Book Club: Walking and Talking

To mark the return of the Next American City Book Club, we invite you to an online discussion about Jeff Speck’s book Walkable City with Brendan Crain of the Project for Public Spaces.

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Editor’s note: After a brief hiatus, we are ready to launch the second phase of Next American City’s Book Club. This time around, each installment will consist of two posts: One serving as a straight review by our new curator, Brady Dale, and another in which Dale and an expert in the field have a back-and-forth conversation about the book. We encourage you to join the discussion in the comments or on Twitter using the hashtag #NextCityBooks.

As a follow-up to my review about Jeff Speck’s Walkable City, I invited Brendan Crain, communications manager for the Project for Public Spaces, to have an online chat about the new book. Crain has broad experience working to expand civic involvement in planning urban spaces and had his own review of Walkable City published today.

Below, Crain talks about the value of random encounters afforded by the street, proper management of public spaces, and why planning for community a project, even if it doesn’t come to pass, still has social benefit.

Next American City: Having read over some of PPS materials, it really seemed like Walkable City reflects a lot of the same goals PPS has around placemaking. What did you think about the tactics Speck proposes to advance placemaking? For example, I noticed that you had an article about streets as places, not just arteries for cars. Which made me think of the “Shared Space” parts of Speck’s volume.

Brendan Crain: They’re related ideas, but not exactly the same. The idea behind shared space, Hans Monderman’s original idea, is that streets have become too regimented. Cars go here, people here, bikes here. But if you take away a lot of that definition, as Speck puts it, you actually make the street safer by making it “look less safe.” In other words, people are more careful no matter how they’re moving around, because they aren’t able to zone out and say “I’m in the car part, so I can just tear through here.”

Streets as Places goes a bit further than that, and focuses not just on how people are moving through a street, but what they’re doing while they’re there. It’s less prescriptive. Shared streets are only appropriate under certain circumstances; Streets as Places is a broader concept that focuses on recognizing that all streets are places, and should be treated with the same care and attention to social factors as other public spaces, like parks or plazas

NAC: The social aspects of Speck’s book were surprising. For example, the part about the spouses of employees at Wolverine Worldwide who didn’t like living in a car-based city because it was difficult to make new friends. That it’s not enough to be friendly and welcoming if there’s no way to have random encounters.

Crain: That’s one of the most important things about how a great public space works: It encourages the kinds of short, random encounters that keep loose ties intact. We need our loose networks. Research has shown that people with extensive loose social networks are more likely to find economic opportunities and be happier. And if we don’t have public spaces where we can bump into our friends and neighbors on occasion, the work of maintaining one of those networks can be overwhelming.

NAC: I found his argument that the same social needs also applied to business. That it is really hard for small storefronts to make it if there aren’t a lot of people already walking around.

Crain: Right. Concentration of activity is important. There’s a term that he uses that I hadn’t heard before: “Urban triage.” He makes a good point, that you can’t spread a little money around all over the place when trying to create walkability. You have to figure out where the concentration of amenities is the highest, and start developing that into a walkable district, and build out from there. As Speck puts it, “It only takes a few blocks to create a reputation.”

NAC: I hinted about this part of the book at the end of my post.

Crain: There’s something that we talk about a lot here at PPS. One of our core concepts, called the Power of 10, is about how to have a great public space. You need to have at least 10 different things to do.

NAC: I used to work in low-income organizing and then environmental advocacy, and I couldn’t help but put Speck’s last chapter [“Step 10: Pick Your Winners”] into a political context. Just to spell it out for our readers, Speck’s last point was that you may do better to put all your resources into the part of a city that is the readiest for walkability. In other words, the place that needs it least, which is counter-intuitive. But his point is that success in one place can (and he says he’s seen it) radiate outward. Living here in Philadelphia, folks are really happy about the comeback that Center City has made.

Crain: The rising tide floats all boats.

NAC: But there is also resentment that so many resources and energy goes into the wealthiest part of town.

Crain: I used to live in Chicago, and that was something I heard a lot there, too. So much money was going into downtown revitalization during [former Mayor Richard M.] Daley’s latter years, and it wasn’t exactly going over well with people in less affluent parts of town. Of course, the Loop is also a fantastic and very necessary place. It’s the place where the different, very physically divided sides of town come together.

NAC: What you are saying about the Loop reminds me of my own experience in Philadelphia. I had a boss when I was doing low-income work who used to say that Philadelphians only know two places — their own neighborhood and Center City. Seems like that might be the same for Chicagoans and the Loop.

Crain: What did you think of his idea that downtown is the place we all share? And that it’s the best place to invest if you want to affect quality of life for everyone in town?

NAC: It makes sense to me, but in a city as big as Philadelphia or Chicago, there are many downtowns. Chicago, though, is a lot like Philadelphia in that way. One hugely well known downtown, but lots of other little commercial centers that serve parts of the city.

Crain: Yes, Chicago is a neighborhoods city.

Long Island City in Queens, New York. Credit: Marjorie Lipan on Flickr

NAC: You’re in New York now, though, correct? Speck seems to argue that NYC is all set.

Crain: In a way, yes. There is a lot of New York’s public realm that is still wanting, but recent programs like the Broadway plazas have been a major boon.

Long Island City has seen improvements, but nowhere near the level of somewhere like Herald Square. The area along the water has been built up heavily, but go a few blocks east and it’s a totally different feel.

NAC: On the face of it, Speck’s idea of investing in downtowns makes a lot of sense, but I do think it’s the most controversial idea in the book, put in practice.

Crain: It’s also pretty central to his theory of how walkability works. This is something that I could really feel throughout the book — it’s a book about urban design. It doesn’t delve much into the placemaking side of things; at least not how we think of placemaking at PPS. Walkable City is more concerned with the hard elements of the city: How streets are shaped, how buildings frame spaces, how many cars are allowed in a given area, etc.

NAC: Yes, it’s all about the tactics.

Crain: Whereas what we do is to work on getting more people involved in deciding how their neighborhood streets and spaces will look and feel, and what they’ll be able to do there.

NAC: With the goal of getting people really invested in places, right?

Crain: Yes. If you participate in deciding how a space will be used, you’re more likely to use it and take care of it once its finished. There’s a line we use often — that successful public spaces are 80 percent to 90 percent about management.

The key thing to keep in mind, there, is that a lot of spaces are actually managed passively, by their users. Go to a place like Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village and compare it with something like Millennium Park in Chicago. Both great parks, but the management style is vastly different. Washington Square essentially regulates itself. There’s always a great mix of activity, because it’s a highly flexible space, and it attracts so many different people.

NAC: It seems like, in a way, Speck’s book comes at the question of walkability a bit differently. It’s a very pro-technocratic book.

Crain: Yes. Absolutely.

NAC: Set everything up right, invest right, use a lot of smarts and everything will fall into place. If folks don’t like it, they just don’t understand. Like with the parking meters.

Crain: There’s a disconnect there, no? I found it interesting that, in the prologue, he says that there is no longer a need for an intellectual revolution, that people already get it. But then immediately points out that we’ve known this stuff for decades and still haven’t managed to pull it off.

NAC: As a former full-time environmentalist, the second part made perfect sense to me. In fact, he also makes a joke later in the book about the Time article saying traffic engineers already get the value of walkers.

Chicago’s Millenium Park. Credit: Carl Wycoff on Flickr

Crain: I would argue that the very reason those of us who are advocating for restoring a more walkable urban fabric in our cities haven’t “pulled it off” is right there. It’s that we’re still often focusing on the form. Anecdotally, I’ve heard stories before about people pushing walkability, mixed uses, etc. and bumping up against resistance from people who say, “Are you trying to tell us that everything we’ve been doing is wrong?”

We have to think of sprawl not as an abstract concept. It’s a place. Or rather, many places, where people live. And there are plenty of people who, for whatever reason, love their sprawling neighborhoods and towns. So how do we communicate the value of walkability and density and all of these things that are so critical to creating healthy, functioning communities without alienating people? That’s a big part of what I personally love about the placemaking process. Everyone is welcome at the table, and encouraged to participate. A community should be regularly talking about how it wants to look and operate. We need a lot more of this type of thing.

NAC: In that sense — going back to this intellectual revolution question — maybe Speck had a slightly smaller agenda. Set aside the communities that embrace sprawl, and focus in on the ones who want to be walkable.

When my review went up on NAC, we got a comment via Twitter. It was something along the lines of, “Bad news for trolley advocates in Kansas City.” What I took that to mean was there are folks advocating for a trolley in Kansas City for precisely the reason Speck said they shouldn’t. Because they wanted to spur walkability, whereas Speck says not to put the trolley before the feet (to morph a metaphor). So let’s put these ideas back into the concept of placemaking. How does a book like this help? For example: If you were doing a placemaking process, right? And folks around the table agreed on “walkability” as a goal. But they started espousing tactics that Speck’s book said would be wastes of money.

Would it be better to facilitate giving the participants the facilities or structures that they want, because they will feel ownership? Or is it better for an expert to help them see that they facility or structure won’t help them reach the goal of walkability? Where does this sort of expertise fit into that process?

Crain: I will say first that I’m not out in the trenches. My job within the organization means that I’m back at HQ, so I can only speak theoretically on this point.

I think, ideally, you wouldn’t want to think of your role as a facilitator in a placemaking process as “giving” anything to a community. You’re helping people to articulate what they intuitively understand about a space. But they need to decide for themselves what they’re going to invest in, in terms of money, time and energy. Let’s take your trolley example. That’s not an easy or quick project. That’s years and years of effort.

NAC: Definitely.

Crain: That’s a lot of time to get to know your neighbors as you work together on advocating for that trolley. So ultimately, whether the trolley is built or whether it winds up being too expensive and a new bike lane and busway comes through instead, there is social capital being built. There’s a stronger neighborhood after that particular project is over, and there are neighbors there who are now actively engaged in their community’s decision-making process. Walkable City is an entertaining read, and it makes a lot of important ideas very accessible for a wider audience than books on this subject usually do. But it’s only part of the puzzle.

Next up for the Book Club: Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis by Mark Binelli.

Brady Dale is a writer and performer living in Philadelphia. Find him on Twitter.

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Brady Dale is a writer and comedian based in Brooklyn. His reporting on technology appears regularly on Fortune and Brooklyn.

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