by Dom Nozzi, AICP
What is the most important lesson I’ve learned in my 25 years as a town 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, my work as a planner has made it crystal clear, for me, 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, creating enormous (and unpriced) parking lots, and setting buildings an enormous distance away from these now hostile roads, the worse conditions become for people – at least for those people seeking a more walkable, sociable lifestyle, and to some extent, for those who seek a more drivable lifestyle.
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 “generica” places, in other words, that have been overwhelmed by big roads, big parking lots and big setbacks.
Solving the quality of life problems – particularly for the walkable, in-town neighborhoods — 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 in our town centers. So that pedestrians are not inconvenienced or in danger. So that going for a walk is a joy.
Primarily, that means incrementally putting in-town roads on diets (removing travel lanes on 5- or 7-laners, for example), replacing town center parking lots with buildings (preferably higher density residential mixed with office and retail), and reducing building setbacks to restore a human scale in town centers.
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.
Cities 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.
Note that I don’t want to suggest the elimination of a drivable, suburban lifestyle. All lifestyles should be accommodated and designed for in a community – as long as each lifestyle pays its own way equitably. It is, however, to say that if we design properly for the walkable, in-town portions of our community, the full range of lifestyles will benefit in the same sense that a healthy body requires a healthy heart, and a diseased heart leads to an unhealthy body.
I am also convinced, in my experience, that American communities for the past several decades have almost exclusively provided for only the drivable, suburban lifestyle. The walkable (and even the rural) lifestyles have been almost entirely neglected and is now quite difficult to find. The result is that the non-drivable lifestyle has been inequitably degraded in our single-minded pursuit of providing for the drivable lifestyle. A quality walkable lifestyle is now so scarce in America (in a nation where there is substantial growth in a walkable lifestyle on the part of households) that demand far exceeds supply, and the walkable lifestyle – in the very rare instances where it exists – is becoming unaffordable due to walkable real estate prices being bid up by the demand/supply imbalance.
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 of town centers and in-town neighborhoods.
It is time to stop beating around the bush. It is time to return to the timeless tradition for our town centers.
My latest book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here.
You can schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Visit my urban design website to read more about what I have to say on those topics.