Walkable City Rules: Three questions with author Jeff Speck, AICP

Jeff Speck, AICP. Photo provided by Island Press.

Jeff Speck, AICP. Photo provided by Island Press.

by Rachel Girt, Editor of the Western Planner

Dedicating his career to determining what makes cities thrive, planner Jeff Speck, AICP released his latest book "Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places." He recently answered three questions from the Western Planner.

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As Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 through 2007, Speck presided over the Mayors' Institute on City Design and created the Governors' Institute on Community Design. Prior to his federal appointment, Speck spent ten years as Director of Town Planning at DPZ & Co., the principal firm behind the New Urbanism movement. Since 2007, he has led Speck & Associates, an award winning private design consultancy serving public officials and the real estate industry. His 2012 book, Walkable City–which the Christian Science Monitor calls “timely and important, a delightful, insightful, irreverent work” – was the best selling city-planning book of 2013-2016.

1. What are three things that planners in small towns can do to make their city walkable?

Truly walkable means that people will make the choice to walk because it is as good as a drive. To do that, the walk must be simultaneously useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. This means moderate-speed streets flanked by friendly-faced, mixed-use buildings that hug the sidewalk and hide their parking lots. Wow, I’ve never had to put that in a single sentence before, but that sums it up.

Step 1 would be to acknowledge that, by this definition, only a limited part of your town will be truly walkable, and that’s OK. It’s typically the area surrounding your pre-war main street. If you don’t have a pre-war main street—let’s say you were founded after 1950—then you will probably never be truly walkable. But you can definitely become safer, which is also important, and addressed ahead. So, begin by identifying where walkability is possible, and focus there.

Step 2 is to scrutinize the main street itself, and the surrounding streets if your town is larger. How many lanes does it have? Does it really need them all? Many streets have too many lanes based on the traffic they carry, and it’s simple math to find out. Are your main street’s lanes wider than 10 feet each? If so, that’s extra pavement that can go to better use, like curb parking or bike lanes. Are your low-volume streets designed for “yield flow,” with a single 12-foot-wide two-way lane? If not, they probably should be. Most projects I do begin with an "Asphalt Audit” in which we acknowledge that all unnecessary street width accomplishes nothing but to induce dangerous speeding.

Step 3 would probably be to adopt a quick, simple zoning overlay for the walkable zone (only) which establishes certain limited rules so that buildings embrace the sidewalk with friendly faces. Short setbacks, minimum widow percentages, no front parking lots, and limited driveways are four of about ten items that can make all the difference between walkable and not. We wrote such an overlay, which fits on one page, for downtown Tulsa; it’s in the new book.

2. What is the biggest misconception about making cities walkable for small towns? What is the reality? Any advice to overcome this?

The biggest misconception by far is probably that traffic is a problem that can be solved. Whether that traffic is on a limited-access highway or a small-town main street, once thing that we have learned over and over again is that increasing roadway capacity to fight traffic is like loosening your belt to fight obesity. Because the principal constraint to driving is congestion, it is the towns that widen their streets that end up with the most traffic. This realization is liberating. It means we can have the streets we want to have—the delicate, slow-traffic streets that support downtown retail—and the cars will find a way around them. If you have congestion, accept that you will likely always have congestion, and that slow-moving cars are the lifeblood of the American city.

3. From a planner's perspective, what is the return on investment to make your town walkable?

The planner’s perspective is irrelevant. I got a lot more traction when I started paying attention to the perspectives of economists, environmentalists, and epidemiologists. Whether you care about property values and economic growth, stemming climate change, or public health, it is now clear that only walkable cities are sustainable. CEOs that want to attract educated talent are moving their headquarters downtown. Tree-hugging environmentalists are—for the first time—singing the praises of cities. And public health experts are blaming shortening American life spans—an unprecedented phenomenon—on “disappearance of the useful walk” from our communities.

We have only slowly begun to realize the true costs of transforming the automobile from an optional instrument of freedom into an essential prosthetic device that most of us need just to live our daily lives. Not to get melodramatic, but if we manage not to end human life on this planet, would that be considered an adequate return on the very limited investment in making our cities more walkable?

But here’s a more fun example: the City of Lancaster, CA, invested $11.2 million in the Main Street transformation pictured below. Over about six years, that investment is credited with creating an estimated economic impact of $282 million while doubling pedestrian activity, reducing injury crashes by 49%, and leading to the opening of 57 new businesses, the construction of more than 800 new housing units, and about 2000 new jobs. So you be the judge.

Lancaster before. Image provided by Island Press.

Lancaster before. Image provided by Island Press.

Lancaster after. Image provided by Island Press.

Lancaster after. Image provided by Island Press.


Published in January 2019