Tag Archives: town center

Making a Town Center Vibrant vs Making an Individual Development Vibrant

By Dom Nozzi

July 30, 1998

Often we hear a big pitch for more parking downtown.

Today, I was giving some thought to a principle that I read about in an urban design book recently:

[this is a paraphrase]

“The further you park from your destination or front door of your house, the more vibrant the place (or your neighborhood) is. This is because when you park too near your destination or front door, there is little or no time for serendipitous meetings/greetings with friends, strangers or neighbors.

“By contrast, when you have to walk (from an on-street spot, a lot a block or so away, etc.), there is more time and opportunity for you to socialize — thereby lending a more vibrant character to the area.”cropped-cafenite

What often happens in a downtown is that the developers of a downtown project who are calling for more downtown parking are striving to make their project the exciting destination, whereas the community is striving (or at least SHOULD be striving) to make the entire downtown the exciting destination.

Unfortunately, these objectives can conflict. In a sense, by implementing such an objective, the developer is making their project an internalized shopping mall that turns its backs on — and ignores — the downtown.

And that is detrimental to the overall vision for downtown health. By striving to make the entire downtown our exciting destination, we can focus our design efforts on making the public realm — the sidewalks, the plazas, the outdoor cafes, the streets, etc. — wonderful, vibrant, safe, convenient places.

And by doing that, every downtown business benefits. It’s synergistic, and in the public interest.

And probably in the best interests of downtown developers, since I don’t believe they can make it on their own without a healthy downtown.



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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?

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Boulder Junction compared to Amsterdam

By Dom Nozzi

June 5, 2017


A comparison of Boulder Junction in Boulder CO (image on left) and a street we stumbled upon during our recent trip to Amsterdam (right).Amsterdam, May 8, 2017 compared to Bldr Junction

Note the walkable, comfortable, human-scaled, romantic character of the Amsterdam street compared to the new street in Boulder. Boulder Junction is a new town center in Boulder intended to be compact and walkable, but the center fails to provide a comfortable, enclosed, walkable human scale.

Open space that is too vast, setbacks that are too large, and streets that are too wide.

If we can generalize the Boulder design experience with that of much of America – and I think we can fairly do so — this comparison clearly shows that Americans have failed to learn how to build walkable places in recent decades. Or find the political will to do so, since much of the unwalkable design was requested by citizens who do not know the ingredients of quality urbanism and quality streets. Citizens tend to request large building setbacks, low densities, oversized roadways, and excessive open spaces.

In part, this is done to seek to retain or restore convenient, comfortable car travel. Failing to create quality urbanism, then, is a signal that Boulder is much more of a car culture than a walking (or transit or bike) culture.

Efforts to promote happy car travel, ironically, worsens car travel as such efforts result in increased per capita car travel, which crowds roads and parking lots. And worsens the quality of life (and safety) for people — particularly people not in cars.

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Will Open Space Make a Town Center Better?

By Dom Nozzi

May 25, 2017

Despite the conventional wisdom, town squares are not improved via big setbacks and vegetated open space. Squares such as in this photo below feel wonderful, safe, convivial, and happy because of such things as human scale — the compact mixing of offices, retail, homes, services, bars, restaurants, and govt. Adding big setbacks, green open spaces, short buildings, big parking lots, and oversized roads suburbanizes a place and undercuts its ability to be a wonderful public gathering place.Untitled

It is tragic that we so badly failed to create human-scaled spaces at Boulder Junction in Boulder, Colorado, but instead have opted for over-sized, unlovable, uncomfortable spaces (see the second photo below).

We are unlikely to create human-scaled charm and vibrancy in the redevelopment of the Boulder Community Hospital site between Balsam and Alpine.

Or at any other place in American cities such as Boulder as long as we make the mistake of believing that big setbacks, big open spaces, vegetation, shorter buildings, and bigger roads and parking lots are important ingredients for new development.

Boulder Junction

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Should We Require Green Space in Front of a Large Building in a Town Center?


By Dom Nozzi

March 15, 2017


Some of my friends in Boulder, Colorado are bothered that a new Google corporation development project in the eastern town center lacks “open space” between the building and the street. I point out in response that Boulder town centers have WAY too much open space (Boulder Junction, for example, has far too much open space). Most of this excessive town center open space is for cars, by the way, but even if such space was for people, it would be inappropriate for a town center.

I’d rather our town centers be like Siena. Why do such people want our town centers to be like Buffalo or Phoenix? Large open spaces are inappropriate in what should be compact, walkable, human-scaled town centers (what new urbanists would call a “transect violation”).

Given this, it would be a terrible mistake if Google had a huge, windswept dead zone open space in front of their building. It would kill walkability and vibrancy.

Similarly, I strongly dislike the dead zone concrete open space “plaza” in front of the new Pearl West building in original Boulder town center. It is another form of deadening. Walkable design principles that reliably deliver vibrancy instruct us that such a space is a dumb thing to do.

But we don’t seem to care much about walkability.

We then scratch our heads when so many drive instead of walk short distances.

If I was in charge, all Boulder town centers would make it illegal to create large (even “green”) open spaces. An occasional hard surface piazza or square would be okay if designed well – which is, of course, HIGHLY unlikely.

Would anyone use the open space in front of Google if they installed such a space? Does anyone use the open space in front of, say, Celestial Seasonings or IBM? Those open boulder_signspaces make us more like Houston and less like old town Bologna.

Why do we want that???

By pulling their buildings up to the streetside sidewalk (instead of separating the buildings from the street with “open space”), Google will put more people on buses, on sidewalks, and in retail shops.

Those are all WONDERFUL things for urbanism.

Why do we instead want green space in front of buildings that put less people on sidewalks, less people on buses, and less shoppers for smaller retail? Do we want green space in front of Google so it will look nice as we drive by in our cars at 40 mph?

That is desirable for a suburb, not a city.


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Redeveloping the Boulder Community Hospital Site in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

January 27, 2017

The most important task of the urbanist is controlling size. – David Mohney

As owners of the Boulder Community Hospital (BCH) site bounded by Broadway, Alpine, 9th Street, and Balsam, the City of Boulder has a golden opportunity to demonstrate the preferred vision for creating compact, walkable development in appropriate locations within Boulder.

For too long, citizens have rightly attacked many new projects in Boulder. We now have a chance to show how to do it right.

The following is one man’s opinion about how we can do it right at the BCH site.

First Determine the Context

Our very first task in establishing a “How to Do It Right” vision is to determine the “context” of the site. Where is it located in the community? Is it a walkable town center? A drivable suburb? A farmable rural area? Only when we answer that question are we able to know which design tactics are appropriate and which are inappropriate. For example, if we are in a suburban context, it is inappropriate to insert shops and offices within the neighborhood, or use small building setbacks. However, if we are in a town center context, those design tactics are entirely appropriate and desirable.


In the case of the BCH site, it is generally agreed by the City that the context is walkable town center (what is called “Urban Center Zone” in the above figure). It is now important, given that, to ensure that the design of the site is compatible with that vision.

How do we do that?

A Form-Based Code

Perhaps the most effective way to do that is to establish what is called a “form-based code (FBC)” or a “subcommunity overlay plan,” which was successfully used to guide the development of the Holiday neighborhood in North Boulder.

The FBC or plan emphasizes the importance of “form” by specifying the appropriate and desirable building placements, street dimensions, and building materials. This differs from the conventional “use-based” zoning codes, which over-emphasize the importance of uses within a building, and only specify designs and dimensions that are prohibited, rather than specifying what is desired by the community.

As Andres Duany notes[1]

…A FBC protects us from the tendency of modern designers to disregard timeless design principles in favor of “anything goes.” An “anything goes” ideology too often leads to “kitschy” buildings, unwalkable streets, and other aspects of low-quality urban design.

…A FBC protects us from the whims of boards and committees.

…A FBC is necessary so that the “various professions that affect urbanism will act with unity of purpose.” Without integrated codes, architects, civil engineers and landscape architects can undermine each others’ intentions by suboptimizing.

…A FBC is necessary because without it, buildings and streets are “shaped not by urban designers but by fire marshals, civil engineers, poverty advocates, market experts, accessibility standards, materials suppliers and liability attorneys” – none of whom tend to know or care about urban design.

…A FBC is necessary because “unguided neighborhood design tends, not to vitality, but to socioeconomic monocultures.” The wealthy, the middle-class, and the poor segregate from each other, as do shops and restaurants, offices, and manufacturing. A FBC can ensure a level of diversity without which walkability wilts.

…A FBC is necessary to reign in the tendency of contemporary architects to design “look at me” buildings that disrupt the urban fabric.

…A FBC is necessary to ensure that locally appropriate, traditional design is employed, rather than “Anywhere USA” design.

…A FBC is needed to protect against the tendency to suburbanize places that are intended to provide compact, walkable urbanism.

…A FBC is necessary to protect against the tendency to over-use greenery in inappropriate places such as walkable town centers. In particular, grass areas tend to be inappropriate in walkable centers. Over-using greenery is a common mistake that tends to undermine walkability.

…A FBC is needed because codes “can compensate for deficient professional training. Because schools continue to educate architects towards self-expression rather than towards context, to individual building rather than to the whole.”

We can craft a FBC in hands-on workshops driven by citizens and urban designers. When crafting a FBC, such workshops are called “charrettes,” where professional urban designers provide attendees with a one- or multi-day training course in the time-tested design principles of creating a successful town center, suburb, or rural area. Armed with such knowledge, citizens and designers craft a FBC that is appropriate for the context and community values.

Designing the BCH Site

The following are my own individual suggestions for a FBC that would employ time-tested principles for creating a successful walkable, lovable, charming town center.

The overall layout is compact and walkable. For example, building setbacks are human-scaled and quite modest. Private front and backyards are similarly small in size. Public parks are smaller pocket parks rather than larger, suburban, fields of grass (note that abundant grass and athletic fields are provided adjacent to the west of the BCH site). Some of these parks are relatively small public squares formed by buildings that face the square on all four sides. If surface parking is unavoidable at the site (and I would very strongly urge against such parking), the parking should be designed as a public square that occasionally accommodates parked cars. Block sizes are relatively small, based on a street grid, and include many intersections. Internal streets and alleys are plentiful and narrow enough to obligate slower speed, more attentive driving. Give-way streets, slow streets, woonerfs, and walking streets are all appropriate and desirable.

Internal streets should have a spacing of at least one-to-one (or two-to-one or one-to-two) ratio of flanking building height to street width. (Pearl Street Mall has a ratio that fall within the ranges below).


To promote vibrancy and safety, the City should encourage 24/7 activity by discouraging weekday businesses, such as offices, that close after 5. Businesses that close after 5 create night-time dead zones.

Service vehicles that may use streets, such as buses, delivery vehicles, or fire trucks should be small enough that they do not obligate the establishment of overly large streets or intersections. When such vehicles cannot be relatively small, it is appropriate for such vehicles to be obligated to move more slowly and carefully. Dimensions, in other words, should be human-scaled, not tractor-trailer-scaled.

If feasible, Goose Creek under the BCH site should be daylighted. It would be appropriate to create a bustling, miniature version of the San Antonio Riverwalk, with homes and shops lining the creek. At a minimum, a daylighted creek needs to be relatively permeable with several pedestrian crossings along the way to promote walkability. Since the BCH site is in a compact, walkable zone, wide suburban greenspaces flanking the creek would not be appropriate.

Alignments are more formal and rectilinear. Internal streets, sidewalks and alleys have a straight rather than curvilinear (suburban) trajectory. Street trees along a block face are of the same species (or at least have similar size and shape), have a large enough canopy to shade streets, and should be formally aligned in picturesque straight lines rather than suburban clumps. Building placement is square to streets and squares rather than rotated (to avoid “train wreck” alignment more appropriate for suburbs). Buildings that are rotated rather than parallel to streets and squares are unable to form comfortable spaces.

Streets deploy square curbs and gutters. Stormwater requirements should be relaxed at the site to prevent unwalkable oversizing of facilities. Streets are flanked by sidewalks. Signs used by businesses are kept relatively small in size. For human scale, visual appeal, and protection from weather, shops along the street are encouraged to use canopies, colonnades, arcades, and balconies. When feasible, civic buildings or other structures with strong verticality are used to terminate street vistas.

Turn lanes and slip lanes in streets are not allowed on the site.

Street lights are relatively short in height to create a romantic pedestrian ambiance and signal to motorists that they are in a slow-speed environment. They are full cut-off to avoid light pollution.

Buildings are clad in context-appropriate brick, stone, and wood. Matching the timeless traditional styles of the nearby Mapleton Hill neighborhood is desirable. Building height limit regulations exempt pitched roofs above the top floor of buildings to encourage pitched roof form and discourage the blocky nature of flat roofs. Obelisks and clock towers are also exempt from height limits.

Buildings taller than five stories should be discouraged for a number of reasons. First, they tend to be overwhelming to pedestrian/human scale. Second, they tend to induce excessive amounts of car parking. Finally, if we assume that the demand for floor space is finite at the BCH site, it is much preferable from the standpoint of walkability for there to be, say, 10 buildings that are 5 stories in height rather than 5 buildings that are 10 stories in height.

Floor-area-ratio (FAR) is a measure of how much square footage can be built on a given piece of land. A relatively high FAR is supportive of walking, transit, and bicycling. In commercial areas, FAR should be at least 1.0.[2]  Richard Untermann, a well-known urban designer, calls for FARs of 2.0-3.0 in town centers.[3]


Buildings along the street are often graced with front porches to promote sociability, citizen surveillance, and visual desirability.

Relatively small offices and retail shops are sensitively interspersed within the neighborhood. For additional walkable access to shops and services, Broadway to the west of the BCH site should incorporate designs which make the crossing more safe and permeable. Narrowing crossing distances and various slow-speed treatments can effectively achieve increased permeability.

First floors of buildings along sidewalks provide ample windows. First floors of buildings are not appropriate places for the parking of cars.

Given the affordable housing crisis in Boulder, ample affordable housing must be provided. Residences above shops are desirable, as are accessory dwelling units and co-ops. An important element in providing affordable housing will be the fact that the inclusion of shops, services and offices within the neighborhood, residences will be able to allocate larger proportions of household money to their homes and less to car ownership and maintenance (since the household would be able to shed cars by owning, say, one car instead of two, or two instead of three).

An important way to make housing more affordable is to unbundle the price of parking for residences from the price of housing. Available parking is modest in quantity and hidden away from the street. Parking is space efficient because shared parking is emphasized and tends to be either on-street or within stacked parking garages. No parking is allowed to abut streets, unless the parking is on-street, or in a stacked garage wrapped with retail and services along the street.

The BCH site is exempted from required parking, and is also exempt from landscaping requirements.

Unbundling the price of parking and reducing the land devoted to parking are both important ways to create more affordable housing.

The Washington Village neighborhood project a few blocks to the north on Broadway and Cedar is a good model for appropriately compact and walkable spacing at the BCH site.

Let’s not squander this important opportunity. Let’s insist that we build a neighborhood that fits the pattern of walkable Siena, Italy, not drivable Phoenix Arizona.




[1] “Why We Code,” Sky Studio. http://www.studiosky.co/blog/why-we-code.html?utm_content=bufferdde8c&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[2] SNO-TRAN. Creating Transportation Choices Through Zoning: A Guide for Snohomish County Communities. Washington State (October 1994)

[3] Untermann, Richard. (1984). Accomodating the Pedestrian, pg190.

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Recreational Bicyclists and On-Street Parking


By Dom Nozzi

June 27, 2002

Ever since I started work as a town planner in 1986, Gainesville FL has had very loud bicycling advocacy.

As a lifelong bike commuter, I am obviously supportive of some of what is being advocated. Yet despite this city paying a lot of lip service to fighting sprawl or increasing the number of bike commuters or reviving our town center, much bike advocacy has been detrimental to such objectives.

The problem, as I see it, is that bike advocates tend to be mostly recreational bicyclists, have little understanding of the needs of a bike commuter, and have even less of an awareness of quality urban design. The result is that they tend to sub-optimize on the needs of recreational bicycling. That is, they overemphasize such needs to the detriment of other crucial community needs.

Bicycling advocates in Gainesville and other communities in America will often fight against on-street parking. In my opinion, such a fight is terribly counterproductive to not only quality of life, but the interests of bicyclists.

In my years as a city planner, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that the pedestrian is the design imperative for cities. Not bicyclists. Not transit users. Not motorists. Not Bambi. Not even seniors or the disabled.

Getting it right for the pedestrian is the most effective, efficient way to create and promote a city quality of life.

And one of the most important way to design for the pedestrian is to have on-street parking.garrett-street-glenwood-park-atlanta

A healthy town center (not to mention healthy transit, healthy Bambi, and a healthy place for seniors/kids/disabled) depends on a healthy pedestrian environment, as even AASHTO recognizes. And a healthy town center is an important way to protect or promote a compact city.

An unhealthy town center, by contrast, accelerates the abandonment of the town center and dispersal of important community destinations to destinations that are too remote to get to by bike, by bus, or by wheelchair.

This is an important reason why bicycling advocates should be advocates for pedestrian design — particularly for features such as on-street parking. A quality pedestrian design promotes the continuation of a compact city. A compact city reduces travel distances. Modest travel distances are, of course, crucial in making bike commuting viable, not to mention improving conditions for Bambi, the disabled, children, and transit users.


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