October 19, 2015
Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck
When you're a big reader (and talk about books on your blog and Instagram regularly), you get the question "what are you reading?" all the time.
And let me tell you, nothing makes you sound more fascinating and hip than saying, "I'm reading this really amazing book about parking and traffic engineering." You can see everyone going glassy-eyed in a nanosecond.
But seriously, Walkable City is fascinating. If you have a non-fiction lover in your life (ahem, your dad) and you need a gift idea for the holidays, bookmark this one.
I heard about this book from Modern Mrs. Darcy who listed it as one of the five best books she read this summer, and that was enough for me. And she wasn't wrong - it's one of the best books I've read this year too.
The book is about how people are moving in droves to certain cities in the country and you can probably guess which ones they are - San Francisco, New York, Portland, Austin, Seattle, and DC.
One of the big draws for both the young creative class and empty nesters are thriving downtowns where you can walk most places and live close to where you work, eat, shop, worship, and work-out.
Jeff Speck works with city planning departments to help them design cities that are useful and draw both visitors and new residents, plus make the current residents happy, and in all his work, he's determined that the walkability of a downtown is one of the biggest key factors.
He gives a brief overview of why a walking city is so great (health benefits, traffic and smog benefits, more social interaction, and on and on), and then dives into what a city needs to do to make it possible for a walking culture to flourish.
There are ten steps and they fall into three categories that make walking in a city realistic. And although I've been in plenty of walking cities, from London to Barcelona to NYC and Washington DC, I'd never thought of these before.
The first one is that walking needs to be useful - most people aren't going to walk just for the sake of walking, so you need to design a downtown that makes it easy for people to walk to work, to grab a gallon of milk, or to meet friends for drinks. This means you don't want a downtown that's ONLY shopping or restaurants or housing, but a good mix.
The second is that walking needs to be safe. Not only do people need to feel like they aren't going to get mugged downtown, but you also need to design safe places for people to walk so they don't get hit by a car (did you know that the nicer, smoother and wider the streets, the more people speed? When the streets are narrow and rough with poor visibility, people drive carefully to protect themselves and that keeps pedestrians safer). And you want it to be safe for biking too, since there is a high correlation between a good walking city and a good biking city.
And third, you need that walk to be interesting. You want smaller blocks, varied architecture, few parking lots, and parks and green spaces that aren't too big too walk across.
Every single section was fascinating to me and I basically talked the ears off anyone who would listen to me. If I was in my Texas book club and choosing a book for 2016, this would be my pick (and if someone from my Texas book club DOES pick this book, you better believe I'm going to try to time an Austin visit . . . . ).
This is one of those topics that requires a great writer with a strong voice to make it interesting, and Jeff Speck is perfect - I laughed, I marked big passages, and I learned so so much about city design and urban planning, a topic I knew little about prior to this.
It also completely changed how I think about parking (I've always wanted free parking everywhere I go, and suddenly I feel okay about paying for it because I understand better how it works and how it plays into a city's budget and design). I will try very hard not to complain any more about parking costs.
I finished this on the airplane on my way to Portland for The Hello Sessions and since Portland is one of the cities he talks about a lot since it is doing so many things right, it was delightful to watch for those things as I drove and walked around the city for two days.
And. . . .it kind of made me want to move downtown.
Copy checked out from my local library