In Thrall of Sprawl: City Planner Lectures July 9 at the Figge Art Museum Print
News/Features - Local News
Tuesday, 03 July 2007 02:43

Jeff Speck Jeff Speck doesn't expect to be a popular person among government officials.

"It will be a little bit controversial," Speck said of his July 9 lecture at the Figge Art Museum. "I will attack your public-works department and your fire chief - never having met them."

He will attack them because they run the city - not officially, but as critical elements of the city-planning process. "Most cities, for better or for worse, are being designed by their public-works departments, who state as the highest objective the free flow of automobiles," Speck said in an interview last week. Fire departments, similarly, want wide roadways for emergency vehicles."That is directly at the expense of pedestrians."

Speck spent four years as director of design for the National Endowment of the Arts and describes himself as a "one-man city-planning consultant." He is co-author of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl & the Decline of the American Dream, which compellingly laments the loss of traditionally organized neighborhoods - with their compact combinations of offices, retail, recreation opportunities, and diverse housing. The problem, the book argues, is that the old-school concept of mixed use was replaced in the past half-century by single-use zoning, separating housing from retail from office from recreation with six-lane roads.

People don't like the results, Speck said: "Study after study shows that people love Main Street. They hate the strip center. They're bored by the mall. They love traditionally organized houses with front porches and row houses that have garage doors that don't face the street, and apartments that are dignified and well located. And [they] hate cookie-cutter cluster apartments and snout-nosed houses and parking-lot-fronted apartment complexes."

Speck's lecture is titled "The City Livable: Four Steps to a More Vital Quad Cities," but that's somewhat misleading. This will be Speck's third visit to the area - his wife is from here - but he said he won't be discussing specific problems in the Quad Cities. The lecture grew out of Speck's coordination of the Mayors' Institute on City Design, which pairs groups of elected officials with designers to solve communities' problems.

"I found it very useful to oversimplify the discussion to the one thing that most cities get wrong, and that is that it's not walkable," Speck said. "Because of the signals that the environment sends, people choose in most American cities to drive when they could be walking. ...

"I really want to address basic principles ... ," he said. "It's really going to zoom in on making the Quad Cities more successful by making them more walkable."

 

The Pedestrian as Canary

It might seem odd to address the issue of sprawl by talking about pedestrians, but Speck sees it differently. "The pedestrian as a species is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to determining urban health," he said. "Unless you have a lot of pedestrians using your downtown, it really won't thrive."

The basic argument is that sprawl is not sustainable, in terms of the cost of services, the toll it exacts on the city center and citizens, and its use of resources, particularly land. And a city without pedestrians is a city in the thrall of sprawl.

So getting pedestrians on the sidewalks isn't an end in itself; it's a measure of progress. The pedestrian is also an easily understood tool to fight sprawl.

Speck said there's a hierarchy of factors that makes a community pedestrian-friendly, "each of which is necessary but not alone sufficient to convince people that they want to be walking."

First, cities must give people a reason to walk. "Cities lack full mixed use, that there's a proper balance of housing, shopping, working, recreating, and all the things that add up to our daily lives [in close proximity]," Speck said. "To the degree that that balance isn't in place, there's not a reason to walk."

Second, pedestrians must feel "safe." Speck emphasized that this point isn't merely about crime; that's one factor, "but that's not the part we're getting wrong." Wide roadways without sidewalks and with cars zipping past, he said, tell pedestrians that crossing or walking along the street is dangerous. "There are so many cues in the environment that tell the pedestrian that this is a place for cars ... ," he said.

Third, a walk must be comfortable. "People like to feel enclosed within spaces, even when they're outdoors," Speck said. Street walls that aren't tall enough, sidewalks that are too narrow, roads that are too wide, and trees that don't provide a sense of refuge all work against that comfort. "They fail to hold you in a way that you feel enclosed," he said.

Last, a walk should be interesting. "A five-minute walk down a main street takes five minutes," Speck said. "But a five-minute walk across a parking lot seems to take forever." Unbroken blank walls, parking lots and parking structures, and business windows that you can't see in all dull the pedestrian experience. "When all the clues say that people don't live here or people don't hang out here ... or ... where nothing interesting is going to happen, then people also choose not to walk," Speck said. In residential neighborhoods, the equivalent is houses dominated by their garage doors.

 

Challenges in Combating Sprawl

While those concepts are straightforward, there are several challenges involved in reversing sprawl.

The first is changing perceptions and habits. "If the development industry is an animal, and the planning industry is its brain, the brain has come around" in terms of opposing sprawl and favoring multi-use developments, Speck said. "It's just the body doesn't know what the brain is thinking."

The second issue is capacity. Developers, Speck said, "know how to produce sprawl and not how to produce the alternative. So they might see it [the alternative], they might live in it, they might enjoy visiting it on occasion, but they don't know how to build it."

There's also an issue of specialization, in which the domination of single-use zoning has led to companies that only produce a certain type of development. Some do only office parks. Other focus on luxury housing. Some do low- to moderate-income housing. It's gotten to the point that many housing developers can't even produce mixed-income housing, Speck said. "So not only is no one used to doing mixed-use communities, most of the players now are only capable to produce a small piece of the pie," he said. "So there's a huge re-education process. ... It takes a long time to turn the ship around."

And then there's cost. Speck admitted that many new mixed-use neighborhoods are being developed on the urban fringe because it's cheaper than re-developing the central city. Conscientious developers, he said, are "much more likely to contribute to the sprawl of our cities by trying to do the right thing in the wrong place.

"I don't avoid these projects myself," Speck said, noting that half of the developments he works on are in greenfields. "As long as we are developing the edges of cities, let's do them properly," he said.

Beyond cost, many cities' zoning systems are still geared toward single use. Speck said that it took him two years to get approval to build a single house in Washington, D.C.

 

How to Start

But Speck stressed that "it's certainly not too late for downtown."

Cities need to approach their downtowns as a master developer might look at an office park, he said. "It is the ideal role of the city to go through a planning process - not necessarily for the whole city, but for the part of downtown that it wants to see revitalized - and to actually draw, lot by lot by lot, what belongs on each block. Here's the building envelope, here's how tall it should be, here's where it should sit, here's where the parking should go, here's where the door should be. ... So now, if you want to come in and put your small office there, all you need to do is get the building permit."

A piecemeal approach, he said, is "extremely inefficient." He suggested that a city start with a two-block area where the least amount of government intervention is necessary. "Until you have one spot where people are comfortable not using their cars, the other stuff won't happen," he said. "It's very important to do the right thing ... first in a very concentrated spot."

He cited the example of LoDo, the lower-downtown part of Denver. "What we kept started hearing about was how great Denver was doing," he said. "It was like two beautiful blocks and nothing else. ... But these two blocks were enough of a critical mass that the name of the city had changed, and the reputation of Denver had changed."

 

Jeff Speck will present "The City Livable: Four Steps to a More Vital Quad Cities," at 6 p.m. on Monday, July 9, in the John Deere Auditorium of the Figge Art Museum. A reception (5 p.m.) precedes the lecture, and a book signing (7:30 p.m.) follows. Admission is free.


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