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Walkable City

This timely, important book should be required reading for city planners – and anyone simply hoping for a more walkable downtown.

By Richard Horan / November 19, 2012

Walkable City By Jeff Speck Farrar, Straus and Giroux 320 pp.

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What’s Rome got – and for that matter Barcelona, Venice, Boston, San Francisco, Paris, Prague, New York – that my hometown does not? Walkability, that’s what! That and, perhaps, a bit more fabric – that is to say, “the everyday collection of streets, blocks, and buildings that tie the monuments [of a place] together.”

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It is walkability and fabric that make any urban experience rich and vital.

However, according to Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, these features are not exclusive to the world’s great metropolises. Theycan be achieved anywhere ... in 10 basic steps.

In Part I, Speck, who is a city planner, lays out his “General Theory of Walkability” – i.e., a walkable city is a better place than a drivable one. He also explains what is required to make a walk down Main Street compelling and satisfying: utility, safety, comfort, and interest.

He first discusses the advantages that a walkable city has over a drivable one. No. 1 on the list is a “walkability dividend” that nurtures property values. “Not only have city centers fared better than suburbs [since the Great Recession],” Speck says, “but walkable cities have fared better than drivable ones.” Next, there are fitness benefits. “60 percent of residents in a ‘low walkable’ neighborhood were overweight,” notes Speck, “compared to only 35 percent in a ‘high walkable’ neighborhood.” 

In Part II, Speck delivers a complete prescription for making cities more walkable with his “Ten Steps of Walkability” formula (see below). Every statistic and fact that Speck includes in this section deserves a double take: “a 10 percent increase in lane miles induces an immediate 4 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled, which climbs to 10 percent – the entire new capacity – in a few years.” In other words, “building new roads [or widening streets] usually makes traffic worse.” And “[c]ities with higher congestion use less fuel per capita, while cities with the least congestion use the most fuel.” In sum: “Congestion is good.” My personal favorite deals with the impact of trees on a neighborhood: “the presence of healthy street trees likely adds $15.3 million to annual property tax revenues.” Plus, the cooling effect of a single healthy tree “is equivalent to ten room-size air conditioners operating 24 hours a day.”

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