New Urbanism: If You Build Walkability, They Will Thrive

“New York City has saved more lives since 9/11 than it lost during 9/11, due to walkability,” said Jeff Speck, urban planner, architect and author of Walkable City, at a recent Seattle Town Hall talk. “A mile driven in Montana is less safe than a mile driven in Massachusetts.”

Walkable cities see fewer deaths by automobiles, have greener carbon footprints, boost business and promote health.

With baby boomers retiring and millenials starting careers—urban areas with high walkability are in high demand by both large chunks of the populace.

Walkability has many benefits—economic, environmental, health. For urban planners, developers, engineers and governments, Speck offers a 10-step approach to create walkable urban areas that would also attract talented workers, businesses and high-disposable-income retirees.

Speck says many small to mid-sized cities and downtown cores have poor walkability and are built to accommodate cars. “They are unsafe, uncomfortable and boring.” Rome was listed on Lonely Planet’s top 10 walkable cities, Speck believes, because of its fabric—everyday collection of streets, monuments and other cultural and civic qualities. Pedestrian-friendly cities need to be more than just safe with pretty spaces.

New urbanism—Speck’s approach—goes back to the future, embracing traditional urbanism (classic, walkable towns and neighborhoods) vs. automotive urbanism (sprawl and cul-de-sacs). Speck’s city vision includes four essential conditions to create a walkable built environment:

  1. Useful—everyday means for people to do errands and live a non-car-dependent life.
  2. Safe—pedestrians need to stand a fighting chance of getting around safely sans car.
  3. Comfortable—like an outdoor living room.
  4. Interesting—vibrant life on sidewalks, diverse building architecture, welcoming vibe.

Speck also said, “Walk Score is the cutting-edge of walkability.”

Book Excerpt

The number of nineteen-year-olds who have opted out of earning driver’s licenses has almost tripled since the late seventies, from 8 percent to 23 percent. This statistic is particularly meaningful when one considers how the American landscape has changed since the seventies, when most American teens could walk to school, to the store, and to the soccer field, in stark contrast to the realities of today’s autocentric sprawl.

A Demographic Perfect Storm
Meanwhile, the generation raised on Friends is not the only major cohort looking for new places to live. There’s a larger one: the millennials’ parents, the front-end boomers. They are citizens that every city wants—significant personal savings, no schoolkids.

And according to Christopher Leinberger, the Brookings Institution economist… empty nesters want walkability….

If Walk Score is so helpful in helping people decide where to live, then it can also help us determine how much they value walkability. Now that it has been around for a few years, some resourceful economists have had the opportunity to study the relationship between Walk Score and real estate value, and they have put a price on it: $500 to $3000 per point.

…the demand for walkable urbanism already outpaces the supply. This disparity is only going to get bigger.

Full excerpt from Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

Listen to Jeff Speck’s NPR interview.

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