Jeff Speck, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time (2012)

Anyone with an interest in American cities today has heard of Walk Score. Launched in 2007, the web site calculates the proximity of any given address to various necessities and amenities — grocery stores, schools, restaurants, hospitals, movie theaters — and assigns it the eponymous numerical rating. When I first heard of it, I naturally punched in all my previous addresses. The neighborhood of Seattle's eastern suburbs in which I lived throughout most of elementary and all of middle and high school rates a Walk Score of three. That's three out of a possible 100, mind, but it still beats my first childhood home about thirty miles outside of Sacramento, California, whose Walk Score comes in at a perfect zero. This may go some way to explaining my subsequent choices of location in adulthood: downtown Santa Barbara (85), followed by Los Angeles' Koreatown ("walker's paradise" at 97).

Today I live in the capital of South Korea, a country not served by Walk Score. If it were, my address would surely blow up the meter: here everything one could need in life, from coffee shops and bookstores to gyms and shopping malls to major hospitals and universities, lies within a ten-minute walk. (When I say this to Americans in America, I usually have to add the words "without exaggeration.") After five years, this feels as natural to me as being unable to walk to anything but another house once did, back when I was growing up in the suburban nation. There I borrow from the title of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, a 2000 indictment of post-war U.S. urban planning by Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, founders of an organization called the Congress for the New Urbanism.

The term "New Urbanism" seems to me something of a bait-and-switch, given how many of its advocates go in for labored small-town kitsch of the Truman Show variety. That film was shot, in fact, in Seaside, Florida, a master-planned community designed by the architecture-and-planning firm DPZ, which stands for Duany and Plater-Zyberk. But then they also founded Arquitectonica, the studio responsible for the early-80s sublime of the Atlantis Condominium as immortalized by the opening credits of Miami Vice. Clearly this husband-and-wife architecture team commands a serious Floridian aesthetic range. And if Speck, formerly DPZ's Director of Town Planning, is to be believed, Duany in particular knows everything there is to know about how to create satisfying urban spaces. Having partaken of this knowledge, Speck frequently emphasizes an intellectual debt to his former boss in his first solo book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.

In the years since the book's publication, the notion of the "walkable city" has become Speck's professional brand (and like that of any 2010s public intellectual, also gave a title to his blazer-over-T-shirt TED Talk). Given the preferences indicated by my the places in which I've chosen to live — not to mention the subjects I write about — you'd think I could engage more enthusiastically with this idea than I do. But to state a preference for a walkable city strikes me as much like stating a preference for breathable air: compared to what, having healthy lungs yet dragging around an oxygen tank? But on the whole, Americans do choose the oxygen tank, or rather the mobile iron lung, of the automobile: "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."

Speck takes evident pains not to let Walkable City become an anti-car jeremiad — a tiresome mode even to the likes of me, who hasn't driven regularly since high school (though not, admittedly, for ideological reasons). Nor, as an American member of Generation X, could he put his heart into such a screed. "I love cars," he writes. "As a teenager, I had twin subscriptions to Car & Driver and Road & Track." In adulthood he favors "high-revving Japanese sports cars like the one I drove from Miami to Washington, D.C., when I moved here in 2003." Seeing as his vehicular tastes aren't entirely dissimilar to mine, perhaps he also agrees with me that something has drained the pleasure out of driving in America: not so much the usual suspects like worsening traffic jams and rising gas prices, but the deformation of life around the car's perceived necessity.

"You have a car in L.A. not because you want one (as you might have a Fiat in Paris), but because you don't know any better or because there simply isn't any choice," writes Peter Plagens in an attack on Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. "You must buy all that metal, rubber, and gas for your very own, endlessly pilot your own ship and ride your own shotgun, and eternally keep that weathered throttle to the floor to keep the bastard behind you off your bumper." This was published in the early 1970s, back when a young Speck was watching The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. These sitcoms "idealized the mid-twentieth-century suburban standard of low-slung houses on leafy lots, surrounded by more of the same. This was normal and good." (The urban-set likes of Dragnet and Mannix "all focused on one subject: crime.")

Speck "grew up in the suburbs watching shows about the suburbs," whereas I grew up in the suburbs watching shows about ersatz cities. Enormously popular examples abound: though I didn't quite take to Full House and its establishing-shot San Francisco, many of my fellow "Millennials" did, and the same later went for the ostensible New York of Friends and Seinfeld. Speck points to these sitcoms as elements of a mass culture that predisposed today's young professionals "to look favorably upon cities," which seems plausible enough. But on my cohort — and almost certainly on a Gen-Xer's like Speck's — no single television program of the 90s had as much influence as The Simpsons, set in that distillation of couch-and-car American suburbia called Springfield. I laughed along with everyone else when the show ridiculed monorails, but I also deeply envied Bart his ability to bike to Noiseland Arcade and the Kwik-E-Mart.

I disdained the culturally "suburban" in adolescence, but on some level still assumed a detached house on a cul-de-sac lay in my future. Even as I began to discover its attractions — record shops, movie theaters — the city remained to me a place of grime, violence, cramped apartments, and paid parking. That last gets a chapter in Walkable City, one based in part on UCLA "parking guru" Donald Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking, surely the most interesting book ever written given the expectations created by its title. Shoup humorously and convincingly makes the case that free parking isn't the solution to the problems of the American city, but in fact the cause of many of those ills. Do I need more to make the case for life in Seoul than the fact that, in five years here, I've never once had to cross a surface parking lot?

Thanks to Shoup, Speck, and other high-profile urbanists, all of us interested in cities now understand more or less how free-parking requirements have dulled American cities. Speck references the evocative term "Pensacola Parking Syndrome," coined with Duany and Plater-Zyberk in Suburban Nation "to describe the fate of so many historic cities that had eventually managed to satisfy their parking demand. They achieved this condition by replacing beautiful old buildings with ugly parking lots — in such number that nobody wanted to go downtown anymore." Since the mid-20th century a variety of factors have gathered to overdetermine this result across the U.S., most of them to do not with the car itself but the accommodation of the urban environment to the car. City engineers, "worshiping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking," have "turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at."

Engineers, especially traffic engineers, arise again and again among the bêtes noires of the walkable city. It is they who have not just "reamed out our cities with freeways," as Speck frequently and unsettlingly puts it, but freeway-ized existing streets, widening them, stripping away their parking (and thus a protective "barrier of steel between the pedestrian and the roadway"), converting them to one-way "automotive sewers," removing their trees (as well as other "Fixed and Hazardous Objects," in the technical jargon), and installing intersection "beg buttons" that turn walkers into "second-class citizens." They've presumably done this not out of malice but because they've been tasked with making it easier to drive through the city. Yet because a street (or indeed any environment) that feels safer is one on which people pay less attention and take more chances, "older, denser cities have much lower automobile fatality rates than newer, sprawling ones."

This underlying "risk homeostasis" is just one of the mildly counterintuitive phenomena involved in the design of urban environments. Another well-known to would-be reformers of the American city is "induced demand," the reason no road-building or freeway-widening project, no matter how ambitious, reduces congestion in the long term: if you build it — and especially if you don't charge a toll — traffic will come. But if you take it down, as demonstrated by San Francisco's earthquake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway or Seattle's more recently demolished Alaskan Way Viaduct, that traffic goes away. Speck's recommendation? "Stop doing traffic studies. Stop trying to improve flow. Stop spending people’s tax dollars giving them false hope that you can cure congestion, while mutilating their cities in the process." This is also sound advice for those who advocate for public-transit projects with the promise, its disingenuousness increasingly obvious, of "taking cars off the road."

Transit, Speck argues, "has to be ruthlessly reconceptualized as a convenience, not just a rescue vehicle." This entails making riding "a superior experience to driving," one that offers a mixture of "urbanity, clarity, frequency, and pleasure." Reminiscent though they may sound of Campbell Scott's delusional urban planner in Singles ("You give them great coffee, great music — they will park and ride. I know they will"), each of those four terms has a cogent meaning in Speck's conception of transportation and the city. So does each of the four words into which Speck breaks up his "General Theory of Walkability," a matter closer to the book's heart: "to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting," the evaluation of which has no doubt become instinctive for Speck through his decades in urban planning.

They also possess the simplicity and catchiness of a salable idea. I could hardly fail to enjoy Walkable City, though I did feel a bit like a preached-to choir boy throughout. But then, I doubt if I'm really part of the book's target audience, the identity of which is obliquely hinted at when Speck directly addresses the reader. "Bottom line," he writes in the chapter on streets, "if your downtown lacks vitality and it’s got one-ways, it’s probably time for a change." That "your downtown" could refer to the downtown that you happen to live in; more likely it refers to the downtown whose shape you, as a decision-maker at City Hall, have some influence over. I'd bet folding money that Speck’s book has made quite a few sales to, for example, incoming mayors of struggling medium-sized cities eager to spread the good news about walkability to their entire staff.

This also explains Speck's reliance on figures: the text is full of sentences like "If every American biked an hour per day instead of driving, the United States would cut its gasoline consumption by 38 percent and its greenhouse gas emissions by 12 percent, meeting the Kyoto Accords instantly," to say nothing of references to the myriad quantitatively demonstrated economic and public-health benefits of increased urban walkability. This is all to the good if it convinces those in power to encourage neighborhoods with a satisfactory level of density, variety, and coherence, or at least not to ruin such neighborhoods as still exist. As a city enthusiast, I hardly need the numbers to buy this argument — and indeed, if Speck couldn't convince me without the numbers, he certainly couldn't convince me with them. But then, nor do I quite require the book's "ruthlessly instrumental framework," something else Speck credits to Duany and Plater-Zyberk.

More directly compelling is Speck's argument that "if they are to function properly, cities need to be planned by generalists, as they once were." Urban specialists perceive that which they work to maximize, be it free parking, traffic flow, tourist dollars, environmentalist points, or the preservation a supposed "lifestyle." The urban generalist can look beyond the sensible — all those short blocks, tree canopies, frequent buses, separated bike lanes, parking garages behind active storefronts, and human-scaled public spaces — to the sublime. "We’ve come a long way since the seventies, when every city endeavored to build its own version of Boston’s fortress-like City Hall," Speck writes before admitting his own love of Paul Rudolph's much-derided, arguably anti-urban work of concrete Brutalism. I, too, have at least a strong appreciation for it — and more than a little concern that we're even now forgetting what its like brings to the city.