(Sub)Urban Triage: Q&A With Jeff Speck, Author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time


Image courtesy of Jeff Speck


Jeff Speck, city planner and architectural designer at Speck & Associates LLC, is the author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time (2012). I spoke with him in June 2013.

How can we create good walks in suburban spaces often not designed for them?

Jeff Speck: I differ from most of the “Retrofitting Suburbia” and “Sprawl Repair” folks—whom I respect tremendously—in that I don’t see much of a future in America’s purely auto-dependent precincts, and I would rather see resources expended helping people abandon these places for attainable housing in walkable areas. This doesn’t mean leaving Long Island. It does mean resettling in denser neighborhoods centered on transit, like the ones that I am helping to build at the railroad stop in Wyandanch in Suffolk County.

Part of the approach that I bring to my municipal clients is the concept of “urban triage,” which recognizes that walkability improvements have little impact when they are made in places that lack the proper conditions to support walking in the first place. In areas where most people own cars, people will not choose to walk unless that walk is useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. There is little benefit in making a walk more attractive when it remains useless, dangerous, uncomfortable, and dull.

In a suburban context, what are reasonable first steps in literally getting from here to there?

Speck: That is a great question that gets right to the heart of the matter. I try to avoid working in places with these sorts of “bad bones” [places with sidewalks built in inopportune places—along busy multi-lane roads, leading nowhere, and places where there is no obscured walking network to restore]. I really wish I had not just learned that the majority of America’s poor now live in the suburbs, as ignorance of that fact made these places easier to write off. But for me, advocating the slight improvement of purely automotive communities is like advocating for the expansion of cities that lack aquifers or are about to be permanently flooded by climate change. It just doesn’t seem responsible.

The average American moves every five years, due largely to our failure to make places worth staying in. Let’s help our people, rich and poor, move to walkable cities and suburbs.

In what ways, if any, are “town centers” a first step? What features allow us to discern the ones with real potential?

Speck: A town center that is just a mall with no roof is no better than a mall. What makes a town center worthwhile, even if it is connected to nothing else of significance, is if it contains a robust mix of uses that allows people to settle there and drive less. Or work there and drive less. A mixed-use development with a lot of housing or office space, if it is connected to transit, begins to contribute to a more sustainable region. We must remember that the goal is not to increase mobility, but to increase accessibility: to build or rebuild places where what we need is close at hand, so we can make the choice to travel less.

For those of us sizing up our current neighborhood and conducting our own amateur (sub)urban triage, is there a short list of clues we should look for?

Speck: is a good measure of The Useful Walk, but only that: what different uses am I close to? About 100 things add up to The Safe Walk, including small blocks, properly-sized two-way streets, curbside parking, ample street trees, and the presence of marked cycle facilities (and not just “sharrows”). The Comfortable Walk depends on vertical building edges close to the sidewalk, so that streets and public spaces feel like “outdoor living rooms.” Surface parking lots are the biggest sin in that category. Finally, The Interesting Walk is a function of avoiding blank walls, parking structures, and overly repetitive architecture where the buildings meet the street.

But you don’t need me to tell you what feels walkable and what doesn’t. My job is to tell you to pick your winners, and to focus walkability resources only where the outcome can be good enough to entice people out of their cars.

How can design changes be mandated in ways that make them easier to implement?

Speck: It is certainly possible to write and legislate idiot-proof codes, but that hardly seems to be the most pressing challenge. Right now, the typical American municipality has a code regime that actively impedes mixed use, density, affordability, and walkable urbanism. The typical American street has a design that favors automotive motion at the expense of all other modes. And the typical American city is being designed, day after day, by a public works department that believes, against all evidence, that it can reduce traffic congestion by widening roads.

Until these more fundamental problems are overcome, it matters little how perfect our alternative reality may be.