Book Review: Walkable City

I realize I am a little late to be reviewing Jeff Speck’s 2012 book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, but I have had a lot of time to catch up on my reading after moving to a new place and getting settled.  My new neighborhood of downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, just across the Washington DC border, also happens to be quite walkable.  However just a little ways down the road are neighborhoods more closely resembling the sprawl typical in the rest of America.  With all of this new urban and suburban context in mind I was curious what Speck, co-author of Suburban Nation and a DC resident, had to say about walkability for all types of American communities.

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To start Speck spends the first 60 pages of the book discussing why walkability should be promoted, mentioning improved health, lower transportation costs per household, more free time, improved local economics, and an increased sense of community due to more chance encounters with neighbors. While this section is filled with compelling statistics on the benefits of walking for our health, communities, and economies, for most readers who already support walkability I felt, as did many other reviewers, that this portion is “preaching to the choir.”  If his intended audience is the general American public, of which a majority have spent their lives in auto-centric spaces, this message though still needs to be preached.
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In terms of the general public, so few people in the U.S. today walk as their main form of transportation, or even just for recreation, that the U.S. Surgeon General recently issued a Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities. According to the Center for Disease Control across the nation 3.4% of people get to work by foot or bike, in my neighboring city the District of Columbia 14.8% of people bike or walk to work.  This call to action hopes to not just to increase walking to work, but walking in our current neighborhoods also. Smart Growth America, in reaction to this call to action, takes this idea even further and asks what if we had to label unwalkable neighborhoods like cigarettes?  Presenting a health warning upfront may deter a few but perhaps there are better solutions though design as this book seeks to explain.

So how does Speck propose to create more walkable communities? Through his General Theory of Walkability, outlined in the book with ten steps over a very readable 200 or so pages. In summary these steps aim to promote useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting walking spaces. Towards the end of the book though he begins to address where these rules should be most readily applied.  His answer: downtowns first.

While I agree with his arguments for focusing resources on downtown areas to be the most efficient and cost effective way to promote walkability, I don’t feel that this goes far enough to reach the majority of Americas. Yes I understand that our downtowns belong to everyone, including suburban residents, but perhaps we shouldn’t just focus on bring people to downtowns to walk recreationally, but to rethink their daily patterns in suburbia.  Why not also propose methods of retrofitting suburbs to be more walkable?  Of course this would take some drastic zoning changes and development projects, but what better place to explore these ideas for fundamentally reshaping the American experience with walking than in a book?

One other question I felt went unaddressed in this book was the lack of discussion on affordability of housing in walkable areas. Personally I would love to purchase a home in an area where I can walk to a grocery store, a metro stop and other general amenities, however there is an extreme difference in prices between homes in these areas and in less walkable places. While Speck uses his own first person example of building a house in the District within walking distant to a metro stop, he fails to mention the cost of such a project and how it is not realistic for the average American family looking to purchase a home. A much deeper discussion of the urban economics that shape our decisions to live in less walkable places could also be added to the six pages or so that he dedicates to the topic.

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The window of the District Architecture Center

Overall the book is very informative from the perspective of how cars and buildings function in a city, but I felt it could have had more focus on people and our decision-making processes that lead us to walk. While the book has many helpful design guidelines for transportation planners and designers committed to making downtowns walkable, I still felt it could have pushed the envelope further, by providing more advice for making walkable suburbs. For those of us convinced of the benefits of walkability though, the statistics in this book also provide a reminder that there is still much work to be done.

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