How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At A Time
By Jeff Speck
“The automobile is a servant that has become the master. For 60 years it has been the dominate factor in the shaping of American cities.”
If you ever ask yourself why one city isn’t as good as another, this excerpt from Jeff Speck’s book Walkable City is the best starting point. No, it’s not the first time I’ve seen it, I read it before in another book that he co-authored – Suburban Nation, which is also well worth a read.
What is a Walkable City, and how can our downtowns save America? It’s a lot easier to understand and less technical than we think. Walking is the most basic human function yet we overlook it constantly, especially when it comes to the design of places and spaces. We have built our society to drive. In most cases, you have to own a car to be a normal participant in society. That’s pretty messed up.
Go for a walk, or go for a bike ride, it’s amazing what you see and feel that you can’t understand while you’re isolated in a car. It really puts you in touch with your surroundings. Sadly, as I have found in both where I live and where I work, coincidentally not the same city, neither adds up to a great place for people to get to their basic needs. The sum of our auto-centric cities as Mr. Speck puts it, “are places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at.”
This book isn’t filled with radical ideologies or new fangled ways to improve our communities. It isn’t a trip down memory lane to make things “the way they used to be” either. Quite simply, it is a plan to reclaim places that were meant for us all along.
“The conventional wisdom used to be that creating a strong economy came first, and that increased population and higher quality of life would follow. The converse now seems more likely: creating a higher quality of life is the first step to attracting new residents and jobs.”
Cities that have turned walking into an art form are the cities that enjoy a higher standard of living because they provide a better quality of life.
How can your city get out of the tired rut (pun intended) of being car-dependent and achieve a more walkable environment? Use these 10 Steps:
- Put Cars In Their Place
- Mix The Uses
- Get The Parking Right
- Let Transit Work
- Protect The Pedestrian
- Welcome Bikes
- Shape The Spaces
- Plant Trees
- Make Friendly & Unique Faces
- Pick You Winners
Now I’m not going to go into depth on each one of them (you still need to buy the book) – but just know that I agree with every single one of them.
Each of those elements makes your city, and walking more:
The easiest place to start, is of course – OUR DOWNTOWN’s. Most were built pre-car, and were originally intended to bring people together.
And what is the impact of all this Walkability?
- more money retained in your local community (wealth)
- people lead a life of less disease & chronic ailments (health)
- becomes more manageable for the future (sustainability)
There is a pent-up demand for walkable cities. Real estate values indicate that more walkable neighborhoods are worth more. The instrument of freedom, the car – no longer frees us. The next biggest population bubble, people like myself, choose first where they want to live, and only then do they look for a job. Seventy seven percent plan to live in America’s urban cores.
It really is the perfect storm… I recommend this book, but at the same time I fear that where I live may never figure it out. Certain places have already figured it out, and have been reaping the benefits of walking. As the author notes, get walkability right, and the rest follows. We should not only create places to accommodate us by foot – we should demand it.