Author’s talks will focus on making cities more walkable

January 13, 2014

Urban planners, who in the decades after World War II helped redesign America’s cities and towns around the automobile, have been trying to warn people ever since then that they really screwed up.

Finally, most people are beginning to agree, says Jeff Speck, a veteran city planner and author of the 2012 book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time.

Health professionals cite car culture as a big reason an epidemic in obesity and related physical problems. Economists note that suburban sprawl has become costly to taxpayers because all of the new infrastructure rarely pays for itself. Plus, a lack of public transportation in many areas has put costly burdens of car ownership and maintenance on the working poor.

bookcoverThe environmental movement has had an anti-urban bent since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau. But that has changed dramatically.

“And all of a sudden environmentalists discovered that if you live in a city your footprint is much lighter than if you live in sprawl,” Speck said. “In fact, cities are a solution to our environmental crises, both locally and globally.”

Most of all, Speck says, average citizens, from young adults to their empty-nester parents, have embraced cities again. Across the country, home values in walkable, urban neighborhoods are rising much faster than those in the kinds of car-dependent suburbs that have dominated American development since the 1950s.

“Walkable cities actually save us money, make us money and are poised to thrive in the next couple of decades while unwalkable places aren’t,” Speck said in a telephone interview last week from his home in Washington, D.C.

Speck will be talking about these trends — and giving advice to community leaders about how to make their towns more walkable — at a lecture and workshop this week in Frankfort.

Speck will give a lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Grand Theatre on St. Clair Mall, with a book signing to follow. Tickets are $10. On Friday, he will lead a two-hour workshop, beginning at 9 a.m., at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Auditorium, 200 Mero St. Admission is $25.

His visit is part of a conference sponsored by the Kentucky Heritage Council in conjunction with the annual winter meeting of the Kentucky Main Street Program, which works to improve life in the historic centers of the state’s towns and cities. Conference registration, including both of Speck’s sessions, is $100. More information:

Most people don’t need convincing about the importance of walkability, he said, but they do need help with strategies for making it happen.

speckSpeck’s book notes that many communities made walking more difficult because they were being designed for other considerations. For example, many streets and intersections are oversized to accommodate the largest-possible emergency vehicles. Fewer but bigger schools and parks have been built because they are easier for officials to maintain and show off than the alternative, which often would be easier for citizens to get to and use.

“The twin gods of smooth traffic and ample parking” took the life out of many once-thriving downtowns, Speck writes, turning them into places that are “easy to get to but not worth arriving at.”

Speck writes that there are four criteria for successful pedestrian areas: walking must be safe, comfortable, interesting and useful. By useful, he means that necessities of daily life — shopping, restaurants and workplaces — must be close and arranged so they can be easily accessed by walking.

Speck’s book outlines 10 steps for city walkability. Those include mixed-use neighborhoods, good mass transit, well-designed and affordable parking facilities, ample trees and bicycle-friendly streets.

The biggest challenge many American cities and towns will face in coming years will be retrofitting mid- and late-20th century suburbs to make them more accessible for aging Baby Boomers and the working poor.

“We’ve laid the groundwork for a major social crisis,” he said.

The best hope is often restoring traditional downtowns and making new developments better for walking, biking and mass transit. That will require changing many ingrained rules and attitudes about traffic and street design.

“Most traffic engineers are really nice people,” Speck said. “But they will wreck your city.”  

Watch Jeff Speck’s TED Talk on walkable cities:

New Louisville mayor wants Lexington partnership

January 2, 2011

Louisville Mayor-elect Greg Fischer, right, chats with people in mid-December at a holiday lunch for Louisville tourism officials. Photo by Tom Eblen

LOUISVILLE — Anyone who has lived in Kentucky very long knows Lexington and Louisville are separated by much more than 75 miles of Interstate 64 and a blue vs. red college sports rivalry.

The state’s two largest cities have always been insular in ways that no longer make economic sense. That is because success in a 21st-century global economy can be as much about collaboration as competition — and a lot more about regions than cities.

Kentucky’s business and civic leaders have been slowly coming around to this idea. But the election of new mayors with similar backgrounds, outlooks and goals could be a game-changer.

Lexington’s new mayor, Jim Gray, and Louisville’s new mayor, Greg Fischer, take office this week. They are both 50-something Democrats who begin their first executive jobs in government with experience as chief executives of creative, entrepreneurial and globally focused companies. If anybody gets the new economic reality that cities face, they should.

“I do think it’s a new day for both cities,” Fischer said. “Having mayors that understand that should be a plus.”

I know Gray, 57, pretty well. But I hadn’t met Fischer until last month, when I drove to Louisville to interview him at his no-frills campaign headquarters in a converted bourbon warehouse east of downtown.

Fischer, 52, was born and raised in Louisville. He graduated from Trinity High School before heading to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Fischer said he helped start or invest in about 20 companies, beginning at age 25 with SerVend, which makes automated ice and beverage dispensers still used in many restaurants.

Long active in the community, the married father of four hasn’t been in politics long. He lost the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2008 to Bruce Lunsford, who then failed to unseat Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Fischer succeeds Louisville’s longest-serving mayor, Jerry Abramson, who stepped down to become Gov. Steve Beshear’s re-election running mate.

Fischer said he first met Gray, the CEO of his family’s construction company, about four years ago. Fischer wanted to pick his brain on behalf of a company he partially owns, Dant Clayton Corp., which builds sports stadiums.

“Little did we know four years ago that we would be sitting across the table in different capacities now,” Fischer said. “I enjoy Jim’s personality, his optimism, his team-building approach. He’s got good energy to him.”

Fischer said he hopes to have a regular dialogue with Gray. “We have been texting back and forth, but haven’t had substantive conversations yet,” he said.

Fischer’s ideas and philosophy sound strikingly similar to Gray’s.

Like Gray, Fischer’s top priority is creating jobs. While there have been some encouraging announcements recently by major employers such as Ford Motor Co. and General Electric, Louisville has lost more than 24,000 jobs in the past decade, mainly in manufacturing.

Fischer said he plans to focus on industry sectors in which Louisville is already strong, such as transportation logistics and health care companies that focus on long-term and aging care. Partnering with Lexington and other nearby cities also will be a priority.

The two cities’ economies tend to complement rather than compete with each other. And there are many things they share, such as a central location and auto manufacturing and supply industries.

Those rival sports teams are attached to major research universities that could play a bigger role in developing long-term knowledge jobs in Kentucky, Fischer noted. “People talk about the rivalry, but I see that as an advantage, because we’re always talking to each other,” he said.

“It makes all the sense in the world for Louisville and Lexington — Frankfort’s obviously there, and maybe Elizabethtown — to work together as a region to be viewed as relevant on an international scale,” he said. “We’ve got to be thinking globally now when we think about competition. We’ve got to be able to overcome any parochial interests or baggage and look forward.”

The two cities also must work with Northern Kentucky to convince the rural-dominated General Assembly that what is good for urban areas is good for the entire state, because they produce most of Kentucky’s jobs and taxes.

Fischer would like to see legislation allowing local-option sales taxes to allow Kentucky cities to be more competitive with similar-sized cities in other states. But just as important is comprehensive state tax reform that will encourage businesses to set up shop here rather than elsewhere. “Right now,” he said, “our tax code is not our friend.”

As Louisville and Lexington develop long-term strategic plans, they should pay attention to how those complement each other. “Then let’s create a joint plan between our cities,” he said.

“We are in a natural position to be more allies than what we are,” Fischer said of Louisville and Lexington. “We’re just an hour away. If we were living in a large metropolitan area, that would be the average commute, or less, for a lot of people.”

Charleston mayor’s ideas right for Lexington, too

March 6, 2010

Joe Riley is an evangelist for historic preservation, good urban design and proven strategies for making cities more livable and economically successful.

He founded the national Mayors’ Institute for City Design. The Joseph P. Riley Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Studies at the College of Charleston is named for him. But Riley’s best credential is his day job: since 1975, for an unprecedented nine terms, he has been the mayor of Charleston, S.C.

People who know Charleston often remark on what a great city it is — the beautiful waterfront, the Spoleto arts festival and the colorfully painted historic homes. Those old enough to remember what the city used to be like talk about how much it has improved.

During Riley’s tenure, Charleston’s annual tourist trade has increased from 1.7 million to 4.4 million visitors. At the same time, the city has often made lists of the best places to live and do business.

Riley was in Lexington last Wednesday to speak to an overflow crowd at the Downtown Public Library. Many civic leaders were there, as well as all four candidates for mayor.

With a rapid-fire PowerPoint presentation that lasted for more than an hour, Riley flashed slide after slide showing Charleston’s transformation from the time when “our downtown almost died.”

The pictures showed dozens of dilapidated buildings restored to elegance and commercial success; modest but well-designed public housing so attractive that expensive condos were later built across the street; neighborhoods and commercial streets rescued from neglect by city leaders who demanded and got high-quality private development; an elegant public park on what was once a waterfront eyesore.

“A big challenge was this vacant lot right in the middle of downtown,” Riley said at one point, prompting the crowd to erupt in laughter. “Oh, you have one of those, too?”

A key factor in Charleston’s success has been historic preservation. “We work hard to keep the bulldozers out,” he said.

Historic preservation hasn’t been so much about preserving the past — “we’re not a movie set or a theme park,” Riley said — but about creating an authentic, irreplaceable and human-scaled environment where people naturally want to be. The city also insists that new development be well-designed, well-built and, well, worthy of being in Charleston.

That means having effective laws and regulations, but also the kind of professional architectural review processes Lexington lacks. Such a process helps ensure that new development is appropriate, well-designed and in the best interests of the entire city and not just an individual developer or property owner.

“Try not to plop things down,” Riley said of new development. “Make it work. Make it fit.”

Excellence is often achieved with that last 5 percent of effort, the mayor noted. He repeatedly gave examples of using his political skills to make sure old buildings were saved, money was found to restore them and proposed new construction added to rather than detracted from the rest of the city. Riley said he once called then-President Bill Clinton to insist that a new federal building respect Charleston’s downtown esthetic.

“There’s never an excuse to build anything that doesn’t add to the beauty of a city,” Riley said, acknowledging that “the political land mines are all over the place.”

Successful cities put a lot of emphasis on beautiful public space that attracts people. “The things of value are increasingly the things we own together,” he said. “When you build a great public realm, the private money and development will follow.”

Riley’s strong leadership is controversial; he has always had a re-election opponent, and last time he had three. But Riley’s approach has clearly worked for Charleston and most of its citizens. He was re-elected for an eighth time in 2007 with 64 percent of the vote.

City-building is a complicated stew, but the principles Riley outlined are simple: vision, leadership, and a commitment to long-term value for the entire city rather than just short-term profit for individuals.

When Lexington has followed those principles, it has enjoyed some of its greatest success: creating the Urban Services Boundary in 1958; restricting rural lot sizes in 1964 and 1999; starting the Purchase of Development Rights program in 2000; and creating historic districts over the past 50 years (often, though, after significant damage was already done.)

Lexington has failed when it ignored those principles and allowed tacky, vinyl-box housing, commercial sprawl, haphazard architecture and, since the 1950s, the destruction of classic downtown buildings to make way for parking lots, drab concrete boxes and ego-driven glass towers.

“Our success as a culture, economic and otherwise, will depend on our cities,” Riley said. “We must treat them as precious heirlooms that we inherit and hold in trust for future generations.”