Tag Archives: small town feel

Phoenix or Siena? Do We Reduce Environmental Impact by Stopping Growth? Or Ensuring Growth is Better?

By Dom Nozzi

February 13, 2018

Someone posted a rebuttal to the excellent guest opinion in the Boulder, Colorado newspaper by Zane Selvan’s about the environmental impacts of low density development in Boulder:

“There it is again: ‘per capita carbon footprint’. I’m concerned with Boulder’s ‘net’ carbon footprint. Density and infill proponents want to increase the population and increase the net carbon footprint in order to achieve a decrease in per capita carbon footprint. It’s the only way they can do it. It’s oxymoronic. Boulder will become a bigger, dirtier more crowded city overall in order to become slightly cleaner per individual. It’s a self defeating policy.”

My response: If Boulder’s 108,000 people were spread out over a lower density, more dispersed and car dependent pattern, the impact on the environment would be much more brutal and unsustainable. As it stands now, Boulder’s low-density pattern already fuels a huge amount of car travel and carbon emissions — way more than if that 108,000 people were in a more compact, human-scaled pattern.

For those, like me, who prefer a “small town character,” Boulder would feel much more like a small town if the city was much more compact, rather than dispersed. If our parking lots were smaller and more rare. If our roads and intersections were less massive. For me and many others, “small town ambiance” is much better achieved when we have a compact, human-scaled dimensioning of our neighborhoods and town centers and road infrastructure.

Small town character, for me, has far less to do with the number of people who live in Boulder.

There are hundreds of cities and towns in Europe that demonstrate this.

When I am at a monster huge Boulder intersection with a double-left turn lane and six or so through lanes, I feel like I am in Houston or Phoenix. I feel uncomfortable, exposed, unsafe, anxious to leave, and disappointed about what has been done. There is no sense of place whatsoever, and it feels “big city” even though I would often be about the only human at that intersection. By contrast, I can be in, say, Pearl Street Mall with hundreds of people, but the human-scaled dimensions create a small town sense of place and comfort and pride.

It is sometimes claimed that the only reason certain cities are compact and walkable is that they have convenient public transportation (and “my city does not have convenient transit”). But having convenient transit service is not simply a matter of citizens asking for it or elected officials providing it. Places like Phoenix and Houston and many neighborhoods in Boulder don’t have convenient transit because citizens have spent decades demanding…

  • Low density
  • Short suburban buildings
  • A huge amount of free parking
  • Wide, free-flowing, and free-to-use roads

Each of those elements make it extremely difficult if not impossible to provide convenient transit in a city. The fact that Siena and NYC and much of Boston and DC have convenient transit is that they opted to build densely and did not go hog wild in making cars happy. Why is transit not convenient in much of Boulder? Why is it so convenient in bigger US cities? Is it because they are smart and Boulder is stupid? I think not.

I prefer convenient transit and “small town ambiance,” which is why I regularly advocate compact, 2-5 story neighborhoods and town centers with scarce, priced parking and human-scaled streets. The fact that so many in Boulder fight to the death for low density, one-story subdivisions with abundant parking and wide roads largely explains why Boulder is losing its “small town ambiance.”Big city vs small town ambiance

How ironic.

Notice in the photo set that in the “small town ambiance” places in Siena and Boulder, we are looking at places that have a relatively compact collection of people living, working, shopping, and playing. In other words, “small town ambiance” is often found when we have a relatively large population size. Also notice the taller buildings in the two “small town ambiance” images compared to the two “big city ambiance” images. In other words, “tall” buildings do not necessarily create a “big city ambiance.” Indeed, the opposite is often true.

Some people say that a larger number of people have a larger carbon footprint than a smaller number of people. Well yes, that is obviously true. But is there a practical way for us to halt population growth? After working academically and professionally in environmental science and town planning for 40 years, I know of no humane or constitutional way for us to stop population growth.

What some would like us to do is to nudge the growth toward other communities, but that does not reduce the carbon footprint. It just shifts it to less politically powerful or more affordable places. Such an effort also disperses human settlement rather than having human settlement be more compact, and that ramps up the overall carbon footprint.

The effective way to reduce overall carbon footprint, then, is to not waste our time trying to do the impossible (stopping human population increases) or being NIMBYs (by shunting the growth to politically weaker places).

The key is to work to have development occur in a more compact, sustainable way that promotes a healthy, happy city. When we do that, people are less likely to want to live in low-density, car-dependent places (because town center living is more enjoyable and enticing).

Boulder’s dispersed, low-density development pattern means we have plenty of infill development opportunities so that we can become more compact, safe, sociable, and walkable.

With compact, relatively gentle, context-sensitive infill (small condos, compact apartments, mixed use, small houses, row houses, small lot sizes, small or no setbacks, 2-5 story buildings, accessory dwelling units, co-ops, replacement of surface parking and suburban setbacks and sprawling industrial/warehouse areas with urban buildings) — not to mention the elimination of required parking — we substantially increase affordable housing opportunities. That would mean we’d have less people being forced — for financial reasons — to move to outlying, car-dependent places. Again, the overall carbon footprint would go down.

Despite the conventional wisdom we still hear too often in Boulder, it turns out that being pro-city is to be pro-environment. To be anti-city is to be anti-environment. Compactness is the new green.

Phoenix or Siena? I prefer the compactness of a Siena over the low-density Phoenix (or Orlando)…

 

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A Quality Future for Boulder CO Means Something Vastly Different from What No-Growthers Seek

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 8, 2017

The great irony of those in Boulder, Colorado who seek to protect the low-density character of neighborhoods (and to allegedly protect the “small town charm” of Boulder) is that by following the tactics recommended by too many “no-growthers,” Boulder will continue to take the Anywhere USA path that so many other American cities have taken (and continue to take).

Fighting against compact development is a recipe for keeping this city from becoming more walkable, charming, and human scaled. Such a fight will make it more likely that our future will be more car-dependent, more isolated, less walkable, more filled with surface parking lots, and less affordable (due to a growing lack of travel choices). Much of Boulder was built in an era of failed community design ideas that are unsustainable. Many of those who seek to “protect” neighborhoods are those who like the privatopia of suburbs and don’t like cities, and therefore don’t understand or appreciate those elements that make for healthy cities: slow speeds, human scale, compact development, agglomeration economies, diversity, conviviality, and choices.

Such advocates, instead, ruinously seem to believe that free-flowing and high speed traffic and easy car parking are the keys to quality of life. Actually, such objectives are toxic to a 51df393d218c6-imagehealthy city because they undermine the elements I list above.

The lifestyle of those who live in low-density Boulder neighborhoods compels them to fight for a halt to population growth, fight to minimize density and building heights, fight to oppose traffic calming and modest street and parking allocations, and fight to oppose mixed use.

Why?

Because fighting for those things helps protect their ability to travel easily by car. Because their neighborhood design obligates them to make most or all trips by car, they must fight for these things to protect their suburban lifestyle. Car travel becomes highly inconvenient when a community is more compact and slow speed. Densities over 2 or 3 units per acre make car travel much more inconvenient.

Conversely, densities below 3 or 4 units per acre make walking, bicycling, and transit nearly impossible.

It is therefore easy to understand why so many in suburban Boulder have concluded that easy driving and parking are equivalent to quality of life. Tragically, easy driving and parking are enemies of a quality city.

It is important to note, despite the unfair, inflammatory falsehoods we often have thrown at us urbanists, that this is NOT a call to make all neighborhoods in Boulder more compact. It IS a plea to recognize that for too much of Boulder’s history, the only acceptable form of development is high speed, car-happy suburban.

And that it is NEVER acceptable for there to be slow speed, compact walkable development.

Anywhere.

The result is a vast oversupply of drivable suburban development — which has no future, by the way — and a substantial undersupply of compact walkable development. Indeed, I would be hard-pressed to point to ANY compact development in Boulder. Because there is a big and growing demand for a walkable lifestyle — particularly among the younger generations — the price of such housing is skyrocketing (there are other reasons, but this one is substantial).

Boulder must do what it can to provide a larger supply of walkable housing — in appropriate locations.

Not doing so will lead to a grim, more costly future for Boulder.

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How Do We Preserve Small Town Ambiance?

By Dom Nozzi

May 15, 2015

The most sought after, popular form of community for Americans today is the small town.

When we ask many community activists to describe what they seek for their community, they state that they are trying to preserve or restore a “small town feel.”

How do we do that?

For most NIMBYs and assorted anti-development champions of happy cars, it is to fight against density, tall buildings, and congestion.

But I believe this is counterproductive in creating a small town ambience.

I agree we shouldn’t allow skyscrapers. My limit is five stories.

beacon hill bostonBut the most effective way to preserve or restore the small town feel is to keep roads and intersections modest in size, and avoid sprawling low density.

Pushing for lower densities and fighting to reduce densities, by contrast, almost always compels a community to build monster roads and intersections.huge turn radius for road

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Gigantism Versus a “Small Town Feel” in Boulder Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

August 5, 2013

A great many citizens Boulder, Colorado admirably seek to retain or restore a “small town feel” (or “ambiance”) in our community. The most significant transportation action (or, arguably, ANY action) a community can take to obliterate that “small town feel” and instead create a feeling of placeless sprawl or “big city feel” is to build oversized roads, intersections, and parking lots.

Tragically, this is precisely what Boulder has done too many times in its frequent (and highly counterproductive) efforts to “reduce congestion” or “promote free-flowing car traffic.” Boulder has oversized a great many of its roads and intersections (and required developers to build too many oversized parking lots), which powerfully admin-ajax (3)induces excessive car trips, regional sprawl, local government financial woes, a large increase in traffic injuries and deaths, a large impediment to bicycle, walking, and transit trips, and much higher levels of fuel consumption and air emissions (despite the conventional wisdom).

The end result of this ruinous pursuit of free-flowing car traffic is a loss of that “small town feel” – that “human scale” – that so many in Boulder seek to protect and retain.

The much more progressive way to address traffic congestion is not to reduce it (which is nearly impossible given the HUGE space-hogging nature of cars, and given a healthy city), but to create ALTERNATIVES to congestion so those unwilling or unable to tolerate it can avoid it (via alternative routes, traveling at non-rush hour times, driving on routes optimized by pricing, or traveling by bicycling, walking, or transit).

The provision of “bus queue lanes” or “protected bicycle tracks” should not be at the expense of removing on-street parking or by widening a road. Instead, such facilities should only be installed by replacing existing car travel lanes.

In sum, the primary task of the urban designer is to control size. By not controlling size – in this case, the size of transportation facilities – the resulting gigantism

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MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

obliterates that small town feel that so many of us love.

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Buildings at Intersections

By Dom Nozzi

When constructing or renovating a building at a street intersection in a town center, it is critical that such a building be beacon hill bostonpulled up to the corner so that it abuts the sidewalks. Parking must be behind the building.

In my opinion, the public sector provides windfall benefits to the property owner at the corner of an intersection (high visibility to a large number of cars enabled by public expenditures). We therefore should realize that it is fair for the public sector to demand something in return. My demand is that the building be pulled up to the corner, where it can provide important convenience to pedestrians, and form a very pleasant public realm in the most critical “space forming” location in a city: our intersections.

When you think about it, the most profound way a town creates an image for itself — be it a traditional, walkable town or a sprawl/strip commercial town — is at its intersections. If the buildings at intersections are pulled up to the street and the parking is at the rear, we’ve pretty much achieved that “small town” ambiance we all love.

Think about standing at the intersection of a town you love, and you’ll realize the buildings are pulled up, not way back behind parking and landscaping.huge turn radius for road

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