Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Walkable Cities

Walkable Cities: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time
© 2012 Jeff Speck
312 pages

  For most of human history, cities were limited to the area that people could cover on foot within a day, but the advent of railed transportation and later cars expanded our range, and cities grew enormously, far beyond pedestrian access. In the United States, where most cities were young or as-yet unformed, the automobile effectively created them in its image, to its scale, resulting in vast urban, decentralized urban areas wherin auto transport was assumed to be the norm -- and was, in fact, the only viable means of transportation.But those were the days of cheap energy, of abundant petroleum being used by a minority of the world.  While the 1970s oil crisis prompted European cities to retreat from auto-dependency, supporting instead cycling and passenger rail, the United States was 'lucky' enough to find new reserves...and dig itself a deeper hole.  But today, the prices at the pump aren’t being inflated by a cartel: they’re being driven, instead, by the world's ever-burgeoning thirst for oil, and its ever-real scarcity. The 'changing energy reality' of the 21st century demands a response. For Jeff Speck, city planner and architectual designer, the best adaption is the restoration of the walkable city, and in his first solo release (Walkable City), he timidly explains why walkability is important before more boldly laying out a ten-step path to human-scaled communities.

Although Walkable City eventually proves a work with muscle, it doesn't start out that way.  Speck introduces the book by explaining that it's not the next great piece of urban criticism. The arguments have already been made, he writes: what Americans lack is application. Perhaps for that reason, the section on the why of walkability lacks teeth; instead of championing as the path to municipal solvency (or better yet, dependable prosperity), a solid approach given how concerned Americans are with financial strain, he lists three reasons: walkable cities are green, good for your health, and hip.  He borrows from David Owen's The Green Metropolis for the section on cities' environmental advantages, of course, and that's a superior read for the why of walkability. Speck shines in execution, though.

How do you make a city walkable? First, check the forces that destroy it -- rein in the cars, promote mixed-used development, and for the love of all that is holy, stop building so many parking lots.  These set the stage: they are the foundation from which everything else can spring, although Speck doesn't stress the importance of mixed-used development nearly as much as I'd expect from someone who coauthored Suburban Nation; that section is positively anemic. Speck then stresses that incorporating other modes of transportation, like transit, are crucial. The section on the integration of trolleys into the urban fabric is one of the best in the book, in my option, because Speck doesn't see them as an magic if-you-build-it-they-will-come creator of walkability, but a fertilizer that allows downtown areas to flourish.  Some of his steps are less material, and more aesthetic  like making streets "Places". That will sound familiar to anyone who has read Jim Kunstler, or even The Great Good Place, but aesthetics also have material values. Streets lined with trees,  for instance, not only look appealing, but the trees make the street safer by calming traffic and provide pedestrians relief from the heat,  although they do expose them to the occasional peril of nut-throwing squirrels.  Chuck Marohn opined in Building Strong Towns that in certain instances, solutions to our cities' fiscal problems weren't possible: nothing can be done to save some places completely. What we have are opportunities for rational responses, and Speck takes this view as well,  advocating for urban triage, picking winners and letting some areas wither away.

Walkable Cities is a book to remember. The slow beginning is disappointing: this is a good book that could have been great. It could have been what Speck claimed from the start it wasn't, the next great book on American cities. As it is, Walkable Cities is a solid hit, distilling a lot of literature into one short and punchy work. (Among the books cited: the Holy Bible of urbanism, Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities; Donald Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking; Jeff Mape's Pedaling Revolution; and Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic). Just as Suburban Nation was a fundamental book for understanding the problems of American urbanism, Walkable City is its complement, a comprehensive citizen's guide for advocacy,  giving people an idea of what measures they can work to effect on the local scale. Bit by bit, neighborhood after neighborhood, Americans can restore their urban fabric and create a nation of strong towns.


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