Speck on Walkable Cities — But Who Will Walk Them?

13538794Jeff Speck opens Walkable Cities with this:

This is not the next great book on American cities. That book is not needed… 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. (3)

He’s talking about Jane Jacobs there, The Death and Life of American Cities. This made me want to like this book, as did the following two sentences.

What works in the best cities is walkability.

Walkability is both an end and a means, as well as a measure. (4)

But really, there are three main points here: (1) walkability is good, primarily in the ways that it supports the real goal of planners — (2) to increase property values, while also (3) improving quality of life for those who are moving back to the city or currently live in the suburbs and are driving too much, i.e. white middle-class people.

There are two broad currents in planning, the first is planning for justice and equity, the second is planning for property values and quality of life for those who can afford it. This is in the second strand, which I rather hate with every fiber of my being

This is the kind of book that in its erasure of issues of equality and lack of any acknowledgment of the results of past patterns of unjust development, disinvestment, exploitation and discrimination becomes a manual for extending the privileges of one (white, middle-to-upper-class) group while erasing everyone else  (the poor and people of colour) from the city neighbourhoods they currently inhabit.

I walk cities, walkability is the most important city characteristic to me. Yet to make anything in this book useful to those who care about making neighbourhoods better for those who currently live there, to ensure that planning interventions do not increase displacement and segregation, an awful lot of the framing needs to be discarded. Every time Speck talks about the ways in which interventions to make a city more walkable improve property values, it is clear that issues of gentrification and displacement must be grappled with for those who do care about equity.

When it keeps to analysis of the actual physical streetscapes and built environment, much of this is useful:

Outdated zoning and building codes, often imported from the suburbs, have matched the uninviting streetscapes with equally antisocial private buildings, completing a public realm that is unsafe, uncomfortable, and just plain boring. (4)

Or looking at the four main conditions of walkability:

Each of these qualities is essential and 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… Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban street into “outdoor living rooms,” in contrast to wide-open spaces… Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound. (11)

It is in parsing out what these mean that the trouble lies — especially around ideas of safety and comfort as they are shaped by historic patterns of racism, sexism and discrimination. You won’t find any of those complexities here.

But guess what you will find? For Speck, walkability is marketable. He quotes Joe Cortwright’s ‘Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Home Values in U.S. Cities’, which I suppose would be useful to look at. Likewise William Frey, whom he quotes:

A new image of urban America is in the making. What used to be white flight to the suburbs is turning into ‘bright flight’ to cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction. (35)

Bright fucking Flight. This is the planning whose entire goal is to attract people back to the cities from the suburbs without a thought to issues of community participation, equity, social justice, eradicating poverty, improving people’s lives through improving the city they live in or even a thought to all the talent languishing in the city deprived of quality education and jobs and hope — all the things that brought me to planning in the first place. This is the planning that fills me with nausea. I am ignoring it to focus on what is useful.

As an outline, the steps to a walkable city are useful and it is definitely a good list — the white devil is in the details.

The 10 Steps to a Walkable City:

THE USEFUL WALK

1. Put cars in their place.

This was full of useful evidence to prove that cities have been built for cars, and that wide lanes, multi-lanes, enormous left-hand turn lanes and cutting down all the street trees actually make people drive faster and more dangerously. Speck also lays out the evidence for ‘induced demand’, if you build it, the cars will come and traffic will not improve. Common sense, or research pioneered over 30 years by Donald Appleyard among others, has yet to hit the Department of Transportation. If Speck’s book can help that process of realisation in such departments and city governments, I might be glad he wrote it.

I do love this quote of Bernard-Henry Lévy on our autocentric lifestyle:

a global, total obesity that spares no realm of life, public or private. An entire society that, from the top down, from one end to the other, seems prey to this obscure derangement that slowly causes an organism to swell, overflow, explode. (102, from American Vertigo)

2. Mix the uses.

I like mixed uses. But then Speck makes comments about how

city properties often come burdened with a whole range of utility issues, easements and access challenges, not to mention pesky neighbors. Local banks, until recently all too willing to finance condo clusters on the periphery, shy away from investing in new apartments downtown.

‘pesky neighbors’ has been code for poor people, immigrants and people of colour since the 1930s and 40s with the federal governments’ Home Owners Loan Corporation and Real Estate industry guidelines that gave rise to redlining back when deeding your house to be for Caucasians only was widespread and encouraged. Speck continues:

This contemporary version of redlining is a significant reason that downtown housing often cannot be built without municipal support. (107)

and then

…most American cities do not need more affordable housing in their downtowns. Most American cities have too much affordable housing downtown. Or, more accurately, too much of their downtown housing is affordable, since everyone but the poor was able to join the suburban exodus. (109)

He doesn’t mention that despite this ‘fact’, many cities are in an affordable housing crisis where affordable housing is needed by a majority of city residents including teachers and firefighters, that he conflates the poor with people of colour long discriminated against in any attempt to join the suburban exodus, that such redlining might have contributed greatly to generations of poverty, or that affordable housing is now being erased from all downtowns and nothing built to replace it. Millions of people currently homeless and with not even a fraction of the shelter in existence necessary to house them even for a night also go unmentioned.

Some of his biases can be seen in an uncritical passage on resistance to granny flats:

They are typically opposed by neighbors who are worried about property values. An old college friend of mine from Los Angeles put it succinctly: “We are afraid that nine illegals will move in.” (111)

Nothing could make more clear where Speck is coming from. In response Speck notes they will rather

introduce affordability in a dispersed rather than a concentrated way, avoiding the pathologies that sometimes arise from the latter. (111)

As if the pathologies lie in poor people rather than the forces which maintain their concentrated poverty. I suppose he simply joins a long tradition of blaming poor people for poverty here.

3. Get the parking right.

Ah, Donald Shoup from UCLA, stop subsidising things, raise the cost of everything. It makes some sense, until you start thinking about how this will impact people differently. Then questions of equity come to the fore and it is harder for me to support without a lot more thought on how equity will be addressed in a city so car-dependent as LA. I’ve sat through Shoup’s classes, so I know that he failed to impress me on that. Still, better transit, less parking.

4. Let transit work.

I agree. If only he had stopped there, but instead he waxes poetic on improving public transit:

In some of these locations, the bus is destined remain the “loser cruiser,” the mode of choice for those who have no choice: the elderly, the poor, and infirm. As such, it will always be underfunded and struggling for survival, like any social service.

If it is to become widely used, transit has to be ruthlessly reconceptualized as a convenience, not just a rescue vehicle. Or, more accurately, while certain rescue routes must remain — from the old-age home to the health center, for example — the system needs to focus on those rare opportunities where it can offer a superior experience to driving. Those few line should be earmarked for a higher level of service… (155)

The loser-cruiser? Yet this is in fact the current approach of transit experts, it’s why courts have found LA transit, for example, to be racist and discriminatory and put them under a decades long injunction to improve bus routes serving South Central.

In Europe public transit is seen as a right, as an essential part of a city for ALL of its residents. I think it might be better to start there. There is also, of course, a long tradition of work around environmental justice in the US around improving cities that begins there as well.

We return to planning for property value rather than public good. On Bus Rapid Transit versus trains:

… the biggest criticism of bus systems, that they lack rail’s permanence: how can you drive real estate investment around transit if transit might leave? (157)

I don’t even have words for that sentence, and the pathologies of development it describes.

THE SAFE WALK

5. Protect the pedestrian.

6. Welcome bikes.

I’m all for protecting pedestrians and welcoming bikes, but yet again, we see planning for profit:

In contrast to widened roads and other highway “improvements,” new bikeways actually increase the value of nearby real estate. (194)

THE COMFORTABLE WALK

7. Shape the spaces.

I did like this:

Traditional, walkable urbanism is grounded in figural space. It believes that the shape of the spaces between buildings is what matters, because this is the public realm — the place where civic life plays out. (216)

8. Plant trees.

THE INTERESTING WALK

9. Make friendly and unique faces.

Not faces of diversity and enjoyment of space, faces of buildings and parking structures. Again, back to profits, though I have no objection at all to less parking, and what parking exists to be hidden:

Enlightened developers…know that hidden parking boosts retail sales and property values. (238)

10. Pick your winners.

I like this list. My critique is really a critique of an entire point of view that makes improving property values the goal of planning. In that sense, this book did manage to give an outline of how to create a walkable city, but also highlighted very different ideas of who the city is for, and where the interventions will do most to push out and displace current residents without a larger vision and planning process around justice and equity.

For more on building social spaces and better cities…

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