Photo by p medved on Flickr.
DC resident Jeff Speck wrote Suburban Nation, the best-selling book about city planning since Jane Jacobs. His new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time comes out on November 13. Greater Greater Washington is pleased to present 3 weekly excerpts from the book.
We’ve known for three decades how to make livable cities—after forgetting for four—yet we’ve somehow not been able to pull it off. Jane Jacobs, who wrote in 1960, won over the planners by 1980. But the planners have yet to win over the city.
Certain large cities, yes. If you make your home in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, or in a handful of other special places, you can have some confidence that things are on the right track. But these locations are the exceptions.
In the small and mid-sized cities where most Americans spend their lives, the daily decisions of local officials are still, more often than not, making their lives worse.
This is not bad planning but the absence of planning, or rather, decision-making disconnected from planning. The planners were so wrong for so many years that, now that they are mostly right, they are mostly ignored.
This past spring, while I was working on a plan for Lowell, Massachusetts, some old high school friends joined us for dinner on Merrimack Street, the heart of a lovely 19th-century downtown. Our group consisted of four adults, one toddler in a stroller, and my wife’s very pregnant belly.
Across the street from our restaurant, we waited for the light to change, lost in conversation. Maybe a minute passed before we saw the pushbutton signal request. So we pushed it. The conversation advanced for another minute or so. Finally, we gave up and jaywalked. About the same time, a car careened around the corner at perhaps forty-five miles per hour, on a street that had been widened to ease traffic.
The resulting near-miss fortunately left no scars, but it will not be forgotten. Stroller jaywalking is a surefire way to feel like a bad parent, especially when it goes awry. The only consolation this time was that I was in a position to do something about it.
As I write these words, I am again on the road with my family, this time in Rome. Now, the new baby is in a sling, and the toddler alternates between a stroller and his own two feet, depending on the terrain and his frame of mind. It is interesting to compare our experience in Rome with the one in Lowell, or, more to the point, the experience of walking in most American cities.
Rome, at first glance, seems horribly inhospitable to pedestrians. So many things are wrong. Half the streets are missing sidewalks, most intersections lack crosswalks, pavements are uneven and rutted, handicap ramps are largely absent. Hills are steep and frequent (I hear there are seven). And need I mention the drivers?
Yet, here we are among so many other pedestrians—tourists and locals alike—making our way around Trastevere. ... on our toes, yes, but enjoying every minute of it. This anarchic obstacle course is somehow a magnet for walkers, recently selected by readers of Lonely Planet travel guides as one of the world’s “Top Ten Walking Cities.”
Romans drive a fraction of the miles that Americans do. A friend of ours who came here to work in the US Embassy bought a car when he arrived, out of habit. Now it sits in his courtyard, a target for pigeons. This tumultuous urban landscape, which fails to meet any conventional American measure of “pedestrian friendliness,” is a walker’s paradise. So what’s going on here?
Certainly, in competing for foot traffic, Anatole Broyard’s “poem pressed into service as a city” began with certain advantages. The Lonely Planet ranking is likely more a function of spectacle than pedestrian comfort. But the same monuments, arranged in a more modern American way, would hardly compete. (Think Las Vegas, with its Walk Score of 54.)
The main thing that makes Rome—and the other winners: Venice, Boston, San Francisco, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Paris, and New York—so walkable is what we planners call “fabric,” the everyday collection of streets, blocks, and buildings that tie the monuments together. Despite its many technical failures, Rome’s fabric is superb.
Yet fabric is one of several key aspects of urban design that are missing from the walkability discussion in most places. This is because that discussion has largely been about creating adequate and attractive pedestrian facilities, rather than walkable cities. There is no shortage of literature on this subject, and even a fledgling field of “walkability studies” that focuses principally on impediments to pedestrian access and safety, mostly in the Toronto suburbs.
These efforts are helpful, but inadequate. The same goes for urban beautification programs, such as the famous “Five B’s” of the eighties—bricks, banners, bandstands, bollards, and berms—that now grace many an abandoned downtown.
Lots of money and muscle has gone into improving sidewalks, crossing signals, streetlights, and trash cans, but how important are these things, ultimately, in convincing people to walk? If walking was just about creating safe pedestrian zones, then why did more than 150 Main Streets pedestrianized in the sixties and seventies fail almost immediately? Clearly there is more to walking than just making safe, pretty space for it.
The pedestrian is an extremely fragile species, the canary in the coal mine of urban livability. Under the right conditions, this creature thrives and multiplies. But creating those conditions requires attention to a broad range of criteria, some more easily satisfied than others. Laying out those criteria in no uncertain terms, and showing how we can satisfy them with the least cost and effort, is the purpose of this book.
Interested in learning more about what makes a place walkable? Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth at Politics and Prose on Saturday, November 17 at 6 pm for a discussion with Jeff. The event is free and open to the pubilc; no RSVP is required.