Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time (Speck)

This is a remarkably readable book about urban design – how to reduce traffic and accidents and bring more patrons to downtowns that are struggling. As someone who spends his time well outside the spectrum of city planning, I found it astonishing to learn how decisions are made about, for example, the width of traffic lanes and how they should be made. I know this may sound dry, but Speck’s tone (though over the top once or twice) makes his book as engaging as it is persuasive. If your downtown is struggling or there are plans afoot to revitalize it, make sure everyone involved has a copy of this book.

The economics are here, but there’s the usual (and difficult) trade-off of short-term for long-term and sometimes what you can see for what you can’t.

Speck holds up several cities as not-unqualified successes – Portland and Vancouver, for example. But he seems to skip a major step. He talks about how Portland has chosen to grow, but does not go into how the players involved generated the political and financial capital to get everyone moving in the same directions. So often, Speck argues, it is the specialists who are the problems. Therefore, he argues, that it is the generalists who should do urban planning. In order for it to succeed, he continues, compromise and a sense of the greater good is required.

He is (rightly) harsh when it comes to starchitects like Frank Gehry who have little concern for context. He is equally disdainful of those who think that it is sufficient for them to buy a Prius and call themselves environmentally aware.

These shifts in downtown are, in Speck’s mind, necessary to draw the millenials to your city. We built highways to respond to one desire (60 or so years ago). Is there a way to follow Speck’s plan without committing to something that will no longer serve the public in another few generations? He does talk about cases in which certain public spaces can be converted in a certain period – from parking spaces to something else. Perhaps we need more of that flexible kind of thinking.

Read the book or watch the 17-minute version (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wai4ub90stQ). Fascinating and important stuff.

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