Jeff Speck, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time
I'm of two minds about this book. I agree with everything urban designer Jeff Speck says about the social, physical, and environmental prices we pay for cities hostile to what he calls "the useful walk." I've seen the cultural and economic revitalization that has struck cities which implement his "Ten Steps of Walkability." I'd like to see his principles applied widely, reconnecting people to their neighbors and neighborhoods nationwide.
However, I have certain problems with his vision. They aren't completely dispositive, and are limited largely to one chapter, so future innovations will probably answer my doubts. However, my problems reflect the limitations Speck and his fellow big-city architects haven't acknowledged about their lofty goals, and they'll need resolved before Speck's "Walkable City" vision becomes widespread. Otherwise, they'll create new expenses further down the line.
Speck divides his spirited, informative, often funny book into two parts. The first is essentially a manifesto about why pedestrian-friendly urban cores matter. He points us toward a "general theory of walkability" and makes three concise, lucid points:
- When people walk, they have opportunities to meet new people, see new places, and have new experiences; when people drive, they zoom past real life.
- When people walk as a useful enterprise, they use their bodies productively; when people drive, they spend their most productive hours sitting down, and get fat.
- When people walk, they don't contribute to environmental decay; when people drive, every little errand burns carbon.
Speck's second, much longer part comprises ten clear steps that encourage pedestrianship. Some seem obvious. People will walk where there's something to see; where green spaces renew fresh air and provide convenient public meeting places; and where mixed uses put errands, gathering spaces, and residences close together. Readers will recognize these claims from Norman Rockwell paintings and Disneyland's Main Street USA.
Other recommendations seem counter-intuitive, until Speck explains his reasoning. While trees encourage walking, broad green spaces discourage it, by making walking monotonous and separating people widely from their destinations. How cities handle public parking makes remarkable degrees of difference. And monumental buildings designed by what Speck calls "starchitects" discourage community usage and "the useful walk."
I love everything Speck says so far. Where I live, in the Great Plains, I've watched how towns which adopt essentially suburban design paradigms see their cores wither and their economies starve. And I've seen how towns that follow Speck's principles flourish. My fellow prairie dwellers bemoan the "brain drain" and wonder how to keep populations robust and prosperous. Speck replies succinctly: be someplace people want to live.
My problem arises in Chapter Three, Speck's chapter on how high-density urbanism discourages environmental pollution. Speck draws heavily on David Owen's book Green Metropolis, which contends that dense usage minimizes carbon burned for climate control, transportation, and other ubiquitous uses. Owen and Speck insist that city design actively discourages flagrant carbon abuse, and I believe them. The evidence is robust.
But the Owen-Speck model excludes two kinds of pollution unique to high-density usage. Cities require constant massive infusions of food, which suppliers must truck in. Perhaps Speck and Owen don't realize how carbon-intensive American agriculture is today, but farms burn almost as much carbon as suburbs. Cities also produce vast quantities of sewage, which generally gets unloaded today by treating it with synthetic chemicals and dumping it into waterways.
Cities employing Speck's dense mixed-use paradigm must tackle sewage removal. And American society overall must reassess our carbon reliance in agriculture and other industries. We're producing more food—and frankly, more mineral extract, more manufactures, and more stuff generally—than we need, which requires constant carbon infusions. (Other authors have addressed this problem.) Dense cities will fix some of that problem, but other concerns remain.
The move away from walkable cities reflects an American fixation on bigness. Big houses with big lawns, big cars navigating big streets, big industry fueling big consumption, and naturally, banks too big to fail. Speck's human-scale urbanism principles should help relieve at least some big, destructive problems. While pedestrian-friendly downtowns are no panacea to relieve American gigantism, anyone who's window-shopped lately knows, it's a good place to start.
The New American Urbanism