Saturday, March 16, 2019

Walkable City Rules

Walkaable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places
© 2018 Jeff Speck
312 pages

In Walkable Cities, Jeff Speck argued for the virtues of a city optimized for pedestrian travel, and offered ten general guidelines  for making it happen -- from checking forces that destroy walkability, to further empowering pedestrians through connections to other transportation.  That pitch was made to popular audiences, but its success allowed Speck to produce a sequel which went into more detail. That sequel is Walkable City Rules, a collection of one hundred (and one) ways to humanize the  modern city. These rules are not idealistic goals; they have already  been put into practice, and there's nothing here that some city can't take home.  The rules offer a variety of positive steps cities can take, supported by data to make a case for implementing them.

Speck begins this book with  ways for concerned citizens, public officials, and planners to "sell" walkability to their audience -- on the merits of  wealth, health, equity, climate change, and community -- before moving to the array of urban design tweaks . Making a city walkable is a complex challenge -- not because walkable cities in themselves are difficult to make, but because the last half-century of development has not had walkability in mind, and cities now have to contend not with a blank slate, but vast acreages of badly designed urbanism.  Complexity lies in the fact that walkability is not a matter of good sidewalks; walkability is all about connections between where people are and where they want to be.  That means the question of walkability has a great deal to do with housing, for instance, which is why mixed used development  and inclusionary zoning (mixing affordable  developments in with the more lucrative ones) are so important.   It means that commerce has to be nurtured in the right ways, too, by reducing one-way streets and having parking policies that ensure quick lot turnover.

 Speck often pitches his advice to cities on the basis of making the most of what they have, converting a superfluity of extra-wide lanes into a more modest number devoted to cars, making room for bike lanes and trees. (Trees are vital to a city, Speck argues -- not only does their presence slow down cars, but depending on placement they can serve as a barrier between cars and pedestrians, while at the time providing shelter to said pedestrians.)     But the advice isn't all about engineering: Speck also addresses politics, by advising would be reformers to turn the fire chief into an ally instead of an adversary, and  to avoid thinking of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists as opposing factions: instead,  he advocates using the language of "people walking", "people biking", and "people driving" to emphasize that  human behavior is dynamic and most of us will shift in how we use the city throughout the day -- driving to work, say, and then walking a block or two for errands or lunch.

There's a lot in here, and admittedly it isn't for everyone: Speck commented in an interview that it's really meant for the Strong Towns audience, that is --  city planners, engineers, officials, and citizens passionate about  implications of the built environment for civic life, public health, and private flourishing.  I was, however, disappointed in Speck's occasional abuse of "teabaggers" -- and surprised, given that Speck opens the book with an argument for walkability on the merits of fiscal responsibility. Considering that most of the damage done to cities in the last half century has precipitated by ill-advised federal policies (interstates gutting cities, for instance),  wooing libertarians with walkability would be a cinch.  Instead,  Speck indulges in the same unhelpful us-vs-them mentality he warned his readers against.   Considering his camaraderie with members of the Strong Towns movement, however (who vary from sweater-vested Republicans to Oregon hippies), I don't think it's deep-seated contempt.  In any case, the good ideas argued for in this book far surpass hiccups in the sales pitch.



  1. perceptive review... it's great that some are taking seriously the oncoming and present urban problems that make cities unnavigable for anything save cars and buses. One can only hope that the Netherlands solution will somehow take hold in this country... sometime....

    1. I don't know if there's one solution -- cycling will definitely help, but at the same time there's some novel things happening. Those Bird scooters, for instance -- people love riding them, and they take up even less space than a bicycle. They can't be used for cargo as-is, but for small trips within a city? And then there's autonomous vehicles, which might turn into some odd form of limited, de facto transit. Things are in motion...

    2. A nearby city recently did a trial run of e-bicycles and e-scooters, and interestingly it was the scooters people preferred. They didn't look all that safe to me (user error?!), but I was impressed to see people actually using them.

    3. BIkes strike me as more generally useful -- from the videos I've seen, Bird has use-rules forbidding downhill riding, that sort of thing. But everyone says the scooters are crazy fun. I'd like to try one, but Birmingham (the only Alabama city I know of which has attracted these companies) is still in negotiations with one of the comapanies.


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