[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab, published on February 22, 2013]
Urban planners have long proselytized about the preferability of urban forms of development over suburban sprawl. But it wasn’t until fairly recently that the market caught up with their sermonizing.
Urban planner Jeff Speck, who will be speaking at a Mobility Lab event on April 18, has written a new book called Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time that makes a convincing argument to that effect. Speck notes demographic shifts that have led to an increase in demand for city living and a decrease in popularity of the suburbs, going so far as to quote Christopher Leinberger’s contention that “much of suburbia is poised to become ‘The Next Slum.’”
The answer to both the dilemma of the suburbs and the key factor in whether people will be moving to your city versus another, Speck maintains, lies in walkability. The Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments is embracing this concept already, with its activity center project focusing on walkability surveys using the State of Place Index as a kind of “bond rating” for our built environment. The index factors more than 165 different characteristics to assess each activity center’s current status for walkability, thus helping local jurisdictions to determine where to focus investments in a way that will maximize walkability to get the most “bang for their buck.”
Speck (pictured above) is a Washingtonian and is familiar with his backyard, but his book is broader in scope, touching on case studies and statistics from various jurisictions around the country, from Portland, Oregon to Boston, Massachusetts. In a terrific radio interview on KJZZ, Speck addressed how his strategies for walkability might be applied even in Phoenix, one of America’s least walkable cities.”
In Walkable City, Speck describes numerous “walkability dividends,” including:
- resources saved and reinvested
- resources attracted in terms of a healthy employment base
- enhancements to productivity, and
- social, health, environmental, and quality-of-life issues.
Given the benefits of walkability, Speck then distills the principle of walkability into four key factors. Encouraging people to walk, he says, lies in the walk being useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting.
Speck’s book illustrates how our car culture was a main factor that led to the creation of so many cities with no sense of place between the 1950s and 1990s. He also describes how modern building codes and setback ordinances were a hindrance to a holistic approach to urban integration and a barrier to the creation of communities that “work.” Thus planners and policymakers bear at least partial responsibility for exacerbating issues they should have been ameliorating, but are addressing these issues today in the most successful, and most walkable, urban environments.
Speck’s Walkable City is a primer on why walkability matters, how cities in our country can achieve it, and how it can make the difference between your city thriving or failing. It is recommended reading for planners, policymakers, developers, or anyone else who cares about their built environment.