Jeff Speck has dedicated his career to determining what makes cities thrive. And he has boiled it down to one key factor: walkability. The very idea of a modern metropolis evokes visions of bustling sidewalks, vital mass transit, and a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly urban core. But in the typical American city, the car is still king, and downtown is a place that's easy to drive to but often not worth arriving at. Making walkability happen is relatively easy and cheap; seeing exactly what needs to be done is the trick. In this essential new book, Speck reveals the invisible workings of the city, how simple decisions have cascading effects, and how we can all make the right choices for our communities. Bursting with sharp observations and real-world examples, giving key insight into what urban planners actually do and how places can and do change, Walkable City lays out a practical, necessary, and eminently achievable vision of how to make our normal American cities great again.
The Useful Walk
Step 1. Put Cars in Their Place.
Step 2. Mix the Uses.
Step 3. Get the Parking Right.
Step 4. Let Transit Work.
The Safe Walk
Step 5. Protect the Pedestrian.
Step 6. Welcome Bikes.
The Comfortable Walk
Step 7. Shape the Spaces.
Step 8. Plant Trees.
The Interesting Walk
Step 9. Make Friendly and Unique Faces.
Step 10. Pick Your Winners.
I read a lot of books about urbanism, city planning, walking, and bicycling (and against the prioritizing of automobiles), so I'm the proverbial choir being preached too. Speck's book clearly states the advantages of his model to everyone, and enunciates the steps in getting to that point. For these reasons, this is the book I'd hand to an automobile-focused doubter to read and think it would have a great chance of making an impression.
“The General Theory of Walkability explains how, to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe, which is even tougher to satisfy. Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban streets into ‘outdoor living rooms,’ in contrast to wide-open spaces, which usually fail to attract pedestrians. Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound.”
“Since midcentury, whether intentionally or by accident, most American cities have effectively become no-walking zones. In the absence of any larger vision or mandate, city engineers—worshipping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking—have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at.”
“Engineers design streets for speeds well above the posted limit, so that speeding drivers will be safe—a practice that, of course, causes the very speeding it hopes to protect against.”
Speck argues that Millennials - the demographic to which I sometimes begrudgingly belong - are more interested in urban life and less interested in owning vehicles than preceding generations. In my case, this is an accurate assessment. Speck offers 10 suggestions for making cities friendlier for non-drivers. His ideas range from having scaled rates for parking - and fewer parking spaces - to planting trees along roadways to slow driving speeds and keep pedestrians safe.
As someone who is not a student of urban planning, it's hard to judge how revolutionary Speck's ideas are and how much opposition exists to their implementation. Based on living in Pittsburgh - which I consider a far cry from a pedestrian / transit friendly city - it seems like Speck's ideas are making some headway in revitalizing, urban centers. I hope this is a trend that continues as more young people choose to make this city their home.
Walkable City is probably best suited for those a novice understanding of urban planning. I learned some interesting things - how fears of traffic congestion are often overblown (but have powerful sway over city planners), how confusing streets are often the safest and how making improvements to already walkable neighborhoods is generally more productive than trying to rehab lost causes - but never felt bogged down by jargon. Overall, Walkable City is a well argued, enjoyable and generally humble look at how we can make our urban spaces safer and more enjoyable for everyone.
His discussion of the details is fascinating, and he provides many examples from cities all over the globe.