Author Interviews
4:27 am
Sat November 17, 2012

What Makes A City 'Walkable' And Why It Matters

Originally published on Tue November 12, 2013 9:04 am

Watching Mary Tyler Moore while he was growing up, city planner Jeff Speck saw a different view of urbanity. It stood out amongst the crime-ridden urban settings of other favorite TV series.

Millenials, Speck says, have an even broader vision of what city life means, thanks in part to Seinfeld, Friends and Sex and the City.The neighborhood coffee shops and carless characters show viewers a "walkable" city.

Speck has delved into the concept of what makes a city pedestrian-friendly in his new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.

But city life has its challenges, one of which Speck experienced personally while writing his book. He and his wife got a car after seven years of not having one because they had a second child. And though they're not fleeing to a suburban school district, walking their children to class is not an option.


Interview Highlights

On the benefit of urban environments

"The interesting thing for me as a planner was to have focused on this issue from the design perspective for so many years, and actually to kind of be shouting into the wind about why from how these places looked and how they felt and the kind of social environments that they created cities were superior to sprawl.

"But what happened in the last decade is that these other groups who get a lot more attention — doctors, economists, scientists — have begun to realize that the traditional neighborhood and particularly urban neighborhoods are much more sustainable environmentally, much more successful economically, and much, much better for us in terms of our health."

On walking as a choice

"I think the main point to be made is that in most American cities, walking will remain a choice. For many years, I think, into the future, driving will remain cheap enough and parking will remain cheap enough. And what we're trying to create is pedestrians by choice. And what that means is that the walk has to truly be useful, it has to be safe, it has to be comfortable, and it has to be interesting. ... Useful means essentially having the proper balance of use in your communities."

On what happens when your children need to go to school

"That is the million-dollar question in so many cities. My wife is extremely active in the local schools and extremely supportive of our extremely local schools, right next to our house, which are as we speak being shut down and consolidated and struggling. But that is why a lot of people are leaving the city because they see a better school system ... just outside of town.

"So we happen to be in, with our two kids, an excellent charter school. The downside there, though — and this is a very interesting discussion — is that we now have a bit of a commute. My wife typically drives our kids to school, and she says, 'I didn't move to the city to be a suburban commuter.'"

"The question really isn't just who our cities can serve, but can our cities thrive? These cities that currently don't have anyone in them have to start somewhere, and typically for those people, schools are not an issue — but they become an issue very quickly."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What makes a city walkable? We met one man who's given that question a lot of thought.

JEFF SPECK: I'm Jeff Speck. I'm a city planner. We're in Washington, D.C.

SIMON: Jeff Speck is also the author of a new book called "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time." And he gave us a quick tour of his neighborhood.

SPECK: So, look at this curb here? Does this feel like a safe sidewalk? And the answer is no, because there's no parallel parking. Parallel parking is a barrier of steel that protects the sidewalk from moving vehicles.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC MOVING)

SPECK: Now, we're approaching the Blind Dog Cafe. The Blind Dog Cafe is a pop-up cafe. It's a bar at night. And these over-educated 20-somethings have dedicated themselves to the idea that this neighborhood deserves great coffee and a great place to hang out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUEAKY DOOR OPENING)

SPECK: Hi guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILK STEAMING)

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

SPECK: Hi, buddy. You know, this part of the city is not for good for parks, but what's happening in neighborhoods like this now is the 20-somethings who moved in five or 10 years ago are now having their kids and they're demanding a lot of things that it's pretty hard for the neighborhood to provide.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

SPECK: Here you have our U Street Metro stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF METRO ARRIVING IN STATION)

SPECK: Metrorail, of course, was at first destructive to this neighborhood. Almost every store closed when they were building the Metrorail because the streets were torn up for close to a decade. But, of course, for the long run it's had a tremendously positive impact.

SIMON: Surveyor and planner Jeff Speck giving us a quick tour of his neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and he joins us now in the studio. Thanks so much for being with us.

SPECK: Hello, Scott. It's a real pleasure to be here.

SIMON: The sub-title of your book, of course, is "How Downtown Can Save American One Step at a Time." How do you see that happening?

SPECK: The interesting thing for me as a planner was to have focused on this issue from the design perspective for so many years, and actually to kind of be shouting into the wind about why from how these places looked and how they felt and the kind of social environments that they created cities were superior to sprawl. But what happened in the last decade is that these other groups who get a lot more attention - doctors, economists, scientists - have begun to realize that the traditional neighborhood, and particularly urban neighborhoods, are much more sustainable environmentally, much more successful economically and much, much better for us in terms of our health.

SIMON: Yeah. What are you looking for in a walkable city? What qualities?

SPECK: Well, you know, my book has the 10 steps of walkability. But I think the main point to be made is that in most American cities walking will remain a choice. For many years, I think, into the future driving will remain cheap enough and parking will remain cheap enough. And what we're trying to create is pedestrians by choice. And what that means is that the walk has to truly be useful, it has to be safe, it has to be comfortable and it has to be interesting.

SIMON: Do you mean walking to work, walking to a store?

SPECK: Yeah. Useful means essentially having the proper balance of use in your communities. Most American cities, the one that I work in that are mid-sized typically, do not have a proper ratio of housing downtown.

SIMON: Now, you don't mind talking about the fact that you drive a car, right?

SPECK: While I was writing this book...

SIMON: Not all the time but, yeah.

SPECK: It was really hard because while I was writing this book I acquired a car. And my wife and I had lived without one in D.C. for seven years.

SIMON: But you got a car because?

SPECK: We had our second child.

SIMON: May I ask the ages of your children?

SPECK: Two and four.

SIMON: What happens when school comes along?

SPECK: That is the million dollar question in so many cities. My wife is extremely active in the local schools and extremely supportive of our extremely local schools right next to our house, which are, as we speak, being shut down and consolidated and struggling. But that is why a lot of people are leaving the city because they see a better school system, even as D.C.'s improves. In many inner cities, schools improve, they see a better system just outside of town. So, we happen to be in with our two kids an excellent charter school. The downside there though, and this is a very interesting discussion, is that we not have a bit of a commute. My wife typically drives our kids to school. And she says, you know, I didn't move to the city to be a suburban commuter.

SIMON: It strikes me. Towards the end of your book you have this beautiful section about a beautiful urban vision of - a lot of people remember - Mary Tyler Moore walking the streets of Minneapolis - and you're going to - and throwing her hat up in the air.

SPECK: Yep. Mary Tyler Moore brings up a couple of really interesting things. The most interesting discussion is - I mean, what TV shows did I watch when I was a kid? "Gilligan's Island," "Partridge Family," "Brady Bunch"...

SIMON: Well, say what you will about "Gilligan's Island." That was a walkable environment.

SPECK: Well, it had very little to say about urbanity. But the other two, and all the shows on my TV that I was watching were either, you know, fun suburban environments or, you know, "Streets of San Francisco," "Mannix," "Hawaii Five-O," "Dragnet." It was the city but it was one thing: crime. Now, there was one exception, which is Mary Tyler Moore. And it's a strange exception. I don't understand its role. But the reason I bring this up is think about the kids who are moving to cities today - the millennials. They grew up on "Friends," on "Seinfeld," on "Sex and the City"...

SIMON: Upper West Side people.

SPECK: Yeah, it was all New York.

SIMON: They want the diner. They want the coffee shop. But here's the problem: millennials grow up. They start having families and they start looking for more space and good schools. And the problem is in walkable neighborhoods, the real estate gets more expensive. So, for more space they often have to move out of the city. And for that matter, their kids become of school age and they have to look for good schools.

SPECK: Well, the question really isn't just who our cities can serve, but can our cities thrive? These cities that currently don't have anyone in them have to start somewhere. And typically for those people schools are not an issue - but they become an issue very quickly.

SIMON: Jeff Speck, author of "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time." Thanks for coming in.

SPECK: Oh, it's a great pleasure, Scott. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.