“Get walkability right, and much of the rest will follow,” writes Jeff Speck in his new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. Speck is a city planner and architectural designer who through writing, lectures and built work advocates for smart growth and sustainable design.
Speck will be speaking in Phoenix for Phoenix Urban Design Week on April 4th and 5th. Phoenix is lucky to have him, not the least because of Speck’s amazing credentials. He served as Director of Design at the NEA from 2003 to 2007, oversaw the Mayor’s Institute on City Design, created the Governor’s Institute of Community Design and spent ten years as Director of Town Planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk. And he was the co-author of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream as well as the Smart Growth Manual.
Phoenix is also lucky to hear Speck’s ideas about making cities more walkable because it is one of the least walkable cities in the country. A Transportation for America study, called Dangerous by Design, found Phoenix the 8th most dangerous city in the U.S. for pedestrians. Not only is it not safe to walk in Phoenix, it’s also simply onerous, due to blank lots, blank walls, and destinations that are too far apart.
According to Speck, walkability not only makes a city healthier and more sustainable, it is the key to economic development in the 21st century. Walkability, he contends, has multiple benefits:
- It makes real estate valuable
- It makes people healthy
- It makes cities thrive economically
- It even makes people more creative and innovative. He said in an interview with Metropolis Magazine, “This idea of propinquity and the frisson of having many things piled up on top of each other in a way that you don’t need a car to connect them has proven to be central to the creation of patents”.
Lest people dismiss Speck as a liberal, tree-hugging extremist, he tells us that his strategy for walkability isn’t about getting rid of the car, but rather about putting it in its place. He says in his book,
“Whatever technological revolutions may transform them in the years ahead, it is a safe bet that automobiles will remain a fixture of our communities for the remainder of our lifetimes. And that’s ok. But what’s not ok is the current situation, in which the automobile has mostly been given free rein to distort our cities and our lives. Long gone are the days when automobiles expanded possibility and choice for the majority of Americans. Now, thanks to its ever-increasing demands for space, speed and time, the car has reshaped our landscape and lifestyle around its own needs. It is an instrument of freedom that has enslaved us.”
So where does this leave Phoenix, that was largely built out after World War II with the automobile as it’s unit of measure, not people? Will Speck say that Phoenix has a chance at becoming walkable and should pick a block, start small and let it spread? Or will he say that Phoenix is beyond repair, like Sugarland, Texas or Henderson, Nevada of which he said in his interview with Metropolis, “what about cities that were not shredded by the car but designed around it? I cannot help Sugarland, Texas. I cannot help Henderson, Nevada. These are big cities, six figures in terms of population.” The population of Phoenix is in the 7 figures, if anyone’s counting.
It will be very interesting to see what Speck makes of Phoenix and its future, considering his thesis that walkability is central to the making of the 21st century city. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear what he has to say. Sign up for the Urban Tactics Symposium here where Speck will be keynoting and leading the Walkability Workshop. And make sure to check out and register for the remainder of Phoenix Urban Design Week events, as they promise to be educational and enlightening, just like last year. Find out more information here.
Image credit: The cover of his latest book, courtesy of Jeff Speck.