Urban planner Jeff Speck’s “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time” is both a forceful analysis of what’s wrong with most cities and a 10-step program for fixing them. Given that 80 percent of Americans now live in urban areas, everyone interested in improving the quality of city life should read this book and heed its lessons.

Part of the reason suburban property values continue to languish, in Portland and elsewhere, while inner-city housing prices have largely recovered from the 2008 real estate collapse, is a function of the benefits inherent in living within walking distance of shops, services and public transportation. If you don’t know your neighborhood’s “walk score,” I suggest you find it — it may have more impact on your long-term financial health than your 401(k).

The enemy of the livable city — the destroyer of worlds — was the car. The enormous apparatus of freeways, highways and parking lots built over the last 100 years, Speck demonstrates with disturbing clarity, destroyed what made city life attractive in the first place to serve the needs of the automobile. The tradeoffs were transient. Planners succumbed to the car so completely that master-planned suburbs dispensed with sidewalks altogether and engineered streets for cars alone. (One of the saddest facts Speck adduces is that only 15 percent of children now walk to school. Walking to school isn’t just good exercise; it’s a powerful socializing instrument.) Wherever walking is dangerous, property values fall, commerce ceases and the quality of life ebbs. To reverse that process, you have to figure out how to get people back on their feet. Speck’s 10-step manifesto points the way forward, with humor and grace and just a soupçon of urban elitist zeal.

Traffic congestion, in a perverse way, helps accomplish that goal. Speck summons convincing evidence that building more freeways exacerbates rather than solves the traffic problem and pushes affordable housing farther away from the city center. The accidental experiment in freeway removal conducted in San Francisco when the Embarcadero Freeway collapsed in the 1989 earthquake showed that getting rid of the freeway enhanced San Francisco’s already-appealing urban texture in numerous measurable ways, such as attracting shops and apartments and providing higher tax revenues. People found safer ways to travel on surface streets, but they also used public transportation and sought housing closer to work.

Portland is a paragon among American cities, Speck argues, because its politicians, planners and citizens understand the broader benefits of policies that encourage walking. Portlanders pay attention to trees, bike lanes and public transit. It’s relatively easy to live comfortably here and not own a car. Portland’s not New York, but its ambience is closer to Copenhagen or Amsterdam than Detroit or, heaven forbid, Beijing. Mayor-elect Charlie Hales is among the walking advocates quoted by Speck. There are also numerous tips of the hat in “Walkable City” to The Oregonian’s Jeff Mapes, author of “Pedaling Revolution,” which Speck calls “the seminal book on urban cycling.” Biking works best in tandem (so-to-speak) with walking, not as a separate realm.

Walmart may get blamed for destroying the commercial cores of small towns, but Speck’s analysis suggests that the enthusiasm of traffic engineers for speeding motorists through downtowns was the real killer. Thoroughfares that once welcomed shoppers with curbside parking and pleasant sidewalks under a shaded canopy were converted, in Speck’s stinging phrase, into “automotive sewers.” They welcomed cars, not shoppers. Restoring walkability is the antidote to the dull, eviscerated cores left over from failed experiments with pedestrian malls, one-way grids and elevated freeways.

The crucial insight into what makes a city safe to drive, cycle and walk in at the same time came from counterintuitive Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. We’ve all experienced the effect of a power outage on traffic. During blackouts, drivers creep toward intersections and watch other cars carefully before proceeding. Monderman built this into a theory based, as Speck notes, on two “interrelated concepts: naked streets and shared space.” The naked street has no stop signs, signals or stripes — it announces to every driver, pedestrian and cyclist: watch out. “Shared space” is the complement of the “naked street” — it eliminates curbs, sidewalks and barriers. “The goal,” Speck writes, “is to create an environment of such utter ambiguity that cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians all come together in one big mixing bowl of humanity.”

Source: The Oregonian
November 18, 2012
By John Strawn