Tag Archives: suburbs

Should We Subsidize a Town Center?

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 26, 2002

Why have property values have risen recently in American town centers? As someone who has lived in a town center neighborhood since the late 1980s, I would attribute the recent increase to a number of things.

First, many cities have seen a dramatic improvement in the health and perceived safety of downtown in recent times, which makes town center neighborhoods a more hip and fun place to live. For those yuppies who are concerned about safety, an apparently safer place to live is another reason.

Yuppies and other wealthy people have been gentrifying town center neighborhoods by renovating homes and bidding up the value of homes by moving into such neighborhoods at increasing rates. The yuppies are being attracted by the other improvements I mention here.

Town center neighborhoods tend to be built with timeless design strategies that will NEVER go out of style. That is, unlike contemporary neighborhoods, it is walkable, human-scaled, romantic, and safe for kids and seniors and pets. It is designed to make PEOPLE happy instead of cars. It is therefore a sociable, friendly place where people know each other and watch out for each others’ collective security. It comes as no surprise, as a result, that many town center neighborhoods now have the fastest rate of property value increase of any neighborhood in the region.

The tragedy? Nearly all local governments in America make it largely illegal to build these kinds of neighborhoods in other parts of the city. The streets are too narrow, the setbacks are too modest. There is too much mixed use and mixed housing types. The street intersections are too small. Etc. Etc. Etc. We have met the enemy and he is us…

In recent years, a growing number of people have been getting sick of the congestion, street without on street parkingtraffic danger, sterility, auto-dependence, and lack of neighborhood friends that they find in Sprawlsville. As a result, in growing numbers, we are seeing people seek out the traditional, in-town neighborhoods nationwide. They are seeking a sense of place. A sense of community. Things they are denied in their suburban, antiseptic lifestyles.

Does It Make Sense for a Community to Subsidize Their Town Center?:

I believe we are using a very important principle when we “subsidize” a town center. The principle that says we should tax what we want less of and subsidize what we want more of. We want less sprawl and a more healthy town center.

Sadly, too many cites mostly subsidize sprawl and add burdens to their town center.

I don’t think there can be any question that a healthy town center benefits the entire community. Even those who live in the suburbs. A healthy town center increases suburban property values. Instills civic pride. Creates a sense of community. Creates a necessary lifestyle choice.

Assuming we can agree that we ALL benefit from a healthy town center, why should we not subsidize something we want more of, or want to improve? Is it not a matter of fairness and equity? After all, we’ve  poured BILLIONS of tax dollars into ROAD subsidies in sprawlsville (interstates, multi-lane arterials, etc.). WAY more than we would ever subsidize in a town center. Many suburban road subsidies induce the market to build large shopping areas and shopping malls. Without the Big Roads subsidy, those places don’t exist. With the subsidy, the malls swoop in and in the process KILL town centers. So a TINY subsidy for downtown is simply a tiny way to try to even the playing field, and compensate for how public tax subsidies have destroyed the town center. Nevertheless, the town center subsidy pales in comparison to the sprawl subsidy for roads, utilities, emergency service, postal, etc. It is those who live in sprawl that are on welfare in a BIG way. When so many suburban dwellers attack tiny town center subsidies, they are demonstrating hypocrisy.

And getting back to why suburban folks should support a healthy town center: A healthy town center means that people are less likely to desire to flee in-town locations for sprawl locations. And as we all know, it is WAY more costly to provide services and public facilities in those remote locations (and by providing those facilities and services, we subsidize people in remote locations). THAT costly sprawl is the primary reason why we have “high” and growing taxes at the local level. Costly sprawl lifestyles, NOT tiny town center subsidies, are the prime drivers of high and growing local taxes.

Another way of putting this: If we desire to moderate the property tax burden, the most effective way we can do that is by ending subsidies for sprawl, and increasing subsidies for in-town locations. By proposing we stop the public assistance for a healthy town center, suburban folks cut their own throats. Because a downwardly spiraling town center means more flight to costly sprawl locations. This flight ultimately causes our taxes to go through the roof.

Or we accept a lower quality of life. Or both. The tax increase due to tiny town center subsidies are trivial by comparison.

If it were up to me, we’d pour a lot more subsidy into our town centers, because I believe doing so would be equitable and beneficial to the entire community.

 

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

Direct Democracy a Good Idea for Land Development and Transportation?

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 11, 2008

Is it a good idea if Florida’s state constitution is changed to allow citizens to vote by referendum on proposed land use and zoning change?

This nation has suffered from several decades of artificially low energy costs and enormous subsidies of various sorts for drivable suburbia (with big roads leading the way). These factors have caused massive distortions to the market signals that most citizens (with the exception of a handful of urban design activists) respond to by preferring a car-based lifestyle. As a result, our cities have been abandoned as residential and commercial has decanted to remote, drivable locations.

Healthy cities require agglomeration economies to thrive. That is, cities become healthier when they become denser, more intensive and more concentrated in jobs, retail and housing (that is, more compact). The substantial and long-standing low-density land use dispersal, then, has been deadly to cities, which have mostly become emaciated, scary ghost towns populated by a dwindling number of dysfunctional people who have no other housing choice but to live in the squalor of abandonment, highway overpasses, auto pollution, and the poverty of a dying city downtown.

Concurrently, there is substantial market pressure to grow houses (instead of corn or panthers) in formerly remote cornfields and natural areas (ie, big profits due to big demand for such housing — demand that would be nearly non-existent without free-to-use big roads and parking). So much pressure that corruption of elected officials is

rural landscape

rural landscape

nearly inevitable, as developers have an enormous vested interest in “contributing to” [bribing?] elected officials willing to enable a growth in low-density markets (through bigger roads, more parking, more farm-to-suburbia upzoning, etc.).

What is to be done to save valuable outlying areas, reduce the pressure to disperse, and restore the city? (which is clearly needed if our civilization is to have any future at all)

Personally, I am encouraged to know that cities across the nation are seeing substantial rejuvenation in recent years. Lots of new downtown housing, which is bringing the health-giving increases in density, intensity and 24/7 walkable vibrancy. This rejuvenation is probably due, in part, to a rise in transportation costs,  Boomers (who are often childless) moving into adulthood and senior years, an increasing disillusionment with the car-based lifestyle (which many have found to be rather sterile), and the growing recognition that the lifestyle of walkable urbanity is exciting, interesting, diverse, fun and convenient.

And safer than the drivable suburban lifestyle, I should add, since your chances of being hurt or killed in a car crash in suburbia are much higher than your chances of being mugged.

This trend is certainly quite helpful in reducing the pressure/profit/desire to sprawl into important peripheral locations. Cities, after all, are now attracting people instead of chasing them to drivable suburban areas (clearly the case as we see how increasingly unaffordable it has become to find central city housing – unaffordable because of the exploding demand for town center housing).

A remaining problem, however, is the market-distorting drivable suburban juggernaut, which continues to chug along at break-neck speed due to on-going massive public subsidies and the inertia associated with our long history of these ruinous subsidies. Not to mention the gigantic problem of all of the white elephant, low-density development patterns and suburban-inducing big roads/big parking we’ve built over the past 70 years — all of which will induce drivable suburbia even after we experience a long period of high transportation costs and the inevitable ratcheting down of public subsidies for suburbs. There will be, in other words, a lag period once the foundations of suburbia start subsiding.

Again, what is to be done, given the above?

It scares me that the promoters of citizen land use/zoning referendums may be correct with regard to the drivable suburbia problem: We need to move toward more of a direct (instead of representative) democracy (ie, Mob Rule) when it comes to proposed local government land use/zoning changes.  Have a referendum vote of citizens each time land use or zoning for a property is proposed to be changed in the community, instead of just letting elected officials decide.

Given the above, it is hard to imagine that we can insulate elected officials from the corruption that inevitably results when there is a lot of money to be made in building suburbs.

I should also note here that it is not just corruption that would lead elected officials to vote for low-density suburbia. It is also the fact that an elected official who is not a wise and courageous leader can take the easy route to getting and staying elected by being what I call a Motorist Populist. Making cars happy is nearly always a crowd pleaser — even at Sierra Club meetings.

Therefore, maybe it is true that we are left with this direct democracy idea of letting citizens decide on zoning/land use changes, because we have lost trust in our elected officials to escape corruption.

Maybe we must pay for the sins of our foremothers and forefathers who created a car-happy world in the past, in other words, by opting for direct democracy.

It is probably true, given the above, that the best way to end suburbia-inducing upzonings and land use changes in peripheral locations is to bypass corrupt elected officials and give citizens the ability to decide through referendum.

However, the idea of direct democracy is rather terrifying to me. It seems to me that there is a strong likelihood of unintended consequences when we shift community decision-making to every voting citizen in a community. Even if the citizens are relatively well-educated, the Law of Large Numbers means that such votes will inevitably lead to lowest-common-denominator mediocrity. The reality is far worse, though. Instead of being “relatively well-educated,” most citizens will be entirely ignorant of what they are asked to vote on. That scares the hell out of me.

Are we safer with a couple of corrupt (or populist) elected officials? Or Mob Rule?

As Richard Layman points out, citizens living in car-centric, car-happy America will inevitably vote parochially and counterproductively when it comes to votes for in-town development proposals, because the market-distorting subsidies have compelled most citizens to vote for drivable suburbia, and against the community-wide interests of more density and intensity within city central areas. Citizens are often, in other words, their own worst enemies when it comes to in-town development.

I think it is clear, then, that Mob Rule is counter-productive to making cities more healthy and attractive, because they would typically vote against beneficial in-town development.

Citizen referendums on proposed zoning and land use changes would maybe be good in stopping farm-to-suburban upzonings. But it would work against a needed companion that is highly unlikely to be approved by poorly-informed, car happy citizens: Compact, walkable developments that make cities more healthy and attractive (which indirectly reduces the desire for low-density suburbia).

Can we conclude that Mob Rule is the best way to fight drivable suburbia and loss of important peripheral areas? If so, is it so beneficial that it more than compensates for the enormous obstacles that Mob Rule would have for creating more compact, healthy and attractive cities? Is the citizen referendum stick so powerful that on balance, there is less suburbia with it, even if we have diminished the carrot of attracting people to healthy cities by impeding city improvement?

I guess it comes down to this: Which is more urgent? Which is more powerful? Which is more sustainable? Which is more self-perpetuating? Which is more of a lynchpin? Saving the last vestiges of (relatively) pristine wildlands via citizen referendum? Or restoring walkable urbanity in our long-decimated cities? (a restoration which is inhibited by the car-happy Mob)

It is not clear to me what the answer would be.

 

 

 

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Finding the Political Will to Revolutionize Transportation and Land Use

By Dom Nozzi

Many of us have spent decades trying to identify the lynchpins that will catalyze needed reforms in our transportation system and our land use patterns. It is obvious to anyone paying attention that if we continue on our century-long path of making car travel the only reasonable way to travel, our future will be grimly unsustainable.

The most common solutions discussed? “Educating people” is perhaps the most common “solution.” Sadly, our education efforts to change behavior or values are fighting against decades of trillions of admin-ajax (4)dollars spent by the public and private sector to make cars (and suburbanites) happy. Every single day, a person drives their Lexus and a huge, blaring educational message screams at them: “Widen this arterial! Reduce gas prices!!! Make me happy driving my Lexus by allowing me to drive fast!!”

Other common “solutions”: Elect the “right” politicians.  Build more bike lanes and sidewalks. Improve our bus (transit) system.

But none of these tactics will be effective, because none of them will motivate the majority of citizens to change their views and desires about transportation and land use. Without a change in what a community desires, it seems to me that only a benign dictatorship can create changes needed for a better future.

I’m not optimistic at all that we can build much public support for transportation choice until traffic and parking congestion, high parking fees, scarcity of parking, or high gas prices force us to think and behave differently. We made progress on this in the 1970s because the oil price increases forced us to. Candidates for office that supported needed change were doomed from the start (i.e., had no chance of being elected) because it was too cheap and easy to drive a gas guzzler to rent a video across town.

What can be done at the local level that are effective in nudging behaviors and desires toward those which will give us a brighter future?

Gas price increases can be extremely beneficial. Unfortunately, it is impossible for us to increase gas prices locally.

The things we can change are things I often push for:

1. Scarcity of parking. We can revise our land development regulations to make it much easier and less costly to replace deadening asphalt surface parking lots with offices, shops, and residences. We can also change our local regulations to eliminate “minimum parking” requirements (by converting them to “maximum parking” requirements. “Minimum” requirements require developers to provide excessive amounts of free parking as part of their development. Requiring this is ruinous to a city and undermines housing and business affordability – not to mention increasing our cost of living, increasing our taxes, and reducing our quality of life.

2. Increased parking charges. Similarly, we can convert free parking in our community to priced parking. Currently, nearly all of our parking is free. That state of affairs induces “low-value” car trips, increases the costs of goods and services we buy (because “free” parking ends up being paid by the business owner), and forces us to make a vast percentage of our community land area to consist of awful asphalt parking. Besides making our driving and parking more efficient, properly priced parking will provide us with new revenues we can use to improve our transit system and the landscaping along our streets, among many other pressing community needs.

3. Travel lane removal. Too many of our roads and highways are over-sized. Like free parking, free roads have induced too many “low-value” car trips, which have congested our roads and compelled us to excessively widen our roadways in a hopeless, bankrupting, never-ending process of trying to “build our way out of congestion.” As a result of this state of affairs, a great many of our roads and highways are too big, and can be substantially improved by being put on a “road diet” (converting the road from, say, a four-lane to a three-lane roadway).

4. Moratorium on street widening. Coupled with road diets, we should put a stop to future widening of roads and intersections. Widening roads and intersections is extremely costly initially, and leads to gigantic future costs due to increased operation and maintenance expenses, increased car crashes, degraded public health (due to increased car emissions and reduced bicycling, walking, and transit), worsened household/government/business finances, degraded community aesthetics, and worsened suburban sprawl (among many other problems associated with road and intersection widening).

5. Local models. It is also beneficial to revise counterproductive local development regulations to make “smart” development (development that is walkable, compact, and sustainable) more likely. Too often, local development regulations make us our own worst enemy because they require unsustainable, ruinous, car-dependent development, and make sustainable, lovable development illegal. If we revise our local development regulations to make the lovable and sustainable development the default, and make the unsustainable, car-dependent development hard to do (in other words, reverse the current approach we use), we can more quickly see a proliferation of on-the-ground models — models where we can see with our own eyes that sustainable, walkable design is not only popular, but highly profitable.

In each of the above five tactics, we have local control to effectively nudge our community behaviors and desires toward those that are consistent with a better future.

In my opinion, it will only be then that we can find success in achieving the changes we have so long desired.

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Parking and Urban Design Tactics for Creating a New Urban Village

By Dom Nozzi

A large percentage of American communities have experienced an enormous amount of dispersed suburban sprawl. Unless we are to eventually need to abandon and perhaps bulldoze such unsustainable development (probably a more likely outcome than most realize), we need to talk about retrofitting drivable, unsustainable sprawl development with something more compact, walkable, transit-friendly and sustainable.

Indeed, the creation of “activity centers” (an utterly terrible yet common term referring to efforts to create multiple downtowns or town centers in a community, rather than the traditional, centrally-located downtown) is being discussed by academics and city councils throughout the nation.

Commonly, the vision is to transform a conventional, car-based strip commercial shopping center (that largely consists of a huge surface parking lot and giant roadways serving it) into a walkable, mixed use places (what I will call an “urban village”).

One of the first questions that tends to come up in such discussions is “What about the parking??”

First, it needs to be understood that it is not an immutable law that all residents living at such a newly-created urban village will forever want or need a parking space for a car (or even have a car).

As a matter of fact, we are seeing car ownership and use leveling off and sometime declining around the nation – particularly with the “Millennium” (younger) generation.

Believing that the provision of suburban parking is forever necessary is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we provide that level of excessive parking, we actually induce many to want more parking and more cars than they would have wanted had we not enabled such car ownership and use with excessive “free” parking. After all, surface parking makes walking less likely, and the resident has a vested interest because they have already paid for the parking spots we have forced them to own. Excessive suburban parking regulations also kill any chance of having the developer provide the necessary compact residential development, because more compact residential development is, by definition, no longer compact when we must add the enormous amounts of acreage required to fulfill suburban parking rules.

Walkability is impossible when seas of asphalt separate destinations. Surface parking dramatically increases walking distances, and obliterates vibrant and walkable urbanity by creating dead zone gap tooth “no man’s lands.”

“Unbundling” the price of parking from the price of residences in a new neighborhood is an effective financial incentive for reducing car ownership and use, because some residents will opt not to own or use a car if they are able to opt for housing that is lower in cost due to the lack of provided parking.

Some argue that unbundling the price of parking from the price of the housing is impractical, because there will be “spillover” parking by people using a space they did not pay for. But there is an easy solution for this concern: Enforcement of parking regulations at the development via parking permits or parking meters. Despite the conventional wisdom, there are a surprisingly large (and growing) number of citizens who want the option of being able to pay less for housing in exchange for not having parking provided. This is particularly true in cities where a healthy supply of bicycling, walking and transit options are provided. It will also be true if the new urban village is properly designed with human-scaled mixed use, walkable design.

Any “minimum” parking requirements that a community uses (for example, many communities require at least four parking spaces per 100 square feet of retail development) should be converted to parking MAXIMUMS. Why? Because the big risk over the past several decades has not been that a developer will provide too little parking. In large part because most financers for new development insist on the provision of abundant parking as a condition for financing a proposed development, developers tend to provide TOO MUCH parking. Too much parking is particularly a problem if the design objective is to create compact walkability and reduce neighborhood car use.

On-street parking is desirable and tends to be priced in an urban village.

The new urban village should liberally allow shared use of parking by multiple residential and commercial developments in the village. One way to do this is to create parking that can be leased, rather than obligating all land residences and commercial to have their own parking.

If a developer insists on wanting to provide excessive amounts of suburban surface parking, they must be denied approval in the same way as a developer proposing to, say, develop a smokestack industrial use in their residential neighborhood.

For the relatively modest amounts of parking that must be provided at a new urban village, nearly all (if not all) parking should be in multi-story garages that are wrapped with residential, retail, and office “liner” buildings. Any surface parking that needs to be provided should be behind buildings, and buildings pulled up to the streetside sidewalk.

If a prospective resident of a new urban village wants free and abundant parking, they should be told that there are plenty of other, more suburban places where they can opt for that lifestyle in the community.

 Other Essential Ingredients for a Walkable, Compact Village

Streets should have shorter blocks (200 to 500 feet). For relatively long blocks, cross-access pedestrian ways between buildings can be created. Streets also benefit by being paired with alleys. Proactively overlay a street grid with small block sizes before development is proposed. Another way to keep walking distances relatively short is to not allow fences to cut off non-street access to adjacent parcels. Fences used should not exceed three or 4 feet in height along a sidewalk (anything higher inhibits neighborly conversation and pedestrian enjoyment of street-facing building facades).

When streets passing through the proposed center are 4 lanes or more in size, they need to be necked down (road dieted) to no more than 3 lanes.

Intersections must be kept relatively small in size so that they are pedestrian-scaled. No more than one turn lane in a given direction, relatively narrow travel lanes, and small turning radii.

Continuous left turn lanes are to be discouraged in the village. Raised medians with turn pockets are to be encouraged.

Raised crosswalks, when feasible and appropriate, are desirable to slow car speeds and increase pedestrian visibility.

Street (including lane width) and turning radii dimensions are small and slow-speed.

Street lights should be pedestrian-scaled so that light bulbs are no more than 14 feet in height. Taller lights create a highway ambience and induce higher car speeds.

Bus bays are inappropriate in a compact, walkable center due to loss of pedestrian scale and increased pedestrian crossing distance.

Sidewalks have straight, rectilinear trajectories rather than curvilinear, suburban trajectories. Curvilinear trajectories, by adding unnecessary distances to walking, are annoying and patronizing to pedestrians. They are mainly benefitting motorists, who obtain a more pleasing view as they drive along a street with curving sidewalks. They also increase the likelihood of dirt cowpaths being formed by pedestrians seeking the shortest route.

Visually prominent gateway features at the entrances to centers are highly desirable to clearly signal to motorists that they are entering a low-speed, walkable setting that requires attentiveness.

Mixing residences with offices, retail, recreational and cultural activities substantially reduces walking and biking distances, and increase 24-hour vibrancy and safety. Relatively high residential densities and commercial intensities are also important, and for the same reasons. Emphasize attached housing rather than detached, single-family housing in centers and along major streets.

Buildings should be at least two-stories in height for more of a sense of place, a sense of enclosure, mixed use opportunities, and better adaptability to change over time.

Should the community have any regulatory barriers to infilling existing parking with buildings, those barriers need to be removed. Similarly, the community needs to exempt the proposed new urban village from landscaping requirements, as such requirements tend to require too much spacing for compact walkability. Ample landscaping belongs in the drivable suburbs.

While common because of their high visibility nature, gas stations should not be allowed at street intersections.

Building setbacks need to be modest in size. At intersections, a sense of place is achieved by requiring buildings to abut the back of sidewalks. Lot sizes should be relatively small in size, which often requires the community to reduce the minimum lot size required in its land development code. Each of these design features is an important way to create charming human scale that pedestrians tend to insist on and enjoy.

The community sign ordinance should require relatively small signs for retail and office development. Small signs help signal a low-speed, pedestrian scaled setting.

Summary

People that desire to live in walkable, compact living arrangements seek a setting that is conducive to such a lifestyle. That setting features low-speed, narrow and human-scaled streets and intersections, very short walking distances to most destinations, buildings pulled up to the sidewalk to create enclosure, and a vibrant experience (in contrast to deadening expanses of parking and large building setbacks). The market for higher density housing will be very weak and unsustainable if such a walkable setting is not provided.

Existing housing, employment, or land use patterns should not necessarily dictate visions for a new urban village if such patterns conflict with community objectives for such a compact village. Similarly, the needs or villageconvenience of regional commuters should not trump the low-speed, vibrancy, pedestrian scaled needs of these new village centers.

Overall, the objective for centers is a drive to rather than drive through experience, a park-once setting, and a design that makes the pedestrian the design imperative.

In the Urban Village, we should be firmly committed to walkable urbanity, where car use is optional, not required.

 

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

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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Cost of Living and Quality of Life

 

 

By Dom Nozzi

 

On the issue of transportation, my rule of thumb is that there is a strong correlation between quality of life and transportation choice. The more one must rely on a car to get around, the more diminished the quality of life is. The more sterile it is. The less of a sense of community or neighborliness one finds. The more one must put up with noise pollution from the constant drone of car traffic.

 

Indeed, this is precisely why it is so unaffordable to find a home in a place rich in transportation choice. A great many people now recognize this locational principal, and there are so few such places remaining, compared to the large and growing demand. For this reason, it is typically a very wise investment to find a home in a neighborhood with transportation choice that is still affordable.

 

In an article I just read, the author compares New York City to Tampa for household costs. Obviously, NYC housing costs are a lot higher than in Tampa. But guess what? When you combine NYC household transportation and housing costs to those costs in Tampa, 56.4 percent of the total household spending goes toward transportation and housing in Tampa vs. 52.2 percent in NYC. That is because in NYC, only 15 percent of household spending goes to transportation. In Tampa, it is 25 percent.

 

The simple (yet unrecognized) fact of the matter is that auto-dependent societies have transferred an enormous financial burden on households when it comes to transportation. In traditionally-designed neighborhoods with transportation choice, only a modest amount of household spending goes toward transportation, because much of it is by walking, transit and bicycling. And the cost of building transit is paid for by the community, not the household. Conversely, an auto-based society transfers all of the transportation costs to individual households (the costs are privatized). Each household must buy its own car. Its own fuel. Its own insurance.

 

In recent years, I have been convinced that these more affordable, center-of-city neighborhoods are such a good investment that I’ve given a fair amount of thought to buying one or two of them for rental income. Given the fact that these neighborhoods have what urban designers call “good bones,” I am confident that buying a home there would be a good investment. And, conversely, that buying in a suburban, drivable location might not be.

 

[Postscript January 2009]

And as the housing bubble deflates, we are seeing precisely this. Walkable neighborhoods are holding their value. More recent, suburban homes are seeing their values plummeting.

 

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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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What is the most important lesson I have learned as a city planner?

American communities tend to beat around the bush or otherwise mince words when their spokespeople proclaim they would like to “improve the quality of life.” But we are often left hanging by such proclamations. How do we promote quality of life? What are the details?

 

To me, it is quite clear how a community achieves and maintains a quality of life.

 

The most profound influence on community quality of life is directly related to how much effort the community puts into catering to cars. And the astonishing fact is this: Most all of us either don’t realize, or are too timid to point out, that there is an inverse relationship between happy cars and happy people. That is, the happier we try to make cars by building wide, multi-lane, high-speed roads and enormous (and unpriced) parking lots, and setting buildings an enormous distance away from these now hostile roads, the worse conditions become for people.

 

This is not to say that “we need to get rid of all cars,” the common red herring whenever someone points this out.

 

Not at all. What it means is that we must return to the timeless design tradition that our societies adhered to for hundreds of years. The tradition of designing to make people happy first, not cars.

 

Instead, cars must be obligated to behave themselves. To be slowed down. To be driven carefully. Attentively. To be subservient to the needs of people. For when we make cars our imperative, they dominate and overwhelm everything else, including the habitat that creates happy conditions for humans.

 

Clearly, the communities most of us recognize as having an awful quality of life are the places where design for cars has been most prominent. The Houstons. The LAs. The Detroits. The South Floridas. The Anywhere USA places, in other words, that have been overwhelmed by big roads, big parking lots and big setbacks.

 

Solving their quality of life problems is not primarily achieved by “cleaning their air or water.” Or “reducing crime.” Or “creating more open space.” Or “protecting wetlands.”

 

No, the essential key is to restore the human habitat. So that pedestrians are not inconvenienced or in danger. So that going for a walk is a joy. Primarily, that means incrementally putting roads on diets (removing travel lanes on 5- or 7-laners, for example), replacing parking lots with buildings (preferably higher density residential mixed with office and retail), and reducing building setbacks to restore a human scale.

 

It is no coincidence that walkable, human-scaled new urbanist developments have become so popular and carry such a premium price. Nor is it a coincidence that the towns and cities that are most loved in the world—Rome, Paris, Florence, Venice, Charleston, Nantucket, Key West, Vienna, Copenhagen, Amsterdam (and other places with “old” urbanism)—all feature, most prominently and importantly, the taming of cars and the emphasis on making people happy instead.

 

With modest, human-scaled (not car-scaled) dimensions. With quiet streets that have on-street parking. Streets that are low-speed and narrow. With buildings that face the street and are ornamental. That are pulled up to the street to form a highly satisfying, enclosed outdoor room. With a magnificent tree canopy enveloping the street. Parking is modest and parking lots are unseen. The overall size of the community is compact, higher density, full of small and healthy markets and shops. Vibrant with sociable pedestrians and mixed in use. Housing types and household incomes are diverse.

 

Each of these commonly recognized, admired features are incompatible with designing for happy cars.

 

Which is precisely the point.

 

Quality of life, if we don’t beat around the bush, is largely the quest to use the timeless tradition to design for people first, and to ensure that cars—while certainly not banished—are obligated to behave themselves when they are within the people habitat.

 

Note that I recognize there are a number of people in our society who enjoy the suburban, car-happy lifestyle. I am just unable to bring myself to acknowledge their values when it comes to a question of defining what “quality of life” means. When it comes right down to it, even though I strongly support the new urbanist “transect” concept (that says we need to design for all lifestyle choices), I am unable to accept the “durability” of the car-based value system. In other words, I am convinced that when gas prices go to $8 per gallon, there is no free parking, and there is no public money for widening gridlocked roads anymore, very, very few people will continue to value a suburban, auto-dependent lifestyle. Indeed, the great majority of us will be either urbanists or rural-ists.

 

 

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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

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design