Tag Archives: Urban Design

Is “Green Space” and “Low Density” the Solution for a Better Future for Our Cities?

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 15, 2019

 

A conversation with a few of my friends here in Boulder CO…

Donna and Jill: Thank you for your thoughts. I have a great many things to say in response, but in the interest of brevity, I will limit my comments.

Let me start by saying that because the word “density” has been tragically poisoned in American society to mean evil, disgusting, scary, awful, dirty, destructive and terrible — largely because nearly all of us see things from the point of view of our car rather than from the point of view of being human beings, by the way – I will instead substitute the term “compact, traditional, human scaled design.”

I say “tragic” because despite the conventional wisdom, compact, traditional, human scaled design gives us, by far, the best way to have the smallest ecological footprint, the least harm to the environment, the best chance to reduce per capita car travel, an excellent way to promote diversity and choices, the most effective way to create affordable housing and overall affordability, the best way to promote walking/transit/bicycling, the best way to reduce car crashes, the most important way to promote convenience, and the most effective way to create a high overall quality of life. By opposing compact, traditional, human scaled design so obsessively and angrily, Americans are thereby undercutting all of those important community objectives.

We have become our own worst enemy without realizing it.

Another important reason why so many Americans hate compact development is that Americans tend to create TERRIBLE versions of compact development. Compact development in the US is almost always badly done – and thereby given a black eye — because it is nearly always suburbanized, too often employs utterly unlovable and scary modernist building design, regularly strives to pamper motorists, and tends to fail to be human-scaled. By contrast, compact development is done so well in places like Europe that nearly all Americans are willing to travel thousands of miles to enjoy it in Europe.

Compact development is not to blame for crime, or dirty subways (the metro in DC and in much of Europe is very clean and hip), or poverty, or disease. What IS to blame is the century-long fact that Republicans and Democrats yearly pour obscene amounts of public dollars into endless and criminal wars/weapons, road widenings, parking, and police and fire services. With trillions thrown away in such a manner, funding for regular cleaning, repair, and quality design of our public facilities and public realm is shamefully inadequate.

I need to note early on that there is no humane or constitutional way to stop city growth or population growth. And I see no benefit to “slowing” growth (that would just amount to a form of “Chinese Water Torture,” as we would still end up with feared “awfulness” in the long term). Fighting to minimize the density of a proposed development, which is an EXTREMELY common tactic in Boulder (largely to promote happy motoring) is highly counterproductive, as it moves Boulder, incrementally, toward becoming another Phoenix or Houston. Two cities, by the way, that I think we can all agree have “lost their soul.”

Jill, you rightly mention that

“[w]e are replacing natural beauty with ugly houses and not planning a decent public transportation system.  Most streets are filled cars and franchises.  It all looks the same… the stores, the buildings, the parking lots.  We are in Anywhere, USA.”

But those things happen not because of compact development. They are happening because Boulder and nearly every other city is single-mindedly focused on creating a more convenient way to travel by car. Nearly all citizens, as well as their local government, fight tooth and nail to promote lower densities to achieve a happy car world. Doing that kills the chance to create “decent public transportation.” It ensures that we will be stuck in traffic (because development is too low density to travel without a car), and it ensures the city will be filled with franchises (because low density makes it impossible for locally owned, smaller retailers to financially survive).

As for “ugly houses” and “Anywhere USA,” that problem, again, has nothing to do with compact development. It is caused largely by the fact that the architectural profession has become a failed profession. It has adopted the utterly unlovable modernist design paradigm and thrown out the inherently lovable traditional design paradigm. It is also caused by Boulder being so ruinously and obsessively focused on stopping development or slowing it or reducing its density that it has been too distracted and put too little time into adopting building design rules that ensure lovability and local character. Other cities have adopted such rules, by the way.

The popular claim that compact, traditional, human scaled design causes “health and emotional problems” is nonsense. That claim has been completely debunked for decades. It is much more plausible that low-density suburban design causes such problems (there is growing scientific data to objectively confirm this).

To see a superb rebuttal to the claims that compact, traditional design is bad for health and the environment, see “Green Metropolis” by David Owen, “Cities and Automobile Dependence” by Jeff Kenworthy and Peter Newman, “Cities in Full,” by Steve Belmont, and “Bowling Alone,” by Robert Putnam. Also take note of the fact that the happiest, healthiest people live in compact, traditionally designed, human-scaled places. And the unhappiest, most unhealthy people live in low-density suburbs filled with green.

The most loved cities in the world (which is also the opinion of nearly everyone I know in Boulder) include such places as Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Siena, Montepulciano, Malmo, Delft, Utrecht and Copenhagen. In Boulder, similarly, the most loved places are the Mapleton Hill neighborhood and Pearl Street Mall.

By striking contrast, the most disliked cities in America include such places as Detroit, Phoenix, Houston, Buffalo, and Cleveland.

The “most loved” cities listed above are far MORE compact and have far LESS green space than the “most disliked” cities listed above. It is therefore quite clear that “more green space” (what urban designers call the “nature bandaid”) or “less density” are unhelpful or not necessary ingredients for improving the quality of life of a city. Almost no one travels thousands of miles to visit Dubrovnik or Amsterdam or Siena or Montepulciano to enjoy green spaces or the low-density suburbs of those cities. They nearly all go to enjoy the compact, traditional, human-scaled parts of those cities.

As is the case, not coincidentally, with the Mapleton Hill neighborhood and Pearl Street Mall, which are the most compact, traditional, human-scaled places in Boulder.

Almost no one wants to live in Mapleton Hill because it is low density or has a lot of green space (within its boundaries). Nor does anyone I know visit Peal Street Mall because it is low density or has a lot of green space. In both cases, nearly everyone is attracted to those places because they are compact, traditional, and human-scaled. Similarly, almost no one visits Boulder to enjoy its low-density suburbs (where the most green space is found). Be honest, Donna and Jill: Do you prefer the Mapleton Hill neighborhood, which is much more compact and has less green space than most any other neighborhood in Boulder, or do you prefer, say, Martin Acres, which is much more low-density and has a lot more green space?

I am told by comments sent by Donna that “growth” or “development” or compactness are “destroying” Boulder or the Front Range. Does that mean that, say, Donna should not have been allowed to move to Boulder when she did because when she moved here, she was “growth.” Why is “growth” okay when Donna moves here but not okay when others move here? Similarly, doesn’t this “destruction” mean that Donna should not be allowed to establish a duplex or an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or a Granny Flat or a Carriage House at her home? (something she has complained to me about not being allowed to do hundreds of times over the past several years)

After all, doing those things means MORE COMPACT DEVELOPMENT.

Why should Donna be allowed to have more compact development on her property but no one else is allowed to do the same anywhere in the region? Note: Boulder and all other Front Range cities are more than happy to allow people to create lower-density design on their property. They are totally free to remove buildings (unless they are historic) and install more green space. But it is completely illegal (at least for most of Boulder’s history) to make your property more compact by creating an ADU. Should Donna have been prohibited from building an ADU because it removed green space and increased compactness?

Should Boulder and other Front Range cities continue to PROHIBIT development that would make them more like Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Siena, Montepulciano, Copenhagen, Mapleton Hill, or Pearl Street Mall? After all, those cities and the most beloved places in Boulder are more compact and have less green space. Should Boulder and other Front Range cities continue to strongly encourage development that would make them more like Detroit, Phoenix, Houston, Buffalo, and Cleveland? After all, those cities are much lower density and have much more green space.

I am told by comments previously submitted by Donna that “Denver ranks nearly last among major U.S. cities, including New York, in park space as a percentage of total area. It also ranks nearly last in park acres per resident.” Again, the most loved cities, such as Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, Siena, Montepulciano, and Copenhagen, are not loved because of abundant park space. They are loved because they are compact, traditional, and human-scaled. They are places focused on making humans happy rather than cars happy. Some of the most awful cities in the world, such as Anchorage AK, have an enormous amount of green space,

By the way. I am NOT saying that green space or open space is not desirable. But in American, cities too often have way too much of it in inappropriate places (such as town centers). Vast amounts of green space or open space has a place, but that place is in the suburbs, not in-town locations.

I am told by comments previously submitted by Donna that “City leaders are overriding residents’ desire for increased green space as they sign off on more high-density development.” First of all, City Council and Planning Board are obligated by law to follow the land development regulations that were in place when a development was proposed. I know of no instance over the entire history of Boulder (or any other city in the US) where Council or the Planning Board have violated the existing development regulations to allow the developer to have “high-density development” or require less green space be provided than is required by existing regulations. This comment is therefore an inflammatory falsehood.

In addition, as I have noted over and over above, requiring more “green space” (city regulations already require way too much “green space” be provided by new development – at least in the town center portion of the transect) or denying a developers desire for more compact development is a recipe for making the proposed project less like Montepulciano and more like Buffalo. It is the “nature bandaid” again.

I am told by comments previously submitted by Donna that “[t] he dwindling of nature in Denver could lead to potentially overwhelming increases in stormwater runoff.” European cities I mentioned above have far less “nature” in them than Denver, yet none of them have significant stormwater runoff problems that I know of. Speaking as a town planner and environmental scientist, I can assure you that low density suburbs (that are chock full of “nature”) and asphalt car parking lots are far and away the leading cause of stormwater flooding and stormwater pollution. But I never, ever hear people allegedly concerned about stormwater runoff calling for less car parking or less low density suburbs. I suspect that is because requesting those truly effective stormwater management tactics would make it less convenient for such people to drive a car.

Donna quotes the following: “There’s a ton at stake. This is something to be concerned about — not just for some big net loss of biodiversity, but for what it means for people to interact with nature on a regular basis,” said Liba Goldstein, a Colorado State University conservation biologist who has helped guide efforts to nurture nature north of Denver in Fort Collins.

First of all, since conservation biologists know a great deal about how to create quality habitat for, say, mountain lions, but next to nothing about urban design (ie, the town center HUMAN habitat), such specialists are notorious for recommending designs that significantly degrade the human habitat. The (unintended) result is that the degraded human habitat ratchets up the desire of people to not live in the degraded town center, but to instead live in an outlying suburb that has steamrolled highly sensitive and valuable ecological habitats over and over again all over the nation for the past few centuries. Had the town center human habitat been wonderful (ie, designed by traditional urban designers rather than mountain lion specialists and motorists), the net result would be a region with a much more healthy ecosystem for mountain lions and other wildlife, because there would be less pressure to flee the town center for the suburbs.

Second of all, I agree that regular human access to nature is very important. The good news is that such access can successfully be provided WITHOUT degrading the town center human habitat. The greenway trails, small neighborhood “pocket parks,” and greenbelt in and around Boulder are an excellent example of that, and provide the “spiritual retreat” that Jill rightly desires.

Abundant green space and relatively large building setbacks and very low densities and very short buildings are the features provided by nearly all development in America over the past century. They are called “suburbs,” and are in no sense whatsoever an endangered way to live (we have way more than we need). The lifestyle (or housing, or neighborhood) that IS endangered is the compact, traditional, human-scaled lifestyle.

Unlike the suburban lifestyle, where the SUPPLY of such housing is far higher than the DEMAND for such housing, the compact, traditional, human-scaled lifestyle features a DEMAND that is far higher than the SUPPLY – which makes it artificially expensive and endangered. This is largely because such a design is illegal almost everywhere in the US, and also because the large majority Americans (who are largely quite dependent on car travel) fight very aggressively to stop or suburbanize such a design — mostly because it is seen as a design that threatens easy car travel.

Donna says to me that “[y]ou should try to live on the Lower East Side of NYC or other similar neighborhoods void of green space and trees to be faced with nothing but towering concrete and asphalt…Only the very wealthy can afford to live near any green. It seems the epitome of your design sense is the greater the density the better.”

With all due respect, Donna, these are unfair exaggerations and red herrings. I have never said anything that remotely suggests my desire for unlimited density (or building height). I have always maintained that, say, Hong Kong densities are awful “anthills” not fit for man nor beast, and I have always maintained that in general, anything taller than 5 stories for a building is too tall for human scale – particularly for non-civic buildings.

What I DO firmly believe is that places like Boulder and the Front Range have, on 99% of their land area, unsustainably low “cow town” densities that are far, far too low to support walking, bicycling, transit, local and small retailers, or affordable housing.

It is also absurd to suggest there is a binary choice: Either a grimy skyscraper city or a grass- and tree-filled suburb of low density one-story single-family homes on 5-acre lots. There are hundreds (thousands?) of cities that nearly all of us find overwhelmingly lovable (such as Lucca or Utrecht or the Mapleton Hill neighborhood) that fall well within those two extremes. Such cities are NOT lovable because they stopped growth or required that development be very low density or required “green space” or lots of trees. Far from it. Such cities were developed at a compactness level that far exceeds ANYTHING we will see in the Boulder/Denver/Front Range region. They are places that have far LESS green space or trees than the awful American suburbs that make up nearly all of the available housing in the US. For me and most everyone else, give me the compact, traditional, human-scaled, relative green- and tree-free traditional centers of Barcelona and Malmo over the low-density, green- and tree-filled suburbs of Toledo and Dallas any day. No comparison whatsoever.

In sum, the problem is NOT “growth” or “development” or “compactness.” It is contemporary, car-oriented, modernist, car-scaled design. Because growth cannot be stopped and because lowering the density of a project gives us a Phoenix-oriented future, we must stop wasting valuable time, money and energy in a futile effort to do stop development or suburbanize it (ie, by lowering densities). Instead, we need to acknowledge that growth is inevitable (future Donnas will and should continue to move here), and focus our energy on ensuring that our development regulations obligate that new, inevitable development to happen in a way that enhances our quality of life (NOT that of our Ford or Chevy).

To do that, our regulations must insist that new development be compact, traditional, human-scaled, and fits into the context of our neighborhoods. THAT is the recipe for a better future. A future where we keep our soul. Where we keep our authenticity and small town character. Where we keep our community environmentally sound. Where we keep our civic pride.

Fighting to stop growth or reduce density or require more “green space” (and thereby ignoring the reform of our development design regulations) is a recipe for becoming another soul-less Houston.

And nearly no one wants that. Do you?

If you DO want that, what cities do you love that followed that path?

Do we prefer run down auto dealerships and dying shopping centers and massive parking lots across the Front Range? Or do we prefer seeing the emergence of Luccas and Malmos and Montepulcianos in the Front Range? To me, the choice is clear…

“Nature,” says Jill “– even as in tree lined streets — can provide a relief from the ills of city living.  I would have no problem with higher rise buildings that [had] trees next to them and along streets.  Just the simple act of planting more trees would help. The non-descript, Soviet era type housing is demoralizing to me…One thing I loved about NY was the transportation system — even the subways I just disparaged.  All one had to do was to step outside and choose whether to get on a bus, subway or taxi.”

Jill, I fully agree that trees are an important ingredient for urbanism. I have always been an open advocate of tree-lined streets, for example. However, for those of us who desire a walkable, urban lifestyle (and there is a very large and growing number of us, combined with a very inadequate supply of such housing), we must be very careful about incorporating trees or other forms of “green.” Why? Because in a town center, the pedestrian is the design imperative. And the most important ingredient for providing a high quality pedestrian environment is proximity and human-scale. Far too often, incorporating trees or other “greenery” undermines proximity and human scale, because plants need a lot of space in most cases. This problem is particularly severe because American society is almost entirely clueless about the important need for proximity and human scale (because our high car dependency makes such design irrelevant).

At the same time, there is a near consensus that trees or other “greenery” is ALWAYS a good thing. “The more the better!!!” is what nearly everyone believes. But this is untrue when it comes to pedestrians, as it is very common to have too much of a good thing. Again, while it is certainly possible to provide discreet amounts of greenery that retain human scale and walkability, the folks who make decisions about incorporating greenery nearly always tend to have zero knowledge about urban design, because they are arborists or ecologists or accountants or elected officials or traffic engineers. The result is that nearly always, incorporating “greenery” leads to enormous setbacks, unwalkable (and deadening) green open spaces, and loss of human scale.

Pearl Street Mall provides very good examples of the desirable use of greenspace. On the one hand, trees are incorporated discreetly so that the space between facing retail buildings retains human scale. It FEELS comfortable to pedestrians for that reason, and promotes friendly, convivial sociability. But unfortunately, an urban design blunder is demonstrated by the County building on Pearl Street Mall, which has a very large, grassy, deadening, suburban space in front of the building. That portion of the Mall is less vibrant than other parts of the Mall due to the deadening effect of that green space.

There IS a place for such large green areas and setbacks. That place is our suburbs, where driving is expected and walking is not.

We need to elect urbanists to serve on City Council, and hire urbanist staff for the city planning and transportation departments. That almost never happens because nearly all voters are suburban motorists who think as motorists and not as humans. Suburban Council members and suburban city managers don’t see any value in having urbanists on staff. Their agenda is happy cars (which, not coincidentally, reduces fury amongst the citizenry). Such an agenda brings us, incrementally and unintentionally, a Los Angeles and Houston future. No one sees that future coming until they wake up one day and say “HOW DID WE GET HERE??????”

By the way, the citizens of places like Phoenix or Houston never intended for those places to become what they are today. Cities such as those had activists fighting violently against growth and density. They fought brutally hard to have MORE GREEN SPACE and MORE OPEN SPACE incorporated in proposed projects. They DEMANDED larger setbacks and lower densities and shorter buildings.

Just like nearly everyone in Boulder.

Guess what? They ended up as the awful places they are today despite fighting those battles furiously. Their mistake, as is happening in Boulder, is that they wrongly thought that greenery and open space and easy car travel and large setbacks and low density would save them. What they ended up with is roads where the motorist has a more pleasant view during their eight car trips each day. No one walks or bicycles or uses transit despite all that greenery because their world has been designed for mandatory motoring.

No, the key for a better, more lovable future is to focus on the needs of the pedestrian: modest, slow-speed human-scaled dimensions for streets and buildings. Traditional, context-sensitive, lovable design of buildings. Compact, mixed use land use patterns.

The very tragic bad news is that despite its reputation for being “progressive” on transportation and land use, Boulder remains firmly in the Dark Ages on those critical quality of life measures.

 

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

Was Boulder More “Enlightened” in the Past?

By Dom Nozzi

December 23, 2018

A friend of mine recently told me that she thought the city of Boulder, Colorado used to be “enlightened” in the past. That is, more wise, progressive, and problem-solving than the average city.

But I don’t know that I agree that Boulder used to be enlightened.

While Boulder has a national reputation for being on the cutting edge of city and transportation innovation – and a wellspring of progressivism, that reputation turns out to be far from accurate.

For example, since at least the 1960s, many (most?) in Boulder have held the quite misguided, ruinous view that car travel needs to be made as easy as possible, and the way to do that was to slow growth and minimize density.

Better yet would be to stop growth.

Doing this would allow the city to achieve the “nirvana” of happy cars (free-flowing traffic and abundant free parking). The reason why that ruinous belief has been a near consensus in Boulder for so long is that both politically conservative wealthy folks AND political liberals were more than happy to agree to it. In America, both conservatives and liberals put happy cars at or near the top of their quality of life priority list.

This belief has poisoned Boulder thinking since at least the 1960s. The city has fooled many in America into thinking that it was “enlightened” because of an accident of geography. Boulder is very fortunate to be in a location that is so spectacular that it attracts wealthy, intelligent people. Such wealth and intelligence gave the city the ability to admirably tax itself to buy a greenbelt, which provides enduring quality of life for the city, and creates the illusion that the city is “enlightened” generally.

However, accomplishing “enlightened” objectives requires far more than being wealthy enough to buy a greenbelt or build a multi-million dollar bike path system.

It also requires the wisdom to adopt enlightened parking, roadway, land use, and urban design guidelines, to name just a very few significant urban design tactics.

And in those areas, Boulder has been in the Dark Ages since the 1960s – largely because of the political consensus that buying a greenbelt, and stopping/slowing growth to keep cars happy was enough.

It is not.

Nor is it even possible. Or desirable.

 

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Making Cars Happy Is America’s Most Serious Mistake

By Dom Nozzi

October 14, 1999

One of America’s most serious societal mistakes is that since WWII, we’ve designed our communities to make cars instead of people happy. The better we “move automobile traffic,” the more we inevitably get:

  1. Costly, environmentally destructive, low-density, dispersed sprawl;
  2. Characterless, “Anywhere USA” strip commercial development featuring”auto architecture;”download
  1. A loss of a sense of place and sense of community;
  2. Unpleasant, unsafe neighborhoods;
  3. A loss of independence for those who cannot drive — especially seniors and children, who become captive to those that can give them a car ride; and
  1. A lack of transportation choice, because every trip is forced to be made by car, and because the relentless efforts to make cars happy is a zero-sum game: Every time we make car travel more pleasant, we discourage all other forms of travel (a classic viscous cycle).

To save ourselves, we must wean ourselves from our utter dependence on the car. A guy by the name of Pit Klasen recently said that “It’s true that Germans have always had a special love affair with the car, but there’s no reason you have to remain trapped in a bad and unhealthy relationship.”

 

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Redesigning North Broadway in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

July 17, 2017

My city of Boulder CO has plans to redesign a portion of a major north-south street in Boulder – Broadway Avenue. As a member of the Boulder Transportation Advisory Board, we periodically receive notes from Boulder citizens about such things as proposed street projects. In the summer of 2017, I responded to a member of Community Cycles – a community-operated bicycle shop who had sent my Board a note. The following is my response…

Dear “Tom” (not his real name),

Thank you for sending this to my Board. As you probably know, I am very supportive of much of what is called for by Community Cycles. In particular, I often call for low-speed street geometries in appropriate (compact, walkable, urban) settings. Smaller turning radii and more narrow street lanes are substantially more effective in inducing low-speed, attentive (ie, safe) car speeds than Warning paint, Warning signs, Warning education, Warning signal lights, and Warning enforcement. These five categories of warnings are the conventional tactics that all US cities – including Boulder – have used for the past century.

And continue to use.

Obviously, this section of Broadway is appropriate for low-speed geometries – and will be even more appropriate when we see more buildings pulled up to the sidewalk on the west side of Broadway.

I agree that the street design is too strongly tilted toward delivery (and other) trucks.

With regard to that issue, I believe that when more buildings are pulled up to the sidewalk on the west side of Broadway, there will be a substantial increase inmedian-octavia pedestrians crossing (or wanting to cross) mid-block, rather than at intersections. To design for that inevitability – and to support the low-speed design we need for this section of north Broadway – the design needs to include raised medians along the street. Raised medians reduce average car speeds, increase motorist attentiveness, substantially shorten pedestrian crossing distances, and promote street beautification. I therefore believe raised medians should be included in the Community Cycles recommendation.

When I proposed that raised medians be installed on North Broadway at the last Board meeting, staff responded by noting that it would be difficult or impossible to install raised medians because this stretch of north Broadway has a lot of delivery vehicles using the continuous left turn lane to make deliveries to businesses. However, I believe it is quite feasible to accommodate both pedestrian safety needs and delivery vehicle needs with raised medians.

For example, raised medians do not need to be continuous throughout the entire stretch of north Broadway. By having, for example, turn pockets interspersed with raised medians, delivery areas are largely maintained. Yes, this will sometimes require a delivery person to have to walk 20 or 30 feet further to make a delivery, but this tradeoff is a relatively minor inconvenience compared to the dramatic pedestrian safety (and other) benefits provided by the raised medians.

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Timelessness versus Change

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 13, 2002

I am thoroughly convinced that our era of extremely auto-dependent design is a brief, failed, dysfunctional aberration in the course of human history. We are now starting to turn back toward timeless, HUMAN-SCALED, pedestrian-oriented design techniques that worked for several centuries (and remain our most lovable cities — Florence, Siena, Tetro_Student_Village_Renderings_003Charleston, etc. — cities that will NEVER go out of style). It will ALWAYS make sense for us to design for people instead of cars. The age of huge parking lots and multi-lane roads is a dinosaur age. Either we jettison that mistaken age, or we will lock ourselves into a downwardly spiraling path toward extinction.

Is there a reason that the pedestrian design that has worked so well for thousands of years will one day not make sense? I doubt it, UNLESS the planet is populated only by robotic cars, instead of people.

While there are certain fundamental, timeless design principles, there will also be, within those principles, some shifting about in societal desires. That is why so much of my work focuses on designing for housing and transportation choice. Like in ecosystems, human habitats that are able to adapt to change will better survive than those that cannot adopt to change. The latter are more likely to become extinct.

The car-based design I work so tirelessly against is PRECISELY the kind of approach we need to avoid if we are to adapt to these inevitable changes. We must be able to deal with change on a regular basis. We cannot afford to live in a world where EVERYONE is forced to drive a car and live in suburban, single-family housing. To be able to adapt to change, our communities MUST be designed for transportation and housing choice. Auto-based design does not give us any choices.

Therefore, I am convinced that the most responsible, durable method is for us to select designs that expand our choices, and to draw quite heavily from time-tested designs that have worked for thousands of years — tempered with a dose of pragmatism that incorporates contemporary lifestyle needs.

Adaptability is crucial in the face of such inevitable uncertainty about the future. We need to proceed with caution (and, I might add, with a sense of modesty, rather than the arrogance of, say, modernists, who arrogantly believe we can cavalierly jettison timeless design principles from our past).

The 911 attack on the World Trade Center buildings has influenced a move toward shorter buildings. I am sympathetic, as one of the time-tested design features I am supportive of is the idea that (non-civic) buildings should not exceed 5 stories in height. Above that height, we lose a human scale. For example, it is said that one cannot easily converse with someone on a sidewalk if one is on a balcony higher than five stories.

I think there are certain things we’ve tried in the past that we can say with a fair amount of confidence will NEVER be a good idea. I think that the Triple Convergence demonstrates that road widening will NEVER be a good idea in the future (to solve congestion). Studies in environmental science show that it will NEVER be a good idea to return to an age when we spewed hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants. Medical science shows that it will NEVER be a good idea for humans to smoke three packs of cigarettes each day.

 

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Suboptimizing Bicycling Part 2

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 28, 2003

I love bicycling. I have been a lifelong bicycle commuter, wrote my Master’s thesis on bicycle transportation, have been a member of several bicycle advocacy groups, worked professionally to promote bicycling as a town planner, and have had many books and articles published that promote bicycling.

But there is a problem I see here in my city all the time.

We are either removing on-street parking to install a bike lane, OR we are resisting on-street parking due to an existing bike lane. As an urbanist who strongly believes that in cities, the pedestrian is the design imperative, these street design decisions ENRAGE me.

Largely, what has happened in too many communities is that there emerges a strong, pro-bicycle lobby that suboptimizes on their needs to the detriment of other objectives. VERY FEW communities have a pro-pedestrian lobby to counter or at least balance the pro-bike lobby, and even fewer communities have engineers/designers who are well-schooled in pedestrian design.on-street-parking

In the low-speed town center environment, bike lanes tend to be inappropriate (what New Urbanists call a “transect violation”). They are inappropriate for such streets, in part because bicyclists can safely share the lane with motor vehicles. Bike lanes are suburban, large-street facilities.

Bike lanes in that environment are also a problem because they will increase the average motor vehicle speed and will create a street surface that is too wide for a human-scaled, walkable environment.

Ideally for pedestrians, the street cross-section is as narrow as possible. Bike lanes therefore degrade that ideal.

What I try to convince the bicycle advocates of is that an environment that is pleasant for pedestrians is an environment that benefits bicyclists as well. First, a pleasant pedestrian environment is one where car speeds are modest (which bicyclists prefer). Second, a pleasant pedestrian environment will improve the retail/office/housing markets so that those markets are less likely to abandon in-town locations for the remote locations in sprawlsville (which create excessive distances that bicyclists dislike).

It is only in the past 10 years that I have seen the light and realized that my design focus should be on pedestrians, not bicycles.

In the name of better cities (for both pedestrians AND cyclists), I hope a growing number of cities can win the battle to retain the on-street parking in the face of the over-zealous pro-bike lobby.

 

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The Human Habitat is ALSO Important for Environmental Conservation

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 11, 2003

Environmentalism should be considered a subset of new urbanist design principles.

This is because in recent years, New Urbanism has made — as its centerpiece — the “transect” concept. The urban to rural transect stipulates that community design and the land development regulations implemented to achieve that design must vary as one moves from urban to suburban to rural to nature preserve.

Environmentalism, while in theory taking in the entire universe, in practice tends to be a concept that only looks at the protection of natural, non-human ecosystems. Important as that is, it leaves out any guidance or direction for how the human habitat is best designed. Indeed, as some have pointed out, if a person intends to best promote environmental conservation, she or he must broaden their perspective because if they don’t understand french-quarter-inn-charleston-city-view1and successfully advocate for quality, walkable design for humans, efforts to protect non-human habitats are ultimately doomed, as growing numbers of humans flee the low quality human habitat for the promise of bliss in the undeveloped, unspoiled regions. By contrast, urbanists using the transect methodology have a tool that instructs on what must be done in all habitats — be they urban/human, suburban/sub-human, or ecosystem/non-human. The transect recognizes that one size does not fit all. Environmental scientists often (not always) act as if one size does fit all.

Unfortunately, there tends to be an anti-human attitude of many (not all) environmental advocates. This attitude tends to include the belief that all that is natural is equally valuable, no matter where it is located. It is better to preserve a vacant, weed-choked lot in the middle of a city (to protect, say, squirrel habitat) than to let it become an urban building. Compact, walkable, mixed use development is always evil, no matter where it is located, because it does not include oak forests or grasslands. Ultimately, by taking this position (which only concerns itself with the non-human habitat), we make high-quality human habitat illegal. We are forbidden to build a Charleston. Or a Venice. Or a Sienna. We must save every possible dandelion. Every toxic mud puddle in our city is a precious wetland.  Why are we puzzled when so few want to live in American cities and so many want to live in (cocooned) woodlands surrounding a city?

Why are we not allowed to build pristine human habitats? Are we only allowed to preserve (or restore) pristine panther habitats? Are humans and their activity always to be considered evil or polluting? Is the idealized world one in which there are no humans and no human habitat?

When building compact, walkable, in-town projects in already developed, urbanized areas, the urbanist is simply looking for the same acceptance and societal admiration as the ecologist who preserves a wetland. The urbanist building a walkable, compact town center should not be attacked for not saving every weedy tree or degraded wetland in that location.

And I’ve seen that sort of thing from environmental activists all the time. Seems like an act of desperation to me. “We are losing so much woodland in sprawlsville. We therefore must make a stand to save every blade of grass everywhere.” Which, of course, ultimately speeds up environmental destruction due to how rarely we consequently build walkable places.

Should we attack the ecologist for not building sidewalks through every preserved wetland? If not, why is it okay to attack the urbanist for not preserving “nature” in every walkable place he or she builds? Why is only nature sacred, and never human urbanism?

We need to let the city be a city and let nature be nature.

Yes, I agree that we need to “push the market logic back to redevelopment.” But we live in a society that has poured trillions of dollars into building big roads that lock the market into fighting for remote sprawl. I believe it is naive to think that we can avoid a massive tidal wave of suburban sprawl when we have big roads and lots of free parking. No other tools, short of system-wide road diets and priced parking, can slow greenfield sprawl. Not environmental regulations. Not NIMBYs. Not no-growth commissioners. Not no-growth comprehensive plans. As long as we have lots of big roads and free parking in our community (and an absence of walkable places), we’ll see the vast majority of development proposals being made in greenfield areas. While I much prefer that those outlying greenfields be spared from development, I RELUCTANTLY accept the fact that I cannot stop the sprawl tidal wave that big roads bring. Given that agonizing reality, I much prefer that at least some of that tidal wave be in the form of walkable, compact, stand-alone villages (such as Haile Village Center in Gainesville FL).

And I eagerly await the revolution, when we move back from making cars happy to making people happy. Only then can we realistically expect to have a chance of stopping most greenfield development.

We have seen how extremely difficult it is to stop the tidal wave of drivable suburban development with a strong comprehensive plan — even with a majority of anti-sprawl commissioners. Such commissioners won’t stay in office forever. Not that it would matter, because even if they did, they would still be steamrollered.

To me, it is essential in this (hopefully) interim period of car-happy, big roads madness that we put walkable village standards into our code. In the end, if we don’t do that, we may win a few skirmishes by protecting a oak tree here and a weed-choked lot there, but we’ll still end up with the agony of the downward spiral of car-happy suburbia with no future. Will it be any consolation if there are tiny, degraded, preserved wetlands in the middle of a gigantic Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lots in a car happy community?

Should we just throw up our hands and give up in the only fight that really matters: stopping car-happiness and the road industry?

 

 

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Transportation Comes Before Land Use

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 21, 2004

The condition of the street determines what happens alongside it. I agree with urbanist Robert Gibbs when he says it is unfair to require a business to abut a streetside sidewalk when the street does not have on-street parking. When street carrying a relatively large volume of cars lacks on-street parking, the street is too hostile to have buildings butt up to it. I don’t at all blame businesspeople for pulling away from the street when the street is a “car sewer.”street without on street parking

In sum, either a relatively large street without on-street parking is forever to be a strip commercial “lost land” because it is impractical to shrink its size, or it needs to be made livable (largely with on-street parking and removal of travel lanes – both of which create a more human-scaled, slower-speed environment) before you start requiring buildings to behave themselves by pulling up to the sidewalk and having an entrance face the street.

If we try to force buildings to be pedestrian-friendly BEFORE the street is rehabilitated, we risk giving urbanism a black eye. We understandably increase the likelihood of a political firestorm of businesspeople SCREAMING to elected officials not to force their buildings up on the sidewalk.

Sadly, we fail to heed the above warning, and instead we almost always keep our fingers crossed and hope — in desperation — that we can fix the land development regulations or redo the urban design along a street before we fix the street, because fixing the street is (usually rightly) seen as being a non-starter (at least in our lifetimes), and the former is WAY more do-able.

To put land use before transportation is an ineffective path of least resistance.

 

 

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Vested Interests in Drivable Suburbia or Compact Development

By Dom Nozzi

July 10, 2015

Because walking, bicycling and transit need short distances to be practical, enjoyable, and safe ways to travel, those who walk, bicycle or use transit have a strong vested interest in compact development. Such travelers, in other words, have a vested interest in mixed use, taller buildings and higher densities (above 5 dwelling units per acre) because of the substantially reduce travel distances these development patterns deliver.

Research shows that below four or five dwelling units per acre, walking, bicycling and transit are largely impractical due to excessive distances to destinations and the small number of people in such settings. At such low densities, it is only practical, for most all, to travel by car. Much (nearly all?) opposition to higher density, compact development in Boulder, Colorado (as well as opposition to taller buildings) is driven by the fact that most Boulder residents live in these very low-density residential neighborhoods where it is nearly impossible to travel without a car. For such residents, there is therefore a very strong vested interest in maintaining low densities and short buildings. Traveling by car is enormously difficult and costly when densities are above 5 dwelling units per acre, as well as when there are mixed use patterns and taller buildings. This is because cars consume an enormous amount of space (17 to 100 times as much space as a person sitting in a chair, depending on whether the car is stationary or moving).

Christopher Leinberger, in The Option of Urbanism, points out that given the above, for those living in compact neighborhoods, “more is better,” because more houses, retail, and jobs compactly added to the neighborhood enhance the quality of their walking, bicycling, or transit lifestyle. By contrast, for those living in more dispersed, drivable suburbs with relatively low densities, “more is less,” because more houses, retail, and jobs added to the neighborhood degrades the quality of their drivable lifestyle. Why? Because it is more difficult and costly to drive a car when new development is added to the neighborhood.

“More is Better”? Or “More is Worse”? The question tends to be answered, therefore, based on where you live in the community.

The above explains why many in Boulder oppose higher density, compact, mixed use development, as well as taller buildings. Because nearly all residents in Boulder live in places where car travel is the only practical way to travel, higher density, compact, mixed use development, as well as taller buildings are vigorously opposed, because prohibiting such development is an essential way to retain the ability to travel relatively easily by car.

Travel lane removal proposed for a street in Boulder in 2015 led to an avalanche of letters to the editor opposing the idea, despite Boulder’s reputation as being “green” and pro-bike, pro-walking, and pro-transit. Why? Partly it is due to the extremely high level of entitlement felt in Boulder (“I’m entitled to live in a place without parking or traffic road diet before and aftercongestion!). But mostly because most residents in Boulder live in neighborhoods that are very low in density and consist of “single-use” land use patterns. Only housing is found in the neighborhoods. Jobs, services, shopping, culture, and recreation tend to be several miles away, and often reachable only on high-speed, dangerous roads. This state of affairs means that for nearly all Boulder residents, it is impractical to travel by any means other than car. Given that, most all Boulder residents see travel lane removal as severely restricting their ability to travel.

I spent 20 years implementing the “adequate facilities” law (called “growth management concurrency” in Florida) in Gainesville FL. Cities were required to adopt “level of service” standards (for example, at least 5 acres of parks per 1,000 people or 5,000 cubic feet of landfill space per 1,000 people). New development, to be “concurrent,” needed to demonstrate that they were not degrading the adopted levels of service. There were15-20 features or services that had adopted levels of service. At the end of the day, however, Gainesville’s citizens and elected officials (and nearly all of the other cities and counties in FL) only cared about ROAD level of service. This was the only standard were developers were required to be “concurrent.” The only standard that was important enough to prohibit the development if the project was not “concurrent.” None of the many other level of service standards mattered at all. “Concurrency” was therefore code language for “road concurrency.”

Why is road level of service the only standard that “matters”? Because in nearly all communities – including Boulder – quality of life is ruinously equated with maintaining free-flowing traffic and retaining abundant free parking. Lip service is paid to other quality of life measures (as I list below), but the issue that significantly bothers most all Americans every day is traffic congestion and parking woes. It is a daily reminder on our drive to work or to run errands that (1) the roads are not wide enough; (2) there is not enough parking; and (3) growth is too rapid (“out of control”) because local government is too lax in stopping growth and too willing to allow high density development. It seems like common sense to even a child that if we widened roads and intersections, added more free parking, and kept residential densities very low that we would not have these daily traffic and parking headaches. Right?

If Boulder adopts an adequate facilities law, I am nearly certain that it will substantially increase the likelihood that roads and intersections will be widened, free parking will be expanded, and new development will face elevated obstacles to developing anything other than tiny rural-like housing densities. All of this increased asphalt and increased car speed will substantially degrade Boulder’s quality of life and “small town ambience,” and fuel an increase in the rate of residential growth in outlying towns (because the ability to live in a less expensive home outside of Boulder will now be more practical due to the increased road and parking capacity in Boulder).

Adequate Facilities (concurrency) laws, to be objective and quantifiable (necessary to be legally enforceable in a court of law) end up being little more than a bean counting exercise. Planners in Florida spend enormous amounts of time listing and counting and manipulating numbers for roads and water and park acreage. But in the end, bean counting has almost nothing to do with maintaining or improving community quality of life or quality urban design. All of the numbers can be “adequate” or “concurrent,” and the community can still be utterly awful in quality.

What are the categories and attributes of quality of life and civic pride in Boulder? Pearl Street Mall and the Boulderado Hotel; low crime rate; proximity to the scenic Flatirons, the Foothills, Skiing, Hiking, and Rocky Mountain National Park; desirable climate and air quality; transportation choice and reduced car use; seniors and children feel relatively safe and independent; the Boulder greenbelt open space; culture and quality restaurants; small town ambience; highly-educated creative class population; quality jobs; quality schools; housing choices; and low levels of noise pollution. An adequate facilities law has either no impact on these quality of life features, or has a negative impact on such features.

Road, intersection and parking expansions for motorists are a zero-sum game, as such changes inevitably reduce travel by walking, bicycling, and transit, and degrade both safety, finances, and overall community quality of life. Such expansions are also a lose-lose proposition because motorists also experience harm. For example, by increasing travel by car, such changes mean less road space and parking space for existing motorists, and motorists also suffer from increased car crashes, more stress, more noise pollution, higher taxes, and an overall decline in quality of life. Improvements and expansions for walking, bicycling and transit, by contrast, are win-win tactics because not only do pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users benefit, but motorists also enjoy more parking, less congested roads, and the many quality of life benefits.

Adequate facilities laws will enshrine and elevate the importance of car travel in Boulder, and increase the counterproductive yet widespread belief that free-flowing traffic and easy, free parking is the key to quality of life.

Adequate facilities laws (concurrency) promote larger, more wealthy businesses who can afford the studies and the mitigation. It reduces the viability of smaller, less wealthy businesses.

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Is Boulder CO Too Crowded?

By Dom Nozzi

One of the most long-standing, vigorous debates in Boulder, Colorado is the question of whether Boulder is too dense or has too many people.

It’s all a matter of perspective, actually.

The first thing to understand is that cars consume an ENORMOUS amount of space. On average, a person in a car takes up as much space as 17 people in chairs. When the car moves, it takes up 100 times as much space.

40-people

 

The result, naturally, is that even without a lot of other people around, a motorist regularly feels that the city is too crowded or the roads are too congested or there is not enough parking. It seems like there are slow-pokes in their own metal boxes clogging things up everywhere.

 

As a result, even with relatively large, efficient-for-cars roads, motorists are often frustrated by delays.

Despite Boulder’s reputation, a large majority of us are required to make most or all trips by car, which means that ANY city projects to slow down cars to safe speeds is met with extreme hostility by the many frustrated people in huge metal boxes. Designs that deliver enormous benefits in cities around the nation are met with outrage in Boulder by motorists who are already sick and tired of existing delays: No to traffic calming! No to right-sizing!

Another result is that there is a near consensus in Boulder that development and population growth must be stopped! If we cannot do that, we must minimize residential densities! The objective, of course, is to keep additional cars from delaying us on roads and parking lots.

Tragically, however, this obsessive objection to new growth in Boulder has unfortunate consequences – particularly for the Boulder Town Center. Cities form because they promote an exchange of ideas, services, products, friendship, and love. To have a healthy amount of exchange, then, a town center needs slower speeds and compact clustering (what economists call “agglomeration economies”).

A compact, slower speed community is a community that allows a much larger number of us to safely and happily walk, bicycle or use transit.

Given this, the car becomes the enemy of the city, because cars deliver very high speeds and low-density dispersal – both of which are toxic to a town center. Because such a large number of us are obligated to travel by car, there is a great deal of political pressure to damage the city even more. We end up with more dispersal, higher speeds, more air emissions and noise pollution, more crashes, more asphalt, more loss of small businesses (which are replaced by national chains), and isolation from our fellow citizens. All of these things undermine exchange, which are the lifeblood of a city.

By being delayed so often in our cars, most of us understandably confuse easy car travel and parking with quality of life. Yet on the contrary, ease of car travel — because cars are so large and fast and isolating — is the death knell for quality of life (and small-town ambience).

Finally, obsessing about stopping development and minimizing density distracts us from a very important quality of life task: Seeing that we craft land development regulations that will result in lovable, quality buildings. By being distracted, Boulder’s design regulations have not been crafted to do that regularly.

Hopefully, adopting form-based codes – which pay a lot more attention to building design and placement than conventional zoning codes — will start to change that.

 

 

 

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