Walkable City – Review
Kanye West first became famous for his music, but now his outrageous statements raise him to a level of notoriety far beyond his musicianship. The Kanye proclamation that sticks in my head comes from an impromptu speech to Harvard students. “I believe design can save the world.” I don’t know exactly what ills was looking to save the world from, but after reading Jeff Speck’s Walkable City, you quickly get the sense of many of the things wrong with this world that could be solved by applying the lesson from this direct and entertaining book.
Walkable City moves quickly. The structure makes sense. The reader understands the gravity of the stakes. The author delivers well-reasoned prescriptive solutions to the problems he calls attention to. Walkable City has the courage of its convictions and rather than simply pointing out problems it prescribes solutions. How wide should lanes be in streets? Ten feet. And the book is quick to explain why. How much is all the parking in Chicago worth? A lot more than the 1.2 billion Morgan Stanley paid for it. It’s a book that picks fights* and wins them.
The reasons a city should aspire to walkability fall into three categories: health, wealth and sustainability. The many ways that walkability contributes to a cities wealth, stretch far beyond the bump a walkable neighborhood gets in its property values. I won’t attempt to break these down here it’s done so well in this very short, very entertaining book.
The health piece of the argument contains two main ideas: controlling smog and air pollution caused by unwalkable cities and reining in the injuries and deaths caused by car accidents. Speck makes a compelling case that what is good for the health of the walker is also good for the health of the driver, namely slowing them down to a pace where they’re less likely to kill pedestrians and themselves.
Speck leaves out one strong argument for walkability: its democratizing effect. This is tied to my only quibble with the book. It’s easy to see how the superior design described by Speck could help neighborhoods struggling to maintain a population and stop crime. But Speck focuses on downtown. He worries that mayors and city officials will dilute walking improvements by being too inclusive, and suggest that cities focus efforts on areas with walking “focal points” where the improvements are more likely to be successful. This argument is made in a deep, convincing if quick (everything in this book is so concise and direct that you can snap through this book in a weekend or a long night) way and I want to give my argument against it a full post — for now, let us say that Speck steps past a fourth benefit for the modern urbanism he supports.
Walkable City doesn’t stop at proving that Walkability creates wealth and other goods, the book provides a manual for the creation of those goods. Speck isn’t writing some wide-eyed, undefined utopian dream. He cares about specifics. What do things cost? What do we have to give up? What can be compromised and what can’t? Walkable City provides a Ten Commandments style list of what must be done to fix the broken cities throughout the US or to improve the fairly walkable cities we already have. Speck then writes ten essays that have what you want from a good editorial: a tight focus, a compelling thesis and evidence to support his claims.
You might not care about the length of city blocks now, but you should and you will. I do and that’s Jeff Speck’s fault, he’s the one who taught me how design can save the world.
*especially with engineers at Departments of Transportation.