December 5, 2012
by Maxinne Rhea Leighton Assoc. AIA

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time
By Jeff Speck

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, November 2012

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time is not a treatise on why not to drive or a bash of the suburbs. Rather it focuses on the positive – why and how a more pedestrian-friendly American city is critical to the soul of its livability. Written in a delightful story-telling style; Jeff Speck intermingles theories of design and planning with substantiated documentation, references to pop culture, and our views of city living. Watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show when he was growing up provided him with a different view of urbanity. “Millennials,” Speck says, “have an even broader vision of what city life means thanks in part to Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex and the City – a ’walkable‘ city with neighborhood coffee shops and active street life.” (Listen to Speck’s Oculus Quick Take interview with Miguel Baltierra on book deals, new urbanism, and more on Mary Tyler Moore’s vision of the city.)

As Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 through 2007, Speck oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, where every two months he would gather eight mayors and eight designers over a two-day period to study and attempt to resolve their cities’ most pressing planning issues; among the many things discussed was the theory of walkability. In the course of this and other projects, Speck developed the General Theory of Walkability, which, he says, “explains how, to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these is essential and none alone is sufficient.” These four conditions are further organized in Walkable City as Ten Steps of Walkability, “critical elements to economics, public welfare, and environmental sustainability” in our cities.

Speck describes walkability as part of what shapes the public realm; where pedestrian life can embrace the city as a outdoor living room. For some cities an investment in redeveloping the downtown with an ease of pedestrian movement has been the cornerstone of their revival, or as Speck defines it, an act of “urban triage.” Denver’s Lower Downtown, or LoDo, is but one example cited in the book. Investing in these few blocks, writes Speck, sparked a decade-long renaissance with a population that has grown 28% since 1990. It can, as in his discussion of Baton Rouge, become a political hot potato and a tough position to defend as a city planner. “Why are you working on downtown, when it’s in such better shape than where we live? Why aren’t you doing a plan for our community instead?” If one accepts the downtown as the heart of the urban organism, one that is both walkable, liveable, and organized around transit (not merely automobiles), then its development can fuel economic development that can ultimately be shared jointly by its citizenry.

In Step 4 of “The Ten Steps of Walkability: Let Transit Work,” he reminds us that “compact, diverse, walkable neighborhoods were the basic building blocks of cities from the first non-nomadic settlements over 10,000 years ago until the height of the auto age,” and that today, “public transportation cannot thrive in the absence of a neighborhood structure, since it is the nodal and pedestrian-friendly nature of neighborhoods that allows riders to walk to the transit stop.” Designing to enhance the human experience is at the core of Speck’s book. At a time when economics and sustainability are critical to maintain the health and vibrancy of our cities, these ideas could not be timelier.

An earlier version of this article included an erroneous quote. The quote should read, “Each of these is essential and none alone is sufficient,” not, “…and one alone is sufficient.”

Maxinne Rhea Leighton, Assoc. AIA, is a member of the AIANY Oculus Committee and in charge of NE Region Business Development/Marketing at Parsons Brinckerhoff.

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