Jeff Speck wants you to take a walk.
Speck, a city planner and urban designer from Brookline, Mass., has advocated internationally for cities to embrace smart growth and sustainable design. He’ll display his urban prowess March 2 during the Downtown Partnership’s second lecture in its City Center Series.
He was director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003-07 and created the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, a federal program that helps state governors combat suburban sprawl.
His resumé also includes director of town planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., a leading practitioner of New Urbanism, the philosophy behind creating walkable, diverse, mixed-use urban areas in cities.
Since 2007, he’s led his own planning firm, Speck & Associates. His latest book, “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time,” has been one of the top city-planning books since 2013.
General Theory of Walkability
Speck, a regular public speaker, said his presentation in Colorado Springs will be useful for city leaders and local planners if it provides residents with some practical methods for creating a more walkable, bicycle-friendly and diverse, vibrant city.
But what exactly is a walkable city?
“There’s a concept I call the ‘General Theory of Walkability,’ and it talks about the four essential things neighborhoods, let alone cities, need to be walkable,” Speck said.
Those components are usefulness, safety, comfort and interesting infrastructure.
To be useful to residents and visitors, cities need a certain balance of retail space, office space and housing, Speck said.
“Neighborhoods where useful walking is a possibility — they’re not just housing or offices or retail,” he said. “So what is a balance of uses?”
Creating mixed-use spaces in suburbs and existing neighborhoods can be difficult, he said.
In particular, it’s hard to add retail to local neighborhoods.
“A corner store in a cul de sac is hard,” he said. “The neighbors are likely to object and [the store’s] survivability is not likely because it probably won’t get the traffic it needs.”
Speck said the best opportunity for walkable success — and therefore his focus — is in downtowns.
Safety is the component that is the easiest to fix, he said.
“Downtown Colorado Springs would benefit from a restriping study,” he said. “One of the first things you could do is restripe streets.”
Speck said restriping encourages increased bike usage and slower drivers.
“Streets are engineered to be forgiving if you speed, but that usually just encourages people to speed,” he said.
Typical streets have several components that determine comfort and provide “a fighting chance against the automobile,” he said.
Items like smaller blocks, more stop signs and fewer traffic signals at intersections, as well as more bikes, additional bike-share facilities and wide sidewalks all increase the comfort level of a walkable city. Speck said uncomfortable design includes parking lots that offset businesses from sidewalks.
“One of the worst things cities have done is regulate parking,” he said.
The final component of a walkable city is creating interesting spaces.
“It sounds obvious, but it’s often not regulated, or there’s regulation against interesting faces on buildings,” he said.
Speck said interesting walks mean limited design repetition, as well as filling blank walls and spaces with aesthetically pleasing and interesting components.
“Humans are social primates and we’re interested in other humans,” he said. “We want signs of humanity or we won’t keep walking.”
When suburbs reigned
While existing downtowns have the best chance of being remade into walkable cities, suburbs also have opportunities.
Speck said older suburbs with main streets and commercial properties lining sidewalks have existing infrastructure to create walkable communities.
One trend in suburban planning is to retrofit old office parks and shopping centers with mixed-use town centers. He pointed to Lakewood’s Belmar development as an example. Belmar was created from the Denver suburb’s former Villa Italia Mall, and built on a national trend toward compact, mixed-use developments.
But for downtowns, housing is the key to walkability, he said. Cities should invite and even subsidize downtown housing.
“For many cities, tax increment financing is a good way to work on that,” he said. “Cities need to also look through their codes and see what impediments exist to make that housing attainable.”
Speck said comfort and interest are often stalled by city codes.
“Do they influence the locations of parking lots behind buildings?” he asked. “Do buildings come up to sidewalks and is there variety? Many zoning codes actually mitigate against walkable cities.”
That’s because many municipal codes are imported from “the greatest era of code writing” — the 1940s through the 1970s, when suburbs reigned.
“When cities in the ’80s and ’90s and later updated codes and wanted to use best practice, those [codes] were suburban,” he said. “Many cities have codes in place that don’t allow for the best neighborhoods.”
Physical benefits aside, walkability can also translate to positive economic impacts for cities, to include more valuable homes and rentals, as well as lower vacancy rates.
“Portland [Ore.] showed that by investing in biking and walking, it actually reduced the length of [residents’] average commutes and ultimately saved the city 3 percent of its GDP,” he said.
If you go:
Speck’s presentation will take place at the Richard F. Celeste Theatre in the Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center at Colorado College.
Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the presentation begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10 and are available at DowntownCS.com/CityCenter.