Written by Bryan Goh
Like many bookworms, I have a severe addiction to buying books and reading them only a long while later. Jeff Speck’s ‘Walkable City’ is one that I regret not reading earlier. After sitting on my shelf for over a year, I chose it as my bedtime read only to find that bedtime got pushed back night after night because I just couldn’t put it down.
Upon arrival in a new city, I will always take a ride on their public transport and walk whenever possible. (It’s also a sure way to save some money!) Some walks have been more than enjoyable while some are dissatisfying. This book provides a little glimpse into the ‘why’s.
Push for Walkability
This article was drafted a few months earlier. However with the COVID-19 pandemic surrounding us, the need for walkability has never been more evident. A few weeks ago, the Bartlett published research which demonstrated how many of our streets were not safe enough for social distancing.
Photo courtesy of _Streets
Fortunately, Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London announced in May 2020 that large areas of London will be pedestrianised. The first country to do so, New Zealand announced in April 2020 that they will fund pop-up bike lanes and widened sidewalks in all cities.
Walkability undoubtedly brings many positives. Speck introduces his ten steps of walkability, things that are essential and will work best when done coherently, not necessarily at the same time but accomplished with a comprehensive thought process which puts pedestrians at the heart of urban planning.
Walkability is essential in making places vibrant and attractive. Speck shares how virtually every attractive neighbourhood, town or city has succeeded is by and large due to some focus on walkability. Speck argues that building walkable cities is not merely a nice and idealistic notion to beautify cities, but it really is in essence a simple, straightforward and practical solution to many problems that urban planners face today. This stretches from improving local economies, public welfare and above all, environmental sustainability.
What was really interesting is how Speck drew a correlation between concentration of young creatives and walkability. Speck introduced Portland, Oregon as an untraditional city who has chosen to invest heavily in transit and cycling while most American cities pumped more money into highways. Reducing sprawl and changing the way Portlanders live, Portland has attracted more creatives (5 times more than any other major city) and more companies are moving their headquarters to the city.
Pearl District, Oregon (Photo courtesy of LikeWhere on Flickr)
The Ten Steps
Speck proposed that the ten steps of walkability are:
1. Put cars in their place
The car, ever since its introduction has shaped the way cities grow. Cars have helped us go further and faster, resulting in sprawl. By understanding that cars have gained an unproportionate amount of benefits in planning processes, can we start to reclaim streets and show pedestrians that they are the true owners of the road.
2. Mix uses
Walking is at its base a form of transport. People walk from A to B to C with purpose, yet there is a limit to how much one can walk and feel comfortable walking. Thus, the introduction of mixed-use developments and creating a fine balance of activities within walking distances can create more reasons to walk rather than driving. This can also prevent ghost towns in the night and weekends when the city centre is devoid of people.
3. Get parking right
Parking requirements are the death of pedestrianization. Traditionally, each development needs a minimum number of parking spaces before a planning application can be approved. By reducing this requirement and increasing prices can we influence people to use less cars.
4. Let transit work
Walkable neighbourhoods also rely on good transit, transit helps to connect people to places further away. However, investment in transit is often neglected or improperly managed. There is a common myth that residents and workers will not support transit as they want to drive their cars. This has turned out false and everyone will see the long-term benefits of improved public transit.
5. Protect pedestrians
Speck argues that how roads are designed can inevitably influence safety for both pedestrian and drivers. Unsurprisingly, the traditional solution to congestion by widening roads and adding new lanes will always lead to increased demand and reduce road capacity. However, by reducing lane width and restricting the number of lanes, drivers will pay more attention, change lanes less and lower their speeds. This in turn pays off as pedestrians are less threatened by the roaring speeds of cars.
6. Welcome bikes
Like public transport, bicycles help pedestrians to better move between places. While a multitude of design interventions exist, Speck argues that segregated lanes are absolutely necessary in areas with high traffic, while shared paths should be encouraged in areas with low traffic.
7. Shape spaces
Pedestrians spend most of their time walking by observing and assessing their surroundings. Thus, key walking routes must be interesting, have a mix of spaces and also a sense of enclosure. Building frontages should not be too short and roads should not be too wide. A building height to road width ratio should have an ideal correlation of 1:1.
8. Plant trees
Trees are positive and everyone would unanimously agree so. However, cities are continually unwilling to pay for it. Like public transit and many other “modern” planning solutions, these have long term benefits that often stretch after a political term. But residents and mayors have to see beyond the decade and implement them now.
9. Make friendly and unique faces
Speck argues that a streetscape has three big enemies, parking garages, drug stores and star architects. While building frontages should be coherent, and not look messy with each development wanting to shine. However, design codes need to ensure that building frontages work with what they have to design entertaining, interesting and lively streets.
10. Pick your winners
Speck ends on a solemn note, acknowledging that resources are little, and cities often have to fight and compete to solve other problems. Thus, everyone has to learn to prioritise and work things one step at a time. Each improvement will set the precedent for a more walkable city.
Walkable City, How Downtown can save America, One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck is a very interesting read. In 261 pages, Jeff Speck argues for and proposes small steps that cities can take to improve walkability. However, as Speck reminds us, each city is different and so we must always understand the history of its development. Then, cities can become more vibrant, livelier and more importantly, safe. Overall, ‘Walkable City’ is a light but thought-provoking read that I would recommend to all.
Jeff Speck’s Walkable City is available on both Amazon and Book Depository for just under 10 pounds.
An advocate for good urban design, Bryan is truly fond of public spaces, and can often be caught people-watching. He strongly believes that the urban and 'rural' can coexist. He sits on the executive committee of the Bartlett Urban Planning Society, and was previously the President of the NJC Alumni’s UK chapter. He is an avid collector of rocks and in his free time, Bryan enjoys cooking for his family and friends.