Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

Jeff Speck set out to write a “call to arms” for local officials (like mayors and traffic engineers) and wound up producing a fascinating read for all of us. “Walkable City” is perfect for history and architecture dabblers (folks like me who prefer Trivial Pursuit morsels and walking tours to fat tomes and academic lectures) as well as pretty much anyone with intellectual curiosity of the variety that makes shows like “Myth Busters” or “Unwrapped” appealing. As R.H. Thompson said in 1945, “A city is a growing thing . . . . What might satisfy today will be insufficient tomorrow.” Speck explains how our cities became what they are today (mostly by accident) and what we need to do to meet the demands of tomorrow (purposefully encourage walkability) in a brisk read that combines city planning, environmentalism, and predictive psychology to wonderful effect.

Speck presents his general theory of walkability (“to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting”) and resulting ten steps of walkability (“put cars in their place, . . . mix the uses, . . . get the parking right, . . . let transit work, . . . protect the pedestrian, . . . welcome bikes, . . . shape the spaces, . . . plant trees, . . . make friendly and unique faces, [and] . . . pick your winners”) in writing that is refreshingly frank (“Traffic studies are bullshit.”) and accessibly simple and logical (“[P]eople who live in a city want to have access to everything that city has to offer. If the vast majority of those things cannot be reached conveniently via transit, then people of means buy cars and you end up with a driving city. As the city grows, it grows around the car. Its neighborhood structure dissolves and its streets widen. Walking becomes less useful or pleasant and, soon, less likely or even imaginable.”).

I found the chapter on parking – yes, parking – entirely riveting. Speck also sent me to nerd heaven with his comparison of various pedestrian crossing methods. And who knew that provisions for bike urbanity have been a topic of heated debate, among cycling proponents? He provides oodles of interesting – and often counterintuitive – information (e.g., engineers often fight for widened streets, perfectly perpendicular intersections, and removal of street-side trees and parking in the name of safety when in fact the most dangerous looking streets actually end up being safest because drivers instinctively slow down and pay more attention) and opinions (e.g., pharmacies and egotistical “starchitects” are the pits for cities’ walkability).

Speck also confirms numerous conclusions I’ve drawn and suppositions I’ve made over the last decade spent living in Manhattan, Washington D.C., Boston, and Seattle:

  • “[S]maller blocks make for better cities . . . [in part because of] convenience: the more blocks per square mile, the more choices a pedestrian can make and the more opportunities there are to alter your path to visit a useful address such as a coffee shop or dry cleaner.”
  • “‘Lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow’” (quoting Jane Jacobs).
  • “What used to be white flight to suburbs is turning into ‘bright flight’ to cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction.”
  • “[T]he most green home (with Prius) in sprawl still loses out to the least green home in a walkable neighborhood.”
  • “A lucky few, larger cities . . . have already attracted so many well-off people into their downtowns and close-in neighborhoods that these places are in danger . . . because sidewalks, like communities, thrive on diversity: different types of people [must] use the streets at different times of day, keeping them active around the clock.”
  • “Concentration, not dispersion, is the elixir of urbanity.”

I’m sure that some will take issue with Speck’s occasional snarkiness and that fans of suburbia will quickly prepare a list of its unmentioned virtues. Not I, said the fly. In my book, “Walkable City” is Speck-tacular!

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One thought on “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

  1. Pingback: Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design | Ready Mommy's Book Reviews

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