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You Gave Me Your Word: How Good City Planning Became Walkability

This is a guest blog post by Jeff Speck, AICP, CNU-A, LEED-AP, Honorary ASLA. Jeff is the founding principal of Speck & Associates and the author of the best-selling Walkable City and, more recently, Walkable City Rules: 101 Step to Making Better Places, just published by Island Press.

I never set out to be the “walkability” guy. My training was in art history, then in architecture. I was fully primed and pumped to launch a career designing, who knows what, probably kitchen additions for the fabulously wealthy.

But then I got bit. Not by a radioactive spider, and certainly not by “walkability,” but by Andres Duany. He was giving a talk at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (1989), the talk that ended up being his classic lecture, called something like “Towns vs. Sprawl.” I went, not because I was interested in city planning (yet), but because I had read about the new town of Seaside that he and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk had designed in the Florida panhandle, and how it was being built with dozens of cool new buildings by young architects. I had no idea that what I was about to witness over the next two hours would turn into my life’s work.

But it was the best story I had ever heard: Why do we love certain places and hate other places? Why is it illegal in America to build any more of the places we love? And what can we do about it? These questions were at the foundation of a promising new movement called Neo-Traditional Town Planning.

That conservative, nostalgic-sounding name, which threatened to turn off progressives like me, was technically accurate: the goal was a return to the traditional ways that humans had designed and built settlements from the beginning of history, only recently upended by the 20th-Century inventions of urban and suburban sprawl. At a time when its practitioners were being called radical, it had a useful gravity.

No matter, it wouldn’t last. Under the influence of its more progressive adherents—and perhaps in an attempt to win over academia—the name was replaced just a few years later by The New Urbanism. With that change, the Wall Street Journal editorial board was likely lost, but many others signed on.

Gritty, sexy, conveniently vague, the New Urbanism was celebrated in an important book of powerful plans and images, and simultaneously as a rallying cry for a growing collection of practitioners who began meeting in 1993 as the CNU: the Congress for New Urbanism. Over the next decade, which I spent with Andres and Lizz, the CNU grew from a few hundred people to several thousand. The New York Times called it “the most important phenomenon to emerge in American architecture in the post-Cold War era.” Yet its audience remained limited mostly to people in the trenches, doing the work. A parallel, more environmentalist effort, Smart Growth, dovetailed with New Urbanism, both expanding its focus to include more regional-scale considerations and expanding its reach into policymaking and governance.

From the Downtown Tulsa Walkability Study: urban characteristics are used to prioritize safety improvements.

Eventually, New Urbanism “won.” Over 25 years, the idea of traditionally-organized communities moved from outsider to mainstream. The postwar sprawl model, once intellectually dominant, is no longer taught in planning schools. Instead, the principles of New Urbanism are put forth as nothing less than City Planning Best Practices.

But this victory feels hollow, because what good does it do us if best practices are still not common practices? The vast majority of what is being built in North America is still car-dependent sprawl. The vast majority of our cities still make life difficult for anyone who doesn’t drive. The public discourse around planning still seems focused on the impossible goal of reducing traffic, and not on the glorious mandates of Neo-Traditional Town Planning, New Urbanism, Smart Growth, and Best Practices.

Except.

About ten years ago, a new conversation began to emerge, not in planning circles, but in the public sphere. It was not against driving, or against sprawl, but for something: walking. Led by “pedestrian advocacy” organizations like America Walks­—already a decade old at that point—the idea that walking matters began to achieve critical mass. This movement was buoyed in part by a broad coalition of experts, professionals who people listen to more than city planners: economists, linking walkability to productivity; environmentalists; linking walkability to sustainability; sociologists, linking walkability to community; epidemiologists, linking walkability to public health. And after the advent of Walk Score, they could all prove it.

I don’t remember when I made the switch. I am still a proud New Urbanist and attend every conference of that remarkable organization. But at some point it struck me that it was all the same thing: walkability was New Urbanism, and vice versa. This fact might not be readily apparent to non-planners, but there is not a single point on which walkability and city planning best practices diverge. If I find one, then I will do my best to change city planning.

But it goes deeper than that. Once I began to embrace walkability, I found that it was not just another window onto city planning, and not just a better way to discuss city planning, but rather a better framework within which to organize and execute city planning. The walkability mandate became instrumental: a tool for urban design. Instead of completing master plans, I started doing walkability studies; I’ve now done fourteen. In these efforts, asking the question “how can we get more people walking” gives a new structure and precision to my efforts. The outcome seems to be plans that make real change, faster.

So, thanks for giving me your word. I plan on keeping it. As a token of my appreciation, let me give something back. What I think I can offer pedestrian advocates is perhaps an even more comprehensive mandate. According to what I call the General Theory of Walkability, most people will only make the choice to walk if the walk is simultaneously useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. In my experience, pedestrian advocates tend to focus mostly on safety: let’s make walking less dangerous for those who must do it. But to get more people doing it, the walk has to be truly better than driving. It must be useful, achieved through better mixed-use zoning, more rational transit networks, and often the subsidizing of downtown housing. It must be comfortable, with public spaces shaped into a series of outdoor living rooms with short building setbacks and ample tree cover. And it must be interesting, with a variety of friendly-faced buildings lining the sidewalk and with any parking lots or blank walls hidden.

Each one of those requirements leads to an even larger set of recommendations—101 in my latest book!—for making better places. I guess you could call it deep walkability. Since you have been so generous, these are my offering. I hope they help you in your mission, just as you have helped so much with mine.