Tag Archives: urbanism

TCEA and Not Engaging in Real Town Planning

By Dom Nozzi

12/15/99

The policies of the Transportation Concurrency Exception Area (TCEA) used by the Florida city I work for as a long-range town planner are rather mushy because nearly all of them are optional or are simply insignificant window-dressing. Will we really have transportation choice if a developer installs more bike parking or sidewalks or bus stops?

Please.

It is highly disappointing and embarrassing to realize that there are people that actually believe such facilities will reduce car trips.

I wrote the Urban Design portion of the long-range comprehensive plan for this city, but the director of the department watered it down severely. He threw out a third of it (which included my prized “toolbox” describing the benefits and mechanisms for nearly all of the critical urban design features). He also put in a large number of policies that merely state that the City shall do things that have already been agreed to (i.e., the City shall implement the previously adopted special area plan for a neighborhood in the city).

While there is some merit to doing that, since a new commission majority would find it a bit harder to throw out the plan, doing so is not really planning at all. All it says is that we will do what we’ve already agreed to do.

A secretary could have written such policies. Why does the City need professional planners if we’re not doing any planning? Also note that policies in this long-range plan mostly do not get translated into land development code requirements, especially if they are mushy policies, as ours are.sprawl-development

I was forced to chop out numbers in the policies of the plan, since I was told that numbers need to be left for the code-writing stage.

In other words, don’t expect much meaningful revision to our land development code.

Through this watering down, it is fairly easy to claim to the Florida Department of Community Affairs that we’ve implemented policies, even though we have not meaningfully done so.

The comprehensive plan and code changes will give us almost nothing, and it bothers me, since we’re giving away the store and getting nothing in return when we exempt proposed development from concurrency requirements. This is the one big chance the City has to finally stop acting like a doormat. We should say, “yes, we’ll exempt you from our concurrency requirements, but only if you give us some meaningful concessions.”

For example, the City should (but doesn’t) require such design in the town center in exchange for concurrency exemption:

  1. Buildings must be pulled up to the streetside sidewalk.
  2. No parking is allowed in front of your building.
  3. On-street parking is required.
  4. At least 80 percent of your units must be within 1/4 mile of a bus stop if you are residential, and transit passes and parking fees are required for your employees if you are non-residential.
  5. Your building must be a minimum of 2 stories for non-residential buildings.
  6. Walkable town center design is required (above rules, plus mixed use, gridded street pattern, connections to surrounding residential neighborhoods, etc.).
  7. No more than 4 fueling positions are allowed for a proposed gas station.
  8. You must contribute to greenway trail construction, or cash-in-lieu if your project is not near a trail system.

Only with such conditional requirements does a City avoid giving away the store when exempting a proposed development from state concurrency requirements.

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A Squandered Opportunity at Boulder Junction

By Dom Nozzi

November 15, 2017

I am very disappointed that Boulder is squandering a golden opportunity to create a high-quality town center that promotes significant levels of cycling, walking, and transit at Boulder Junction. The location was a blank slate that gave us the opportunity to create a vibrant, thriving, highly desirable lifestyle option that is nearly non-existent in Boulder, despite the very high and growing demand for a walkable lifestyle.Amsterdam, May 8, 2017 compared to Bldr Junction

At my November 13, 2017 Transportation Advisory Board meeting, we were presented with a dizzying amount of data regarding observed transportation at Boulder Junction. But it was data without a clear description of our objectives (or tactics to reach the objectives). It therefore amounted to little more than context-less bean counting.

As I see it, the objectives at Boulder Junction should be to create a walkable, compact, human-scaled town center where residents and employees rarely have a need for car travel. Where walking and bicycling and transit use constitute most trips (ie, such trips are normalized), and where driving a motor vehicle is unusual.

Boulder Junction, in other words, should be more like an Amsterdam or a Copenhagen (see photo comparison above of Boulder Junction and Amsterdam). It should have lovable building architecture (like the Boulderado Hotel in town center Boulder, which local polls show to be the most loved building in Boulder). It should have rowhouses and tiny residences.

Our land development regulations, though, are instead giving us a Phoenix or an Orlando. Buildings are unlovable in design, and spacing for building setbacks and streets are in most cases not human-scaled. We are, in other words, failing to use or obligate dimensions that would create a sense of place.

Future reports about Boulder Junction should answer the following questions:

  • Is it easy, safe, and enjoyable to live at Boulder Junction without a car? And is it (appropriately) difficult and expensive to own and use a car?
  • Is Boulder Junction compact enough to offer a full set of mixed-use destinations to jobs? Medical/doctor services? Culture? Groceries?
  • Would you feel comfortable letting your 5-year old walk or bicycle alone throughout Boulder Junction?
  • How scarce are the available parking spaces at Boulder Junction? Is it easy to find parking (which is toxic to walkability and discourages non-car travel), or is it appropriately difficult?
  • How many residents at Boulder Junction are opting to unbundle parking from their housing? A low rate of unbundled parking is a sign that the design of Boulder Junction – and destinations outside Boulder Junction – is not conducive to reducing car dependence.
  • How many Boulder Junction residents and employees are parking for free at their internal or outside-of-Boulder-Junction destinations?
  • Do Boulder surveys show that Boulder residents envy the lifestyle and amenities offered by Boulder Junction?
  • Are driveway and street turning radii, as well as street and clear zone dimensions, small enough to induce slower and more attentive speeds? Are there any streets in Boulder Junction that can be converted to shared, slow streets?
  • What land development regulations need to be revised to better achieve place-making? What street design standards need revision for slower, more attentive motorized travel?

The worthy objectives of minimizing the ownership and use of cars by Boulder Junction residents will be severely constrained by the fact that Boulder Junction is surrounded by areas of unwalkable suburban design where only car travel is feasible. Which means that a large number of destinations outside of Boulder Junction will need to be reached by car. This is also true for the Steelyards neighborhood.

In addition, I don’t see Boulder Junction achieving a sense of place – even at build-out. Streets are too wide (particularly the Pearl Parkway stroad that bisects Boulder Junction), and setbacks are too large.

Future reports need to avoid a “silo” problem, where transportation and urban design are considered separately from each other. Transportation and urban design staff need to jointly author future reports, because transportation tactics can strongly promote or inhibit important urban design objectives at Boulder Junction. Likewise, urban design tactics can strongly promote or inhibit important transportation objectives. Without combining transportation and urban design expertise, we risk unintentionally undermining objectives.

Let’s strive for Boulder Junction to be a Copenhagen. Not an Orlando.

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Incorporating Drive Throughs in a Walkable Neighborhood

By Dom Nozzi

May 5, 1998

I am torn about allowing drive-throughs at businesses in a neighborhood intended to be walkable (such as a “traditional neighborhood development,” or “TND”). I’ve considered drive-throughs to be the Great Satan for a number of years, and have wanted to do what I can to prohibit them in pedestrian-oriented areas.dr

In the past, such an effort was clearly admirable, in my opinion, since all we would lose by stopping them are stand-alone banks or fast food restaurants. We could live without those, I believe.

But now, as we edge toward quality urbanism in certain American cities, we must decide if we are willing to accept them in exchange for something wonderful — something that might allow us to reach the much-sought-after critical mass of urbanism.

I have reached the point where I can be comfortable with a drive-through if, on balance, it is a net positive for pedestrians and urbanism. As a result, I am willing to accept a drive- through at a newly proposed compact, walkable TND neighborhood — especially if accepting the drive-through is the only way to get such fabulous projects built. And I’ve become convinced that this is true for many proposed TNDs in America.

I agree that we must crawl before we walk. But I think we need to be careful for a couple of reasons:

  1. We could get black hat developers who have no interest in quality neighborhoods or quality urbanism proposing to install a drive-through not because it is necessary for making the project feasible, but because they want to dramatically increase their profits at the expense of our quality of life. They might see that the community likes New Urbanism and give us some token “window dressing” urbanism like some picket fences or front porches, and fool us into thinking this wonderful New Urbanism will compensate for the ills of the drive-through. Then we find out later that it was a bait and switch, and what we end up with is pseudo New Urbanism.

So I guess we would need to protect ourselves from this is an informed staff, informed elected officials, and good New Urbanist ordinances to protect us from this potential negative.

  1. I think we need to be careful that we don’t end up with too much suburbanization. I’m not as concerned about the outlying single-family residential subdivisions in American cities because I think a lot of it is The Lost Land and is too far gone to be threatened with more suburbanization. But at some point, our downtown might reach the point of no return — a point where no one would ever want to live downtown, shop downtown, work downtown, or recreate downtown because it has become an auto slum. I think we nearly reached that point of no return in many American cities in the later decades of the 20th Century, and we are starting to turn it around. I’d hate for us to lose the momentum of getting more residential and pedestrian-oriented commercial downtown by going too far with parking or drive-throughs downtown.

But again, I agree with you that we must be pragmatic and guard against being purists who oppose anything that is not perfect New Urbanism. I’m very excited about proposed new TNDs in American cities and believe it will be an important turning point for urbanism in such cities.

Onward!

It has been noted by urbanists such as Andres Duany that it is best to designate a select number of streets that will be designated for high-quality urban design (called “A” streets), and allow suburban design on less important streets (called “B” streets). Striving for high-quality urban design on all streets leads to mediocrity on all streets.

On the issue of only allowing drive-throughs on “B” streets, I like the idea in theory, but wonder how difficult it would implement. Does the community have the political will to decide which are the “A” and “B” streets? And wouldn’t it be a moving target? Would we want to designate all of them up front, or do it in an ad hoc way as the need arose?

In the case of a local government TND ordinance, it is probably wise to craft that ordinance so that instead of a drive-through prohibition, the ordinance just requires them to only be allowed if not on an “A” street.

I’d also like to consider other conditions if a city is going to allow drive-throughs in a walkable location. I do not believe that a city can design a stand-alone establishment in such a way that the drive-through is benign. For example, I do not think it is just a matter of hiding the drive-through from view or providing more landscaping, or providing pedestrian street lights. None of that would give us a net positive — and one essential goal for me is to at least avoid making things worse. I’d want us to say something like “Drive-throughs are allowed if the following conditions are met:

  1. It is not on an “A” street; and
  2. It has no more than one drive-through lane.

And at least one of the following:

  1. It is part of a mixed use (including residential) project; or 2. It is part of a project that conforms to the city TND ordinance.”

Let us continue the important quest to reach a critical mass in creating urbanism in American cities.

 

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

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 1, 2002

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

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

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

But something was missing.

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

His speech changed my life.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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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Using the Urban to Rural Transect to Make Urbanists and Environmentalists Allies

 

By Dom  Nozzi

September 12, 2004

Urbanists and environmentalists are natural allies. Instead of attacking each other, urbanists and environmentalists need to be saving energy to fight real enemies (The Making Cars Happy behemoth).

Speaking as someone schooled in both environmental science and urbanism, I must say that the new urbanist transect concept is one of the most powerful concepts I have ever come across, because its proper application informs us about how the entire spectrum of habitats — be they Charleston or the Everglades — is best designed. Neither the traditional discipline of urbanism or the traditional discipline of ecology incorporates the full spectrum of habitats and their needs. In principle, the transect achieves that.

The transect concept asks this question: What elements are immersive in the habitat we are working in — be it Charleston or the Everglades? For example, the transect instructs that a sidewalk is immersive in Charleston, and a “transect violation” when within the everglades-inlets_2026_600x450Everglades (at least the inner core wetland area of the Prairie). Conversely, a 200-acre marsh is immersive in the Everglades and a transect violation in Charleston. In other words, something is immersive if it promotes the quality of the habitat being designed. It is a violation if it harms the quality of the habitat being designed.

And frankly, this is where some of the conflict and impatience comes between new urbanists and many environmentalists. A good number of environmental advocates don’t have a conception of a transect or immersiveness. To such advocates, it is always a good idea to incorporate more nature EVERYWHERE — which fails to acknowledge that a 200-acre marsh in the middle of an in-town urban neighborhood harms the quality of a walkable Charleston. Natural features are not always immersive in all locations (it took me a while to realize that, since I came from an environmental academic background).french-quarter-inn-charleston-city-view1

Let the city be a city and let nature be nature. It goes both ways. Yes, many urbanists are guilty of not taking proper care of sensitive ecosystems in their projects. But it is also true that a many environmental scientists are guilty of not taking proper care of urbanism in THEIR advocacy. Both can harm the other.

Much of our culture fails to realize that nature can, in a sense, pollute urbanism in the same way that human development can pollute nature.

 

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Urbanism is the New Green

By Dom Nozzi

With less compact, lower-density, suburban development, extremely high per capita car use is inevitable, and high levels of walking, bicycling and transit is impossible.

With more compact, higher-density, urban development, car use is relatively inconvenient and costly (which substantially reduces car travel), and walking, bicycling and transit is much more convenient, safe & enjoyable (which dramatically increases such travel).Catania Italy walkable

Both Boulder CO (where I now live) and Gainesville FL (where I toiled for 20 years as a long-range city planner) have exceptionally low, unsustainable suburban densities, which makes extremely high per capita car travel a locked in certainty. In both cities, per capita air emissions are shamefully VERY high due to low-density-induced car dependence.

Boulder has fooled itself into thinking it can achieve high levels of walking, bicycling and transit use simply by leveraging its wealth to build lots of sidewalks, bike paths and bus service. Nevertheless, very high car use remains (as illustrated quite well by the extreme rage directed against the Folsom right-sizing project in 2015).

The only effective way to induce high levels of walking, bicycling and transit use is to take away speed, space, and subsidies from cars (the fourth essential “S” is to Shorten travel distances via compact, mixed use development). Cars need to be slowed down (particularly in town centers) with traffic calming street design. Oversized streets and parking lots (which are found over and over again in all American cities) need to be shrunk down to sustainable, human-scaled size. Huge motorist subsidies have persisted for nearly a century, and must be reduced. Giant subsidies are found in abundant free parking and city requirements that new development provide parking; untolled roads, which bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users pay for – not just motorists; and unpriced gasoline and too-low gas taxes (there are many other subsidies, by the way).

Boulder and Gainesville have almost no development that is compact & mixed use, which make both cities rather unsustainable and extremely car dependent.

Worldwide, studies have found that lower-density, less compact cities emit extremely high levels per capita of toxic air emissions due mostly to extreme car dependence. Conversely, more compact, higher-density cities emit extremely low per capita levels of air emissions due mostly to low car dependence. Shame on Boulder for the several decades of maintaining a political consensus that compact (more dense) development is bad.

There is an emerging consensus (outside of Boulder) that density (urbanism) is the New Green.

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Congestion: The Elephant in the Bedroom

 
 

 

By Dom Nozzi

 

Too often, traffic engineers, planners, urbanists and architects get caught up in bean-counting minutiae when it comes to proposed development in a community. They are blinded by a single-minded focus on VMTs. MPGs. ADTs…

 

Such efforts tend to have us lose sight of our over-riding community objective: “What must be done to promote human happiness?

 

traffic-jam-on-huge-hwyAfter all, at the end of the day, even if we have done all the mathematical calculations, run the computer models, and solved the equations, what are we left with? A pleasant community we are proud of? Or a place that only a Ford could love?

 

As we know, cars consume an enormous amount of space. So much that only a tiny handful of people in cars will congest a street. Consequently, it is nearly impossible for a healthy, vibrant city to escape traffic congestion.

 

Indeed, any city worth its salt has a traffic congestion problem.

 

Because cars take up so much space, striving for “free-flowing traffic” or otherwise conveniencing cars is toxic to a walkable, compact, human-scaled, vibrant urbanity. By striving for “free-flowing cars,” we must minimize the number of people in the area (when they are in cars), and build enormous, unwalkable, unlovable car routes and storage areas.

 

The toxic “remedies” for inconvenienced cars—the most commonly accepted strategies for reducing congestion—are road widening, and minimizing densities or commercial intensities. And both of these are deadly to urbanity.

 

Given the above, urbanists fall into a tactical trap when they accept the societal consensus that congestion is evil and must be fought or reduced at all costs.

 

No, urbanists must confront the elephant in the bedroom, and begin to change how our society views congestion. Congestion must be acknowledged as the friend of urbanity. It is a sign of health. Not an evil that must be reduced to the point of financial bankruptcy and the ruinous sterilization of a community. A community that has become more conducive to being a lunar landscape car habitat rather than a walkable-stcharming, human-scaled people habitat.

 

This is not to say that urbanists should passively admit that society should resign itself to being stuck in traffic. On the contrary, what the urbanist should quickly point out is that quality urbanism delivers an effective means of escaping congestion if one is unwilling to tolerate it. Urbanism delivers vibrant, in-town urbanity. Urbanism delivers walkability, because destinations are so close by. Urbanism delivers bicycling and transit options.

 

Each of these options—properly deployed—can lead to life satisfaction and an ability to accept or otherwise tolerate congestion as a necessary aspect of a healthy, sustainable urbanity.

 

It is time for urbanists to escape the trap of both VMT bean-counting and the ruinous quest to “reduce traffic congestion.”

 

 

_________________________________________________

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.

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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

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