Review: Walking cure for cash-strapped U.S. cities

April 19, 2013

By Martin Langfield
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Many American cities, from Detroit to San Bernardino, are under financial pressure. Jeff Speck, an urban planner, has a suggestion: make them more pedestrian-friendly. His book “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time” makes the case. Provide it, and they will come.

Creating more walkable neighborhoods brings in dollars, Speck says: home prices are higher in mixed-use areas that encourage pedestrians, and business revenue rises when downtown zones attract foot traffic. Street life fosters propinquity – frequent interaction with neighbors – which is good for innovation and serendipitous encounters. Research suggests this enhances the productivity, and hence taxable income, of both people and firms.

Speck thinks that pedestrian culture, scaled to people rather than cars, can rise in many cities as the old American model – suburban sprawl, dangerous roads and lifeless downtowns – declines. Two major demographic cohorts, in particular, need to be wooed by cities looking to prosper.

The first are the “millennials” born toward the end of the 20th century. The children and grandchildren of the post-World War Two baby boomers constitute a significant bubble of people, and they like the urban lifestyle. Speck cites research saying that 77 percent of them plan to live in America’s urban cores, and that many are more car-averse than their parents. Since 64 percent of college-educated millennials “choose first where they want to live, and only then do they look for a job,” investments in pedestrian living are likely to pay off.

The second group is the baby boomers themselves, who are now retiring en masse. Four times as many Americans as a decade ago are turning 65 every year, Speck says. As these empty-nesters downsize and lose the desire or ability to drive, they will be drawn to easily walkable living arrangements in small cities and towns – “naturally occurring retirement communities,” as Speck terms them. “Those cities that can satisfy their unmet demand will thrive.”

In line with his profession, Speck thinks that good planning can make the difference between urban success and failure. He has some suggestions, ranging in cost from expensive mass transit to cheap cycle lanes and free zoning decisions. Speck structures his book around a breezy 10-point checklist of how to do it, based on his own sometimes fraught experience of working with city mayors, bureaucrats and architects. Among them:

Don’t ban cars, but do put them in their place. Narrower roads with congestion charges and expensive parking will keep down disruptive traffic. Technology can help: San Francisco’s parking website provides an example of what is possible.

Invest in public transport, but not blindly – it will drive up real estate prices along its routes if done right, but fail if cars are required at both ends of the journey to get around. Also give cyclists bikepaths – they’re cheap and effective, and a good way to connect walkable neighborhoods within cities.

Make zoning work. Mix housing in with businesses, make streets feel less exposed and look more interesting, and plant lots of trees.

Above all, Speck says, pick winners. Some neighborhoods aren’t suitable for the walkability treatment. If walkability resources are deployed where they can make the most difference, all residents will benefit.

Speck’s proposition is alluring: to solve financial woes in a way that makes residents and cities not only wealthier but healthier, greener and more integrated – the “save America” part of his title. Of course, Speck’s measures are not a panacea for all urban problems. But anyone who has tried life without a car in many U.S. cities will agree that he is onto something.

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