How American Cities Can Thrive Again

Jeff Speck explains how we can revive city centers by making them more walkable.

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From Tampa to Tulsa, U.S. cities are fighting to attract and retain new business, especially young, entrepreneurial talent. Urban planner Jeff Speck says it boils down to one factor: walkability. Speck has worked on about 75 plans for villages, towns, and cities across America. In his latest book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, the former director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts outlines a 10-step strategy for making cities more walkable. Speck recently spoke to U.S. News about his vision to make American cities thrive again. Excerpts:

Why do we need more walkable cities in America?

There are three fundamental reasons. About 15 years ago three distinct groups—the economists, the epidemiologists, and the environmentalists—started saying the same thing, each for their own reasons. The economists have shown us that people are more efficient in cities and more productive. The epidemiological argument has to do mostly with the obesity epidemic. Recent studies have shown that we've been focused for too long on diet and not enough on activity. That's what a walkable city gives us. Finally, there's the environmental angle: a fundamental rethinking of the way that Americans have always thought about environmentalism and this idea that countryside is good, cities are bad.

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How does walkability help a city flourish?

People refer to Millennials as the engines of entrepreneurship. Almost anything you can think of that's been invented was invented by someone under 30, and most cities want to get Millennials in order to be more competitive. Sixty-four percent of them decide first where they want to live, they move there, and then they look for a job; 77 percent of them plan to live in America's urban cores. They grew up on Friends, Sex and the City, and Seinfeld. They've always wanted an urban life, but there's a certain life they want, and it's not dodging traffic in Tampa. It's riding your bike in Portland or jumping in a taxi in Manhattan.

What is the first thing cities can do to get their communities on the path of growth?

The biggest flaw in most American cities is that most downtown streets have been over-engineered for more traffic than they have and for higher speed than they should sustain. Using only yellow paint and maybe some signals, you can convert an oversized system to a right-sized system, which often means converting one-ways back to two-ways, and take that extra space and turn it into bike lanes, replace the on-street parking that was removed and killed the businesses, and bring the street back to an environment that makes pedestrians feel comfortable walking next to it.

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Does the availability of parking matter?

Parking is both good and bad. What we've done in most American cities is to overbuild and underprice off-street parking. The great example in my book is Pasadena versus Westwood, two cities that took the opposite approach and were neck-and-neck in terms of attracting shoppers. One flourished, and one tanked, simply because one of them charged the right amount for parking—Pasadena—and took the revenue and invested it into improvements, whereas one made parking free.

How are trees important to walkable cities?

Trees are the first thing that you cut from the budget. People just don't understand the many, many ways that trees make places walkable, livable, and sustainable, and these ways are so hard to monetize. For example, the fact that a typical street tree absorbs the first half-inch of rainfall and the idea that we're paying billions of dollars in combined sewage overflows that are the result of the inability to absorb our storm water. There's a very practical, financial reason why trees are important. In most American climates most of the year, a sidewalk is not comfortable without a canopy of trees over it. Furthermore, the trees make drivers go slower. Trees absorb C02 and ultraviolet rays.