The Marginalian
The Marginalian

What Makes a Great City: A General Theory of Walkability

“I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory,” Maira Kalman observed in considering the creative capacity of walking. Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo, too, came up with their best ideas while walking. For Peanuts creator Charles Shulz, walking was part of love.

In Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time (public library), city planner Jeff Speck, who spent four years leading the design division of the National Endowment for the Arts working directly with a couple hundred mayors to help solve their greatest city-planning challenges, turns a perceptive eye towards what makes a great city and how we might be able to harness the power of a conceptually simple, practically complex, immeasurably far-reaching solution in improving the fabric and experience of urban life.

Speck opens with a bang:

This is not the next great book on American cities. That book is not needed. An intellectual revolution is no longer necessary. What characterizes the discussion on cities these days is not a wrongheadedness or a lack of awareness about what needs to be done, but rather a complete disconnect between that awareness and the actions of those responsible for the physical form of our communities.

We’ve known for three decades how to make livable cities — after forgetting for four — yet we’ve somehow not been able to pull it off. Jane Jacobs, who wrote in 1960, won over the planners by 1980. But the planners have yet to win over the city.

Winning the city over, however, requires equal parts sensitivity and rigor:

The pedestrian is an extremely fragile species, the canary in the coal mine of urban livability. Under the right conditions, this creature thrives and multiplies. But creating those conditions requires attention to a broad range of criteria, some more easily satisfied than others.

And yet, there’s hope:

It turns out that since the late nineties, the share of automobile miles driven by Americans in their twenties has dropped from 20.8 percent to just 13.7 percent. And if one looks at teens, future shifts seem likely to be greater. The number of nineteen-year-olds who have opted out of earning driver’s licenses has almost tripled since the late seventies, from 8 percent to 23 percent. .This statistic is particularly meaningful when one considers how the American landscape has changed since the seventies, when most American teens could walk to school, to the store, and to the soccer field, in stark contrast to the realities of today’s autocentric sprawl.

I was recently in London, curating a session on the future of cities at the 2012 Wired conference, where one of my speakers, the wonderful and witty Alissa Walker, made a case for walkable cities and walked the point home brilliantly:

Photograph by Nate Lanxon for Wired UK

Speck goes on to outline a “General Theory of Walkability,” focusing on the four key factors of making a city attractive to pedestrians:

The General Theory of Walkability explains how, to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential an none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe, which is even tougher to satisfy. Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban streets into ‘outdoor living rooms,’ in contrast to wide-open spaces, which usually fail to attract pedestrians. Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound.

He argues that, more than a utopian notion, the walkable city is a practical solution to a number of problems that affect both our daily lives as individuals and our economic, environmental, and cultural health as a society. He writes:

These fixes simply give pedestrians a fighting chance, while also embracing bikes, enhancing transit, and making downtown living attractive to a broader range of people. Most are not expensive — some require little more than yellow paint. Each one individually makes a difference; collectively, they can transform a city and the lives of its residents.

But to spark such holistic transformation, Speck advocates for the role of the generalist:

If they are to function properly, cities need to be planned by generalists, as they once were. Generalists understand that consolidating parks means that fewer people can walk to them. Generalists understand that infrastructure organized in service of big trucks is not always inviting to small people. And generalists, finally, are coming to understand that more lanes usually just lead to more traffic.

Most significantly, generalists — such as planners and, one hopes, mayors — ask the big-picture questions that are so often forgotten among the day-to-day shuffle of city governance. Questions like: What kind of city will help us thrive economically? What kind of city will keep our citizens not just safe, but healthy? What kind of city will be sustainable for generations to come?

These three issues — wealth, health, and sustainability — are, not coincidentally, the three principal arguments for making our cities more walkable.

As far as wealth is concerned, walkability is proving to be a monumental economic draw:

The economic advantage that has already begun to accrue to walkable places can be attributed to three key factors. First, for certain segments of the population, chief among them young ‘creatives,’ urban living is simply more appealing; many wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere else. Second, massive demographic shifts occurring right now mean that these pro-urban segments of the population are becoming dominant, crating a spike in demand that is expected to last for decades. Third, the choice to live the walkable life generates considerable savings for these households, and much of these savings are spent locally.

Ultimately, a walkable city isn’t merely an economically and environmentally healthy city — it’s also a relentlessly alluring city, the kind in which you can “create a sparkle of the highest power”:

Walkability is both an end and a means, as well as a measure. While the physical and social rewards of walking are many, walkability is perhaps most useful as it contributes to urban vitality and most meaningful as an indicator of that vitality.


This discussion is necessary because, since midcentury, whether intentionally or by accident, most American cities have effectively become no-walking ones. In the absence of any larger vision or mandate, city engineers — worshipping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking — have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at.

Insightful and passionately argued, Walkable City comes as a follow-up to the landmark 2010 tome Suburban Nation, which Speck co-authored, and presents a welcome addition to these favorite reads on urbanism.

Published November 15, 2012




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