Monday, April 22, 2013

“Walkable City” Filled with Well-Polished Insights

“Walkable City” by Jeff Speck doesn’t break much new ground.  But it doesn’t need to.  Instead, Speck takes a wealth of accumulated wisdom about walkability, polishes it to a warm patina, assembles it in a cohesive format, and presents it back to the reader.  An anecdote will help illustrate.

I know an architectural project manager who once took a creative approach to the development of adjoining parcels.

The development firm for whom he worked was committed to revitalizing a Sacramento neighborhood.  The area had once been bustling, but had fallen on hard times.  The neighborhood economy was so bad that the firm was able to acquire a pair of prime but vacant lots on the primary street.  And they decided to gamble big on a neighborhood rebound by concurrently constructing multi-story office buildings on both parcels.

The project manager selected a pair of architectural firms.  He specified brick as the facing material for the buildings and set the floor elevations for the upper floors.  He then insisted that each firm work solo.  He refused to tell either firm who the other firm was. 

At first, the firms were puzzled.  Then they became frustrated.  That wasn’t how modern architecture was done.  The designs needed to be coordinated so the buildings could look like they belonged together.  But the project manager was adamant and refused to proffer the names.

I was surprised by his courage in the matter, but am convinced he was right.  Jane Jacobs would have described his decision as promoting “fine-grained” development.  She was a proponent of having cities built in the smallest chunks possible.  She believed that a fine-grained land-use pattern would maximize the chances to experiment with different forms, finding the ones that would work best in particular neighborhoods.

Jacobs also believed that there are more reinvestment incentives in a fine-grained neighborhood.  The owner of an aging building can always spot a more successful building in the neighborhood to which he can aspire with a remodel.

And now Jeff Speck offers another common sense reason to commend the project manager’s decision.  In “Walkable City”, Speck writes about the four elements needed to promote walkability, which are usefulness, safety, comfort, and interest.   Speck specifically notes that architecture which changes as a pedestrian walks along a street creates interest.

Perhaps a pair of dissimilar buildings is only a small step toward building pedestrian interest.  But the fact that a step doesn’t comprise the entire journey isn’t a reason to reject the step if it’s heading in the right direction.   And walkability, like urbanism, is comprised of many small steps (pun intended).

What makes this insight about pedestrian interest particularly remarkable is that Speck presents it in a few sentences.  And that every few sentences in the entire book contains an insight of comparable value.  A highly walkable street is said to draw the pedestrian onward with promises of new points of interest in the next block.  Similarly, “Walkable City” draws readers onward with promises of new insights in the next paragraph.

Despite the continual cascade of walkability insights, Speck never comes across as a professor.  Instead, the mental image that appeared in my head was of a wise bartender, polishing walkability thoughts with a well-worn bar towel and dispenses them across the bar with an engaging good humor.

I won’t try to summarize the entire extent of “Walkable City” in a single blog post.  Instead, I’ll return to Speck regularly over the next few weeks.  And I encourage you to find a copy to read along.  I promise that you’ll enjoy the journey.

If you’re wondering what happened to the adjoining Sacramento buildings, the story ends on an unhappy note.  The economy collapsed, the design on both projects was halted, and the project manager moved to a different job.  But I still respect his vision.

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


  1. Interesting tale of not letting the two architecture firms coordinate; one of the big criteria we had when we were home shopping was a neighborhood that had grown and evolved so that it had a heterogeneous character. Our theory was that an architecturally diverse neighborhood would be more resilient to demographic changes, and would tend to be more demographically diverse because there'd have been time for the ages of residents to become staggered.

    Engineering some of that heterogeneity in from the beginning may provide a little less efficiency at the start, but seems like it'd build a stronger neighborhood in the long-term.

    1. Dan, you're right that heterogeneous neighborhoods are more robust demographically, which complements the economic robustness. I'd love for us to get back to where new neighborhoods can be more heterogeneous, but our current model for funding the new infrastructure won't allow it.

  2. Interest makes a big difference. My wife and I walk to Sushi every Friday night as our reward for another week survived. We tend to walk the same suburban streets to and from. It's a boring, somewhat long walk. One night we took a whole different route home, got a bit lost and took over an hour and an extra mile to get home. We didn't even realize the time had past. Since we had not gone that way before, and cut through Case Grande high school while we were at it, we added interest to the walk. We had never seen the school from the inside before, and so it was new.
    Not the best example of interest, as it'll only work once. The streets are still suburban and the housing mostly the same, but I feel it exemplifies the concept. By keeping the walk interesting, it made it feel shorter and less distance.

    1. Erik, thanks for the comment. I think your comment is dead on. Also, small blocks make a real difference because they offer more different routes to take the same walk, which maintains interest.