations, and transportation spending for the past century cannot sustain growth and strongly undermines a quality human habitat.

Boulder, were I live, can accommodate more development, but Boulder’s plans and regulations are not crafted to ensure that future growth be done in a way that is sustainable or in a way that promotes quality community design (in part because there has been too much focus on trying to stop the growth rather than ensure that it is done well).

And in part because too much of what Boulder’s plans and regulations strive to achieve is happy motoring, rather than happy people. Big city vs small town ambiance

 

In most instances, the perception that places such as Boulder have “too much growth” is based on a motorist perception that the roads or parking lots are too crowded. The ruinous solution for too many has been to almost single-mindedly fight to stop growth, and to fight for “sufficient” road and parking capacity. In other words, free-flowing car traffic and easy parking have tragically been equated with much of our quality of life.

In my opinion and that of many of my colleagues, happy car design is a recipe for destroying quality of life and sustainability. This is in large part due to the fact that happy car design leads to a problem experienced by all US cities over the past century: the problem of gigantism: roads and intersections and parking lots and commercial buildings too big, and communities and neighborhoods and destinations too dispersed.

We must instead return to the timeless tradition of designing for walkable, human scaled dimensions. Boulder (and other American communities) must end its decades-long fight to promote happy car design in its roads, intersections and parking if it expects to stop being its own worst enemy, and instead have a quality, sustainable future.

A future of happy people rather than happy cars.

 

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