Tag Archives: suburban


By Dom Nozzi

July 23, 2017

I was talking with my girlfriend this morning about the high levels of litter we see in our society. One of my thoughts was that litter exemplifies how Americans (or all humans?) have – as an important life pursuit – regularly sought ways to make life more convenient. Litter means a person can enjoy the convenience of not needing to find a trash receptacle. Much of the convenience we have found over the past century or so has beenhk-litter brought to us by using “energy slaves” – using cheap energy to do work for us, such as using a leaf blower rather than a broom (or using motorized travel versus walking or bicycling).

I recall my friend and colleague Michael Ronkin once mentioning how lazy he found Americans (and humans in general) to be.

Convenience is such an important human objective that we have equated anything that makes our lives more convenient to be, invariably, a sign of progress. Surely, many of us look upon going from walking and bicycling to motorized travel as progress.

As a sign that our lives have improved.

I’ve always felt that the societal imperative for more convenience (exerting ourselves less) will only abate when energy costs rise substantially, so that energy slaves are less affordable.

One way I feel encouraged these days is to see what I believe is a growing desire to enjoy the convenience of living in a town center (where people can enjoy the convenience of a quick walk or bike ride to destinations). Convenience in this context, though, is a funny thing: On the one hand, a motorized lifestyle is seen as more convenient because we are able to exert ourselves less to travel. But on the other hand, we lose convenience with motorized travel because distance to destinations has grown so large that it requires more time to get to places — not to mention the hassle of having to climb into a car and back it out of a garage, needing to contend with other cars on the road, and eventually find a parking spot.

It is not clear to me, though, why we are seeing the growing desire for town center convenience (compared to the past century, where most sought to live in outlying suburban areas).

Have the costs of living a suburban, motorized lifestyle grown so much that those costs are reaching a tipping point?


Leave a comment

Filed under Energy, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Walking

Is Boulder, Colorado in Danger of Becoming Too Dense?

By Dom Nozzi

March 9, 2017

I hear it all the time as a resident of Boulder, Colorado: “Boulder is too dense!”

I beg to differ.

I support Boulder’s long-standing objectives, such as reducing the city carbon footprint (to ease global warming), reducing noise pollution, improving affordability, increasing the number of trips made by foot or bike or transit, slowing tax increases, ensuring the City has the fiscal capacity to engage in needed/ongoing maintenance of our infrastructure, protecting environmentally sensitive outlying areas from suburban development, reducing traffic injuries and deaths (in part by designing streets to be slower speed and obligate motorists to be more attentive), promoting small retail shops and discouraging large retail shops, encouraging diversity and creativity, improving public health, and retaining a lovable character rather than an Anywhere USA character.

Each of these worthy objectives are furthered by more compact (dense) development.

Unfortunately, despite the conventional wisdom, Boulder is actually quite dispersed. Shockingly so.

Indeed, Boulder is so extremely low-density suburban that if we don’t become more compact and add a lot more housing, we will continue to undermine each of the objectives I list here.

Besides the low density and short-statured nature of development I have observed in Boulder, there is another element that strongly signals that Boulder is suburban in character. sprawl
Christopher Leinberger has pointed out that in compact, walkable neighborhoods, “more is better.” That is, new, more compact development tends to be welcomed because it typically improves the quality of life of those living a walkable lifestyle (more things to walk to, for example). By contrast, says Leinberger, in a drivable suburban neighborhood, “more is less.” In such a setting, new and more compact development tends to be detrimental to the drivable quality of life of residents (roads are more congested and parking is more scarce, for example).

For decades, Boulder has had a near consensus that “more is less,” which is a strong signal that Boulder is a drivable suburban community. Indeed, stopping development – or, if not possible, at least minimizing the density of new development — tends to be the be all and end all of protecting or improving quality of life in Boulder.

Our very low-density, dispersed suburban character means that Boulder’s per capita environmental impact is, ironically, very large (being “green” means far more than engaging in curbside recycling or driving a Prius). Dispersed land use patterns found in Boulder are unsustainable, very environmentally destructive, and ensure that nearly all trips in Boulder will be made by motor vehicle.

There is a growing desire for compact, walkable, town center housing — particularly with the Millennial generation — yet Boulder provides very little if any of that sort of housing. Demand for such housing is substantially higher than the supply of it. Which severely amplifies the affordable housing crisis in Boulder.

Sustainability is far out of reach for Boulder unless we provide a lot more compact, walkable housing.

In sum, I think Boulder is quite far from being “too dense.” So far that a “too dense” Boulder will not happen in our lifetimes — if ever. Indeed, it seems to me that Boulder’s biggest concern should be that we are too dispersed.

I previously wrote about why I believe so many people in Boulder (like in so many other American communities) believe their community is “too dense,” despite the obvious signs I cite above.

It is enormously ironic that a great many Boulder residents — not to mention the millions worldwide — love the great historic cities and towns of Europe so much that they happily spend huge sums of money to visit such towns on a regular basis. Nearly all of us love Copenhagen. We adore Amsterdam. We are charmed by Perugia. We are delighted by Dubrovnik. We cannot get enough of Granada.

Yet each of these celebrated cities are far more compact – far more dense – than Boulder.

Why this disconnect?

I believe there are three important reasons. First, the contemporary modernist architectural paradigm we have been saddled with for several decades has thrown the inherently lovable 315-0722092524-NSA-building-and-parking-lotand timeless traditional building design into the waste can in favor of repellent, “innovative,” look-at-me design. Citizens are thereby conditioned to equate new compact development with hideous buildings. Second, local zoning regulations in cities such as Boulder have made lovable, human-scaled design illegal by requiring excessive setbacks, excessive car parking, and excessive private open space. Third, nearly all citizens live car-dependent lifestyles. And because their cars consume such an enormous amount of space, motorists are compelled to fear and oppose town design that they otherwise love as tourists. They have, in essence, become their own enemies by striving to improve their life as motorists (equating quality of life with easy parking and free-flowing traffic), not realizing that doing so is ruinous to a healthy city and a lovable quality of life.

For much of our history up until the 20th Century, citizens welcomed and celebrated new development in their communities because they knew that almost invariably, the new development would improve the quality of life in their community.  Steve Belmont has informed us that a densifying city is a sign of city health. But that welcoming of new development has been understandably inverted into a widespread opposition to new modern-architecture-Ronchamp-Chapeldevelopment, largely due to the modernist architectural paradigm, local car-friendly development regulations, and car-dependent citizens who have become cheerleaders for their cars rather than for themselves, their family, and their neighbors.

Boulder can comfortably house a great many more newcomers, and if our land development regulations are properly crafted to insist that new development be walkable, our community will be greatly improved in each of the ways I list above.

For the record, I generally dislike buildings taller than 5 stories (the limit set by city charter), but know that the city can be much better and provide a lot more housing by allowing buildings to be 3-5 stories in appropriate locations.

Note, too, that I do not believe that EVERYONE should be obligated to live in more compact, walkable housing. A community should always provide sufficient housing for the full range of lifestyle choices: walkable town center, drivable suburban, and rural.

Unfortunately, drivable suburban is about the only lifestyle option offered in Boulder. Because we have made the cities we love impossible to build.

Leave a comment

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

Is “Restricting” Traffic Unfairly Forcing People to Live in a Town Center?


By Dom Nozzi

September 4, 2012

By re-introducing equity into our transportation system, we should provide a balance in the public tax revenue and public space so that the War on Bicyclists, Pedestrians, and Transit Users comes to an end.

For nearly 100 years the US government has powerfully encouraged an artificially high percentage of Americans to live in suburbia and be car-dependent. This artificially high demand for car-dependent suburban living would be much lower if we did not allocate 95 Carmageddon highwaypercent of our public transportation dollars to cars. In the name of restoring fairness and discouraging artificially excessive car-dependent sprawl, the US would need to allocate a lot more public dollars to bicycling, walking, and transit and a lot less to motorists. That would mean, in part, that cars would be allocated less road and parking lot space.

Would that mean “restricting traffic flow”? (a common criticism of some of the transportation reforms I call for)

Yes, if by “restricting flow” one means slowing down car travel and making car parking more scarce and more expensive.

In other words, having motorists fairly pay their own way, rather than to continue to enjoy government welfare handouts.

Would that mean we would “force people to live in cities and take the bus”? No, unless we take hysteria-mongering liberties with the definition of “force.” A much more accurate and fair word than “force” in this case is that some people — in the more fair, sustainable and balanced transportation system I recommend – would start to re-evaluate the costs and benefits of their choice of housing and travel (in both the short term and long term).

Rather than being artificially influenced to live in suburbia and be car-dependent, some will opt to live closer to town, and consider travel options such as car-pooling, car-sharing, transit, bicycling and walking. Others will opt to pay the higher (yet fair and balanced) costs of suburban, car-dependent living.

In sum, this scenario in no way “forces” anyone to live in cities or take the bus. I call for no laws that would obligate people to live in cities or take the bus.

Consider a hypothetical example of a community where a high percentage of residents opt to send their children to a private school, in part because large government vouchers are provided to parents who decide to send their kids to the private school. If the government voucher for private schools is ended, some parents will opt to send their children to public instead of private schools due to the more fair, balanced system where there are no government vouchers offered for private schools. Other parents will continue to send their kids to private school despite the loss of vouchers.

This is in no sense a way to “force” people to send their kids to public school. It IS a way to end a government practice that artificially encourages more parents to send their kids to private school than would be the case had the voucher subsidy not existed. And it IS a way to end the unfair practice of having parents who send their kids to public school to pay higher taxes in order to subsidize other parents who send their kids to private school.

Similarly, if the government ends its century-long practice of allocating “free” multi-million dollar multi-lane (and free-to-use) roads, artificially low-cost gasoline and gas taxes, and “free” seas of asphalt parking (each of which are transportation versions of school vouchers), some would opt to live in less remote, far-flung housing, and would opt to bicycle, walk or use transit more. And again, others would opt to continue to live in sprawl and be car-dependent.

Choice therefore remains in place. Fairness in government allocation of public dollars and resources is increased when we put less than 95 percent of the public dollars and resources into car travel (i.e., when we don’t only offer government “vouchers” to those who opt to drive).

I stand for fairness in government allocations for travel choices. To call my approach an example of “force” is absurd.

Not to mention unsustainable and ruinous.



Leave a comment

Filed under Bicycling, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Walking

Some Problems Associated with Low-Density Residential Living


By Dom Nozzi

May 14, 2001

A large percentage of Americans LOVE low-density residential living, and regularly fight against any proposal that would bring more compact development anywhere near them.

But low-density development has many problems – problems that a growing number of Americans are beginning to recognize.sprawl-development

For example, low-density development locks everyone into extremely high levels of car dependency. Transit, walking, bicycling and carpools become nearly impossible. A sense of community is often non-existent. Auto-dependent communities suffer because there tends to be no “there there.” 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 (and because cars consume such a vast amount of space). Disconnected roads therefore create the misperception that things are “too crowded.” The naive, misguided knee-jerk “solution” is to fight for lower densities, which, of course, simply makes things worse. 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.

Tragically, the low-density lifestyle compels people living in such a setting to fight hard against the compact development that would actually reduce the problems cited above. They do so because the low-density pattern quickly results in enraging traffic congestion and loss of car parking. This vested interest in low density locks such residents in a long-term downward spiral, as positive change tends to be fiercely resisted.


Leave a comment

Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia

What Led Me to Become an Urbanist Despite a Suburban Upbringing?


By Dom Nozzi

October 1, 2002

Many rightly are concerned that our sprawling, suburban cultural values are leading to a loss of cultural memory of how to create wonderful towns and live pleasant, sociable lives. However, the one glimmer of hope that I know of is this: In my case, and in the case of one or two other urbanist friends I know, I grew up in the misery of auto-oriented suburban huge turn radius for roadhell. And my parents were very suburban in their values. As are my siblings, to this day.

My upbringing, for whatever reason, led me to study environmental science in school. Several years ago, I heard about a study that sought to discover which life experiences correlated to a person growing up to be exceptionally concerned about environmental conservation as an adult. Of the enormous number of variables evaluated, one variable stood out head and shoulders above all others. Much more so than other variables, one variable was very positively correlated with a person having a deep concern for environmental conservation as an adult: that as a child, the person had access to unstructured play in natural areas, and engaged in such recreation frequently. That was certainly true with me.

In any event, I obtained a degree in environmental science and then a degree in city planning. For several years as a city planner, I believed that quality of life could best be achieved through the strengthening of environmental regulations and the public acquisition of land (The “Greening of America” influence).

But something was missing.

Four years after starting my job as a city planner, a friend in town loaned me a copy of a videotape. The tape was the famous presentation given about that time (about 1990) by Andres Duany, delivered at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, regarding the merits of traditionalism.

His speech changed my life.

At about the same time, I also read “Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

How could it be that someone with my suburban upbringing was able to come to this epiphany? The only explanations I can come up with are these:

  1. For some unknown reason, I’ve always enjoined being a contrarian. Perhaps this explains why I found it easy to reject suburban values.
  1. For whatever reason, even though I admire many of his views, I’ve always had a great dislike for many of the values and viewpoints of my father. In rejecting those, I was perhaps able to reject his suburban values as well.
  1. Growing up in suburbia gave me a first-hand view of the sterile misery of that lifestyle.
  1. For whatever reason, I’ve always had a sociable personality, despite my shy nature. I’ve always enjoyed parties and attending vibrant events where a large number of people were enjoying themselves. This drive in me perhaps explains why I now am driven to see that cities are designed to encourage sociability and a sense of community.
  1. I’ve always been athletic, a conservationist, and a bicycle commuter. This could, in part, account for a disdain I have for the obsessive American love affair with cars.

I think another study is needed: What are the childhood influences or experiences that correlate with a person being an urbanist as an adult?




Leave a comment

Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia

Defining Suburban Sprawl


By Dom  Nozzi

July 14, 2003

The term “suburban sprawl”is not an easy one to define. Since it is important to do so, I tried to describe it my first published book, The Road to Ruin (2003). Here is the excerpt:

“One way to define sprawl is to look at size: buildings set far back from property lines, large distances between homes, shops, offices, and parks, and big street dimensions.

More specifically, a project qualifies as sprawl, by my definition, when it reflects some of these five characteristics. First, sprawl is characterized by low residential densities. In general, there are not more than 3 homes per acre—too few people to make public transit viable—with a large distance between facilities such as homes, offices, and stores that makes walking or bicycling impractical. Second, a distinguishing feature of sprawl is that homes are more than 3 miles from important daily destinations such as jobs, recreation, civic activity, and shopping—the threshold beyond which it is generally impractical to walk, bicycle, or even ride the bus on a daily basis. Without enormously high densities, the law of diminishing returns comes into play: Too few people ride the bus, and too few destinations exist beyond three miles of the center of most U.S. cities to economically justify frequent bus service. Third, sprawl features wide, high-speed streets that feed large, free parking lots. Shopping malls, for instance, attract and accommodate huge numbers of cars and load nearby neighborhood streets with traffic. The scale and character of the streets and barren parking lots discourages walking, bicycling, and use of public transit. Fourth, sprawl contains continuous tracts of indistinguishable communities—mile upon mile of residence-only subdivisions not visibly separated by greenbelts or farms. And fifth, sprawl has no unique, local character—it has no distinction. It is an “Anywhere, USA.”

Based on these criteria, sprawl can appear as easily with an in-town development project as ten miles outside the city. If a project feels “suburban,” with big, free parking lots, big roads, big setbacks, it qualifies. Any project designed mostly for cars enables sprawl, because it creates a market for a lot of people to live conveniently in remote locations. The flip side of the coin is that even in areas remote from an existing town, self-sufficient, walkable new towns designed along traditional neighborhood lines don’t deserve to be labeled “sprawl”—they are not detrimental in the ways we find sprawl detrimental.”

When it comes to a “Big Box Retailer” such as Wal-Mart, I’d call such establishments sprawl because even when they are within or near a town center, such a retailer is designed to attract huge numbers of motorists from throughout a vast region. The enormous, free-to-use asphalt parking lot the place will require, and the lack of nearby 300px-Wal-Mart_in_Madison_Heightsresidences within walking distance (not that anyone would ever walk to a Big Box store even if close), means that it will only be something you can get to by car — thereby further sending us into the downward spiral of suburban sprawl. Sprawl is characterized by auto dependence, and new projects — even if they are in-town — enable and promote sprawl by increasing the number of people in the community who must use a car to buy things.

If I want to buy things at Wal-Mart, their design will make it MORE necessary for me to use my car to make the purchase than if I was buying from, say, a downtown store. And by building a HUGE parking lot fed by big roads, I am ENCOURAGED BY THE CONVENIENCE to drive my car to the Wal-Mart. This makes Dom (and others in the community) more car-dependent. Shops that I could go to by walking or bicycling start dying off because they cannot compete with the Wal-Marts of the world. Since I can only get there by car, I must now make more car trips than in the past in order to shop.

So a place like Wal-Mart forces people in a community to make more car trips than in the past. And by making it convenient to get there by car, it promotes an auto-dependent lifestyle in which ALL trips are made by car. Under such conditions, people feel freer to live in remote locations, since they can conveniently shop at a place like Wal-Mart even if they live 20 miles away. In the end, homes, shops, jobs, culture, recreation, civic, medical increasingly disperse from each other, creating even MORE auto dependence.

Of course, this dispersal makes it increasingly difficult for us to travel by means other than car, which inevitably recruits a larger and larger pool of citizens who have become “car cheerleaders.” Such cheerleaders form a sort of angry mob that INSISTS that local elected officials build bigger and bigger roads, and that new buildings build bigger and bigger parking lots. We must insist on these features so that we can easily drive our cars to places (which, of course, are now non-places).

And, when car dependent, one sees little reason to be concerned about a new Wal-Mart that can only be conveniently reached by car. After all, “I’m already driving a car everywhere.”

What we are left with the downward spiral of an “sprawl (auto dependent) LIFESTYLE.”

A vicious cycle…



Leave a comment

Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia

“Hometown Democracy” in Florida


By Dom Nozzi

September 10, 2004

In 2004, there was a voter referendum proposed in Florida called “Hometown Democracy.” It was an effort to substantially increase the use of direct democracy over representative democracy (due largely to many Florida residents feeling as if their elected officials were not listening).

This is my take on this constitutional amendment to go to direct democracy…

In general, I am quite uncomfortable with the idea. In some ways, the amendment would be an obstacle to the “re-use of vacant/abandoned lands” efforts that have become an important issue, because citizens would have a high likelihood of voting against nearly all proposals to intensify a land use designation on a property — and such “upzoning” is often needed to make it viable to re-use abandoned lands.

It also strikes me that the direct democracy folks are an extreme form of NIMBYism (the Hogtown Greenway Bike/Pedestrian Path Debacle is a good, infamous example of the dangers of direct democracy in Gainesville). While I am sympathetic to the thought that nearly all upzonings in the past have delivered us bad development (auto-oriented national chains and big box retailers and huge asphalt parking lagoons), and that it would therefore be handy to have citizens be able to trump weak-kneed politicians who so often cave in to Supercenters and Drive-Throughs (etc.) by reversing a zoning or land use decision, it seems to me that this is a sledgehammer rule that would lead to a lot of unfortunate, unintended consequences.

Indeed, in so many places (including Gainesville), if we were to lock in the status quo by having NIMBY citizens always voting against upzonings, we’d be locking ourselves into a dispersed, suburban, auto-oriented downward spiral that we are in today. Often, we need to have selected properties upzoned from residential to non-residential so that we can have a more walkable, compact community that is vibrant, sociable, and less dominated by excessive car travel. But it would seem that with direct democracy, about 99 percent of all such upzonings would be voted down.

It strikes me that the crucial change we need is to revamp the land development codes for places like Gainesville so that in-town developments deliver us walkable, pleasant, friendly projects that don’t overwhelm neighborhoods with big roads, big traffic, big noise pollution, and big light pollution. In other words, requiring that development build in a neighborhood-friendly, traditional manner.

The key to a better future does not lie in stopping all growth and development. The key is stopping auto-oriented development, rapid land consumption at the periphery, and BIG roads. We desperately need well-designed, walkable, in-town development.

Gainesville’s land development regulations require project design that delivers suburban, auto-oriented development everywhere. In my opinion, we must move away from that destructive, one-size-fits-all approach that says everyone should live the suburban lifestyle. Some of us should have the option of living a walkable urban lifestyle or even a rural lifestyle. The Gainesville code largely says we have only one choice: suburban.

I say we should revise our codes so that we set up at least 3 lifestyle zones, with accompanying regulations. Urban Zone gets compact, walkable design regulations, Suburban Zone gets big setbacks and other car-oriented dimensions. The Rural Zone gets small village cluster and farm/woodland regulations. That way, citizens will increasingly urban-to-rural-transect-Duany-Plater-Zyberk-smbe accepting of new development projects in their neighborhoods. They will hopefully live in their lifestyle zone of choice, and will eventually find that the 3-tiered development code results in new projects that promote their lifestyle. The nearly universal desire to fear the next proposed development in the neighborhood (no matter what it might be) can transform to that happy time in our decades ago past when we actually looked forward to the new development proposal.

As Padriac Steinschneider once said, the opposite of bad development is good development, not no development.

However, I might be sympathetic to the idea if it were somehow restricted to unincorporated areas remote from cities where we don’t want any development.



Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design