Tag Archives: single-family zoning

Is Increasing the Density Allowed in Single-Family Zoning a Good Idea?

By Dom Nozzi

I was asked if I had heard about the re-zoning proposed in the Boston area? The person asking had heard that the City planned to demolish existing single-family homes, and building multi-family housing up to 15 units per acre. He had heard the idea was to provide additional affordable housing. He wondered what homeowners would do if they “don’t want to live smack on [their] neighbor,” whether there were other ways affordable housing could be provided, and whether this plan might be costlier than finding a home in the suburbs?

My response was that I had not heard about the Boston situation, but I do know that many cities and states (thankfully) are working on upzonings and allowing multi-family (MF) housing in single-family (SF) zoning districts.

I have not heard of anything as extreme as you mention (and would be shocked if it was happening). Whether this upzoning and revision to the allowable uses list in the SF zoning districts is desirable/appropriate, for me a lot of it hinges on locational questions (ideally, via a “transect” system — see image).

It is essential that communities provide the full range of lifestyle choices — from fully rural/conservation to low-density suburban to compact walkable urban. An enormous societal problem in the US is that nearly all residential development over the past century in the US has been low-density SF — far more supply of such housing than demand for such housing.

Today, there is a huge demand for compact walkable urban housing – but there is far less supply than demand for such housing. How do we adjust those imbalances so supply is balanced with demand for low-density as well as compact?

One important tool is to remove the massive public subsidies for the low-density lifestyle (mostly from free roads and free parking). Another is to make compact walkable design legal again (local development regulations have mostly made such timeless design illegal throughout the nation). We also need local development regulations to be form-based rather than use-based (the design of buildings and where they are located is FAR more important than what happens inside the building).

An enormous number of Americans rightly despise and fear higher density development near them because unlike Europe and historic neighborhoods in the US, architects are working in a failed profession. Failed because the profession has largely thrown away timeless, lovable design principles, which makes higher density development far more ugly and scary than in the past. We don’t build Old Town Charleston or Old Town Savannah anymore. We build Phoenix Sprawl and Houston Sprawl. This gives compact development a black eye.

Local governments need to adopt regulations to require that timeless historic design be used in locals designated for compact development.

All of this is not to say that everyone must be obligated to live in or near compact development. We must retain that lifestyle choice for those who prefer it (and there is no danger of that choice being lost, since nearly all development in the US is low-density). I do think that based on the transect principle (there is a place for everything and everything has its place), cities that have made the mistake of creating low-density SF near the town center need to allow those places to incrementally (slowly) evolve into more compact, higher-density places (using the timeless design I call for).

Gentrification often provides this.

Those who live in such town center locations in SF homes who do not want such a lifestyle need to consider the option of accepting a windfall from the sale of their home. In this scenario, windfall profits come from a drastic increase in property values that tends to come when compact development, and leads to prices being bid up by the large market of people seeking walkable design.

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Will the True Progressives and Promoters of a Quality, Sustainable Future Please Stand Up?

By Dom Nozzi

A “PINO” is a Progressive in Name Only. A person who holds deceptive political beliefs. A person who is engaged in virtue signaling, wherein the person seeks to give others the impression that they are ethical or part of the tribe.

Judith Renfroe questioned how progressives can support more housing, infill, smaller houses, expanded transportation choices, smaller and local retail, and a lower carbon footprint.

My questions to her: In what universe do progressives support preservation of low-density, low-slung and large-lot suburban housing? Or take a stance that is detrimental to affordable and healthy travel options (transit, walking, bicycling)? Or be anti-walkable city and pro-drivable suburb? Or support such restrictive single-family zoning that house prices continue to skyrocket and middle-income families are increasingly excluded from living in a city where their job is located?

Does it make sense for progressives to promote policies that maintain and heighten the “financial wall” surrounding Boulder to keep out the undesirables?

I have several additional thoughts about the absurd ideas that the anti-city and pro-car folks such as this author hold on to:

We are told that it is wrong for some Boulder progressives (the pro-city and pro-housing folks) to “be in bed with evil, greedy developers who can’t ever be trusted to build desirable developments.” That it is instead progressive and promoting quality of life if we instead “protect neighborhoods from development.” Or “protect our views of the flatirons.”

Really?

Let’s see if I understand correctly. I’m living in Boulder in, say, 1890. According to the above logic, I must urge my neighbors and my elected officials to “protect our neighborhood” by not allowing an “evil, greedy developer” to building my home. Or any other home for that matter. After all, how can we trust a greedy developer? My two-story home will block my views of the flatirons! And cause traffic gridlock!

In response, you tell me that when you arrived in Boulder in the 1950s and your home and your neighborhood were built, things were wonderful in Boulder and that desirable “small town character” should be protected. The developer of your neighborhood was not evil when you came to Boulder.

Why, I ask, were developers heroic when you arrived in Boulder, but now that you are here, developers have become greedy and evil?

Putting aside the double standard – or the idea that I’ve got mine, so we can pull up the ladder now – let us consider this proposition that your home and neighborhood were wonderful when you arrived.

In the view of a great many in the field of town planning, science, medicine, engineering, and sociology, the past several decades has seen the development of neighborhoods that are…

…the most unaffordability expensive in American history, in terms of housing, land consumption, and transportation.

…the most anti-social, suspicious-of-neighbors, and isolating in American history (Robert Putnam’s research has shown that America is now a nation of loners).

…the most energy-intensive, air-polluting, and consumptive in American history.

…the most unhealthy in American history (studies show neighborhood design triggers obesity, heart disease, and diabetes).

…the most architecturally ugly buildings in American history.

…the most restrictive in travel options in American history – only motorized travel is possible.

…the most low-quality in American history – in terms of the durability of building materials used.

…the most isolating in American history – for seniors and children who cannot get around without a car.

Is THIS the sort of neighborhood design we should be protecting in the interests of quality of life and sustainability? In this age of crisis regarding affordability, climate change, health woes, loss of lifestyle and travel choices, and loss of beauty, shouldn’t we instead be incrementally tweaking the design of the neighborhoods built over those decades so that they instead deliver a better quality of life and more resilient sustainability?

Eighty percent of the land in Boulder is zoned single-family and has these features, compared to about 0.1 percent allocated to a walkable, sustainable lifestyle. Is it possible that the neighborhoods with the features I list above are outdated and unsustainable in a world of climate change and affordability woes? A world where the demand for walkable neighborhoods is enormous (and growing) compared to a tiny supply of such neighborhoods?

Shouldn’t we perhaps reconsider the angrily held view that your neighborhood is wonderful in design and should not be “harmed” by more housing or compact development? That perhaps maybe a few mistakes were made back when Boulder had a “wonderful small-town character” at the time you arrived here?

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

What kind of housing provides true quality of life?

By Dom Nozzi

A “PINO” is a Progressive in Name Only. A person who holds deceptive political beliefs. A person who is engaged in virtue signaling, wherein the person seeks to give others the impression that they are ethical. Or part of the tribe.

Camera guest opinion writer Judith Renfroe questioned how progressives can support more housing, infill, smaller houses, expanded transportation choices, smaller and local retail, and a lower carbon footprint.

My questions to her: In what universe do progressives support preservation of low-density, low-slung, and large-lot suburban housing? Or take a stance that is detrimental to affordable and healthy travel options (transit, walking, bicycling)? Or be anti-walkable city and pro-drivable suburb? Or support such restrictive single-family zoning that house prices continue to skyrocket and middle-income families are increasingly excluded from living in a city where their job is located?

The ideas that the anti-city and pro-car folks such as this author hold on to are absurd.

We are told that it is wrong for some Boulder progressives (the pro-city and pro-housing folks) to be in bed with “evil, greedy developers” who can’t ever be trusted to build desirable developments. That it is progressive and promoting quality of life if we instead “protect neighborhoods from development.” Or “protect our views of the Flatirons.”

Really?

Let’s see if I understand correctly. I’m living in Boulder in, say, 1890. According to the above logic, I must urge my neighbors and my elected officials to “protect our neighborhood” by not allowing an “evil, greedy developer” to build my home. Or any other home for that matter. After all, how can we trust a greedy developer? My two-story home will block my views of the Flatirons. And cause traffic gridlock.

Why, I ask, were developers heroic when you arrived in Boulder but, now that you are here, developers have become greedy and evil? Putting aside the double standard — or the idea that I’ve got mine, so we can pull up the ladder now — let us consider this proposition that your home and neighborhood were wonderful when you arrived.

In the view of a great many in the field of town planning, science, medicine, engineering and sociology, the past several decades have seen the development of single-family neighborhoods that are:

• The most unaffordably expensive in American history, in terms of housing, land consumption, and transportation.

• The most anti-social and suspicious-of-neighbors in American history (Robert Putnam’s research has shown that America is now a nation of loners).

• The most energy-intensive, air-polluting, and consumptive in American history.

• The most unhealthy in American history (studies show low-density neighborhood design triggers obesity, heart disease and diabetes).

• The most architecturally ugly buildings in American history.

• The most restrictive in travel options in American history — only motorized travel is possible.

• The most low-quality in American history — in terms of the durability of building materials used.

• The most isolating in American history — for seniors and children who cannot get around without a car.

Is this the sort of neighborhood design we should be protecting in the interests of quality of life and sustainability? In this age of crisis regarding affordability, climate change, health woes, loss of lifestyle and travel choices, and loss of beauty, shouldn’t we instead be incrementally tweaking the design of the neighborhoods built over those decades so that they instead deliver a better quality of life and more resilient sustainability?

Eighty percent of the land in Boulder is zoned single-family and has many of these features, compared to about 0.1% allocated to a walkable, sustainable lifestyle. Is it possible that the neighborhoods with the features I list above are outdated and unsustainable in a world of climate change and affordability woes? A world where the demand for walkable neighborhoods is enormous (and growing) compared to a tiny supply of such neighborhoods?

Shouldn’t we perhaps reconsider the angrily held view that your neighborhood is wonderful in design and should not be harmed by more housing or compact development? That perhaps maybe a few mistakes were made back when Boulder had a “wonderful small-town character” at the time you arrived here?

Dom Nozzi lives in Boulder.

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Filed under Bicycling, Economics, Energy, Environment, Peak Oil, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

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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Does Transportation Drive Land Use?

By Dom Nozzi

June 15, 2000

Often, I notice people express the opinion that transportation is dependent on land use. Similarly, I’m often told that land use comes first, and transportation planning and development follows to accommodate the land use. That “land use drives transportation.”

But let’s keep in mind that transportation is profoundly a vicious cycle and significantly changes behavior and markets over time. For example, when/if we add capacity or widen major roads, we set into motion some enormous political and economic pressures, and behavior changes. Widening a road will inevitably reduce the number of bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users (because it is now more difficult, unsafe, and unpleasant to use the bigger road). This creates more car trips (“induced travel”). And the induced travel created by the widened road, is used, post facto, to justify the widened road (a classic self-fulfilling prophesy). Because the bigger road carries more high-speed traffic, it becomes unpleasant to live along the road. So, over time, housing values decline along the road, and single-family gets converted to student rental, multi-family for students, office and retail. And because it is now more pleasant and fast to drive a car, people are better able to live in remote areas and commute to their jobs in the city.

Why? Because cross-culturally and throughout history, the average daily roundtrip commute is 1.1 hours. Some people will relocate to more remote locations to create a new equilibrium when the road is widened.

Many people dream of living in a “cabin in the woods.” Therefore, wider roads create a strong demand for sprawl housing, because the wider road reduces travel time from home to daily destinations. Is sprawl possible without car travel? Could a huge number of us live in remote locations if our transportation system did not provide cheap and easy car travel?

Most people would be unwilling to live in low-density, outlying, sprawling areas — or drive a car for every trip — unless roads are designed for high speeds and high volumes, and parking is both free and abundant. All the conditions that people dislike about the city — whether real or perceived — such as noise, crime, etc., can be more easily fled if the newly widened roads allow you to get to work each day in a reasonable period of time, even if you live in an outlying area. The ultimate result is that as we add capacity to streets, we set in motion a pattern of sprawl and strip, we wipe out farms, and we accelerate the decline of in-town areas.

Another outcome is that our in-town streets become little more than “escape routes.”

Quite often, our transportation planning advisory boards are dominated by home building interests. Clearly, this industry realizes the fundamental importance of widening roads to create sprawl residential markets for them.

As for retail land use impacts caused by transportation, when there are so many cars being carried by a bigger road, business people cannot resist putting enormous pressure on staff and officials to rezone the businessperson’s property to retail in order to takearapahoe-ave-boulder-co advantage of all those potential customers driving by each day. This is precisely why we see so many big box retailers clamoring for sites at major intersections. In fact, in the planning department I work in, we get calls all the time from people who want to rezone from residential to office or retail along our major arterial streets.

High-volume big box retailers, except in large, high-density cities, are not viable unless the public sector provides large subsidies in the form of high-speed, high-capacity, multi-lane streets (big roads enable the big box to draw cars from a regional “consumer-shed”). Not only that. These retailers also depend on the public sector to allow them to build enormous and free surface parking lots, and enormous building footprints.

As expected, we so often have strip commercial – intense land use development pressure — on major roads near interstates. Could such streets have been anything else other than strip commercial, given the street design and the access to the Interstate? Are single-family homes viable along such a street? If you owned land along such a stretch, would it be rational for you not to do everything in your power to get the local government to grant you the right to sell to those 70,000 potential daily customers, as the “big box” retailer so often wants to do?

I’ve seen land use plans and maps prepared in the past, and I know that it is not a “plan” at all. Almost entirely, when we talk about a mostly built-out city, it is simply recording what is there already. Almost none of it is a proactive vision of what the planners want. If we engaged in wholesale land use changes in the land use map/plan to enact our sustainable, livable vision, all of the planners would be in fear of losing their jobs and all of the commissioners would be thrown out of office. Elected commissioners and staff are forced, by political realities, to be reactive in our land use “plan.” Transportation, on the other hand, is something we can make changes to, because it is often feasible, politically, to make the change.

It matters not a whit whether planners designate a site for retail or single-family residential. Over time, what will happen to the property is determined by the road design and traffic. If the land use designation does not correspond to what is happening on the road, the land use will get changed, or the land will be abandoned. If our street network is designed for modest car speeds, modest car volumes, connectivity, and access (in other words, transportation choice), we will get viable transit, bicycling, walking and neighborhood retail and mixed use, not to mention higher densities, more traffic congestion (which is, in cities, a good thing), compact development, and a control on sprawl. High-speed, high capacity roads will give us the reverse, regardless of what our land use “plan/map” says.

Is it not much easier to predict what will happen to the land uses along a street based on the way the street is designed than to predict what will happen to the street based on the land uses along it? Similarly, is it not more feasible to predict whether there will be a sprawled, dispersed, low-density community if we know, in advance, what the street system and form of travel will be, compared to whether there will be future sprawled community based on what the current land uses (or land use plans) are designated for various properties? For example, West Palm Beach FL is currently experiencing a dramatic, beneficial land use change throughout their city soon after they re-designed their streets by removing travel lanes, calming traffic, and doing substantial streetscaping. Land use improvements there are clearly driven by transportation changes.

Transportation engineers love to try to deny responsibility when their studies (which are flawed because they don’t accurately account for human behavior) show that a road must be widened. The engineer usually claims that land use drives transportation, and that their high-speed, high-volume roads are merely “meeting the demand created by the land uses.” “It’s not our fault that we must spend millions to widen roads, tear out houses, and ruin the environment. We are forced to because of the land use.” But this ignores the fact that high-speed, high-volume roads create a vicious cycle and substantially modify behavior, as noted above. The important danger of this highly misleading claim from many engineers is that it leads us to incorrectly believe that we have no choice. We must widen the road because of the land uses on the ground. Too often, we are mislead into believing that land use choices we made in the past are now forcing us to widen the road.

Engineers must not be allowed to wiggle out of culpability with such an excuse. The traffic engineer who explains it is the land use that “forces” the road widening seems sensible until you look closer and find out how the market brings enormous and unrelenting pressure to change the designations when we change the roads, and how human reactions to road conditions draws or repels residences. If we are incredibly courageous and true to our principles, we might be able to delay the re-zoning for a few years on a widened road that is now hostile for residences. But that just means that because the road carries so much high speed, high volume traffic, it is no longer feasible to keep the property residential because the quality of life is so miserable (as a result, the residential building eventually is abandoned, or is downgraded from owner-occupied to rental), or it is no longer rational to keep it as a farm because you can make millions by selling it for a shopping center or subdivision.

Here is what Newman & Kenworthy (Cities and Automobile Dependence, 1989) have to say:

“In general, [transportation] modeling has assumed that land use is “handed down” by land use planners and that transport planners are merely shaping the appropriate transport system to meet the needs of the land use forecast. This is not the case. One of the major reasons why freeways around the world have failed to cope with demand is that transport infrastructure has a profound feedback effect on land use, encouraging and promoting new development wherever the best facilities are provided (or are planned).” (pg 106)

Why is Europe so walkable and compact, and the U.S. is not? Is it that they are just more educated and appreciative of the merits of walkable communities? Or is it that they mostly developed before the auto age, whereas we developed after the emergence of the auto age? And why is it that Europe is now, after entering the auto age, starting to see the sprawl we are experiencing?

The Florida growth management law requires that “level-of-service” standards be created, and that new developments only be allowed if they are built “concurrently” with the infrastructure and services they would need. But the only concurrency measure from the Florida law that matters is the road level-of-service. Every other concurrency measure – recreation, utilities, solid waste, etc. – is, for all intents and purposes, ignored in comparison.

We are fooling ourselves and doomed to a life of permanent, never-ending battles with people who want to rezone singe-family land that they own and cannot use as single-family due to a wide road (granting that there are a few who could live in a single-family home and put up with the noise and reduced property value – sometimes, this is called “affordable housing”). Forty years from now, if we do not fix our major streets to make them more livable, we will, though incremental zoning changes, have those streets lined with offices and multi-family buildings and retail. And over those 40 years, we will have a bunch of planners, citizens, and officials burned out on fighting those never-ending battles. In the long term, as Walter Kulash points out, no force, not even five “no growth” commissioners, can stop that incremental change after we have designed a street for high-speed, high-volume traffic.

Yes, we can succeed, in the short term, in keeping property zoned single-family. But that will only mean that we’ll have a bunch of vacant homes, and depressed property values.

Once the transport system is in place, the market/political pressure to take advantage of that system is overpoweringly strong, and will overwhelm any countervailing efforts. It hardly matters how courageous, visionary, or progressive a planner or elected official is. If the roads are designed to encourage sprawl, we will get sprawl. No zoning or land use designations (such as “large-lot” zoning) can stop it, and there is no community in the US that has succeeded by trying to control sprawl with designations. When we create and construct our transportation plans, we have, essentially and indirectly (and often unintentionally), established our future land use plans, not vice versa. It is as simple as that, and it is time for us to realize it.

All that said, I’m willing to concede that we should have our road and land use plans work concurrently. So yes, we should designate outlying areas for conservation and farms. But unless we concurrently get the transportation right, we are wasting our time.

In sum, keeping a road at a modest width with a modest number of travel lanes in the face of projected car traffic growth will, over the long term, result in less per capita car trips on that road, less new sprawl into outlying areas, less big box retail, more viable neighborhoods, a higher quality of life, and more residential density near walkable, livable, neighborhood-scaled town centers. Widening the road by adding travel lanes, over the long term, would give us the reverse. The excessive capacities that we typically build for our cities gives us too much sprawl, densities that are too low, and auto dependence. I believe that we should put a moratorium on adding street capacity to streets in our cities, before we wake up one day and wonder how we let ourselves become another auto-dependent south Florida, instead of a sustainable, sociable community featuring transportation choice, safety and independence for our children and seniors, and a unique community we can take pride in.

In the long run, the street shapes the land uses that will form along it much more profoundly than how the land uses would shape the street that forms through them. Let’s not let the traffic engineer fool us. Let’s not put in big roads and then valiantly try (and fail) to stop the sprawl and strip, and then flog ourselves when we are unable to stop the land use degradation. Transportation comes before – and determines — land use. A high quality of life, and sustainable future, depends on our realizing that.

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