Walkable City

A review of a book by Jeff Speck.. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 320 pp., $27 hardcover

For two decades—first as director of town planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., later as design director for the National Endowment for the Arts, and more recently as a Washington-based planning consultant—Jeff Speck has been at the forefront of American urban design.

He’s watched as a number of large cities—notably Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon—have taken measures to enhance their livability. “But,” Speck laments, “these locations are the exceptions. In the small and mid-sized cities where most Americans spend their lives, the daily decisions of local officials are still, more often than not, making their lives worse.”

Why do cities and towns continue to do so much damage to themselves and to local well-being? The fault, he suggests, does not lie mainly with the planning profession. A quarter-century ago, many planners advocated policies harmful to long-term livability, but in the years since, the profession has shifted course—largely embracing New Urbanism’s ideas and techniques.

The principal problem today, he asserts, is that most governments have not yet recognized the folly of conventional traffic-engineering. During his work with the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, Speck noticed that in city after city, “left to their own devices, traffic engineers were widening streets, removing trees, and generally reaming out downtowns to improve traffic flow.” He observes: “Much of this was happening below the mayor’s radar. In the absence of any design leadership from above, the city engineer, simply by doing his job, was redesigning the city—badly.”

Walkable City aims to remedy the situation by explaining, in clear, direct language, the ideas and practices that new urbanists are using to enliven center cities. The 320-page volume takes discussions that have been occurring among new urbanists in recent years and presents them in a comfortably-sized production—about 5 by 8 inches—that doesn’t look or feel like a textbook. The format is just slightly bigger than the classic Vintage paperback edition of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Jane Jacobs’s 1961 book contained just four drawings (all depicting the varied walking routes that are available when city blocks are small). Speck and his publisher, the esteemed Farrar, Straus and Giroux, have gone even further: no illustrations at all. Walkable City’s power comes from its well-honed sentences and passionately argued ideas.

The text-only format is a big departure from most new urbanist books, which abound with photos, maps, charts, and other illustrations—frequently in full color and often quite useful. For planners, designers, and other professionals, the Farrar, Straus approach may feel austere. But it’s probably a good choice for reaching its target audience—bright general readers, who can find plenty of visual materials elsewhere, once Walkable City excites their interest.

How walkability works

Speck sees walking conditions as a key to the success or failure of a downtown. “The pedestrian is an extremely fragile species, the canary in the coalmine of urban livability,” he declares. And the pedestrian has not been well cared for.

“Lots of money and muscle have gone into improving sidewalks, crossing signals, streetlights, and trash cans,” he acknowledges, “but how important are these things, ultimately, in convincing people to walk? If walking was just about creating safe pedestrian zones, then why did more than 150 Main Streets pedestrianized in the sixties and seventies fail almost immediately? Clearly there is more to walking than just making safe, pretty space for it.”

Speck lays out a General Theory of Walkability, which holds that “to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting.” He emphasizes that each of the four conditions is essential; none alone is sufficient. He does a thorough job of explaining how those conditions are created and maintained—and he documents the growing desire of Americans, especially those in the “creative class,” for what Christopher Leinberger has termed “walkable urbanism.”

A place where people don’t have to drive much is not just more pleasant; it’s also more productive. According to Speck, the US Environmental Protection Agency has found that “the more miles that people in a given state drive, the weaker it performs economically.”

The main thing that makes the best cities walkable, he says, is fabric. “Yet fabric,” he observes, “is one of several key aspects of urban design that are missing from the walkability discussions in most places.”

The bulk of the book is organized around “The Ten Steps of Walkability,” as follows:

• Put Cars in Their Place: “The automobile is a servant that has become our master.”

• Mix the Uses: Placing the proper balance of activities within walking distance of one another is fundamental; “most downtowns have an imbalance of uses that can be overcome only by increasing the housing supply.”

• Get Parking Right: The book draws skillfully from UCLA planning professor Donald Shoup’s authoritative volume, The High Cost of Free Parking.

• Let Transit Work: “Walkable neighborhoods can thrive in the absence of transit, but walkable cities rely on it utterly.”

• Protect the Pedestrian: This prescription contains many moving parts, including block size, lane width, signalization, roadway geometry, and other factors that together determine a car’s speed and a pedestrian’s likelihood of being hit. “Most streets in most American cities get at least half of these things wrong,” Speck reports.

• Welcome Bikes.

• Shape the Spaces: “Perhaps the most counter intuitive discussion in planning, this may be the step that is most often gotten wrong,” Speck says. “Too much green or gray—parks or parking—can cause a would-be walker to stay home. Public spaces are only as good as their edges.”

• Plant Trees: Most cities know that trees are good, but few, so far, have been willing to pay properly for them.

• Make Friendly and Unique Faces: Pedestrians need to be entertained. City design codes that focus on use, bulk, and parking have, Speck says, “only begun to concern themselves with creating active facades that invite walking.”

• Pick Your Winners: “With the possible exception of Venice, even the most walkable cities are not universally walkable: there are only so many interesting street edges to go around.” Some streets will remain mainly automobile-oriented, but, Speck asserts, “cities must make a conscious choice about the size and location of their walkable cores, to avoid squandering walkability resources in areas that will never invite pedestrians.”

Speck is not afraid to voice opinions. Of bus rapid transit, he notes that on the one hand, BRT lacks the built-in permanence of a rail line, and on the other hand, “the more permanent the BRT infrastructure feels, the more ugly it usually looks. BRT buses, and the constructions that support them, just don’t evoke many feelings of comfort in the fragile human bodies they serve.”

Walkable City is an energetic, feisty book, one that never contents itself with polite generalities. Sometimes breezy and anecdotal yet always logical and amply researched, this is one of the best books to appear this year. Speck deserves the widest possible readership.

Philip Langdon is author of the new book The Private Oasis: The Landscape Architecture and Gardens of Edmund Hollander Design (Grayson Publishing).

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