Toward the Walkable City
Walkable City, the new book by Jeff Speck, has been lauded by the Los Angeles Times as nothing less than a primer on "pedestrianism as a baseline for urban life." Planetizen recently named it one of their 10 best planning books of 2013.
Speck, an urban planner based in Washington, D.C., who is also co-author of Suburban Nation with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, took some time out to talk with me about the ideas in the book.
Let's start with the basics: Why are cities becoming more walkable? What forces are pushing them toward greater walkability? Can you please explain, in a nutshell, your General Theory of Walkability? Why is this important?
Some — and only some — cities are becoming more walkable because they understand that their sustainability (economic, health, and environmental) depends on it; or because they want to attract and retain young, educated adults; or because they are simply listening to the young or young-thinking adults in their administration; or some combination of the above. You yourself have written powerfully about huge declines in car worship among the millennials [see my Atlantic article here]. Another force is the empty nesters, who want to eventually "retire in place," in a place where the car is not a mandatory prosthetic device. The NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community) is an urban environment where doddering gets you to the store just fine.
The General Theory of Walkability explains how, to attract pedestrians, a place has to provide a walk that is simultaneously useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. This is extraordinarily difficult in most of our (driving) cities, and can only be accomplished when resources are concentrated where they can do the most good, rather than dispersed more evenhandedly across the city, which is the tendency. Many cities, to the degree that they spend money on walkability, do so in a way that accomplishes little, because nobody has identified those few places where a useful, comfortable, and interesting private realm can give life to an improved (less speedy) public realm. A "complete street" means nothing alongside a surface parking lot.
Tell us about the group you dun the Walking Generation? Who are they? What exactly do they want?
Like I need to tell you what millennials want? They are the recent college graduates who moved to Portland during the nineties at a rate five times the national average. 64 percent of them decide first where they want to live, and only then do they look for a job. Fully 77 percent of them say they want to live in America's urban cores. The economist Chris Leinberger reminds us that, unlike my generation (raised on the suburban idyll of The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family), they grew up watching Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex and the City. They care less about cars and mortgages, and don't yet have need for a big yard or a good school. Instead, they want urban amenities with ready access to nature, bike lanes, good transit, and street life.
You discuss the "Walkability Dividend." I'm sure our readers would like to know how that applies to them and their cities.
The Walkability Dividend is a concept advanced by the economist Joe Cortright and the non-profit CEOs for Cities, a group that has brought me into a small handful of downtowns with the understanding that all the events and amenities in the world won't make a difference in the absence of pedestrian culture. In his 2007 white paper "Portland's Green Dividend" [PDF], Cortright showed how that city's urban growth boundary, coupled with its investments in bike lanes and transit, resulted in a remarkable phenomenon: Portland's per-capita vehicle miles traveled peaked in 1996. Now Portlanders drive 20 percent less than the national average. This 20 percent results in financial savings and time savings that total almost four percent of GDP, ignoring all the wonderful externalities such as cleaner air and slimmer waistlines. Unlike driving dollars, 85 percent of which are sent out of town, much of those savings are spent locally, on housing and recreation. Portlanders are said to have the most roof racks, independent bookstores, and strip clubs per capita — all exaggerations, but only slight ones.
That's the fun version of the story. Unfortunately, there is a sadder version, much more common. The typical American "working" family now pays more for transportation than for housing, thanks to the phenomenon of "drive 'til you qualify." The working-class distant-fringe subdivisions were the ones hit hardest by the burst housing bubble, where so many families found themselves not only underwater on their mortgages but also unable to afford the thirteen car trips per day generated by the average exurban homestead. Our urban downtowns, where housing costs more per square foot, but transportation costs so much less, will figure heavily in our recovery from that debacle.
Many of these cities have infrastructure built upon the use of a car. What are the key steps our suburbs and exurbs, our less walkable places, can take to becoming more walkable communities?
So many of these places are unlovable and therefore not savable, nor worth saving. Why should a postwar sunbelt "city" that consists of nothing but cookie cutter chain stores, cubicle farms, and ticky-tacky houses claim our attention, when we have hundreds of historic downtown cores with underused infrastructure, beautiful buildings with empty upper floors, and great social amenities like churches, restaurants, cafes, and pubs; and when demographic data tells us that 88 percent of the next 100 million American households will be childless: people who have no use for big houses, big yards, or schools, and who have every reason to enjoy being freed from automotive enslavement; and when the epidemiologists are telling us that people live longer, healthier lives in cities and towns than in sprawl; and when the environmentalists are telling us that New Yorkers have one-third the carbon footprint of the typical suburbanite? Why should we make slight changes to people's overburdened, unhealthy, unsustainable lives in the auto zone, when we can just make it easier for them to move downtown?
In Suburban Nation, my co-authors and I discussed how to build better suburbs. I am now convinced, based on the demographics and the pollsters, that we don't need any more suburbs. I suppose what we could use now is a federal program to help people offload their unwanted suburban houses — "cash for clunker-homes," if you will — to remove the main impediment to the massive empty-nester in-migration that is poised to occur. Meanwhile, cities need to take the proper steps to achieve walkability — outlined in my book — if the flood of millennials and wealthier retirees is going to benefit their community instead of the one next door.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
All images courtesy of Jeff Speck.