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

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.

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Jeff Speck – City planner and urban designer

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.

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.

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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.

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.

And then the super-sizing of our other civic institutions like playing fields — it’s wonderful that Westin in the Ft. Lauderdale area has eight soccer fields and eight baseball diamonds and 20 tennis courts, but look at the road that takes you to that location, and would you let your child bike on it? And this is why we have the soccer mom now.

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When I was young, I had one soccer field, and one baseball diamond and one tennis court, but I could walk to it, because it was in my neighborhood. And then the final part of sprawl that everyone forgot to count, which is if you’re going to separate everything from everything else and reconnect it only with automotive infrastructure, then this is what your landscape begins to look like.

So the main message here is that: if you want to have a walkable city, you can’t start with the sprawl model. You need the bones of an urban model. This is the outcome of that form of design, as is this. And this is something that a lot of Americans want. But we have to understand it’s a two-part American dream. If you’re dreaming for this, then you’re also going to be dreaming of this. That would be your nightmare, I suppose.

Often to absurd extremes, when we build our landscape to accommodate cars first. And the experience of being in these places — this is not Photoshopped. Walter Kulash took this slide. It’s in Panama City. This is a real place. And being a driver can be a bit of a nuisance, and being a pedestrian can be a bit of a nuisance in these places.

So this is a slide that epidemiologists have been showing for some time now, and the fact that we have a society where you drive to the parking lot to take the escalator to the treadmill shows that we’re doing something wrong. But we know how to do it better.

So here are the two models contrasted. And I show this slide, which has been a formative document of the New Urbanism now for almost 30 years, to show that the sprawl and the traditional neighborhood contain the same things. It’s just how big are they, and how close are they to each other, and how are they interspersed together and do you have a street network, rather than a cul-de-sac or a collector system of streets?

So when we look at a downtown area, at a place that has a hope of being walkable, and mostly that’s our downtowns in America’s cities and towns and villages, we look at them and we say we want the proper balance of uses. So what is missing or underrepresented? And again, in the typical American cities in which most Americans live, it is housing that is lacking. The jobs-to-housing balance is off. And you find that when you bring housing back, these other things start to come back too, and housing is usually first among those things. And, of course, finally the thing that shows up last and eventually is the schools, because the young pioneers have to move in, get older, have kids and fight, and then the schools get pretty good eventually.