If you want to do one thing this year to improve the chances for long-term sustainability of your downtown, give a copy of Jeff Speck’s new book, Walkable City, to your mayor, council members, planning and zoning officials, developers, and decision-makers in your community. Speck—a city planner, former director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts, and coauthor of Suburban Nation with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk—is the keynote speaker at this year's National Main Streets Conference in New Orleans, April 14 – 16.
Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, is an important addition to preservation literature for a number of reasons. I'm not going to give a summary of the book here, mainly because I want everyone to read it. However, his "10 Steps of Walkability" are every bit as relevant to downtown livability as Main Street's four points or eight principles, or the three pillars of the sustainability movement, or economists' triple bottom line. Furthermore, these 10 strategies may be even more important to community revitalization than any other approach for this decade and beyond.
Many historic areas are already poised to implement Speck’s strategies for achieving walkability: public transportation can be found nearby; homes and businesses are close together; mature trees and plantings provide welcome shade. The popularity of online applications like WalkScore, together with the proliferation of bike lanes, ZipCars, and other modes of transport that make cities less auto-dependent, is evidence that Americans are, by and large, embracing a beyond-the-auto lifestyle.
Speck makes a strong case that the younger generation of urban professionals—the millennials—embraces the concept of walkability and all that it embodies—proximity to outdoor dining, arts and culture, and basic services like grocery stores and dry cleaners. While Speck emphasizes the attraction this lifestyle has for younger people and the creative class, he also notes that it is increasingly a draw for retiring boomers, who know that walkability may enhance the quality of life as they age—and have health benefits as well.
What don’t I like about this book? Not much. I think Speck may be too quick to dismiss some cities like Memphis and Little Rock that have made remarkable strides against formidable obstacles. Little Rock has installed great bike trails that connect the city's historic districts to the river and provide a desirable recreation amenity for residents and visitors. And preservationists in Memphis fought gallantly, though unsuccessfully, against the demolition of Union Avenue Methodist Church in the center of the burgeoning Midtown arts district, a "hot spot" in the city.
At one point Speck makes a reference to "old-age homes." Does anyone use that term anymore? (Or is it just hitting too close to home?)
My main concern about Speck's message is that some might feel his principles of walkability apply only to big cities. Nothing could be further from the truth. I had coffee with Jeff several weeks ago and brought up this point. He agreed that the 10-step approach he espouses in the book, while primarily citing urban examples, can be successful in towns and cities of any size—if there is the political and civic will to make it happen. All communities, regardless of size, need to realize that residents and visitors are seeking places to walk and to gather that have street-level amenities, built to scale, with multi-modal transportation options. We have to help elected officials and decision-makers figure that out if they have not already embraced those concepts.
As with any great mystery or page turner, you might be tempted to read the end of book early to find out how it all ends. Please don't do that with Walkable City. I assure you, the last page is well worth the wait for community preservationists—and it makes the work you do every day seem infinitely more valuable.
This article first appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Main Street Now.