As most of you should know, I only started blogging about city planning recently, and I knew I needed a primer to get me started in the right direction.
Last week,* I finished Walkable City, an insightful book detailing the pitfalls associated with America’s urban design. The author, Jeff Speck, owns a city planning practice based in Washington, D.C. From 2003 to 2007, he served as the Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts, where he oversaw the Governors’ Institute on Community Design.
First, he diagnoses the problems of car dependence, which I have covered a bit already. Then he proceeds to outline the ten ways in which cities can reshape themselves according to the needs of humans, instead of the needs of the automobile. In each section, he features case studies to illustrate the dynamics at work.
The most enlightening for me are the counterintuitive lessons in human behavior: for example, people will tolerate a set level of hazard, so a lack of signage at intersections will encourage drivers to slow down and pay attention, making pedestrians safer, an idea based on the economic theory of risk homestasis.
Other times, the statistics instill the point better than anecdotes from cities can. The magnitude of the waste car-dependent culture brings is encapsulated in a quote from Primitivist philosopher Ivan Illich:
Beyond a certain speed, motorized vehicles create remoteness which they alone can shrink. They create distances for all and shrink them for only a few. […] The model American male devotes more than 1600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down to meet the monthly installments. He works for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering resources for it. […] The modern American puts in 1600 hours to get 7500 miles: less than 5 miles per hour. In countries deprived of transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only 3 to 8 percent of their society’s budget to traffic instead of 28 percent.
Speck notes that the data from Illich’s work, Toward a History of Needs, comes from 1970, when Americans drove less and spent “considerably” less of their income on transportation. Now, with gas prices (probably) going nowhere but up, sprawl will only become more costly and less sustainable.
While Speck makes a strong case, he’s careful to hedge his arguments. He tamps down on the anti-car rhetoric by admitting that, in many cases and communities, cars are dominant, which they will remain. He also says that a highway funding freeze is a bad idea.
Yet, as always there are some reasons for skepticism: for one, he starts off the prologue by writing “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.”
While that may be true, it’s also true that almost everyone who’s talking about new urbanism, walkability, and sustainability are liberal-minded folk (a category that includes myself). While our politics haven’t really been serving anyone lately, conservatives offer a perspective that can’t be replicated or dismissed.
Even if Speck and all the other new urbanists are right about everything, there is still a inevitable one-sidedness about both Walkable City and new urbanism in general. It’s hard to make a considered case when your opposition is small and refuses to take you seriously. (We have fellows at Cato denying basic economic principles.) While Speck steers clear of politics when possible, planning is an inherently political issue: it expresses our values about how we should live in a fundamental way. This balance between the public and the private is contentious, and we should be looping more voices into the conversation.
As far as I can tell, that dynamic is changing. Just this month, The American Conservative published a characteristically fair-minded piece entitled “The Conservatism of New Urbanism.” I hope that critiques of new urbanism will be useful for both considered policymaking and carrying these ideas into the mainstream.
Overall, though, Speck’s book was what I was hoping it would be—a useful introduction on the relevant issues related to city planning and solutions to sprawl. It takes a lot of skill to make parking policies, induced demand, and zoning interesting. For that, Walkable City is a standout in a field of books that suffers from entrenched stuffiness.
Photo: American Architectural Foundation
*Editor’s Note: I wrote this post when I finished the book two weeks ago, but I didn’t proofread and publish it until today because of an illness.