Jeff Speck’s new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, is worth a read for its acerbic wit, alone. The author fits a remarkable collection of data and anecdotal evidence from his long career in urban design (which included a four-year stint at the helm of the National Endowment for the Arts’ design department) into a mere 260 pages while maintaining a tone that is both punchy and urgent. It’s not often that I’ve found people who can make the discussion of parking minimums entertaining, but Speck has a way with words.
Walkable City begins with Speck’s General Theory of Walkability, before proceeding on to an overview of the challenges facing our built environment today. The author’s deep understanding of the topic at hand thus becomes clear early on, and by the time the book launches into its meatiest section—a detailed breakdown of the Ten Steps of Walkability—the author-reader bond is already established. Barely a fifth of the way through the book, it is hard not to already feel engaged, like a comrade-in-arms.
But this is not the next great book on American cities; Speck says so himself in the prologue, arguing that “That book is not needed. An intellectual revolution is no longer necessary.” This struck me as odd, and it nagged at the back of my mind throughout what was otherwise a mostly enjoyable read. For, as Speck explains a mere paragraph after the line quoted above, “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.”
That “we’ve” is instructive; the book is seemingly intended for a mass audience, but I got the sense that I was part of a choir, being preached to with the church doors thrown open. While it is a very accessible book, Walkable City comes off feeling a bit more specific than it seems the author himself had hoped. There is a preoccupation with the physical cityscape that suggests the underlying assumption that the reader has some knowledge of and access to the proper channels to act on the information that’s being presented. But many (or even most, if the book is intended for a mass market) won’t.
Indeed, for a book about walkability, Walkable City seems much more concerned with cars and buildings than with people. “America will be finally ushered into ‘the urban century’ not by its few exceptions,” writes Speck, in wrapping up the prologue, “but by a collective movement among its everyday cities to do once again what cities do best, which is to bring people together—on foot.” Yet at the outset of the section titled The Useful Walk, he writes that “Cars are the lifeblood of the American city.” Are we to understand, then, that it is a collective movement among our cars that will create more walkable cities?
Of course not. People are the lifeblood of cities, and if we’re going to pull off the feat of ushering America into the urban century, we have to show those people not only why walkability is important, but how their own actions and decisions can help to create more of it. [Of note, via PPS’s transportation director Gary Toth: even AASHTO included the following line in the 1984 edition of the Green Book: “…it is extremely difficult to make adequate provisions for pedestrians. Yet, this must be done, because pedestrians are the lifeblood of our urban areas…”]
“Specialists,” Speck writes in no uncertain terms, “are the enemy of the city, which is by definition a general enterprise.” Yet the urban designer seems not to heed his own advice. If he had, we may have seen a fifth category in the book’s General Theory of Walkability; alongside The Useful Walk, The Safe Walk, The Comfortable Walk, and The Interesting Walk, perhaps a section on The Considered Walk.
If we’re going to create more popular support for walkability in the US, we need people in auto-centric places to start thinking differently about the benefits of getting around on foot instead of by car: improved health, more time to spend with families, lower transportation costs, more unplanned social encounters, better sense of purpose and community. If you’ve lived your whole life in a landscape dominated by cars (as most Americans have), walkability may be far from the front of your mind. The idea that an intellectual revolution is no longer necessary assumes that everyone is already on the same page. They’re not.
For those of us who are already advocating for more walkable urban fabric, Walkable City offers a wealth of facts and figures with which we can load our cannons. But it also serves as a reminder that we have to keep working on how we present that information to broader constituencies. We’re getting there, but we’re still en route.