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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 cities—after forgetting for four—yet 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 pedestrians—tourists and locals alike—making 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 Rome—and the other winners: Venice, Boston, San Francisco, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Paris, and New York—so 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 eighties—bricks, banners, bandstands, bollards, and berms—that 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.

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. 


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David, thanks for sharing this, and Jeff, I am looking forward to reading the whole book!

Question, isn't what is described as "fabric" the result of pre-auto development? Trastevre is a fantastic neighborhood, but is a medieval village. How can we transform our planned communities (and DC as a whole is a planned community) to have this fabric?

by Andrew on Oct 31, 2012 12:27 pm • linkreport

random comment: The pedestrian mall in C-ville is really being re-vitalized with ourdoor dining.

I'd agree that tasking your local DOT with "more walking" is just going to result in a lot of wasted money on facilities and studies. That is what they do.

North Madrid is the same vintage as many new american cities (post 60s) but far more walkable. Having bars every twenty feet helps.

If I am doing the maths right, the density of Rome is about 6000 people per square mile -- or something like delaware. Not very dense by any standards.

by charlie on Oct 31, 2012 12:36 pm • linkreport

You can get political consensus, more or less, for pedestrian safety amenities. Even folks wedded to an autocentric suburban lifestyle will (usually) not oppose that - safe sidewalks is more like apple pie.

Start talking about fabric and aura, and you trigger all the culture war hot buttons "this is about froyo for hipsters, and bars for drunk 20 somethings, and how dare you call my pleasant neighborhood "sterile" you elitist!"

Clearly aesthetics, retail mix, aura, etc matter. To some extent they simply are not accessible to policy levers - and where they are, you are going to have to be very careful to have a coalition built that supports what you want to do.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 31, 2012 12:51 pm • linkreport

I just came back from Rome, and one thing that stood out was the driver’s attitude towards sharing the road with pedestrians. The rules that we were told in crossing the street was, see an opening and cross confidently, cars will stop. So several times during out stay we would carefully cross major intersections (with little or no controls) and like magic the cars parted ways as if we were walking stop signs. Not once did I notice, or sense, any irritation in the drivers that had to slow for us, it was just normal traffic to them..

by RJ on Oct 31, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

I will be interested to see how you approach this in your book: one of the key elements for pedestrians is not the "stuff" of the walking space, rather why are they there in the first place. If we want active pedestrian focused towns and cities, we need to give people a reason to be there. To live there and walk, or to park once and walk from place to place...from interesting place to interesting place with a purpose for a trip. People don't walk because planners want them to, people will do what is easiest (least opportunity cost) to satisfy a need, we are indeed simple in that regard.

by Some Ideas on Oct 31, 2012 1:20 pm • linkreport

@RJ; you have something there. Others have commented on the increasing "highway" mentality of US drivers.

I just noticed how different my behavior is in the city driving an automatic vs. a stick -- with an automatic it is very easy to creep up all the time, driving a stick you tend to wait and dart of openings.

by charlie on Oct 31, 2012 1:23 pm • linkreport

Seeing Mr. Speck speak about Suburban Nation at a conference about the conferences was literally the moment I started caring about urban issues. So you all now know who to thank (or chastise) for me being the way I am.

Anyway, its important to note that a key component of the "fabric" that Mr. Speck mentions is density. There needs to be a lot of shops and bars and intersections in a defined area to get that sort of walkability. It's right to note that a lot of the things that make being a pedestrian safer (crosswalks, lights, wide sidewalks) are kind of moot until you get a point where people are trying to walk somewhere. It's a chicken/egg problem that I think is usually best solved by doing both at the same time.

by drumz on Oct 31, 2012 1:27 pm • linkreport

One of the essential criteria I've found missing is the lack of coordination between different branches of government. For example, while the state of Maryland proports to be in favor of smart growth, it seems that DOT, The Department of Education, and others didn't get the memo. Try building schools to enliven public spaces and maximize pedestrian and bicycle access, good luck. Want the main arterials tames with sidewalks and on street parking, not my department! Want to up-zone transit stops? Not in my back yard.

I'd like to see how we can kill more birds with one stone for once, especially since our recourses are not what they once where.

by Thayer-D on Oct 31, 2012 1:27 pm • linkreport

By the way, is your friend in the American embassy a guy named Ale? If so, tell him his soccer/architect friend said ciao!

by Thayer-D on Oct 31, 2012 1:47 pm • linkreport

When building urban neighborhoods, prioritize:

Pedestrians > Bicyclists > Public Transportation > Private Transporation.

If street grids are built in that fashion, people are safer, neighborhoods are walkable and density will follow.

Nevertheless, mixed-use development make a neighborhood worth going to.

by cmc on Oct 31, 2012 2:25 pm • linkreport


On the highway mentality - quite. I know one crosswalk that's been lobbied out of existence by drivers that are worried pedestrians will "pop up" in the middle of the intersection, and I know of one more where they're trying to get their way again.

Sadly, both places are in places that are supposed to be walker-friendly. It's laughable and depressing.

by OctaviusIII on Oct 31, 2012 3:47 pm • linkreport

@ RJ:I just came back from Rome, and one thing that stood out was the driver’s attitude towards sharing the road with pedestrians.

I did not have that experience. Italian drivers are insane and aggressive. Driving on Manhattan is peanuts compared to getting through a Mediterranean city.

Rome is of course a city built for pedestrians. When it was build, there were no cars. In fact, there were barely wagons of any kind.

This is in my mind, one reason why (North-)American cities are so much more car-friendly than cities elsewhere. Cities here were built were cars (or at least carriages) in mind.

by Jasper on Oct 31, 2012 4:41 pm • linkreport

Perhaps Speck will define "fabric" in more depth. He's right about Rome--it's a chaotic mess, but also very walkable. I remember covering not insignificant disances from the Campo D'Fiore & Piazza Navona to the large park in Travestevre, the Colesium, and the Vatican not to mention closer signts like the Parthenon. I suspect much of what goes into "fabric" is intangible and not quite the same thing as being pre-car or dense.

I've been in NYC several times since the beginning of the beginning of summer and have spent time in a variety of places in Manhattan, as well as in Brooklyn & Queens. Even where you have density, places can be dead some or all of the time and car-friendly spaces such as those in Long Island City aren't entirely incaptible with a walkable environemnt. I suspect that low to mid-rise areas have "more fabric" because people easily can walk out and make the street their living room.

by Rich on Oct 31, 2012 9:01 pm • linkreport

One place not safe for pedestrians is 14th NW by my house on S. Drivers seem to actually speed up when approaching pedestrians in the designated cross walks between R and T. Combined with some lanes and sidewalks being closed for long-term construction and it's scarey. Bright pillars need to be put back in those crosswalks.

I've always been fond of the way pedestrians in Paris can just walk in front of the multitude of lanes in the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe without even looking, as they seem to do in Rome.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 31, 2012 9:08 pm • linkreport

The tourist part of Rome is probably different from other parts. I wouldn't compare the Centro Storico to anything. And there are so many differences between an old European city and DC that it's like comparing the streets of DC to the streets of Mars.

We have an uphill climb here to build a culture of sharing the roads (cars and bikes) and sharing the sidewalks (peds and bikes) and figuring out where segways and scooters and joggers fit in but we will build our own way-sharing culture around our own infrastructure. It will never look like a quaint part of a European city, but hopefully it will look very different from car-centric suburbia.

We're making progress, but I'm skeptical that we need "fabric" as a separate concept to measure that progress. Does U Street have more fabric than Adams Morgan or Mount Pleasant? I think we already know that we need not only good pedestrian infrastructure and protection from other modes (bikes and motor vehicles) but something interesting to walk to, like street-facing retail, retail density, and retail diversity, as well as round the clock activity. Walkscore measures much of that already.

by Ward 1 Guy on Nov 1, 2012 11:40 am • linkreport

You bring to mind two nearby Main streets turned into pedestrian malls, one a success, and one a failure. The success is Charlottesville, VA where several strip malls and one Tyson's-like indoor mall on the outskirts nearly killed downtown. But they closed downtown Main Street to cars and made it a pedestrian mall, and somehow it works - its a nice place to stroll, eat, and shop. The failure is Winchester, VA. The pedestrian mall in that town's downtown area is dark, and rather empty. I don't think I understand the difference.

by John Flack on Nov 1, 2012 1:46 pm • linkreport

My copy of the new book is on order and anxious for its arrival in the next two weeks. We are just back from Florence, and the contrast of the walk/drive situations in Italy and US are amazing. The chaos of Florence/Rome narrow streets, even narrower sidewalks, tons of pedestrians, and all types of transport is eyeopening but it all seems to work. Perhaps one note is that all understand that the streets can be successfully used by all with a bit of patience. I can, however, see planners in DOT's horrified by the narrow multiple use streets/scapes. I would much rather try crossing at busy Italian corners than enormously wide US crossings despite the technological infrastructure.

by Phil Spalding on Nov 2, 2012 1:08 pm • linkreport

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