How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time
Review by: Davon Barbour Director of Community & Economic Development, City of Hollywood, Florida
A take back our streets movement is well underway in the United States. Jeff Speck’s Walkable City is an enjoyable journey into understanding why walkability matters to the success of downtown and the broader community. What is surprisingly refreshing is the humility that Speck displays in making the case for walkability. By offering vignettes of his personal life, Speck successfully wins over the reader without conveying a “high and mighty” attitude. In other words, he is not the transit advocate who has never spent any substantial time riding a bus. Speck literally possesses street credibility.
Making the case for walkability requires a careful examination of human behavior, planning principles, and community impact. Walkable City methodically explains the health, social, and economic benefits derived from a walkable community. Bike lanes, bike share programs, sidewalk design, transit placement and any other worthwhile elements addressed at length throughout Speck’s “Ten Steps to Walkability”.
Speck builds a thoughtful and timely case for the investment in downtown. In fact, Walkable City explores the concept of walkability for some time before addressing downtown in a substantial manner. Speck understands that the first impression of any city is generally based upon the quality of its downtown. More importantly, Specks rallies that downtown belongs to everyone. It provides access and benefits to all citizens. There’s no better reason for dedicating resources to the success of downtowns.
I especially appreciated Speck’s discussion on his walkability plan process. This discussion is especially salient for business improvement districts in which property owners and their tenants expect equal attention to the street on which they are assessed. Walkable City urges us to invest the “in” streets. If we are honest with ourselves, we must face the daunting reality that public sector financing resources continue to decline. There just isn’t enough money around to solve every problem and therefore prioritization is a must for capital improvements and economic development programs.
Although Walkable City is passionate about downtowns, neighborhoods are not forgotten in the discussion. Walkability in neighborhoods equally plays an important role in the health of a community. Speck advocates for ensuring walkability in downtown and their adjacent neighborhoods as part of an interconnected system of pedestrian movement that sustains commercial vitality.
As more and more communities undertake Complete Street projects, they would be wise to heed Speck’s advice on curb appeal. It makes no sense to spend millions of dollars in road diets and tree plantings, if the private space is ignored. Public investment primes the pump. However, communities still need the help of private sector to truly offer an interesting experience – great architectural design, activity, and inviting displays.
Walkable City masterfully challenges us to re-think conventional thought on transportation and urban planning principles. If the traffic engineer (often the proclaimed villain) is to take blame for rigorous traffic standards, then the planner should also be prepared to re-think minimum parking requirements within urban centers. Speck’s work is an enjoyable read and certainly should be required reading for not only planners, economic developers, and elected officials, but also for transportation practitioners such as traffic engineers and Metropolitan Planning Organizations. The rich research references and case studies from home and abroad will keep you energized to learn more. Whether you live in a small or large community, you will be inspired. If you want to ensure that your community is moving in the right direction, Walkable City is one book that you will want in your toolkit.
Order the book from Amazon, or search for your local bookstore.