Tom Eblen: Author who promotes walkable cities says they save money, make money

Herald-Leader columnistJanuary 13, 2014 

Urban planners, who in the decades after World War II helped redesign America's cities and towns around the automobile, have been trying to warn people ever since then that they really screwed up.

Finally, most people are beginning to agree, says Jeff Speck, a veteran city planner and author of the 2012 book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time.

Health professionals cite car culture as a big reason for an epidemic in obesity and related physical problems. Economists say that suburban sprawl has become costly to taxpayers because all of the new infrastructure rarely pays for itself. Plus, a lack of public transportation in many areas has put costly burdens of car ownership and maintenance on the working poor.

The environmental movement has had an anti-urban bent since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau. But that has changed dramatically.

"And all of a sudden environmentalists discovered that if you live in a city, your footprint is much lighter than if you live in sprawl," Speck said. "In fact, cities are a solution to our environmental crises, both locally and globally."

Most of all, Speck says, average citizens, from young adults to their empty-nester parents, have embraced cities again. Across the country, home values in walkable urban neighborhoods are rising much faster than those in the kinds of car-dependent suburbs that have dominated American development since the 1950s.

"Walkable cities actually save us money, make us money and are poised to thrive in the next couple of decades, while unwalkable places aren't," Speck said in a telephone interview last week from his home in Washington, D.C.

Speck will be talking about these trends — and giving advice to community leaders about how to make their towns more walkable — at a lecture and workshop this week in Frankfort.

Speck will give a lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Grand Theatre on St. Clair Mall, with a book signing to follow. Tickets are $10. On Friday, he will lead a two-hour workshop, beginning at 9 a.m., at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Auditorium, 200 Mero Street. Admission is $25.

His visit is part of a conference sponsored by the Kentucky Heritage Council in conjunction with the annual winter meeting of the Kentucky Main Street Program, which works to improve life in the historic centers of the state's towns and cities. Conference registration, including both of Speck's sessions, is $100. For more information, go to Heritage.ky.gov.

Most people don't need convincing about the importance of walkability, he said, but they do need help with strategies for making it happen.

Speck's book says that many communities made walking more difficult because they were being designed for other considerations. For example, many streets and intersections are oversized to accommodate the largest-possible emergency vehicles. Fewer but bigger schools and parks have been built because they are easier for officials to maintain and show off than the alternative, which often would be easier for residents to get to and use.

"The twin gods of smooth traffic and ample parking" took the life out of many once-thriving downtowns, Speck writes, turning them into places that are "easy to get to but not worth arriving at."

Speck writes that there are four criteria for successful pedestrian areas: Walking must be safe, comfortable, interesting and useful. By useful, he means that necessities of daily life — shopping, restaurants and workplaces — must be close and arranged so they can be easily reached by walking.

Speck's book outlines 10 steps for city walkability. Those include mixed-use neighborhoods, good mass transit, well-designed and affordable parking, ample trees and bicycle-friendly streets.

The biggest challenge many American cities and towns will face in coming years will be retrofitting mid- and late-20th century suburbs to make them more accessible for aging baby boomers and the working poor.

"We've laid the groundwork for a major social crisis," he said.

The best hope is often restoring traditional downtowns and making new developments better for walking, biking and mass transit. That will require changing many ingrained rules and attitudes about traffic and street design.

"Most traffic engineers are really nice people," Speck said. "But they will wreck your city."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: Tomeblen.bloginky.com

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