Tag Archives: walkability

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

 

By Dom Nozzi

March 15, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do we want that???

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

Those are all WONDERFUL things for urbanism.

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

That is desirable for a suburb, not a city.

 

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Suburban Values Corrupting Urbanism

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 14, 2000

Applying the same land development regulations throughout a community is a surefire way to degrade the quality of walkable urbanism in a town center.

Unless development regulations such as building setbacks and roadway dimensions are calibrated to appropriate locations – larger dimensions in suburbs and smaller dimensions in town centers – a community would need to water down various ordinances to make them palatable to suburban and rural interests.

If there were no clear distinction between urban and suburban regulations (if, instead, regulations were “one size fits all,” as is the case in most cities), it would be nearly impossible to adopt rules that would require sidewalks on both sides of all streets. In rural and suburban areas, this would be seen as less critical, and communities typically must water it down the development rules so that sidewalk installation remains optional citywide.

Another thought: I often lean toward thinking that if a community achieved quality walkable design in its town center, it would eventually stand as a clear indictment of the outlying, lower-quality sprawlsville. I think it would be desirable if sprawl residents meatmarketstarted feeling some envy for the urbanism they do not enjoy on their low-density cul-de-sacs. So I like the idea of keeping the quality walkable urbanism in the town center, and accelerating the process of having the outlying suburbia lose its desirability due to the white elephant syndrome.

As an aside, annexation of outlying areas into a city can amplify the corrupting influence of one-size-fits-all suburban values I mention above. When you annex outlying areas, you almost inevitably make your local politics more suburban, since people with suburban values are more likely to live in outlying areas.

In addition, when you annex outlying areas, you tend to be annexing liabilities. You tend to be annexing high public service needs and high auto dependence, coupled with such low-density areas producing relatively low tax revenue that comes nowhere near covering the costs of such development patterns.

 

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Urban Creeks: Protecting Water Quality AND Urbanism

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 9, 2001

As an urbanist, I often make the point that “the pedestrian is the design imperative” within the urban core zones of the rural to urban community transect.

A crucial way to deliver a walkable, high-quality urbanism is to use modest, human-scaled dimensions.

Unfortunately for this design objective, environmental scientists (and arborists) often call for relatively large dimensions to achieve environmental conservation objectives (big stream setbacks, large tree planting areas, etc.).

The objectives obviously clash.

I enthusiastically support efforts to design walkable cities, and argue that successfully doing so results in better long-term regional environmental conservation, because designing great cities reduces the desire to flee the city in order to buy a home in remote residential subdivisions in sprawlsville. For this reason, it seems reasonable to me that those strongly seeking environmental conservation should buy into the urban-rural transect concept — the pedestrian/human is the design imperative in the core zone of the transect, and “the trout” (nature) is the design imperative in the rural conservation zone of the transect.

A dilemma here is that water in streams is flowing water — sometimes from the urban zone to the conservation zone. If the water is degraded in the urban zone with its pedestrian imperative, it can degrade the conservation zone when it reaches that zone, thereby harming the trout imperative. Nature often does not respect transect boundaries…

In my humble opinion, we should strive for a middle ground. That is, a stream within the urban zone needs to respect the pedestrian imperative by not creating pedestrian barriers. Yet the stream cannot be significantly degraded to the point of harming outlying conservation zones.

Must urban zone reaches of streams be “piped” or “paved over” to be walkable? Will they inherently suffer from ugly littering and dumping if they are not covered up? I don’t believe so.

Seems to me that a middle ground design would be to leave narrow, vegetated banks along the streams, and include a paved, hard-surface path along side it, as well as fairly closely urban-creekspaced pedestrian bridges over the creeks (say, every 200 feet, as we often call for such cross-access distances within a block).

By doing so, we achieve at least two things: First, the stream is walkable and does not create meaningful inconveniences to the pedestrian. Second, by establishing a hard-surface path nearby, we encourage a regular flow of pedestrian traffic along the stream. Such pedestrians become “eyes on the stream,” so to speak. They end up providing regular monitoring and voluntary clean-up when littering or dumping occur (or the “pedestrian police” will call city hall and demand that the clean-up be done). Greenways built around the nation have demonstrated the effectiveness of this form of citizen surveillance. A sense of stream/path ownership by path users typically results in clean up of litter problems that has sometimes persisted for decades before the path was installed. The key is that a formerly hidden, neglected stream is now visible to people on a daily basis, which means that we’ve created a chance for knowing about and caring for the stream. “Piping” or “paving over” a stream creates “out of sight, out of mind” problems, not to mention externalities that we would be blissfully unaware of…

Finally, I believe that the urban stream design I recommend above, while not creating a pristine water quality filled with healthy trout, will at least minimize exporting environmentally harmful water to outlying conservation zones.

 

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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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The Appropriateness of Nature in Cities

By Dom Nozzi

July 18, 2004

Introducing nature into cities nearly always degrades the human habitat.

WHAT????

I say this about nature in cities even though I am an advocate for urban open space.

After all, I have a degree in environmental science, so I understand the importance academically.

When I was a child, the most profound, critically important, priceless experience I had was to be able to play in the neighborhood woodlands. I did that ALL the time. The main inspiration for my becoming a city planner was that I wanted to be in a job in which I could work to see that future generations of kids had that same opportunity, as NOT having that experience would lead to an awful, sterile, barren childhood. Indeed, a study once looked at a HUGE number of variables to determine if there was a correlation between childhood experiences and wanting to conserve the environment as an adult. The study found that there was one variable that stood out head and shoulders above the others. Adult conservationists typically were able to engage in unstructured, unsupervised play in natural areas near their home when they were kids.

Because of the above, I remain a leading advocate for establishing an urban greenway trail systems in cities. Such a system is the only effective way I know of to allow kids (and

Boulder Greenway Canopy

adults) to have easy walking/bicycling access to the natural world, on a regular basis, right outside their back door. Nothing is better able to create the army of conservationists our environment needs.

I would therefore hold my strong desire for urban open space up against anyone else with the expectation that my desire would be stronger. I am intensely supportive of URBAN open space.

Note that I say urban open space. This is a crucial qualifier. The urban habitat (in contrast to the suburban and rural) MUST be compact and walkable if it is to be a high quality urban habitat. That means that if we are to introduce nature into the urban world, we must be as careful as if we were planning to introduce human activity into a wildlife habitat.

In the former case, the introduced nature MUST be compact and walkable. In other words, small, vacant woodlots, plazas, squares, piazzas, utility corridors, creek corridors, etc. are perfectly compatible with walkability. One can easily walk from origin A to destination B without an enormous amount of physical exertion. By contrast, putting a golf course or even a 50-acre park in the middle of a city creates an UNwalkable condition, as the distance between A and B becomes too excessive to easily walk (Central Park in NYC can work because NYC has extremely high densities and a quality transit system that means you can easily walk or ride to all of your daily needs along the PERIMETER of the park without having to cross it on foot).

In other words, big open spaces in a lower density community would create unwalkable spaces that would degrade the urban habitat in such cities.

The key for most cities is to preserve and create URBAN open spaces while retaining walkability. Greenway trails that wind their way through neighborhoods and small parks are compatible.

Big, unwalkable parks are not.

 

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Keys to Walkability

By Dom Nozzi

December 11, 2006

How do we make a place exceptionally walkable?

PROXIMITY is crucial as a measure – perhaps reducing all other measures to insignificance by comparison. In nearly all of America, unfortunately, our car-centric history has dispersed destinations to a point where it will be nearly impossible to retrofit walkability into American cities. Tragically, it will require decades or generations before we will see sufficient infill and densification in our communities for any semblance of area-wide walkability to be established.

In addition to lack of proximity, another enormous problem we face in striving to encourage more utilitarian walking (and bicycling and transit use) is that America is drowning in an over-abundance of FREE PARKING. When we know that plenty of free parking awaits us nearly everywhere we need to go, we are essentially being begged to drive a car, and we end up seeing many drive even when their destination is only a short distance away (and even though there may be wide sidewalks and vibrant, pulled-up-to-the-street buildings).

As an aside, the fact that free and abundant parking is so strongly demanded and is such a powerful way to manipulate travel behavior is curious, since for most Americans, there is little that is more anathema than deliberate behavior modification.

It is therefore essential that we work to restrict the availability of free and ample parking. Some strategies: unbundling the price of parking from housing, parking maximums instead of minimums for new construction, market-priced parking, locating the parking on the side or rear of new buildings, etc.

I just returned from a two-week trip in southern Italy and Sicily. It was magnificent, Catania Italy walkablecharming, romantic, delicious, boisterous, and invigorating. We visited some of the world’s most walkable cities, and enjoyed the experience of walking in places filled with pedestrians (mostly local, as we were there off-season). We were immersed in a walking culture.

Guess what? Most all of the places we walked had no sidewalk at all (or had “sidewalks” only a meter or so wide). “Pedestrian Level of Service” (called “PLOS”) is an effort to quantify the quality of the walking environment. Is the PLOS high or low in these Italian cities?

I believe so many walk in these wonderful Italian cities because of proximity, the difficulty in finding parking, and the expense of owning and driving a car. Very little (or none) of it is due to wide sidewalks or pleasant landscaping, unlike what many in America seem to think.

I believe that to promote walkability, many Americans call for the installation of wide sidewalks because truly effective strategies (proximity and restrained/priced parking) are 141104-harding2too costly, too painful, too long-term, or not seen as realistic in any way at all. So we build sidewalks (sometimes) because we can. It helps many of us pay lip service to providing walkability. And when no one ends up using the sidewalks, skeptics point to them as confirmation that Americans will never be pedestrians in any meaningful way.

In this interim, grim time for pedestrians, we need to encourage compact, human-scaled, parking-restrained, place-making projects that can serve as shining examples of what we need on a broader scale.

We have spent enormous sums of public and private dollars, and several decades, to do all we can to enable car travel. For most of America, there will be no overnight path to walkability.

Indeed, as James Howard Kunstler argues, much of America may not have a future.

 

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Quality of life in Bloomington: What needs to be done?

Quality of life in Bloomington: What needs to be done?

Bloomington, Indiana Herald-Times

Guest column

November 17, 2007

This column was written by Dom Nozzi. He is the executive director of Walkable Streets, and has been a senior city planner for over 20 years.

I was invited to speak in Bloomington on October 22, 2007. I am the author of two books on sprawl, congestion and quality of life. My expertise is quality urban design. In my 20 years of research, visiting countless cities and preparing development regulations for the “college town” of Gainesville, Fla., I learned that quality of life is a powerful economic engine that communities most effectively leverage by providing a range of lifestyle choices from walkable urban, suburban and rural.

My most important realization was this: Compact, lower-speed, human-scaled walkability (particularly in a downtown) is the lynchpin for achieving a sustainable, more economically healthy and pleasant future.

I was able to tour much of Bloomington while in town. It became immediately clear what measures Bloomington will need to improve its overall quality of life for its citizens, its businesses and its environment. These measures are the “low-hanging fruit” that must be incrementally achieved in the coming years for Bloomington (especially in its downtown), if the city is to realize a brighter, more prosperous and sustainable future.

Convert one-way streets back to two-way.

Creating one-way streets was popular a number of decades ago as an easy way to speed high volumes of traffic through downtown. Nationally, cities are converting these back to two-way because of the obvious problems that one-ways create. One-onewaystreetsway streets result in a significant increase in speeding, inattentive driving, road rage, traffic infractions and motorist impatience.

Former “shopping streets” (often including residences) become drive-throughs instead of drive-tos. Life for the now declining number of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users becomes unsafe, inconvenient and unpleasant. Likewise, the street loses residences and businesses due to the more hostile conditions. The one-ways also require a great deal of extra motorist travel distance due to backtracking.

Install metered, on-street parking.

In a walkable location, on-street parking must be maximized. (In particular, College Avenue and Walnut Street downtown need on-street parking.) Such parking would be extremely beneficial to downtown businesses and pedestrians (the lifeblood of a downtown).

By contrast, off-street surface parking must be minimized, as it creates gap-toothed dead zones that inhibit walkability, create danger zones and undercut the “agglomeration economies” (the concentration of jobs, residences and commercial) that a downtown requires for health. On-street parking creates safer, slower-speed, more attentive driving, provides protection for pedestrians and offers high-quality, convenient parking for retailers.

On-street parking must be properly priced (targeting an 85-percent use rate), and the parking meter revenue must be dedicated to improving the streetscape in the vicinity of the meters, rather than being dispersed citywide.

Convert off-street surface parking to buildings.

Such parking is deadening to a walkable location, and makes retailing, office and residential substantially more costly. Surface parking — particularly when abutting streets — must be converted to active retail, residential and office buildings. Parking garages — especially when wrapped with retail — consume less parking space, and are much better for walkability than surface parking.conversion to town center

The tragic dilemma that cities such as Bloomington find themselves in is that most all of us are forced to drive a car (and park it) every single time we travel. By providing for cars, walking, bicycling and transit become more difficult. Understandably, we are compelled to urge that conditions be improved for our cars.

Wider, higher speed roads. Larger parking lots.

Yet the “habitat” for cars is at odds with the “habitat” for people, as people tend dislike being near high-speed roads or huge parking lots.

In the end, we find ourselves becoming our own worst enemies, fighting to improve life for our cars.

As we expand our communities for cars, the world for people shrinks.

The remedy is to return to the tradition we have abandoned. The tradition of designing our communities to make people happy, not cars.

Overall, Bloomington has much to be proud of. However, without incrementally taking the steps I recommend above, the quality of life for residents and retail is being severely compromised. I urge the city to start taking these steps as soon as possible.

 

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