Tag Archives: setbacks

Will Open Space Make a Town Center Better?

By Dom Nozzi

May 25, 2017

Despite the conventional wisdom, town squares are not improved via big setbacks and vegetated open space. Squares such as in this photo below feel wonderful, safe, convivial, and happy because of such things as human scale — the compact mixing of offices, retail, homes, services, bars, restaurants, and govt. Adding big setbacks, green open spaces, short buildings, big parking lots, and oversized roads suburbanizes a place and undercuts its ability to be a wonderful public gathering place.Untitled

It is tragic that we so badly failed to create human-scaled spaces at Boulder Junction in Boulder, Colorado, but instead have opted for over-sized, unlovable, uncomfortable spaces (see the second photo below).

We are unlikely to create human-scaled charm and vibrancy in the redevelopment of the Boulder Community Hospital site between Balsam and Alpine.

Or at any other place in American cities such as Boulder as long as we make the mistake of believing that big setbacks, big open spaces, vegetation, shorter buildings, and bigger roads and parking lots are important ingredients for new development.

Boulder Junction

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The Problem of Gigantism

By Dom Nozzi

January 13, 2017

Gigantism, in my opinion, is a HUUUUUGE problem in America.

Enormous roads, enormous setbacks, enormous (and improperly located) parking lots, enormous (and improperly located) stormwater basins, enormous distances between destinations, enormous road intersections, enormous subdivisions, enormously tall street lights, enormous signs, enormous retail areas.Monster road intersection

The enormity of the American land use pattern is obvious when one walks the historic center of so many European cities and towns. My recent visit to Tuscany with my significant other was, once again, so saddening and maddening because the streets we walked were so stunningly lovable, charming, and romantic. Americans have thrown all of that charm away in our car-happy world.

Not only is it impossible to love most all of urban America. It is also, as Charles Marohn points out so well, impossible to afford to maintain. A double whammy of unsustainability. And extreme frustration in my career as a town planner who toiling for decades to try to nudge our society toward slowing down our ruinous love affair with making the world wonderful for car travel. And finding that even most smart people in America strongly oppose going back to the timeless way of building for people instead of cars.

It is said that dinosaurs went extinct due in large part to gigantism. I believe the same fate is likely for America, unless our society wakes up and realizes we are way better off in so many ways if we get back to building our world at the (walkable) human scale.

A friend asked me recently what I would do if I were in charge, had a blank slate, and could design a community any way I desired.

If I had such an opportunity, my community would be much more compact and human-scaled. One can walk historic town centers in Europe for models of what I speak of here.

WAY less “open space” for cars is essential.

I would ratchet down our extreme (and artificial) auto-centric value system by making roads and parking and gasoline purchases and car buying directly paid for much more based on USER FEES rather than having all of society pay for happy cars via such things as sales taxes, property taxes, and income taxes.

In other words, making our world much more fair and equitable.

We have over-used and over-provided for car travel and car housing in large part because the cost to do so is mostly externalized to society rather than directly paid for via user fees. Eventually — maybe not in our lifetimes? — car travel will be mostly paid for via user fees and externalized costs will be more internalized. Car travel will therefore become much more expensive, signaling us to cut down on our over-reliance on it.

When that happens, we will inevitably see the re-emergence of the lovable, human-scaled world we once had. Fortunately, we are starting to see car travel becoming much more expensive and unaffordable — even though it continues to fail to be user-fee based.

And we are seeing the Millennial generation showing much more interest in compact town center living and much less interest in being car happy.

It is way past time for our society to a people-happy rather than car-happy world.

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Oversizing Our Community

By Dom Nozzi

January 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designing for People or for Cars?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who needs enemies when we have ourselves?

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

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

 

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Human Scale in Urban Design

 

By Dom Nozzi

March 11, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ruin of Frontage Roads

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 19, 2002

I’m getting ready to lead a transportation and land use “revival” in a coastal Florida town this weekend. Those folks are apparently drowning from sprawl and auto dependence, their elected officials don’t “get it” (as is true everywhere), and some of their activists have invited me to speak at a big growth management forum there to see if I can to open their eyes before they continue on their road-to-ruin path.

Should be a lot of fun. Say hallelujah!!

A friend recently asked what I thought of “frontage roads.” (roads paraldownloadlel and flanking a larger, typically strip commercial road designed to keep local shopping trips from slowing more regional trips on the main road).

The following is what I told her.

Walter Kulash – a traffic engineer who strongly shaped my views over much of my career – briefly addressed frontage roads in a famous speech he gave a number of years ago. He didn’t say much about them in the speech, but did indicate that he thought they were a bad idea.

I told her I didn’t have anything else in my files about frontage roads, but I did know enough o warn her that from an urban design and transportation perspective, frontage roads must be avoided at all costs.

For the uninformed, they seem like a common sense, obvious solution to avert a congested strip commercial future. But as I will say until I am blue in the face, we cannot build our way out of congestion!

In fact, trying to add more capacity to hopelessly try to avoid congestion (which is an important justification for frontage roads) will lock us into a downward spiral of accelerated suburban sprawl, extreme auto dependence, unbearably high taxes, declining in-town (and locally-owned) businesses, a miserable quality of life, bankrupted households and local governments, a loss of a unique community identity, a loss of civic pride, higher levels of congestion (which is helpful in a town center but generally a problem in suburbia), less walking/bicycling/transit, and worsened safety conditions.

From an urban design perspective, frontage roads are a disaster. To be convenient for bikes/ped/transit and to promote a quality ambience, buildings must be as close to facing buildings across the street as possible. Frontage roads spread buildings further apart, destroy any sense of human scale, and make it impossible to cross the “street” to go from one building to a building across from it. Every trip where you have frontage roads and big parking lots in front of buildings set way back from the road MUST be by car.

The inevitable result of frontage roads, like every single other urbanizing or strip commercial area where they have been tried, is worsened transportation and quality of life. It is impossible to EVER build enough capacity to handle the demand for car travel in any place besides a declining rural farm town with no growth foreseen. In fact, adding more road capacity with frontage roads will INDUCE car trips that would have never occurred had the capacity not been added.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Traffic engineers urge more road capacity. When the capacity is added, the widened road induces new car trips above and beyond the number of trips before the widening. The result is that the widened road quickly gets choked with car gridlock, and the engineers say, “See! We told you! It was a good thing we widened or the traffic would be ‘worse’!!!” Actually, what would really happen without the widening is that there would be a lower demand for car trips — congestion regulates itself unless we let road widening short-circuit the process…

In sum, frontage roads are a wonderful way to spend millions of public dollars to destroy a community. What a bargain! We are essentially bankrupting ourselves to foul our own nest. Have we lost our minds?

Work to stop the frontage road idea at all costs.

Hope that helps, and hope you are well.

 

 

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On-Street Parking Should be Calibrated Based on Community Location

 

By Dom Nozzi

February 10, 2010

Town centers are fundamentally different in character, purpose, and objectives. Distances and setbacks are smaller. Speeds are more modest. There is more walking and less driving.

Therefore, design and development regulations should be calibrated so that town centers do not see the application of inappropriate suburban design.

For example, in town centers, in nearly all cases, residential single-family, residential multi-family, commercial and civic uses should all have on-street parking.

In a healthy town center, there are three design imperatives:

  1. Pedestrians.
  2. Low speeds.
  3. Modest dimensions for streets, destination distances and building setbacks.

One of the most effective, low-cost ways to do that is to provide as much on-street parking in a town center as possible, for all land use categories.asheville

As one moves out of the town center, design starts incrementally changing. In the first few rings outside of the town center, transit and bicycling become the imperative. Speeds increase and dimensions, distances, and setbacks are larger. Bike lanes become more appropriate and on-street parking becomes less appropriate.

In the more drivable outer suburban rings, cars become the design imperative. Speeds are relatively high, as are sizes. On-street parking is largely non-existent, and bike lanes become rather important and appropriate.

 

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Gigantism is the Key to Our Downfall

 

By Dom Nozzi

February 11, 2010

I believe that gigantism — exemplified by excessive distances, building setbacks, parking, and excessive speeds – is the primary agent destroying community Safeway-July-2015-smsustainability and quality of life.

And the primary cause of the sickness of gigantism is our over-reliance on motorized travel. While it is not necessary to eliminate car travel completely, it is essential that we end the century-long practice of making too many of our trips by car – trips that can often be made in other ways – and overdesigning for convenient car travel, to the extreme detriment of the needs of human beings.

We must return to the timeless tradition of making people happy, not cars, by designing for modest sizes and speeds.

This is the core message in my writings and speeches.

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