Jeff Speck's 'Walkable City' a recipe for vibrant street life


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

Jeff Speck
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 296 pp., $27


If you grew up, as I did, in a pedestrian city, much of Jeff Speck's "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time" falls into the category of no-brainer.

Of course, a walking culture is better than an automotive one, better for our bodies and our souls. And of course, street life has to develop organically, from the proper urban conditions — "a citywide commitment to creating an environment that people want to live in," Speck notes, quoting Adam Baacke, assistant city manager for planning and development in Lowell, Mass. Of course, bikes and mass transit are a key part of the mix, as is a human sense of scale.

"It is often surprising to measure some of America's favorite and most successful public spaces — New York's Rockefeller Center, San Antonio's River Walk, San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square — and discover how small they actually are," Speck tells us. "Few are much broader than sixty yards across. And let's not forget Disney's Main Street, famously built at three-quarters scale."

The message is that a successful city has roots and causes, and among the most important of these is a sense of the street. Speck draws on Jane Jacobs, a favorite theorist, to make the point explicit: "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."

And yet, the strength of "Walkable City" is that it's not a no-brainer, not in a culture in which it often seems we have done everything we can to make street life obsolete. Such a shift was partly a response to the urban decay of the mid-20th century, which led to freeways and other infrastructure projects that eviscerated neighborhoods.

I think of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which Robert Moses drove like a stake through the heart of Brooklyn in the 1940s and '50s, or Lincoln Center, which tore apart the Lincoln Square neighborhood on the West Side of Manhattan a decade after that. Although Speck doesn't refer to either project — indeed, he sees New York now, along with San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis, as an example of how a successful city works — their spirit is a factor in his thinking, if only as something to react against.

A city planner whose previous book "Suburban Nation" (co-written with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk) explored the consequences of sprawl, Speck is a bit of a contrarian. This posture emerges throughout "Walkable City," beginning with the title: Although the book claims to be about walking, it isn't exactly, except inasmuch as it considers pedestrianism as a baseline for urban life.

"The pedestrian is an extremely fragile species, the canary in the coalmine of urban livability," Speck writes, framing what he calls the "General Theory of Walkability" — an idea driven less by the experience of walking than the circumstances that make a walking culture viable.

"[T]o be favored," he continues, "a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. … 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. … Comfortable means that buildings and landscape properly shape urban streets into 'outdoor living rooms.' … Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound."

As to why this matters, it gets to the urban environment, which is the true subject of "Walkable City." Speck investigates it with passion and expertise, writing through the filter of context, in which lifestyle grows out of environment rather than the other way around.

He doesn't write much about Los Angeles, just a brief comment on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade and a discussion of the rise of Old Town Pasadena and the fall of Westwood Village, which happened more or less simultaneously in the early 1990s, keyed to different approaches to parking. (One of Speck's heroes is UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup, referred to here as the "Jane Jacobs of parking policy.")

Yet the issues he addresses reflect L.A.'s efforts to become less car-reliant, whether in terms of vertical development or public transportation initiatives.

His critique of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) — "the largest light-rail system in the United States … on its way to 91 miles [of track] and 63 stations by 2013" — becomes a discussion of how transit systems fail when they impose themselves on the cities they are meant to serve. There are many reasons for DART's disappointing ridership (poor station location, insufficient residential density, "the simple fact … that Dallas and its suburbs are almost completely lacking in neighborhood structure" ), but most important, Speck suggests, is a fundamental misunderstanding: "[I]nvestments in transit may be investments in mobility or investments in real estate, but they are not investments in reduced traffic."

Here he is as contrarian again, flying in the face of conventional wisdom — light rail eases automobile congestion — to look at the city as a whole. To get people on trains, you need incentives, such as convenience, centrality, ease of use. The system has to be integrated; it has to be something we take without thinking about it, a no-brainer in the most essential sense.

The same is true of bike paths, which Speck reluctantly endorses (more contrarianism), although his preference is for what he calls "shared routes," where "bikes and cars can mix comfortably at biking speeds." The idea is to emphasize that we are all in this together, that urban space is, by its nature, public space.

This brings us back to walking, which is nothing if not a public act."[I]t could be said," Speck writes, "that every city and suburb has an obligation to free its residents from the burden of auto dependence."

He's not suggesting cars should disappear; he is, however, reminding us that, in the words of social critic Ivan Illich, "[b]eyond a certain speed, motorized vehicles create remoteness which they alone can shrink."

This, it goes without saying, is antithetical to what we want from cities — even sprawling, disconnected cities such as this one. We want to engage.

"[I]t turns out," Speck argues, "that the way we move largely determines the way we live."

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