Home » Jeff Speck: The General Theory of Walkability @ TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Jeff Speck: The General Theory of Walkability @ TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Jeff Speck

Here is the full transcript of Jeff Speck’s TEDx Talk: The General Theory of Walkability @ TEDxMidAtlantic conference. Jeff Speck is a city planner and urban designer and is the author of Walkable City.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: The general theory of walkability by Jeff Speck at TEDxMidAtlantic


So I’m here to talk to you about the walkable city. What is the walkable city? Well, for want of a better definition, it’s a city in which the car is an optional instrument of freedom, rather than a prosthetic device. And I’d like to talk about why we need the walkable city, and I’d like to talk about how to do the walkable city.

Most of the talks I give these days are about why we need it, but you guys are smart. And also I gave that talk exactly a month ago, and you can see it at TED.com. So today I want to talk about how to do it.

In a lot of time thinking about this, I’ve come up with what I call the general theory of walkability. A bit of a pretentious term, it’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but it’s something I’ve thought about for a long time, and I’d like to share what I think I’ve figured out.

In the American city, the typical American city — the typical American city is not Washington DC, or New York, or San Francisco; it’s Grand Rapids or Cedar Rapids or Memphis — but in the typical American city in which most people own cars and the temptation is to drive them all the time, if you’re going to get them to walk, then you have to offer a walk that’s as good as a drive or better.

What does that mean? It means you need to offer four things simultaneously: there needs to be a proper reason to walk, the walk has to be safe and feel safe, the walk has to be comfortable and the walk has to be interesting. You need to do all four of these things simultaneously, and that is the structure of my talk today, to take you through each of those.

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The reason to walk is a story I learned from my mentors, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the founders of the New Urbanism movement. And I should say half the slides and half of my talk today I learned from them.

It’s the story of planning, the story of the formation of the planning profession. In the 19th century people were choking from the soot of the dark, satanic mills, and the planners said, hey, let’s move the housing away from the mills. And lifespans increased immediately, dramatically, and we like to say the planners have been trying to repeat that experience ever since. So there’s the onset of what we call Euclidean zoning, the separation of the landscape into large areas of single use.

And typically when I arrive in a city to do a plan, a plan like this already awaits me on the property that I’m looking at. And all a plan like this guarantees is that you will not have a walkable city, because nothing is located near anything else. The alternative, of course, is our most walkable city, and I like to say, you know, this is a Rothko, and this is a Seurat. It’s a different way of making places. And even this map of Manhattan is a bit misleading because the red color uses that are mixed vertically.

So this is the big story of the New Urbanists — is to acknowledge that there are only two ways — two ways that have been tested by the thousands to build communities, in the world and throughout history. One is the traditional neighborhood. You see here several neighborhoods of Newburyport, Massachusetts, which is defined as being compact and being diverse — places to live, work, shop, recreate, get educated — all within walking distance. And it’s defined as being walkable. There are lots of small streets. Each one is comfortable to walk on.

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And we contrast that to the other way, an invention that happened after the Second World War, suburban sprawl, clearly not compact, clearly not diverse, and it’s not walkable, because so few of the streets connect, that those streets that do connect become overburdened, and you wouldn’t let your kid out on them. And I want to thank Alex Maclean, the aerial photographer, for many of these beautiful pictures that I’m showing you today. He’s an architect as well.

So it’s fun to break sprawl down into its constituent parts. It’s so easy to understand, the places where you only live, the places where you only work, the places where you only shop, and our super-sized public institutions. Schools get bigger and bigger, and therefore, further and further from each other. And the ratio of the size of the parking lot of the school, to the size of the school tells you all you need to know about the school which is that no child has ever walked to this school, no child will ever walk to this school. The seniors and juniors are driving the freshmen and the sophomores, and of course we have the crash statistics to prove it.

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