Director's Column

Walkability: Not Just Urban

WalkableCity_CoverIf you want to do one thing this year to improve the chances for long-term sustainability of your downtown, give a copy of Jeff Speck’s new book, Walkable City, to your mayor, council members, planning officials, developers, and decision-makers in your community. Speck—a city planner, former director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts, and coauthor of Suburban Nation with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk—is the keynote speaker at this year’s opening plenary of the National Main Streets Conference in New Orleans. Even better, give your mayor the book and invite him or her to attend the conference to hear Speck’s remarks.

Walkable City, subtitled How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, is an important addition to the Main Street literature for a number of reasons. I’m not going to summarize the book here, mainly because I want everyone to read it. However, his “10 Steps of Walkability” are every bit as relevant to downtown livability as Main Street’s four points or eight principles, or the three pillars of the sustainability movement, or the economist’s triple bottom line. Furthermore, these 10 strategies may be more important to communities than any other approach in this decade and beyond.

Walkability was not one of the original four points of the Main Street approach, which has proved remarkably successful and has stood the test of time over the past three decades. Speck’s book, however, demonstrates that walkability was, in essence, both the goal and the result of Main Street’s approach—and that the design, promotion, and economic restructuring strategies espoused by Main Street have made downtowns and commercial districts across America imminently more walkable. The popularity of online applications like WalkScore, together with the proliferation of bike lanes, ZipCars, and other modes of transport that reduce the auto-dependence of cities is evidence that Americans are, by and large, embracing a beyond-the-auto lifestyle.

Speck makes a strong case that the younger generation of urban professionals—the millennials—embraces the concept of walkability and all that it embodies: proximity to outdoor dining, arts and culture, and basic services like grocery stores and dry cleaners. While Speck makes a strong case for the attraction this lifestyle has for younger people and the creative class, he also notes that it is increasingly a draw for retiring boomers, who know that walkability may enhance their quality of life as they age—and have health benefits as well.

What don’t I like about this book? Not much. I think Speck may be too quick to dismiss cities like Memphis and Little Rock, which have made remarkable strides against formidable obstacles. Little Rock has installed great bike trails that connect the city’s historic districts to the river and provide a desirable recreational amenity for residents and visitors. And preservationists in Memphis fought gallantly, though unsuccessfully, against the demolition of Union Avenue Methodist Church in the center of the burgeoning Midtown arts district, a “hot spot” in the city.

At one point Speck makes reference to “old-age homes.” Does anyone use that term anymore? (Or was that just hitting too close to home?)

My main concern about Speck’s message is that some may think his principles of walkability apply only to urban areas. Nothing could be further from the truth. I had coffee with Jeff several weeks ago and brought up this point. He agreed that the 10-step approach he espouses, while primarily citing urban examples, can be successful in towns and cities of any size—if there is the political and civic will to make it happen. Main Street communities, regardless of size, need to realize that residents and visitors are seeking places to walk and to gather, places that have street-level amenities, that are built to scale, and that have multi-modal transportation options. We have to help elected officials and decision-makers figure that out if they have not already embraced those concepts.

As with any great mystery or page turner, you might be tempted to read the end of the book first to find out how it all ends. Please don’t do that with Walkable City. I assure you, the last page is well worth the wait for everyone involved with Main Street, and it makes the work you do every day seem infinitely more valuable.