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:

Sidewalk vote will test Council’s credibility

June 10, 2009

Urban County Council members, this is a test.

You and Mayor Jim Newberry have made a great start in the past two years toward making Lexington a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly city. The vision you have outlined is ambitious and progressive.

How you vote Thursday night on whether to proceed with the Tates Creek Road sidewalk project will tell the rest of Lexington whether you’re serious.

These long-overdue sidewalks would connect with existing sidewalks on either end of a 1.6-mile stretch of Tates Creek Road, which runs from Dove Run Road to Lakewood Drive.

That busy stretch includes a shopping center, two banks and three large churches. It also is a key connector between southeast Lexington and the University of Kentucky’s Arboretum and campus.

If the sidewalks aren’t built, Lexington would likely have to give up $811,000 federal funds secured to pay most of the project’s $1.1 million cost.

These sidewalks have strong support from many area residents, including the Lansdowne Neighborhood Association.

Several dozen sidewalk supporters rallied at Lansdowne Shopping Center on Wednesday evening and walked along the proposed sidewalks’ path toward town. “We’re very hopeful that tomorrow night this thing will pass the council,” Council member Linda Gordon told the group.

But a group of residents along Tates Creek Road who don’t want sidewalks going through their yards — even though it is public right-of-way acquired when the road was widened several years ago — have hired a good lawyer and raised objections. Two council members, Julian Beard and Cheryl Feigel, have echoed their opposition.

I can understand some of the Tates Creek Road residents’ “not in my front yard” attitude. But these sidewalks have been planned for years. Many of Lexington’s nice residential thoroughfares, such as Richmond Road, have sidewalks that make them better places to live.

People already walk and bike down this busy stretch of Tates Creek Road. They’ve been doing it for years. It’s time they were able to do it safely and comfortably.

Besides, council members, if you reject the Tates Creek Road sidewalk project at this late date because of some special-interest pressure, you will lose public credibility for your vision of making Lexington a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly city.

If you’re going to talk the talk, you need to build the walk.

Click here to see a video report on Wednesday evening’s pro-sidewalk demonstration.