THE NEW GREEN: The walkable city and urban planning
Published: Thursday, January 23, 2014
Updated: Thursday, January 23, 2014 22:01
Over the winter break, I had the happy coincidence of reading Jeff Speck’s groundbreaking book, “Walkable City,” while traveling in Spain for two and a half weeks. As my friend and I backpacked through the major cities between Barcelona and Madrid, I found myself immersed in the urban design principles presented in the book, and Speck’s insight into the real-world consequences of walkability proved to be unfailingly accurate. Following this informal study-abroad experience, I am more convinced than ever that designing our towns and cities to be more walkable is the single most powerful thing we can do to elevate the modern human experience and the everyday quality of life.
Speck, an architect and urban planner, introduces walkability as the primary determinant of urban vitality. “After several decades spent redesigning pieces of cities, trying to make them more livable and successful, I have watched my focus narrow to this topic as the one issue that seems to both influence and embody most of the others. Get walkability right and so much of the rest will follow.” America’s neighborhoods are at a special disadvantage because so much of our infrastructure and zoning codes were constructed with the express purpose of making the car the primary means of transport. As we all know, this has resulted in neighborhoods that are unenjoyable and often life-threateningly dangerous to navigate as a pedestrian.
Walkability does not simply mean that a city or suburb could be walked; it describes an area where walking is the most practical means of transportation. The goal is not to encourage citizens to take walks, but rather to integrate walking into daily life through intelligent design. The benefits of walking as part of an everyday lifestyle are extensive and profound. Speck catalogues them under the three categories of health, wealth and sustainability. For a comprehensive review of these benefits I would refer you to his book, but one of his more memorable examples is the city of Portland, Oregon. Portlanders drive an average of 20 percent less than the typical American, and economic expert Joe Cortright estimates that the annual savings to the city is somewhere around $2.6 billion due to decreased vehicular expenses and time wasted in traffic. In an interview with The Atlantic, Speck points out: “Unlike driving dollars, 85 percent of which are sent out of town, much of those savings are spent locally, on housing and recreation. Portlanders are said to have the most roof racks, independent bookstores and strip clubs per capita — all exaggerations, but only slight ones.”
In terms of health, the effects of daily walking on lowering obesity rates have been extensively supported by scientific studies, as has the lowering of asthma rates with decreased vehicular traffic. With 300,000 Americans dying every year from obesity and 14 each day from asthma attacks, we have a lot to gain from taking cars off of the road. And then there are car crashes – which many readers may be surprised to know are the “single-largest killer of healthy adults, and one of the largest killers of all people.” As a nation, the U.S. has one of the highest rates of car crash fatalities per 100,000 people (12, as compared to seven in England and four in Japan). Cities, at first glance, seem to have much lower rates: New York, for example, is the lowest at just 3 – but Speck shatters this theory with examples like Tulsa, a city with 14 deaths per 100,000 people, and Orlando with 20. He explains: “It’s not whether you’re in the city or not, it’s how is your city designed? Was it designed around cars or around people?”
Perhaps counter-intuitively, many experts now consider our urban areas to be the “greenest” portions of our planet. Due to the reduced reliance on cars, as well as the efficiency of infrastructure and energy distribution in high-density developments, greenhouse gas emissions per capita are actually staggeringly lower in cities than in suburban or rural areas. Speck notes that “the average New Yorker consumes roughly one third the electricity of the average Dallas resident, and ultimately generates less than one third the greenhouse gases of the average American. The average resident of Manhattan consumes gasoline ‘at a rate that the country as whole hasn’t matched since the mid-1920s.’”
As a citizen, all of these benefits are very important to me – but none of them are so powerful as the simple happiness that I discovered as a walking pedestrian. In Spain, I was thrillingly independent – I never had to coordinate for a ride or to think about parking. With 5-10 miles of walking built into each day between errands and tourist sites, I found no need to try to fit in a work-out, something that is a daily logistical struggle when living in suburbia. I really cannot adequately describe how much easier it was to attain a happy state of mind when living the walkable lifestyle. It was a combination of pure biology (numerous studies show that walking reduces stress), improved social engagement, and the fun of being able to interact with my environment rather than watch it pass through a pane of glass.
In a complete and almost eerie coincidence, a bookmark that was left in a used book that I purchased in Granada was printed with the following quote from Bertrand Russell, which I though fitting to copy here: “Man is an animal, and his happiness depends on his physiology more than he likes to think. Unhappy business men would increase their happiness more by walking six miles every day than by any possible change of philosophy.”