DC resident Jeff Speck co-wrote Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, the best-selling book about city planning since Jane Jacobs, and Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. Greater Greater Washington is pleased to present two excerpts from his highly-anticipated followup, Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places. Below is an excerpt from the book.
North America, along with much of the world, has been building and rebuilding its cities and towns quite badly for more than half a century. To do it properly would have been easy; we used to be great at it. But, like voting for president, just because something is easy to do does not mean that it will be done, or done well.
To rectify the sporadic spread of city planning best practices, I published Walkable City in 2012. The timing was fortunate: while the term was not often used before 2010, walkability now seems to be the special sauce that every community wants. It took a while, but many of our leaders have realized that establishing walkability as a central goal can be an expeditious path to making our cities better in a whole host of ways.
Packaged as “literary nonfiction” and “current affairs,” Walkable City was effective at finding readers, armchair urbanists curious about what makes cities tick. It made its way into mayors’ offices, council chambers, and town meetings, held aloft by people demanding change. Sometimes, change was begun. . . and that’s when the problems started. While the book does a decent job of inspiring change, it doesn’t exactly tell you how to create it.
Hence this new book, Walkable City Rules, an effort to weaponize Walkable City for deployment in the field. A brief excerpt follows.
Rule 5: Sell Walkability on Community
There are powerful community reasons to invest in walkability.
Any planner who has spent time surveying a range of communities can tell you the difference between more traditional walkable neighborhoods and automotive sprawl: In walkable places, it is impossible to spend more than a few minutes sneaking around without being approached by an inquisitive resident. In a modern suburbia of cul-de-sacs and garage-fronted snout-houses, a planner can measure streets all day and not elicit a single interaction. Where nobody walks, nobody supervises the public realm, and nobody gets to know their neighbors.
It is only when we are outside of vehicles, and relatively safe from them, that the bonds of community can form.
When we walk we are called pedestrians, and when we drive we are called motorists. Based on the way these two characters behave, it is hard to believe that the same people can be both of them, or even that they belong to the same species. Most pedestrians are by nature ready to engage others, or at least to acknowledge them in some way. Even looking away from another person as you pass is a form of acknowledgement, a behavior caused specifically by the other’s presence. Our paths on the sidewalk are a subtle dance of communication and accommodation.
In contrast, most motorists are profoundly antisocial, and often even sociopathic. We are at our most selfish while driving, and often at our most aggressive. Only behind the wheel do we see Sunday school teachers and church deacons flipping each other the bird. Why is this?
The answer is no mystery. To be a motorist is to pilot a private space in deadly competition with other private spaces. Every other motorist on the road has only two roles: competing for asphalt, and endangering your life. Because you are in competition, you are adversaries. Because they might, with one mistake, kill you (and perhaps your entire family), you are enemies.
It is only when we are outside of vehicles, and relatively safe from them, that the bonds of community can form. This point was probably best made by Donald Appleyard’s now classic book, Livable Streets, which compiled his research in San Francisco about the relationship between social capital and traffic.27 Comparing streets that were essentially identical but for the number of cars they carried, Appleyard found that most people living on light-traffic streets considered their entire street to be their “home territory,” while most people on heavy-traffic streets only felt at home within their own buildings or apartments. More remarkably, while people on light-traveled streets counted on average 3.0 friends, people on busy streets averaged only 0.9 friends.
That’s hardly the best ad copy: “Heavy traffic: for those times when you want to have slightly less than one friend.”
The impact of traffic is clear. But what about development patterns? In his landmark book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam set out to determine what was causing a measurable decline in social capital in the United States. He found that suburbanization, and its long commutes, were the most predictive measure he could find. He noted that “each ten additional minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by ten percent—fewer public meeting attended, fewer committees chaired, fewer petitions signed, fewer church services attended, and so on.”28
Finally, we even have social capital studies that look at walkability directly. In one of these, researchers at the University of New Hampshire surveyed 700 residents of 20 neighborhoods, split between more and less walkable locations in Manchester and Portsmouth, NH. They found that “those living in more walkable neighborhoods trusted their neighbors more; participated in community projects, clubs and volunteering more; and described television as their major form of entertainment less than survey participants living in less walkable neighborhoods.”29
Rule 5: When advocating for walkability, don’t forget the compelling data surrounding its impact on social capital.
In Livable Streets, Donald Appleyard illustrated how care traffic impedes the formation of social capital. Photo Credit: Livable Streets, Donald Appleyard and Bruce Appleyard, Elsevier, 2019.
27 Donald Appleyard, M. Sue Gerson, and Mark Lintell, Livable Streets (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).
28 Howard Frumkin, Urban Sprawl and Public Health, 172. Also, Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
29 Shannon H. Rogers et al., “Examining Walkability and Social Capital as Indicators of Quality of Life at the Municipal and Neighborhood Scales,” Journal of Applied Research in Quality of Life 6, no. 2 (2011): 2013.
Speck's book is out now, and you can order it from Island Press. Speck will be giving a talk and book signing at the National Building Museum on Friday, November 2 and at Politics and Prose at Union Market on Saturday, November 3.