By Dom Nozzi
October 31, 2017
Back in 1985, I somehow managed to obtain a master’s degree in town planning. But it was not until about eight years into my professional planning career that I was to realize that for several decades, my chosen profession had become a sham.
This epiphany happened to me about 25 years ago when a friend of mine in Gainesville FL gave me a videotape of what I believe is one of the most important, influential, revolutionary speeches ever given on the topic of town planning. It was a speech delivered in 1989 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by a young Florida architect by the name of Andres Duany.
Duany’s speech gave town planning a well-deserved, much-needed kick in the pants.
I was shocked to learn from Duany that a century ago, town planners and developers were heroes. For several decades, of course, the opposite has become the case. Planners have become powerless incompetents and developers are more evil than Satan.
What caused this 180-degree shift in perspective?
What we learn in the Duany speech is that the reputation of town planners and developers was destroyed because the timeless tradition that communities followed for time immemorial was abandoned. That is, about a century ago, communities decided that instead of designing our community and our transportation system to make people happy, we would instead design to make cars happy.
This powerful take on what has happened to our world explains so much.
It explains why town planners have become little more than mindless, robotic bureaucrats who have but one overriding mission: Become paper pushing clerks who issue or deny development permits based on whether the proposal will promote easy car travel or inhibit car travel.
It explains why developers are now villains. In nearly all cases, developers up to a century ago built things that improved quality of community life because the design objective was to promote human happiness. But the model for developers changed about a century ago. Now, the objective was to promote car happiness.
There are two primary reasons why this changed mission by town planners and developers is ruinous.
First, those community attributes that most people find appealing – compactness, human-scale, slower speeds, sociability, civic pride, timelessness, a subdued ambiance, and safety – are nearly the exact opposite of what is needed to make for easy car travel. Happy motoring requires dispersion, gigantic car scaling, dangerously higher speeds, glaring lights, and isolation – and each of these things undercuts civic pride, timelessness and safety.
The second reason this change is ruinous is that it is a self-perpetuating downward spiral. Car travel is a zero-sum game, because nearly everything we do to promote car travel makes walking, bicycling and transit more difficult. Car ownership also creates a strong vested interest on the part of the car owner to see to it that car travel is cheap and easy. By making walking, bicycling, and transit more difficult, car ownership continuously recruits new car owners. This century-long recruitment now means that even in the most bicycle-friendly US cities (including Boulder CO), there are more cars than people.
The result is that nearly all of us make nearly all of our trips by car. We angrily demand that our elected officials ease our car travel – after all, our cars make it so difficult to get around by walking, bicycling, or transit! We have therefore become our own worst enemies because as I note above, promoting car travel is an exceptionally powerful means of destroying quality of life.
Because cars require an enormous amount of space, motorists feel crowded even with just a tiny number of fellow citizens also in cars. As Dan Burden once said, “cars are happiest when there are no other cars around. People are happiest when there are other people around.” Given this, a large percentage of Americans are NIMBYs on steroids who engage in ongoing pitched battles with developers and elected officials and town planners to demand ultra low development densities (including short buildings), huge parking lots, and massively wide roads.
Developers, citizens, town planners, and elected officials therefore tend to have one overriding mission: promote easy car travel! We must have wide roads. More (and free) parking. More car subsidies and more glaring lights. We must stop compact development.
It is a mission of community ruin.
The key for a better future, then, is to return to the timeless tradition of designing for people, not cars.