Friday, February 22, 2013

Moving from StrongTowns to Walkability

Over the past few months, I’ve written often about the StrongTowns theory.  The argument is that our economy is unable to fund the maintenance of the infrastructure we’ve built, a shortfall which has long-term implications for our lives and our places.  It’s an intriguing theory in which there seems to be much truth.  To me, the only question is how much current infrastructure is economically unsustainable.

Many have read the StrongTowns Curbside Chat booklet.  For those who haven’t, it remains recommended reading.

In Petaluma, the culmination of the StrongTowns discussion came last week, when StrongTowns founder Charles Marohn participated in a video chat, including a question and answer session.  We asked Marohn about how to do a survey to assess our local infrastructure issues.  He provided some general guidance.

We also asked about his position on economic stimulus during hard times.  Marohn is known for describing “shovel-ready projects” as the projects that a municipality designed but then shelved because they were so financially ridiculous.  The plans only come off the shelf when the federal government offers free money.

Marohn was ambivalent about the role of stimulus, but concluded that if stimulus is used, he’d suggest that it only be for maintenance.

It’s also good to note the press is beginning to recognize the StrongTowns works.  In this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a reporter consults local tax rolls to determine the validity of the StrongTowns argument.   He finds exactly what StrongTowns told him to expect.

But all good things must end.  The StrongTowns theory will remain something to which I’ll return when it’s appropriate to the conversation.  Which I expect to be frequently.  But for the next few months, walkability will take a leading role in this blog.  Not in every post, but walkability will have a recurring place.

With a particular role will be Jeff Speck’s recent book, “Walkable City”.  A month ago, I noted that “Walkable City” was the hot book in urbanism as 2013 dawned.    Nothing has changed since then, with Speck doing talks across the country as his book attracts broad interest.

Speck’s public role includes this podcast with Marohn of StrongTowns interviewing Speck (click on Podcast #127) and this YouTube video with Sacramento Press interviewing Speck.   For those who know the downtown grid of Sacramento (I spent my high school years in a suburb of Sacramento), Speck’s Sacramento Press comments have particular pertinence.

To give an overview of the book, Speck begins by making the case for walkability, covering a range of motivations for more walkable places, including property values, public health, climate change, and infrastructure.  He concludes by noting that for a route to be walkable, it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting.  (In the StrongTowns podcast, he notes that walkability efforts in the U.S. have typically focused only on safe.  And haven’t done that particularly well.)

Speck then offers design strategies for providing those four elements of successful walkability.

I’ve completed much of the book and found it remarkably accessible, insightful, and motivational.  I look forward to sharing thoughts about it with you.

Also, Petaluma Urban Chat has selected “Walkable City” as their next reading assignment.  If you live near Petaluma, you’re encouraged to join us on March 12 for a discussion.

As spring approaches, let’s get walkable.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Walking is probably the lowest common denominator single-best exercise for people in general. Yet many people get in a car and burn fossil fuel in order to walk (and for other forms of human-powered exercise). Something is wrong with this on many levels. I suspect improving walkability in both urban and no-urban environments would make the country healthier at both macro- and micro-levels of society and individuals, including the economy and maybe even civility. Of course, that's me. I walk. It's good company.

    1. Barry, thanks for the comment. Speck writes on the public health issues around walking. Also, there is a recent Danish study that correlates walking to school with academic success. Lots of benefits.