October 1, 2012
Step by Step
Can American cities walk their way to healthy economic development?
Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At A Time
By Jeff Speck
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
288 pp., $27
Jeff Speck’s new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is a civic how-to for mayors, planners, architects, and anyone interested in the urban future. Not only are walkable cites healthier and more sustainable, Speck argues, but they are key to economic development in the 21st century. “Get walkability right, and much of the rest will follow,” he writes in this prescriptive book full of insight, humor, and common sense. A former planner at the architecture firm DPZ and the former design director at the National Endowment for the Arts, the author is now a consultant to several American cities. Metropolis recently spoke to Speck from his home in Washington, D.C.
Why is walkability so central to cities?
When Walk Score (www.walkscore.com) first came out, planners, epidemiologists, and economists started looking at walkability as a measurable piece of data. The literature that came out of these studies is clear about what makes real estate valuable: walkability is a huge metric. In terms of what makes people healthy, walkability seems to be even more important than diet. And walkability makes cities thrive economically. This idea of propinquity and the frisson of having many things piled up on top of each other in a way that you don’t need a car to con-nect them has proved to be central to the creation of patents.
For a book on walking, you spend a lot of time talking about the car. You devote a chapter to parking. Why is it so important?
What I tell the cities that I work in is that parking is not a right. It’s a public good. And it must be managed by the public if it’s going to properly serve the city. When the parking meter was first invented in Oklahoma City, it wasn’t introduced to raise revenue but to help businesses create turnover. Many cities today believe that parking is somehow a civil right. They also believe, incorrectly, that raising the price of parking will hurt business. But my book is not about getting rid of the car; it’s about putting the car in its place. What I see is the dangerous possibility that we will repeat some of the mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s by shutting down streets entirely. What works in New York, where merchants don’t depend on cars for their business, won’t work elsewhere. We’ve already seen that strategy ruin the downtowns of 150 cities in the second half of the twentieth century. So we have to be careful.
At one point you say that traffic studies are “bullshit.” Why are they bullshit?
The typical study overestimates traffic, because the engineers who do the studies oftentimes are the same ones who design and build the roads. That famous Upton Sinclair quote applies: “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” The more scientific explanation for why traffic studies are bullshit involves the concept of induced demand. It has now been demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that as you build more lanes, more cars come to fill them. So we can have two types of cities: one that’s designed around the needs of the automobile, with the unexpected feedback loop that the more you give it the more it asks for, or the kind that you actually want to live in and then allow cars to make their way through it.
You write, “Lively streetscapes have three main enemies; parking lots, drug stores, and star architects.” Explain to our healthy audience of architects what you mean by that.
I’m an ABL, an architect-in-all-but-license. My entire upbringing, from growing up in a house designed by a Gropius apprentice through my GSD graduation, had been focused on architecture. Spiritually, I feel I am an architect. But the things that I have learned about what makes city streets thrive were never considered important in any of my architectural education. The most obvious example is the idea of blank walls and repetitive facade elements. Not only was enlivening a building facade against a sidewalk for the purpose of entertaining pedestrians never brought up during my classes, but many of my best professors, people whose work I admire tremendously, like Rafael Moneo, were geniuses at creating beautiful blank walls against sidewalks.
Many prominent architects are guilty of that.
Architecture students are taught that when you have a block-scale project, it’s not only your right but your architectural obligation to make it look like one building. But walking past 600 feet of anything is less enticing than walking past a series of 25-foot segments of different things. When DPZ gets an architectural project of that scale, they call up all of their friends and they hand out pieces of it, because they realize that their goal is good architecture in the service of good urbanism. I don’t know another firm that when given 800 feet of building gives away 600 feet of it, but that’s what architects should do if they’re interested in creating walkable areas.
What’s the first thing you do when you go to a city to conduct a walkability study?
Is it too cute to say I walk around? It’s the first, last, and middle thing that I do. I usually put a cap on the number of meetings that I’m willing to attend and spend the rest of the time walking. They always add meetings to that and I always try to be gracious about it, but then I also end up walking around after midnight, which can have its own risk. My goal is to find the potential sweet spot and get to know it around the clock. I walk every street and figure out where there’s already a good sense of spatial definition and good buildings holding the edges of streets. Those are the streets that I concentrate on in terms of their physical design.
Are there some cities so badly shredded by the car that there’s no place to start?
In that type of city, there’s always a place to start. But what about cities that were not shredded by the car but designed around it? I cannot help Sugarland, Texas. I cannot help Henderson, Nevada. These are big cities, six figures in terms of population. But almost any American city that was laid out before World War II has the potential to become walkable.
What can a city do for little or no money to improve walkability?
Pick one block and make it perfect. A lot of cities have developed reputations for walkability based on a very small part of the city. Greenville, South Carolina, has this tremendous reputation for walkability based around one street. So start small and then let the perfection spread. This runs counter to human nature and how cities operate, because most mayors and planners feel a responsibility to equitably sprinkle the walkability fairy dust throughout the whole city, somehow. But as a result, by trying to make the entire city excellent, they end up with an entirely mediocre city. They need to focus on where walkability can work.