Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Walkable City by Jeff Speck

Dateline: 12:07 pm February 6, 2013 Filed under:

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of Jeff Speck’s new book “Walkable City” is he uses Minneapolis for his final argument. He recalls watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show as a kid in the 1970s when most TV portrayed cities as dirty and crime-ridden, but here was a young woman embarking on a new life in the big city. Do people come to Minneapolis to pursue their urban dreams? I’d like to think so.

But back to the book. Damn you Jeff Speck! You have written the book I (and I’m sure other readers) wanted to write. Walkable City is a practical guide for improving cities written in a language the general public can understand without sounding patronizing. Mr. Speck takes on the status quo, including highway departments, public works, “starchitects,” large-scale projects and hubris and offers well-argued solutions for the public realm, either improving streets themselves or the relationship between the street and building face. Best of all, it is entertaining and readable, a rare feat coming from practitioners in our field!

Speck knows of what he writes. For many of his planning assignments, he relocates and lives in the neighborhood where he’s working, to best understand the nuances of what needs help. In other words, he has been there and fought the battles with public works and highway departments. He has lost his share as well and emerged with helpful advice that we should fight the urban battles we can win. He cautions that we can’t do it all, at least not right away.

He presents digestable pieces of an action plan for making better cities. Some of great quotes and points are as follows:

Traffic congestion actually saves fuel. Cities with higher congestion rate use LESS fuel per capita.
Metro areas that invest more in roads did not resolve congestion.

Bigger roads and fewer obstacles are not necessarily safer. A mile driven in South Dakota is three times as likely to kill than a mile driven in Massachussetts.

Since traffic engineers worry about being sued for designing a road that is not wide enough and free of obstacles, perhaps we should sue traffic engineers for designing roads that are too fast and unsafe.

Nobody drives dangerously when a street or intersection feels dangerous. (so put s#!t in the way.)

People can and will walk in all climates. Good urban design is the most important criteria to get people to walk.

Bikes and trolleys must displace moving vehicles, not parked ones (Tell that to an engineer!)

And my personal favorite:
“Traffic studies are bullshit”

Speck is mostly humble. He gives credit where credit is due. His chapter on parking is mostly taken from Donald Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking,” and Speck admits it. Importantly, though, he puts it in the proper context of that complex thing that is urbanism; i.e., parking is expensive and consumes space so users should pay for it.

Sometimes he nearly loses us with high-falutin’ words like in a discussion of “figural space” versus “figural object” (uh, oh!). But he does a good job of explaining this without dumbing it down; not an easy trick! The figural space discussion and its example of Vancouver, British Columbia is actually critical to the book since how buildings frame the street and public realm is far more important than the architectural style of the building itself. After all, the public uses the street everyday, while only a select few use any given building, so it stands to reason that getting the street right is paramount to bickering over facade materials.

You can’t have it all. Mr. Speck points out that if every street included driving and turning lanes to satisfy traffic engineers, bike lanes to satisfy cyclists, a sufficient tree-lined boulevard to satisfy arborists, and wide enough sidewalks for opposing double-wide strollers and wheelchairs to pass, it would be 175 feet wide, nearly the recommended block size for good urbanism. He recommends instead to try to win the battles you can. If a street has decent buildings fronting it and is of sufficient width with on-street parking but is simply lacking trees, go for that low-hanging fruit and plant some damn trees!

Most of all, “Walkable City” is a guidebook for those of us trying to fight the good fight for better cities. For that, Jeff Speck, we thank you. In the opening pages he discusses that walking in cities must be useful (daily needs are met on foot), comfortable (streets that are living rooms not wide open spaces), interesting (attractive building faces and human faces must abound) and safe. By safe he means truly safe but more importantly must feel safe, a difficult criteria to achieve much less explain (you know it when you see it). So enjoy this book but moreover refer to it to make those common sense arguments for improving your own city. You don’t have to be Mary Tyler Moore and throw your hat in the air with joy to help create a city that “is sparkling, lively and brimming with opportunity.”

1 Comment »

  1. agreed. i liked this book a lot. didn’t agree w/ him 100% on his statements about bikes, though.

    Comment by Bill Lindeke — February 6, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

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