Author Jeff Speck on Walkability and the One Mistake That Can Wreck a City

What makes a city great? According to Jeff Speck, the secret sauce is, quite simply, walking. If your city is a good place to walk — that is, walking is safe, comfortable, interesting, and useful — everything else will fall into place.

In Walkable City, Jeff Speck writes that pedestrians are the indicator species of a healthy city.

In Walkable City, his talked-about manifesto about healthy urban places, Speck lays out a simple formula for any city to become a pedestrian haven. “Putting cars in their place,” “mixing uses,” “getting parking right,” and supporting transit and cycling are a few of the 10 principles, he says, that separate the successful cities from the rest.

A planner and urban design consultant, Speck has a few other books under his belt. In 2000, he co-authored Suburban Nation with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and he also co-wrote the recently released Smart Growth Manual with Duany and Mike Lydon. Meanwhile, Speck has served as the director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts and headed the Mayors’ Institute on City Design.

In Walkable City, he lays out a powerful argument, supported by careful research and highly-Tweetable facts, that fostering a culture of walking should be a central aim of every American city.

If you’re a professional planner or advocate, Walkable City is a new, essential reference. If you’re new to the subject, there’s no better introduction.

Streetsblog reached Speck this morning for an interview. Here’s what he had to say…

Angie Schmitt: You’ve taken the broad concept of civic health and boiled it down to this one act: walking. Can you talk a little about why this one activity is so important? How did you come to that conclusion?

Jeff Speck: I came to it very indirectly. I am a designer. I am a city planner. I was never focused on walking in any way, from a health perspective or a recreational perspective.

But then I started working with a lot of mayors. I oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design for four years. Every two months, eight mayors and eight designers would meet. Each mayor would bring their top city planning challenge.

Listening to mayor after mayor and how they explained their idea of a successful city, it became very clear that both the best measure of a thriving place and perhaps the best contributor to a thriving place was street life: walkability. Being successful in walkablity is really nothing less than providing street life. In our age of digital connectedness, I think for a while people forgot how important it was to have a public realm where we come to gather physically. That is still in our DNA. We need that.

It became clear to me that solving the walkability problem ended up addressing all their other concerns as well. It was not a strategic choice, to reframe this argument under the realm of walkability, but I have to say it may finally be the outfit that allows this concept to sell. We can clothe it in other terms like New Urbanism, which scares conservatives, and neo-traditionalism, which scares liberals. But no one doesn’t like walking.

AS: What is the biggest mistake cities make?

JS: I’ve repeated it so much I hate to tell you the same thing, but it’s the honest truth. The biggest mistake cities make is to allow themselves to effectively be designed by their director of public works. The director of public works, he or she is making decisions every single day about the width of streets, the presence of parking, the question of bike lanes. And he’s doing it in response to the complaints he’s hearing. But if you satisfy those complaints you wreck the city.

A typical public works director doesn’t think about “What kind of city do we want to be?” They think about what people complain about, and it’s almost always traffic and parking.

The one thing we’ve learned without any doubt, is the more room you give the car the more room they will take and that will wreck cities. Optimizing any of these practical considerations — sewers, parking, vehicle capacity — almost always makes a city less walkable.

AS: What do the effective cities do instead?

Planner and author Jeff Speck is the former director of the Mayor's Institute on City Design and the National Endowment for the Arts' design division.

JS: In more effective cities there’s a mayor who sees that he’s more or less the chief designer of the city. Charleston’s mayor, Joseph Riley, woke up one morning, slapped his head and said, “Oh my God, I am the chief designer of my city. I need to start making decisions that make my city more beautiful and functional in a more holistic way.”

Cities need specialists that help define what make them a great city. Is it going to make you a great city having an 18 minute commute versus a 20 minute commute? Or is it going to make you a great city to have a smaller carbon footprint and more transportation choices?

Those cities that recognize that they’re not generating the economic activity that they could because they’re not generating a street life and their population is sick, overweight, because they’re not getting enough exercise, they’re not getting a useful walk — those are the cities that are succeeding. If they decide that those are the objectives: economic health, public health, and environmental sustainability – [they] all mandate a city which is walkable city.

AS: You single out smaller, “more normal” cities as sort of the next frontier of this movement, as opposed to livability stars like New York and San Francisco. How do you reach these less progressive places?

JS: There is a lot of data from New York and San Francisco in it, but this book is firmly directed at the Clevelands, the Las Vegases, the Dallases, the Cedar Rapids. The cities that, if they’ve figured it out, they’re not showing it.

My book is part of it but it can’t be just me. My small firm only does so much work, now with my book out I’m doing much less [planning] work. I think it’s much more important to spread the message than to make more examples.

I lecture to the largest possible audience and then generally someone from the city council says, “We need you to help us.” But that is not a strategy for fixing our country. There will be, and there are, dozens of practitioners that will hopefully take this to their cities. This book will hopefully increase the demand for them, for their work as well.

There are probably 500 cities in America that have one-way streets through their downtown or a four-lane, two-way road that could get a road diet. They just need to come to understand this discussion.

  • JP

    Yes but…
    there is only one risk like the one you can face in a city like Barcelona, or other european ones: the message is “let´s let people walk, get cars out of here” and the result is that neighborhoods loose their personality. People feels a part of the city as “home”. They have interactions, they do things walking a few blocks now and then. Suddenly, a city planner says to “give value to the place” so they reform and achieve several successes: people gets more place to walk, so tourists flood the new zones. Rents go up so the little shop that sold bread is replaced by the one that sells “I love BCN” T-Shirts with the NYC font. Then, as the site is “improving”, rents get higher for people that has lived there a whole lifetime, and they have to leave their “home”. Commercial success is a total failure in the social side of the equation. I’m referring here to european cities that were born at a human scale, not the american ones sized for cars that really apply to this message you explain in the interview.I hope you get it without more detail: in some places it´s better to have cars as usual but in order, than an horde of drunk tourists peeing on the walls.

  • Jerome

     @twitter-299906808:disqus , if you create just a few walkable areas, rich people  move in and force poorer people out. And in some places, tourists will do the same.
    But walkable places are expensive and/or tourist attractions only because they are scarce. To solve the problems you describe, we only need to make whole cities walkable. We’ll even save money in the process.

  • Miles Bader

    @twitter-299906808:disqus That’s the nuttiest theory I’ve seen in a while… it essentially boils down to “we shouldn’t make anyplace too nice, because then the ebbbbbbil tourists might come!1!”

    The only reason the (OMG ebbbbbil!) tourists would “flood” such a neighborhood is because it’s the only nice place in a city otherwise destroyed by automobile-oriented development.

    Even if this were true, your “solution” (I think the usual phrase is “cutting off your nose to spite your face”) is insane.  A much better method would be to go for broke: make everyplace in the city nice by emphasizing pedestrian development and restricting car usage everywhere.  If the whole city is pleasant and livable, there’s no problem….

  • Abaquerolima

    Thats the beauty of it. Plan it correctly to the citizens’ needs and private investment will flow in.

  • Abaquerolima

    Yeah, that is true. Well, if thats the case one must be responsible and look at historical trends.

  • Nathanael

     The implication of this?  SIDEWALKS FIRST!  In fact, put in the sidewalks before you put in roads for cars!

  • Jibreel Riley

    you never seen follies in urban planning until you visit the Buffalo Region. The central business district is Amherst. The Town of Amherst along with the village of Williamsville thinks they can auto sprawl the way into prosperity. Its going to be a very comical 10 years in Buffalo. They will get it right in about 20 years however spend the next 10 years writing worthless books on how they got it wrong the 1st time.   

  • JP

    I don’t know your place, I live in a city of 2,5 million people that’s 100% walkable and I see that problem I tell you. I’m sure you don’t understand what I see and me what you see 🙂

  • JP

    I believe that not, you don’t get what I say. 1) I’d love to see the city free of cars but this will not happen overnight. 2) I see you can’t feel what it is to have to go and buy bread too far because now you only can buy beer or t shirts in your place. 3) I suspect that by the quotes around “flood” you don’t consider that an inconvenience. 4) I guess we have different images for “nice place in the city”.

    And 5) I hate cars like you but it is an already made mistake that will not be solved by new ones presented as “improvements”

  • EcoAdvocate

    so let’s not plan to improve our cities, lets keep them stagnant with cars moving fast through them, so no businesses want to move in, no people wish to live there. The price wouldn’t rise so significantly if there was smart growth in the neighboring blocks, neighborhood, city. That “bread” shop might have been going out of business anyway, a city is not stagnant, businesses change.

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