Campbell Conversations

Interview: Jeff Speck

The author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time.

Jeff Speck is a highly regarded city planner and architectural designer and the author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time. He’s the co-author of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.

Grant Reeher (GR): In praising Walkable City, David Owen wrote in The New Yorker magazine that cities were the future of the human race. Is that right?

Jeff Speck (JS): For years, (analysts and writers), particularly environmentalists, have looked at cities as the problem. We now realize that both in terms of the future of the planet and in terms of opportunity and pulling yourself out of poverty – there are all these different reasons why societies benefit when they become more urban. So what he is referring to is the fact that we have much lower carbon footprints when we live in cities, and that generally there is no greater tool for human advancement than the human city.

GR: You’re a practitioner of something called “new urbanism.” Tell me what that means.

JS: It began as a discussion about how to make new places, and how to replace single-use, auto-oriented, car-dependent urban sprawl with new communities that were walkable. In other words, taking the office parks, the shopping malls, the housing subdivisions and the recreational clusters that have been built in this country for the past 50 years and realizing that we could reconstitute them the way we used to, as new towns and new villages. I participated in the design and eventually the construction of these new places that have been built across this country, and there have been hundreds of them that are actually new subdivisions, but they are modeled on and work like older traditional towns in this country.

We have also been working in existing cities. We have done a lot of downtown planning. The new urbanist ethos essentially says cities are great, and our best cities are our older cities. There are great lessons to learn from those places that people value most, about how to make our cities better. I think most planners would agree, most large real estate developers would agree, most politicians who care about these things would agree, that the new urbanism argument has won the day. The problem is that the new urbanist ethos is not yet being applied in any comprehensive way across the country. What’s needed now is not more thinking about how to do it right, but to correct this amazing gap that exists between what we know is right, and how cities in America are still made and remade.

GR: Why is walkability is so important?

JS: You don’t need me to tell you that for a city to thrive and to be a place of attraction, there needs to be street life. I had an experience of working over four years with mayors: Every two months somewhere in America, I would meet with eight mayors in my role as design director at the National Endowment for the Arts. It became very clear in the language of the mayors that if they weren’t achieving street life in their cities, they weren’t achieving the sort of ambiance or experience or lifestyle that people who were most likely to move into their cities were searching for. We’re seeing in the cities that have seen walkability come to them earlier, like Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., that empty-nesters are moving into (those) cities in great numbers, because they realize they won’t need to re-retire to a home when they lose their car keys if they live in a place where walking is useful. So in terms of being competitive, the individual cities that I work for understand they need to provide that quality of life.

But there is a whole other discussion that has to do with our sustainability and our health as a nation. We have doubled the number of roads in this country since 1970, and what that has gotten for us is that we have doubled the percentage of our income that we spend on transportation. In the ’70s, the typical American family spent $1 out of every $10 on transportation. They now spend $2 out of every $10 on transportation. It is because we have created this burden of the automobile, this prosthetic device. We have created a landscape in which there is no so such thing as the useful walk or the useful bike. And so we are tethered to these vehicles that the whole landscape was designed around. Poor people are paying 40 percent of their income on transportation. Working Americans, defined as earning between $20,000 and $50,000 per year, are spending more on transportation than they are on housing. We have really crippled our capacity to be economically productive in this country by tying so much of our development to this need to drive everywhere. By the way, 85 cents of every $1 that you spend on driving leaves your local economy. So it is also a destructive local practice.

GR: There’s a detail in your book about this that struck me, about the overall danger to your life living in a city versus living in a rural or suburban area: When you combined the danger of driving with crime, you were finding that cities were actually less likely to kill you than any other place.

JS: Bill Lucy did a number of studies in recent years, where essentially he combined death by stranger with death by automobile in neighborhood after neighborhood around the country, and he found that in whatever metropolitan area he looked at, you were pretty much safest in the inner city. You were safer living and hanging out in the inner-city ghetto than you were hanging out in the leafy country-club suburbs, because the murder rate was so statistically insignificant compared to the death by automobile. We have lost 3.3 million Americans, more than all of our wars combined, in car crashes. People tend to ignore that when they make their decisions, for example, to move to the suburbs for the safety of the children.

GR: You spent some time at Syracuse University in your graduate studies. Given your level of familiarity with Syracuse, is there anything that it has done particularly well or particularly poorly when it comes to walkability?

JS: Syracuse is a city that has good bones, nice block structure. It certainly experienced the highway evisceration that other cities did and the flight that a lot of cities did. But there has been some significant gains in the past few years, among them the decision by the architectural school to put an outpost in downtown and some further commitment from the leadership at Syracuse University to have a stronger physical connection with the downtown of the city. I would say that the biggest issue that Syracuse has to deal with, that it struggles with every day, is this regional skill issue. Are we going to encourage more suburbanization and more sprawl, or are we going to take measures as a region to make it more possible for those people that want an urban lifestyle, who want to live in the more walkable pleasant areas of the city, to do so?

I’ve only written two or three letters to the editor in my many years, but one of them was to Syracuse University Magazine, which had a spread about – this was back in 1994 or 1995 – the rise of Syracuse and the great things that were happening in Syracuse. One of the highlights about the city was this mall, which I think then was called the Carousel (Center). I wrote an angry letter about how all malls do are hurt cities. Single-use malls that require automobile ownership to get to them undermine the quality of the city and shouldn’t be lauded as a positive thing. My letter was published, and then there was an editorial response underneath by the editor, who said just as a correction the mall is located within Syracuse city limits, so it is part of the city. I know it’s part of your city; I don’t care where it sits according to some line on a map. It’s not good for your downtown. It’s not good for where your city residents are. I followed, with some irony, the repeated attempts to turn this thing into the Mall of America, when that is so much the old model. It is a past vision of the future. The developer hasn’t changed his model in 50 years.

GR: You’ve just tapped into some political nerves for the city and its history. Let me ask you a different question regarding Syracuse that is front and center of us now: What to do with Interstate 81 is a big question for us.

JS: If it’s an interstate that’s handling (interstate) truck traffic, it’s much harder to make the argument to bring this thing down to the surface, because it is still handling a ton of traffic and it’s not going to go away. It just has to be dispersed. I should say though, if you do the math and you look at the cost of rebuilding it elevated, which is tremendous, and look at the cost of bringing it down to the ground as a beautiful tree-lined, gold-plated boulevard, which is considerably less, and then you look at the value of real estate surrounding the road – highways sunder real estate value, boulevards create real estate value. That real estate value leads to tax revenue, and the experience in places like San Francisco and New York, when the highways came down, is that the increased tax revenue based on development around new beautiful boulevards was so great that it ultimately paid for the change several times over. So if it’s brought down to earth, if it is redesigned with low-speed geometries even though it has a great volume, it could be an asset that benefits the city and everyone in it.

Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.

Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.

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