Tag Archives: urbanism

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

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.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

My Adventures blog

http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

My Town & Transportation Planning website

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

My Plan B blog

https://domz60.wordpress.com/

My Facebook profile

http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

My YouTube video library

http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi

My Picasa Photo library

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534

My Author spotlight

http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

 

 

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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.

 

 

_________________________________________________

Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

My Adventures blog

http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

My Town & Transportation Planning website

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

My Plan B blog

https://domz60.wordpress.com/

My Facebook profile

http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

My YouTube video library

http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi

My Picasa Photo library

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534

My Author spotlight

http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

 

 

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