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Can a re-imagined and walkable downtown save America?

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Jeff Speck's new book, "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At A Time."

The traffic in L.A. is enough to drive anyone crazy. But if you're city planner Jeff Speck, it could inspire you to write a book.

The traffic in L.A. is enough to drive anyone crazy. But if you're city planner Jeff Speck, it could inspire you to write a book.

He's a city planner who travels around the world looking for ways to unclog traffic and make cities more livable. His new book is called "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At A Time." 

Interview Highlights:

Why do we need to be saved?
“I started out studying sprawl and the difference between sprawl and traditional neighborhoods and what life was like in those places, as a designer. I was surprised to find the groups that who got more attention and were more serious than designers were talking about the same thing. There are three main groups that have been stressing the value of cities over suburbanization. First is the doctors, the epidemiologists who in the 90’s figured out that sprawl is killing us in terms of what it was doing to our bodies, living in this environment where the automobile is a prosthetic device. The second is the environmentalists who now realize that for most of us who don’t own factories, the best way to stop contributing to global warming is to live in environments where we drive less, the third group led by Ed Glaeser, Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, and others, said that cities tend to be where the most inventiveness happens. Cities make us more productive”

You have travelled a lot in your studies, which city do you think is the best designed?
“The best cities for people and in some ways for living in with a car are those that were designed before the car… cars behave like water. The more space we give them the more space they take. Such as LA, they have been given a lot of room and they take up a lot of room. So my favorite cities are the ones that have plenty of cars in them, but cars that move slowly, like a Florence, Italy or a Boston, Massachusetts. There are a lot of small cities on the East coast, places designed before the car and have not been reamed out in order to speed the car.”

Are there places in Southern California that are fairly successful as “walkable” places?
“Santa Barbara is famous for being a place you can go to walk around. Interestingly LA is on “walk-score,” a website you can score your community, as one of the top ten neighborhoods in America list. There are tons of great neighborhoods in LA that are walkable, Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach, old town Pasadena. What isn’t so functional in LA is the way that they are connected together. The transit system that used to connect them together is dismantled. Living in LA and having friends all over LA means that you are in your car a lot.”

Can you talk about how old town Pasadena became successful?
“Old Pasadena is a fascinating experiment, Don Shoup, the world’s leading authority on parking at UCLA, studied old town Pasadena and Westwood, who back in the he 80’s were competing downtowns, they both decided they had a parking problem. Westwood responded by making parking free… and Pasadena responded by making parking a dollar an hour. The merchants didn’t want it at first, but they said look, we are going to take every dollar you spend on parking and put it towards improving the streets, planting trees, turning the alleys into beautiful pedestrian walkway system, and now as you know old town Pasadena eats Westwood’s lunch as a place you would want to be on a given afternoon, what sort of tax revenue comes out of it, and how the merchants are doing.”

What changes would you make to improve LA?
“Great thing about LA, the way we planners refer to it was say the ‘bones are good.’ It has a really nice street network, it has small blocks, blocks are essential. There was a study done that found if you double the block size you increase the fatality rate. The bones are good. The problem with LA is you essentially reamed out your streets. What were two or three or four lane streets with parallel parking and ample sidewalks and trees for pedestrians, in many cases those became four and five and six and eight lane streets, without moving the buildings or changing anything. So the basic framework is healthy. It is a matter of street by street determining where walkability is possible. There is no point trying to make the whole city walkable. There are certain parts which can be walkable which will attract people because of what is there, the uses and the pleasantness of the buildings, they have friendly faces and all the things that add up to people making the choice to walk because it is a pleasure. Those are the streets to fix, you have everything else but a good horizontal surface. And you fix the horizontal surface because that’s what a city can do.”

Is this an excessive cost in a state where money is at a premium?
“Most places I work do not rebuild the streets we simply restripe the street. When you restripe the “four-laner” into a “two-laner” downtown you can actually get rid of a lot of your signals. The best parts of many cities have four way stop signs at all the intersections. If you have ever been to Georgetown in Washington D.C. that’s essentially 100 blocks of four way stops and it’s a pleasure to walk around and a pleasure to drive around.”

What is your ideal city?
“The best places are places that have the quality that comes from many generations of people carrying for them. There isn’t a new city that has been built or I’ve worked on that I would rather be at than a place that has had 50, 100, 500 years of people being in it. The thing that distinguishes the current generation of planners, the new urbanists, is that we are not trying to reinvent the city, we are trying to recreate, we base it on all the qualities that make the cities we love great. We measure the streets, we count the trees, we see how tall the buildings are and how far apart they are and when we make new places we make them just like the best analogous places in the world.” You can read more about urban planning in Jeff Speck’s new book, "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At A Time.”

Excerpt of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At A Time by Jeff Speck

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