Tag Archives: smart growth

Sprawl, Traffic, Taxes and Quality of Life

By Dom Nozzi

August 15, 2006

We live in troubled times. Times that require wise, courageous leadership. Here is what I see in our communities, and what I plan to do about it.

Taxation

Taxes are high and are constantly rising because new growth is not paying its own way.

All levels of government are financially strapped. Households are struggling to be able to afford the skyrocketing costs of transportation and rising property taxes.

Aren’t you tired of high and rising taxes?

Transportation

Automakers keep producing gas-guzzling cars. There is no quality transit system. We have no transportation choices. Little Billy and little Suzie cannot safely go for a walk or ride a bike in their neighborhoods because traffic is too dangerous.

Our hard-earned money and national wealth is vanishing. Our money is being used to enrich Middle Eastern oil-producing nations—many of which are not our friends.

Aren’t you tired of our unhealthy transportation system?

The Quality of Our Neighborhoods and Communities

Our farms are vanishing because they are being paved over by sprawling subdivisions.

We keep getting dumb growth instead of smart growth. Our neighborhoods are afflicted by rising levels of noise pollution. We’ve lost the tradition of having neighborhood-based schools, which means our kids cannot get to school on their own. We have forgotten that a high quality of life is a powerful economic engine.

Aren’t you tired of the sprawl? The ugly, dangerous, costly, “Anywhere USA” strip commercial development that keeps popping up in our communities?

My Vision

Let’s restore our communities.

  • Imagine communities rich in transportation choice. A place where we and our kids can get around safely by car, by transit, by walking and by bicycle. Communities, in other words, where one has the choice to be able to walk to get a loaf of bread, instead of being forced to drive 4 miles to get that loaf.
  • Imagine communities where our property taxes are reasonable and our government is able to afford to build quality public facilities and provide quality public services.
  • Imagine communities where we don’t see our beautiful forests, natural areas and farms bulldozed, acre-by-acre, day-by-day, to build endless, sprawling subdivisions.
  • Imagine communities where streets are not choked by rapidly growing numbers of cars.
  • Imagine communities where we don’t see our roads torn up and widened every year, causing infuriating road construction delays.
  • Imagine communities with pleasant, safe, beautiful, slow-speed shopping streets instead of communities full of 10-lane strip commercial monster roads.
  • Imagine communities with healthy air and water, and neighborhoods that place public parks a short distance from our homes.
  • Imagine communities that provides choices about how to live. Communities where one can happily live an urban, suburban or rural lifestyle.
  • Imagine communities where it is actually legal to build smartly. Traditionally. Sustainably. Where building smartly is the rule, rather than the exception. Local government regulations encourage smart growth, and are not an obstacle to it.  Communities that makes it fast and easy to build smartly, and makes it more difficult and costly to build crud.
  • Imagine communities full of energy-efficient homes and offices.
  • Imagine communities that are quiet. Where one can sleep peacefully each night without being awoken by endless sirens and the roar of traffic.
  • Imagine places with a strong sense of community. Places that are a community, not a crowd.

Imagine communities, in other words, that we can be proud of.

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Filed under Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

Problems Associated with Car Happy Community Design

By Dom Nozzi

May 14, 2001

As a general point, low density locks everyone into extremely high levels of car dependency. Transit, walking, bicycling and carpools become nearly impossible.

A sense of community is non-existent. Auto-dependent communities suffer because there is no “there there.”large lot subdivision

Seniors and kids lose their independence because they are forced to rely on others to get around.

Suburbs are more dangerous than walkable in-town locations because the risk of a car crash is much higher than “stranger crimes” like murder, mugging, rape, etc.

Car dependent designs are not only unaffordable for all levels of government. They are also unaffordable for households, since the average car costs the equivalent of a $50,000 home mortgage, and nearly every family must now own more than one car.

Low-density, disconnected street patterns create congestion even at very, very low levels of car trips because all trips are forced onto one or two major roads. Disconnected roads therefore create the misperception that things are “too crowded,” even when we are talking about “cow town” numbers.

The naive, misguided knee-jerk “solution” is to fight for lower densities, which, of course, simply makes things worse. Note that increasingly what this means is that people who should know better (liberals, intellectuals, greens) are urging “no growth” and “no change”, and fighting against smart growth tactics — thereby unintentionally aligning themselves with the black hat sprawl developers.

 

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Affordable Housing and Smart Growth

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 22, 2002

A common criticism of “smart growth” is that it is relatively unaffordable to buy a home in a smart growth community.

There is too often an issue that is so very easy to sweep under the rug in these sorts of “affordability” debates.

Dumb, sprawl growth is, almost by definition, auto-dependent. Smart growth, conversely, creates transportation choice — when done in-town, over the long term, or both.

While it may seem, superficially, that a house in a remote location is “more affordable” sprawl-developmentbecause it has a lower purchase price than a house in a walkable location, a lower-income family that is forced to own 2-4 cars in that remote location will often find that such a “bargain” house is more of a financial strain than the in-town house (where, say, only 1 or 2 cars might be needed).

The lower transportation cost of houses in smart developments is why, in some markets, Fannie Mae has adopted the location-efficient mortgage, which recognizes that (smart) locations rich in transportation choices are locations where households have more income available to pay for such things as the mortgage (because less income is being spent for transportation).

 

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Are Smart Growth Ideas Still Ahead of Their Time?

By Dom Nozzi

I sometimes get a bit depressed about the fact that many of the walkable, compact, mixed-use planning strategies were being discussed at least 30 years ago.

It would be easy for people to learn that many of the “new” Smart Growth tactics are actually quite old, and just sadly conclude that it is naïve to think such ideas can ever become reality.

However, I believe it is important to keep in mind that, as scientists and engineers know (or should know), the underlying conditions (political, environmental, technological, economic, etc.) are much more critical and influential than “good ideas.” “Good ideas” don’t just magically become adopted because they are good ideas. In other words, lack of good ideas is not our problem (usually). We have plenty of good ideas to save ourselves. But we need to be patient with our ideas and wait for conditions to be ripe.

A couple of examples: Galileo invented the good idea of helicopters, but the idea was not implemented until the underlying conditions were ripe. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony came up with great ideas about equal rights for women at the turn of the century, but the conditions did not become “ripe” until the 1960s.

We have plenty of good ideas about reining in sprawl or creating compact cities or reforming transportation and land use, but many will not be implemented until the conditions for them are ripe. As a result, one of the most important tasks of those seeking to improve our communities — in both the public and private sector – is to modify underlying conditions so that we accelerate the ripening process. That is largely why I’ve always championed things like user fees, congestion fees, and model traditional developments.

By deciding, democratically, to do these incremental things, we can change underlying conditions that allow people to more easily see the need for positive change. Another way of putting it is that an important role for us in the public sector is to, as economists would put it, “internalize externalities”

For example, instead of having a company increase its profits by emitting polluting emissions from their drain pipe into a river – a form of externality – we charge the company a fee which is high enough to compensate for pollution so that the community will have more money to clean up the pollution. By charging this water pollution fee, we internalize the cost so that the emitting company pays for the pollution to be cleaned up, rather than the overall community (similarly, gas taxes partly internalize the externalities of driving a car so that the motorist pays more for their negative impacts to the community while driving).

After all, the better we internalize such costs, the better capitalism works the way Adam Smith thought it would work. That is because according to Smith, we need all the relevant information before we are able to make rational decisions in the marketplace.

I’ve always lived by the rule that I am a pessimist of the intellect, but an optimist of the will. Our situation as a society seems hopeless in many ways, but giving up is not an option. Persistence pays off. Overall, I’m hopeful because I think we are on the verge of turning things around in various ways (particularly with transportation and land use reform) to the point where positive changes are self-driven, rather than being forced on us by regulations.

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Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

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Career Recommendations for a Young Student

By Dom Nozzi

Late in my career as a town planner for Gainesville FL, I received a very kind note from a student seeking advice in what studies to pursue in college.

I was immensely flattered.

When I hear comments such as his, it truly makes my writing efforts seem so much more rewarding and gratifying. I was very pleased to hear that my thoughts about SUBurban sprawl (“urban” sprawl is a misnomer) had been so influential to him.

He complimented me and asked for career guidance. He asked about my academic background, and what path he could take so that he could help make the world a better place as a town planner.

Below is what I told him…

My academic background is that I originally obtained a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, but realized that I have strong opinions and a desire to help elected officials make better decisions about how to improve the quality of life. Working with test tubes in a lab did not seem like a very effective way to achieve that. Because I’ve always read a lot and have a bit of knowledge in a lot of topics, I came to decide that town planning will be a satisfying way for me to best use my skills and interests (since the profession tends to be relatively “generalist” rather than “specialist”).

After graduate school and a master’s degree in urban planning, I was hired by Gainesville FL to be a planner. I eventually became a long-range senior planner and retired from that job in 2007 after 20 years in that job. Since then, I’ve been semi-retired as an independent town planning/transportation consultant. I write, give speeches, and read about urban design. I love doing each of those three things. (ironically, while I initially loved being a town planner early in my career, I eventually despised the job because I came to realize that the “smart growth,” new urbanist principles that I love and tonder ped ststrongly advocate are strongly opposed by almost all local governments and their professional staff – which meant that my job made me “part of the problem.” I was even banned from giving speeches by the city manager of the town I worked for.)

My planning job consisted of my writing land development regulations, long-range town plans, preparing professional recommendations to my city about the benefits and costs of a proposal to rezone land in the city (by a property owner), making presentations to the elected and appointed officials, and preparing planning reports. Mostly, the work I was asked to do focused on making cars happy (telling developers they MUST provide a huge amount of parking) and working on ways to reduce the negative impacts of cars on neighborhoods (mostly by requiring walls and berms and huge, unwalkable building setbacks).

Based on my experience, I would strongly recommend that your studies emphasize design rather than my academic emphasis of policy. And the design I would recommend you concentrate on is traditional, new urbanist town planning principles – an emphasis that strives to return to the timeless tradition of designing for people, not cars. I believe there are websites such as cnu.com where you can find listings of schools throughout the world which specialize in traditional, new urbanist design. The University of Miami School of Architecture is an outstanding example of such a school in the US, as is the University of Notre Dame. I would also recommend books to you, as listed on my walkablestreets.com website.

Ultimately, you may find, as I did, that a job in the private sector would be much more pleasant and rewarding than a job working as a planner for a public agency (city, state, county, etc.), as the later tend to be strongly opposed to the planning principles I recommend. In general, that would mean seeking to be hired by a firm using new urbanist principles, such as those listed on my walkablestreets.com website.

You may also find it very helpful to watch presentations found on the internet (YouTube, etc.) by such people as Andres Duany, Jim Kunstler, Michael Ronkin, Ian Lockwood and Victor Dover.

I envy your life situation, as I wish I had gotten the suggestions I mention above when I was starting out my college career. I ended up being mostly self-taught.

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

Getting Out of Our Own Way to Design a Better Community

By Dom Nozzi

It has been said that the great cities were built before planners and land development laws. This is absolutely true, and the shock value of it helps us see that we need to get out of our own way, so to speak.

I’ve been harping on this point for several years in my books, writings, and speeches.

In 2006, I came upon a quote from the “Smart Growth Network,” where the leader indicated that the “free market” will not be able to deliver us quality of life. My response to this is to reference an outstanding book I read a few months before. The book is by Jonathan Levine, who was the Director, at that time, of the University of Michigan Department of Urban & Regional Planning. The book, called Zoned Out, points out that pretty much every community in America has land development laws that set up enormous obstacles to “smart growth” in every single one of its ordinances.

Almost to the complete exclusion of other community quality of life objectives, our land development laws overwhelmingly care about creating parking lotconditions for happy car travel: strict separation of land uses, minimizing residential densities, and providing ample free parking for cars.

Each of these anachronistic commandments, of course, strongly promotes car-dependent sprawl and, ironically, worsens our quality of life. Such rules may have been important when they were first established 100 years ago, since cities were crowded with tenement housing, and many businesses were hazardous to health and needed to be kept away from residences.

Today, those problems don’t exist in any meaningful way in America. So why do we not fundamentally reform our land development laws?

Indeed, because Baby Boomers and especially millennials are much more interested than older generations in “city” living (higher density, 24-hour, mixed-use, vibrant, walkable), there is a growing demand for the development community to provide such development.

But as Levine importantly points out, when developers want to build these types of development — what is now called Smart Growth — they are forced to fight tooth and nail against development laws, elected officials and town planners who fight them until they revise their development plans to give us dumb growth.

This is despite the fact that a large percentage of elected officials and town planners pay lip service to smart growth.

We have met the enemy, and he or she is us.

Therefore, despite the quote from the Smart Growth Network, that the free market cannot deliver quality of life, I’d argue the reverse.

Today, the free market (if we can get rid of the huge market distortions for roads, parking, and gasoline caused by enormous subsidies) can indeed more effectively provide quality of life.

We just need to get govenment (ie, the land development laws) out of the way.

It is an awful realization for me that after almost 30 years of working in a profession that I expected to be focused on improving communities, it turns out that I am part of a huge force that is subverting our quality of life.

 

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