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How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time

Walkable City Jeff Speck
Walkable City by Jeff Speck

Walkable City Jeff Speck
Jeff Speck

Walkable City Jeff Speck
Chicago, IL

Walkable City Jeff Speck
Arezzo, Italy

Walkable City Jeff Speck
New York, NY

Walkable City Jeff SpeckAmsterdam, Netherlands

Walkable City Jeff Speck
Portland, Oregon

A few years ago, I participated in a National Quarterly Forum called the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, where designers and urbanists get together and share insights. I learned a lot there. In fact it was one of the events that inspired me to start PUBLIC.  At that time, the Mayors’ Institute on City Design was run by Jeff Speck, an architect, planner, author, and speaker.  We became friends. That’s the disclosure part of this newsletter.  So if I’m going to tout a book by a personal friend, there better be some pretty good reasons to recommend it. There are many.

First of all, it is quite simply one of the best books about our cities that I’ve ever come across. Secondly, Walkable City could just as easily be called Bikeable City as the same issues pertain.

If you take a copy of Jeff’s book to your local downtown area, situate yourself in a café or (weather permitting) on a bench somewhere and read the first 50 pages while periodically looking up and noticing what’s going on around you ­– the width of the sidewalks, the number of lanes in the street, the parking, the mix of stores and cafés, how fast the cars are going, how many people are on foot or bike – you’ll receive a unique and invaluable urbanist education. You will also be entertained. Jeff is witty, provocative, and appropriately irreverent.

There are many other excellent books that deal with urban issues from Lewis Mumford’s The City in History to Jane Jacobs to Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking. These are all excellent and readable but they are lengthy tomes, and likely too much information for many people. Walkable City is a good, quick read. It’s fast-paced, clever, and alarming in parts. Jeff’s overall thesis is that improving our downtowns is as key to our society’s health and well-being as any other action we might embark upon. His insights will challenge liberals and conservatives alike. This is not a doomsday book, as Jeff has as many examples of positive developments as he does critiques. For instance, there is a provocative section on why much of suburbia might become the next slums, and why “white flight” to the suburbs is now turning into “bright flight” back to the cities by young, educated people.

There are thirty substantive reviews on Amazon where Jeff’s book has a 5 star rating (and a current price of $15.88). Here are a few snippets I have culled from the book.

“The real problem with cars is not that they do not get enough miles per gallon, it’s that they make it too easy for us to spread out (sprawl) and encourage forms of development that are inherently wasteful.” Hybrids are not the solution.

“The average American family spends $14K a year driving multiple cars, about 20% of its income. (This figure was 10% in the 1960’s).” For many working class families more money is spent on cars than on housing.

“In these cities, and in most of our nation, the car is no longer an instrument of freedom, but rather a bulky, expensive, and dangerous prosthetic device, a prerequisite to viable citizenship.”

“It would seem that only one thing is more destructive to the health of our downtowns than welcoming cars unconditionally and that is getting rid of them entirely.  The proper response to obesity is not to stop eating, and most stores need car traffic to survive.”

Most of us like driving but hate commuting. Some polls that show that “a 23-minute commute had the same effect on happiness as a 19 percent reduction in income” and another poll where “5 percent of respondents said that they would be willing to divorce their spouse if that meant they could stop commuting and work from home instead”.

We are the least active generation of Americans in history. “Increasingly, it is becoming clear that the American health-care crisis is largely an urban-design crisis, with walkability at the heart of the cure.”  We are fat because we sit in cars rather than walk.

Car crashes have killed 3.2 million Americans, considerably more than all of our wars combined.  It is the leading cause of death for all Americans between the ages of 1 and 34.

If you are book phobic, listen to Jeff on NPR Weekend Edition.

His website is also a Speck of Brilliance.

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