Book Review: Walkable City

Book reviews are posted every few weeks on Tuesdays. I tend to read books about urban planning, the built environment, demographics, sociology, cultural anthropology, and the environment. They are not always new books, but a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews.

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck.  Speck takes his experience as an urban planner and creates a sort of manual for those who have any sort of influence over the built environment. His premise is that no matter how many fancy trolley lines, miles of light rail, or fancy benches and light posts, streets/neighborhoods/cities will not thrive without walkability. What is a walkable place? According to Speck, it is a place where a walk is useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. If one of these factors is missing, the likelihood that people will chose to walk or that business will congregate in walkable area decreases.

I had a chance to meet and talk with Speck on his book tour, and Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, which he co-wrote with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, is one of my favorite books on the built environment, so it was no wonder that I loved this book. But I was surprised at how entertaining it was: Speck is a great writer, and he doesn’t dumb things down for a non-urban-planning audience, which would have affected the pace.

He points out many nuances that affect walkability that you might have felt intuitively, but now have some facts to back up. For instance, why are suburban roads where kids play engineered for highway speeds? Is it any wonder that more of a pain in the a** driving is, the safer it is? And why do the cities with the best transit also have the worst traffic? Because transit does not decrease congestion, nor does building more roads. Tearing down half of an historic downtown to build parking creates a place that is easy to get to, but not worth going to. Despite merchants objections, adding meters or increasing parking costs usually increases business and raises property values, since turnover increases. These are just a few of the fun facts you will learn or have confirmed while reading Walkable City.

I have written a great bit on walkability, and my intention is not to come across as an Agenda-21 pushing, apocalyptic smart growther who is going to force all of your children to live in concrete towers. First of all, densities needed to achieve walkability are just townhouses and small single family lots, not scary Hong Kong scale towers. Second, providing walkable options preserves land for those who truly want to live a rural lifestyle, and according to Chris Leinberger (whose book The Option of Urbanism: Investing in the New American Dream I will review in the future), there is pent up demand for walkable urbanism as people long for choices beyond the car-required suburb. Third, walkability is not just for big cities, as charming small downtowns everywhere attract many visitors.

Churchill Corner Mixed Use
Churchill Corner project in downtown Friday Harbor, a small, walkable, rural town (with D+A Studio)

My projects tend to be either in the rural San Juan Islands, which has a few little walkable downtown areas without a traffic light in sight, or in an urban village like Columbia City in Seattle. I believe that whether you live in a big city, college town or tiny township, the option of walkability or “car-optional” living, is truly the most fulfilling, healthy way to live. Far from being forced to live in smart growth fashion as some may warn, people really want to live in these places, and prices reflect that. According to Leinberger and Mariela Alfonzo of the Brookings Institution, [For every step up the walkability ladder], “The value of your home is likely to go up by $81.54 per square foot.” (Why We Pay More for Walkable Neighborhoods, Emily Badger, The Atlantic) After all, why shouldn’t the place you live be somewhere you would want to visit? What do all of the most popular tourist destinations have in common, from Disney World to Paris? Exactly: walkability.

A sentiment from the most recent neighborhoods issue of Seattle Magazine put it best. A resident of South Lake Union loves the ability to wander, and not have to be invited. My thesis from my study abroad program in Rome was summed up with this: You don’t always have to go, you can just be.

Related books I recommend:

Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jeff Speck
Asphalt Nation by Jane Holtz Kay