Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Jeff Speck

Jeff Speck is a city planner who, through writing, public service, and built work, advocates internationally for smart growth and sustainable design. As Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 through 2007, Mr. Speck oversaw the Mayors' Institute on City Design, and created the Governors' Institute on Community Design. Mr. Speck spent the prior 10 years as Director of Town Planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co., and currently leads a boutique design consultancy based in Washington, DC. 

Architecture


Beware the starchitects, beware repetition

DC resident Jeff Speck wrote Suburban Nation, the best-selling book about city planning since Jane Jacobs. Greater Greater Washington is pleased to present 3 weekly excerpts from his new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.

We've come a long way since the seventies, when every city endeavored to build its own version of Boston's fortress-like City Hall, a structure that only architects love (yes, I love it). This style of architecture was called brutalism, supposedly after Le Corbusier's beton brutrough concretebut the name stuck for other reasons.


Photo by See-ming Lee 李思明 SML on Flickr.

It was characterized by walls so abrasive they could rip your arm open. Happily, this technique is no longer in vogue, but many architects, especially the starchitects, still build blank walls where they least belong.

My old professor, the Spaniard Rafael Moneo, is probably the leading blank wall composer, a veritable Copland of Concrete. In his studios, like all of my architecture-school studios, nobody ever talked about how buildings need to give life to the sidewalk.

We did discuss such things as a faade's thickness and depth"sickness and death," in Moneo's formidable accentbut these were architectonic qualities, not practical ones. Most architecture schools still promote an intellectual and artistic sensibility that has little patience for such mundane questions as whether a building will sustain pedestrian activity.

This issue was the subject of a now famous exchange that took place at the 2009 Aspen Ideas Festival between Frank Gehry and a prominent audience member, Fred Kent. Kent, who runs the Project for Public Spaces, pointedly asked Gehry why so many "iconic" buildings by star architects fail to give life to the streets and sidewalks around them. Gehry, who was once quoted as saying "I don't do context," claimed to be above this criticism, but Kent didn't buy it. I wasn't there, so we'll let The Atlantic's James Fallows tell the rest:

But the questioner asked one more time, and Gehry did something I found simply incredible and unforgettable. "You are a pompous man," he saidand waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, much as Louis XIV might have used to wave away some offending underling. He was unmistakably shooing or waving the questioner away from the microphone, as an inferioragain, in a gesture hardly ever seen in post-feudal times.
Gehry was clearly having a bad day, but his imperiousness is worth recounting as a metaphor for some of his worknot all, but some. Kent was no doubt recalling his son Ethan's visit to Gehry's masterpiece, the Guggenheim Bilbao, an experience he describes in the Project for Public Spaces website's "Hall of Shame." After failing to find the front door and taking note of the treeless, depopulated plaza, Ethan observed a mugging, something he later learned was common there. He adds, "In the span of 10 minutes that we spent around the museum, I witnessed the first mugging of my lifeand I've lived my entire life in New York City."

Robberies are no longer very common in New York, but the same goes for Bilbaoexcept for certain problem places. That one of these places enfronts the Guggenheim is partly Gehry's fault, the outcome of a landscape (more of a landscrape) conceived as a tabula rasa to show off the building to its best effect. Gehry is actually perfectly capable of contributing to attractive, engaging landscapesas he has done in Chicago's Millennium Parkbut he rarely does so with his buildings, most of which do not reward proximity. His Disney Hall, in Los Angeles, has about 1500 feet of perimeter, perhaps 1000 feet of which is blank wall of the most slippery sort.

But it's a concert hall, you say. . . it needs to have blank walls. Well, take a stroll around the Paris Opera, or even Boston's Symphony Hall, and let's talk again. These older buildings' facades are awash in engaging detail, so that even their blank walls don't feel blank. Walking next to them is a pleasure.

This discussion reminds me of a wonderful set of drawings by Leon Krier, in which he shows two buildings side by side from three different distances. From far away, we can see that one is a classical palace, the other a modernist glass cube. The palace has its base, middle, and top, while the glass cube is articulated with the horizontal and vertical lines of its large, reflective windows.

As we get closer, the palace reveals its doors, windows, and cornice, while the glass cube remains the same as before: horizontal and vertical lines. Zooming in to just a few paces away, we now observe the palace's decorative string course, window frames, and the rafter-tails supporting the eaves. Our view of the glass cube is unchanged and mute. We have walked a great distance to its front door but received no reward.

Krier presents these drawings as a powerful argument against modernism. But this is not merely a question of style. Any architectural styleexcept minimalism, I supposeis capable of providing those medium- and small-scale details that engage people as they approach and walk by.

The high-tech Pompidou Center, by celebrating its mechanical systems on its exterior, gives life to one of the most successful public spaces in Paris. What matters is not whether the details were crafted by a stone carver or a cold extruder, but whether they exist at all. Too many contemporary architects fail to understand this point, or understand it but don't care.

But a preponderance of human-scaled detail is still not enough if a streetscape lacks variety. However delicate and lovely a building faade, there is little to entice a walker past 500 feet of it. As Jane Jacobs noted, "Almost nobody travels willingly from sameness to sameness and repetition to repetition, even if the physical effort required is trivial."

Getting the scale of the detail right is only half the battle; what matters even more is getting the scale of the buildings right, so that each block contains as many different buildings as reasonably possible. Only in this way will the pedestrian be rewarded with the continuously unfolding panorama that comes from many hands at work.

This fact seems to be lost on the vast majority of architects, especially the big names, whose unspoken goal is to claim as much territory as possible for their trademarked signature, even if it means a numbingly repetitive streetscape. It is rarely taught in architecture schools, where there persists a deep misunderstanding of the difference between city planning and architecture, such that most urban design projects are seen as an opportunity to create a single humongous building. Design superstars like Rem Koolhaas, in their giddy celebration of "bigness," have adopted this confusion as doctrine.

To be fair, egotism and the desire for celebrity are only partly responsible for this orientation. It also comes from an insistence on intellectual honesty. Just as a building supposedly bears the obligation to be "of its time," it must also be "of its author." For the designer of a large structure to pretend to be many different designers is to falsify the historical record, especially since the modern myth of the genius architect insists that every designer's personal style is as unique as his fingerprint.

I still remember (how could I not) the critic at my architectural-school thesis final review who said, "I don't understand: your two buildings seem to have been designed by two different architects." My fantasy-world response, twenty years after the fact: "Why, thank you, sir."

Speck's book came out on November 13. You can order it on Amazon. For more from the book, see also our first and second excerpts. Speck will also be appearing at Politics & Prose this Saturday.

Roads


With fat lanes, traffic engineers kill in the name of safety

DC resident Jeff Speck wrote Suburban Nation, the best-selling book about city planning since Jane Jacobs. Greater Greater Washington is pleased to present 3 weekly excerpts from his new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.

Contrary to perceptions, the greatest threat to pedestrian safety is not crime, but the very real danger of automobiles moving quickly. Yet most traffic engineers, often in the name of safety, continually redesign city streets to support higher-speed driving.


Photo by the author.

This approach is so counterintuitive that it strains credulity: Engineers design streets for speeds well above the posted limit, so that speeding drivers will be safea practice that, of course, causes the very speeding it hopes to protect against.

Even my old South Beach neighborhood, known for its walkability, was not immune to this sort of thinking.

If you have seen the remake of La Cage Aux Folles, you might remember the lively streetscape of Espanola Way, where Robin Williams buys an elaborate birthday cake for his partner. Follow that street two blocks west, and you will find that already-narrow sidewalks have been cut in half in order to widen a roadway that functioned perfectly well before. Why? Because the standards had changedfrom walkable to not.

I have never heard a proper explanation for the creeping expansion of America's street standards. All I know is that it is very real, and that it has a profound impact on the work that city planners do every day.

In the late nineties, I was working on the design of Mount Laurel, a new town outside of Birmingham, Alabama, that was modeled on that city's most successful prewar neighborhoods. We had measured the streets of Homewood, Mountain Brook, and the city's other best addresses, and planned our thoroughfares with the same dimensions. We were then told that our streets did not meet the standard, and our engineering firm was unwilling to stamp the drawings for fear of legal liability.

I remember one particular afternoon, when we convinced the County Engineer to tour these great neighborhoods with us in our van. Perhaps anticipating our consternation, he gripped the door handle with white knuckles and shouted "We're gonna die!" as we motored calmly around the narrow, leafy streets of Mountain Brook. I'm pretty sure he was joking, but his ultimate pronouncement was clear: we had to re-engineer our streets with a higher design speed.

This logicthat higher design speeds make for safer streetscoupled with the typical city engineer's desire for unimpeded traffichas caused many American cities to rebuild their streets with lanes that are 12, 13, and sometimes even 14 feet wide. Now, cars are only 6 feet widea Ford Excursion is 6'-6''and most Main Streets were historically made of 10-foot lanes. That dimension persists on many of the best, such as ritzy Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, Florida. Yet, many cities I visit have their fair share of 13-footers, and that is where much of the speeding occurs.

For me writing this, and you reading it, it is undoubtedly clear that building wider lanes would cause drivers to speed. After all, if highways have 12-foot lanes, and we are comfortable negotiating them at seventy miles per hour, wouldn't we feel the same way on a city street of the same dimension? Yet, in the bizarre parallel universe of the traffic engineer, no such relationship exists. Motorists will drive at the speed limit, or slightly above, no matter what sort of drag strip we lay in their path.

As with induced demand, the engineers have once again failed to comprehend that the way they design streets will have any impact on the way that people use them. By their logic, just as more lanes can't cause more driving, high-speed lanes can't cause high speeds. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the second great misunderstanding that lies at the root of most urban degradation today. Widening a city's streets in the name of safety is like distributing handguns to deter gun violence.

Just in case you think I am making this up, let's turn to the calm analysis of Reid Ewing and Eric Dumbaugh, professors at the University of Maryland and Texas A & M, respectively. In their 2009 study, "The Built Environment and Traffic Safety: A Review of Empirical Evidence," they assess the situation this way.

Considered broadly, the fundamental shortcoming of conventional traffic safety theory is that it fails to account for the moderating role of human behavior on crash incidence. Decisions to ... widen specific roadways to make them more forgiving are based on the assumption that in so doing, human behavior will remain unchanged. And it is precisely this assumptionthat human behavior can be treated as a constant, regardless of designthat accounts for the failure of conventional safety practice.
How costly is this failure? In another study, presented at the 80th Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board, Rutgers professor Robert Noland calculated that increased lane widths could be blamed for approximately 900 additional traffic fatalities per year.

We can only hope that these studies eventually have an impact on thoroughfare engineering as it is currently practiced in the typical American city. Currently, engineers still deny their stamp of approval to streets configured without "adequately" high design speeds. "We're afraid of being sued," they say.

Some day, I might get up the nerve to respond as follows: "Afraid? You should be. Now that we've publicly presented to you that narrower roads save lives, we are going to sue you when people die on your fat streets."

There is some good news. Thanks to the labors of the Congress for New Urbanism, a nonprofit focused on making more livable cities, we have made a start in changing the standards. The CNU teamed up with the Institute of Traffic Engineers to create a new manual, "Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares," that recommends street lanes of 10 and 11 feet wide. With the imprimatur of the ITE, this book can now be waved at planning meetings in support of more reasonable standards. I just wish that "11" wasn't in there.

Another cause for hope is the growing "20's Plenty for Us" movement that, having taken the United Kingdom by storm, is just beginning to win followers in the US. Recognizing that only 5 percent of pedestrian collisions at 20 miles per hour result in death, vs. 85 percent at 40 mph, the British have introduced 20 mph speed limits in many of their cities.

There are currently more than 87 "Twenty's Plenty" campaigns in the UK, and about 25 British jurisdictions, with a combined population of over six million, have committed to a 20 mph speed limit in residential areas. In June, 2011, the European Union Transport Committee recommended such a rule for the entire continent. It is easy to imagine 20 mph becoming a standard throughout Europe in the near future.

On this side of the pond, Hoboken, New Jersey, may be the first city to have instituted a "Twenty is Plenty" campaign. Unfortunately, in true Jersey fashion, the 20 is just a suggestion, while higher official speed limits remain in place. As I write this, New York City is pioneering some legitimate 20 mph zones.

These developments are importantbut not as an end in themselves. As any London pedestrian will tell you, a 20-mph sign does not a 20-mph driver make. Most motorists drive the speed at which they feel comfortable, which is the speed to which the road has been engineered. "20's Plenty" is most useful as a first step to slower design speeds. Once 20-mph zones proliferate, we may finally be able to convince the engineers to design 20-mph streets.

Speck's book comes out on November 13. You can pre-order it on Amazon. For more from the book, see also our first excerpt.

Public Spaces


What makes a place "walkable"?

DC resident Jeff Speck wrote Suburban Nation, the best-selling book about city planning since Jane Jacobs. His new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time comes out on November 13. Greater Greater Washington is pleased to present 3 weekly excerpts from the book.

We've known for three decades how to make livable citiesafter forgetting for fouryet 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.


Photo by p medved on Flickr.

Certain large cities, yes. If you make your home in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, or in a handful of other special places, you can have some confidence that things are on the right track. But these locations are the exceptions.

In the small and mid-sized cities where most Americans spend their lives, the daily decisions of local officials are still, more often than not, making their lives worse.

This is not bad planning but the absence of planning, or rather, decision-making disconnected from planning. The planners were so wrong for so many years that, now that they are mostly right, they are mostly ignored.

This past spring, while I was working on a plan for Lowell, Massachusetts, some old high school friends joined us for dinner on Merrimack Street, the heart of a lovely 19th-century downtown. Our group consisted of four adults, one toddler in a stroller, and my wife's very pregnant belly.

Across the street from our restaurant, we waited for the light to change, lost in conversation. Maybe a minute passed before we saw the pushbutton signal request. So we pushed it. The conversation advanced for another minute or so. Finally, we gave up and jaywalked. About the same time, a car careened around the corner at perhaps forty-five miles per hour, on a street that had been widened to ease traffic.

The resulting near-miss fortunately left no scars, but it will not be forgotten. Stroller jaywalking is a surefire way to feel like a bad parent, especially when it goes awry. The only consolation this time was that I was in a position to do something about it.

As I write these words, I am again on the road with my family, this time in Rome. Now, the new baby is in a sling, and the toddler alternates between a stroller and his own two feet, depending on the terrain and his frame of mind. It is interesting to compare our experience in Rome with the one in Lowell, or, more to the point, the experience of walking in most American cities.

Rome, at first glance, seems horribly inhospitable to pedestrians. So many things are wrong. Half the streets are missing sidewalks, most intersections lack crosswalks, pavements are uneven and rutted, handicap ramps are largely absent. Hills are steep and frequent (I hear there are seven). And need I mention the drivers?

Yet, here we are among so many other pedestrianstourists and locals alikemaking our way around Trastevere. ... on our toes, yes, but enjoying every minute of it. This anarchic obstacle course is somehow a magnet for walkers, recently selected by readers of Lonely Planet travel guides as one of the world's "Top Ten Walking Cities."

Romans drive a fraction of the miles that Americans do. A friend of ours who came here to work in the US Embassy bought a car when he arrived, out of habit. Now it sits in his courtyard, a target for pigeons. This tumultuous urban landscape, which fails to meet any conventional American measure of "pedestrian friendliness," is a walker's paradise. So what's going on here?

Certainly, in competing for foot traffic, Anatole Broyard's "poem pressed into service as a city" began with certain advantages. The Lonely Planet ranking is likely more a function of spectacle than pedestrian comfort. But the same monuments, arranged in a more modern American way, would hardly compete. (Think Las Vegas, with its Walk Score of 54.)

The main thing that makes Romeand the other winners: Venice, Boston, San Francisco, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Paris, and New Yorkso walkable is what we planners call "fabric," the everyday collection of streets, blocks, and buildings that tie the monuments together. Despite its many technical failures, Rome's fabric is superb.

Yet fabric is one of several key aspects of urban design that are missing from the walkability discussion in most places. This is because that discussion has largely been about creating adequate and attractive pedestrian facilities, rather than walkable cities. There is no shortage of literature on this subject, and even a fledgling field of "walkability studies" that focuses principally on impediments to pedestrian access and safety, mostly in the Toronto suburbs.

These efforts are helpful, but inadequate. The same goes for urban beautification programs, such as the famous "Five B's" of the eightiesbricks, banners, bandstands, bollards, and bermsthat now grace many an abandoned downtown.

Lots of money and muscle has gone into improving sidewalks, crossing signals, streetlights, and trash cans, but how important are these things, ultimately, in convincing people to walk? If walking was just about creating safe pedestrian zones, then why did more than 150 Main Streets pedestrianized in the sixties and seventies fail almost immediately? Clearly there is more to walking than just making safe, pretty space for it.

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. Laying out those criteria in no uncertain terms, and showing how we can satisfy them with the least cost and effort, is the purpose of this book.

Interested in learning more about what makes a place walkable? Join the Coalition for Smarter Growth at Politics and Prose on Saturday, November 17 at 6 pm for a discussion with Jeff. The event is free and open to the pubilc; no RSVP is required.

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