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Teach yourself how to make your city better, in 101 easy steps

Urban planning expert Jeff Speck’s new book, Walkable City Rules, equips advocates and engaged citizens with a framework for asking for more of their cities.

Teach yourself how to make your city better, in 101 easy steps
[Photo: Aurelien Romain/Unsplash]

It does not take too much travel throughout the United States to understand that in most places, people prefer to get around by car: Over 76% of people, according to the most recent Census data, commute in an automobile, by themselves. Even in a city like Seattle, known for a strong bus network and environmental commitments, nearly 30% of people drive to work solo. In places like Oklahoma City, which seem to have been designed for the car, only 2.2% of people do not.

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In addition to this being an environmental threat–pollution from vehicles is one of the leading contributors to climate change–it also makes for a fairly isolated, frustrating experience of the city. That was urban planner Jeff Speck’s point when he wrote the book Walkable City in 2012. It wasn’t strictly about the problems of car dependency or the benefits of walking; rather, it was a book about what makes cities work well for the people in them, and “walkability” seemed to be a word that resonated with people. Rather than the solitary experience of being alone in a car, walkability brought to mind people mingling in welcoming streets or in parks–essentially, bringing cities to life, and advancing their own well-being in the process.

In the last decade, urban designers and transportation planners have begun to think more imaginatively about how to increase walkability in cities. Speck, in his past work, has tried to make the case for why they should do so. But he realized that convincing planners and designers to create more walkable, livable cities left out some important voices–those of the people they’re creating city plans for.

[Photo: Island Press]
“The planning of cities has always had an impact on people’s lives,” Speck tells Fast Company. “But now, the difference is: People are beginning to see that they have a role in it.” Speck cites two reasons. One: As technology has sprung up to make everything from government to transit more accessible and responsive, people feel more connected to the systems around them, and more able to influence them. And two: Younger people, especially millennials, are gravitating more toward living in cities, based on the quality of life there. Around 64% of young people who move pick a city on its livability before anything else, and only then look for a job. As a result, Speck says, they feel a sense of ownership over the place where they choose to live, and an urge to get involved with shaping it for the better.

His latest book, then, is an effort, Speck says, to weaponize his previous work “for deployment in the field.” Called Walkable City Rules:101 Steps to Making Better Places, it breaks down the principles of good, livable urban planning and street design concepts into 101 digestible rules. He hopes, as he has done with his earlier work, that transportation planners and urban designers will read it and get something out of it. But really, Speck says, he compiled it for regular, albeit civically engaged citizens, so they can pinpoint specific improvements they want to see in their cities, and advocate most effectively for them.

“People were going to public meetings and demanding change and more walkable cities,” Speck says. “But they found that they were a little bit stranded when it came to details.” While citizens, intuitively, were waking up to the fact that they wanted more connected communities and safer streets, they often didn’t know what, exactly, they should be pushing for. Exactly how wide should a proposed bike lane be? What improvements would make crossing a wide street safer?

The “rules” in the book span a spectrum of complexity. There are simple suggestions for people to digest and recommend, like how to build great and safe crosswalks (when possible, use texture like pebbled paint or rumble strips to demarcate them, and use bright, high-contrast paint colors to stripe them directly onto roads). Reading the book, you can easily imagine feeling empowered to bring these recommendations before a planning committee that’s mulling street improvements in your neighborhood. Speck also drops in useful facts, like streets without dotted lines tend to encourage drivers to go more slowly, and that intersections with four-way stop signs are safer than those with traffic lights because they prevent drivers from trying to zoom through on yellow lights, and instead encourage more awareness.

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But Speck also tackles the bigger questions, like what’s at stake in advancing urban walkability, in compact and direct chapters. The book opens with a section on how to “sell” walkability, and Speck breaks down how walkable cities improve overall prosperity, health, environmental outcomes, equity, and community cohesion. “Walkable and bikeable cities are more equitable cities,” Speck says. While good pedestrian infrastructure and bike lanes tend to be equated with more prosperous neighborhoods, bicyclists and pedestrians are more likely to be low-income. Speck reminds readers to approach these conversations with the facts, and let real needs (like stopping climate change and supporting equitable mobility) drive policy and design decisions.

Ultimately, it’s everyday people who have to live with the decisions that transportation agencies and urban design firms bestow on their cities. Speck’s book makes the case that they can, and should, have a say in those decisions, and how they shape the landscapes of where they live.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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