In writing a book about the future of cities, it’s tough to get everything right. Walkable City isn’t free of error. Not everything predicted by Jeff Speck when this book first appeared ten years ago has turned out precisely as he imagined.
But there is no statement quite as mistaken as Walkable City’s first two sentences: “This is not the next great book on American cities. That book is not needed.”
As it turns out, it was, and it was. And it still is.
America has a long history of imagining the future of cities, alternating between visions of flying cars in one telling and predictions of apocalyptic futures of disorder and decay in the other. Most of these visions have a short shelf life. When the future arrives, it often fails to meet expectations—to borrow a sardonic phrase, we wanted flying cars and instead we got 140 characters.
But just because a prediction didn’t turn out right doesn’t mean that the urban epidemiology it was based on was misdiagnosed.
Even the patron saint of the human-scale city, Jane Jacobs, could not have foreseen the urban economics that would one day make dense, diverse urban communities like her Greenwich Village neighborhood unaffordable to most of the denizens she defended in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The civic and media tactics she skillfully employed to stymie the bulldozing of homes for a cross-Manhattan highway are today a playbook for bad-faith city residents claiming “neighborhood preservation” to fight the sort of dense, human-scale development that Jacobs herself championed.
The historian Robert Caro wrote that the damage wrought by the master builder Robert Moses signified the “death” of New York City in The Power Broker (1974). That death, like so many urban obituaries, proved by the 1990s to be greatly exaggerated, overtaken in New York City by an economic rebirth that can, at least in some part, be attributed to Moses’s vast public works.
Yet such limitations hardly diminish these influential books, which endure not despite current events but in light of them. They are still published and widely read, and their cultural markers still frame current debates. The underlying debate in these two works in particular—who has the power to make decisions about a city, the people or the power brokers?—is still very much alive today. Great books give fresh definition to facts that people have always known, making the invisible visible and the obscure obvious. More essentially, they give the reader agency to act.
In the first edition of Walkable City, Speck assembled a half century of knowledge from urbanists, engineers, and social scientists, arcing from Jacobs’s human-scale city to the toxic suburbanization of America, to the desiccation of the nation’s downtowns in the second half of the twentieth century, distilled under a single cover through the elegant, unifying principle of walkability. Appearing in the infancy of tech-enabled mobility, Walkable City’s title and thesis offered a powerful, human-powered antidote to modern ills: when you design for the walkability of communities, you solve for the safety, vibrancy, health, equity, and economy of cities.
Walkable City offered readers a Matrix-like red pill that dissolved the nation’s car mythology and exposed its structural underpinnings. In its place, it offered a choice, a walkable “neourbanism,” this one based in human activity instead of a revolution in technology or engineering. Thanks to its insights but also its graceful phrasing, Walkable City constituted a democratizing lingua franca; it gave everyday readers and advocates a language with which to challenge a professional and political status quo that repels most attempts to change how America’s public commons are designed, built, and managed.
For most Americans, save for residents of a handful of dense, typically left-leaning cities, public roads have a single use that is relentlessly reinforced: moving motor vehicles. Government agencies are set up to build more roads that bring more traffic, so that the only rational response when these lanes inevitably fill up is to build more of them. Traffic engineers have calculations for the number of lanes and signals required by cars, but no measures for reducing dependence on them nor any mandate to do so. One outcome: there are now eight parking spaces for every car in this country. More than history, culture, or civic space, American downtowns are monuments to parking, cratered with vast open lots and looming garages.
The motor vehicle alters public space and also human life. Over the course of a lifetime, the average American spends as much time in her car as she does outside breathing fresh air and being active. Even if someone wanted to walk, how could they, with no sidewalk or safe crossings nearby? And where would they walk to, with most destinations miles away? Johnny can access vast information on his smartphone but he still can’t walk to school. About half of kids walked or biked to school in 1969. Today, roughly 10 percent of Americans aged five to seventeen do so.
Great writing is not automatically distinguished when it is the first word on a subject, or written by the highest authority, or based on the newest research. Walkable City was not Jeff Speck’s first attempt at writing the story of American planning; a decade earlier, he coauthored the influential book Suburban Nation with his mentors Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.
Where Suburban Nation focused on American sprawl and its erosion of the notion of place and of civic and community values, Walkable City focused on what works in cities, reasserting the importance of place in urban and town centers.
These principles weren’t new when Speck wrote them; much of them were known even before Jane Jacobs wrote her own treatise on cities. If Jacobs’s “eyes on the street” are what’s needed to look out for one another, keeping communities safe and connected, then that street must be a walkable one. And if it’s easier to put slippers on one’s feet than to carpet the world, Speck shows that it is better to build a city where walking is safe and attractive than it is to pave the planet.
Great streets don’t build themselves. Simple changes to their design can let in the light of street life: Narrowing car lanes by a foot or two cues drivers to slow down, making streets easier to cross and sidewalks more inviting. Converting one-way streets to two-way traffic creates a complexity that similarly welcomes walking. Adjusting how and how much people pay to drive and to park—the ghost in the machine documented by the renowned parking prophet Donald Shoup—can prompt new decision points about whether and when one should drive. As car space recedes, with minimal impact on car volumes processed, new room for people emerges.
Copyright © 2012 by Jeff Speck
Introduction copyright © 2022 by Janette Sadik-Khan
Part III copyright © 2022 by Jeff Speck