By Ellen Ishkanian
Jeff Speck spends his days imagining communities where people can safely walk along tree-lined sidewalks as they grab a morning coffee before commuting or safely walking or biking to work.
The internationally-renowned city planner and architectural designer who heads up Speck & Associates in Brookline also envisions city roads where cars actually move during rush hour and where dedicated bicycle lanes are packed with commuters.
“Walking places are thriving places,” Speck told 200 attendees at the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber’s 3rd Annual Regional Real Estate Forum, Sept. 12, 2017 at the Needham Sheraton Hotel.
In his presentation, Speck outlined the theories he wrote about in his book, “The Walkable City” and then debuted a short film showing how his ideas could be incorporated into a vision for Washington Street in Newton.
Often using humor, he explained the economic, environmental and health reasons why cities need to be more walkable and then showed practical ways to move away from the outdated model of suburban sprawl and toward a “new urbanism.”
Speck spoke in both broad terms, sharing examples about how Newton and Needham could enhance its villages and town center to become more residential and transit-oriented. Heads in the audience nodded as he showed slides of various local problem spots, and he drew applause when he put up a slide of Newton Centre’s triangular parking lot, suggesting that it would be the perfect location for underground parking with housing and businesses built above.
For years, Speck and a community of like-minded urban planners tried to promote the benefits of developing more walkable cities using “urbanist arguments, planning arguments, aesthetic arguments.” They got some traction, but not much.
Then about 15 years ago, he said the planners realized there were three other groups arguing the same things, and getting more attention. The arguments from those three groups — economists, ecologists, and epidemiologists — form Speck’s argument for why making America more walkable should be a priority.
“The economic argument is kind of scary,” he said.
For example, the typical American in 1970 spent 10 percent of their income on transportation. Today, it’s closer to 20 percent, he said. Those figures are magnified when the “hidden” costs of driving are factored in, such as maintaining roads and bridges, and paying for a police presence.
Speck used figures that showed it costs society about one cent for every mile a person walks, and $9 for every mile a person drives.
“We’ve burdened ourselves with this very expensive way of getting around,” he said. “We’ve actually created a landscape where we as individuals and society as a whole is just wasting a ton of money on mobility.”
The environmental impact of driving is easily seen by looking at a carbon map, Speck said.
“The further from the city, the worse your carbon footprint is,” he said, explaining simply that people have to drive when they can’t walk to a corner store for a quart of milk, let their first grader walk to a neighborhood school, find work nearby, or have access to public transportation.
“If you love nature, you should stay away from it,” he said.
The health argument brought laughter from the crowd with a slide Speck showed of people using an escalator to get to their gym after driving there.
“We have an obesity epidemic, mostly because of what we’re eating, but also because we don’t walk enough,” he said.
Speck said data shows that the further you live from Boston, the more you are likely to be unfit because of the time you spend sitting in a car and the time you don’t have to exercise.
If making cities more walkable is more cost-effective, better for the environment, and healthier, Speck said the question becomes how to change people’s attitudes about planning.
The theory of walkability, he explained, says that to get people to walk, you must make it as good as driving.
“It must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting,” he said.
For most of modern American history, planners believed that putting retail all in one location, offices in another, and houses in another was the best way to zone a city.
“Most of America is like this, segregation of use from use,” Speck said.
But the fundamental argument for the new urbanists, he said, is to abandon single-use zoning and make neighborhoods diverse and “useful,” so stores, offices, housing and access to public transportation are all in the same area.
Contrast that, he said, to a typical suburban layout where whole neighborhoods of single-family homes are built along roads with no outlet. A single main thoroughfare passes through that is the only route to stores, schools, and highways, creating gridlock in the morning and evening.
Not only is it important that there be something nearby that people want to walk to, but “they must have a fighting chance to get there safely,” he said, noting that he’s talking primarily about speeding traffic rather than crime.
Speck advocates making roads safer by narrowing them, and reducing the number of lanes. For example, reducing four lane roads to three, with one lane in each direction and a center turn lane makes roads safer and improve traffic.
“It’s a wonderful trick,” he said. An added benefit is that it also leaves room for expanded sidewalks and protected bicycle lanes in each direction, he said.
Speck also advocates that surface parking lots, which he calls “principle villains”, be hidden to improve the aesthetic for walkers who generally prefer to be enclosed by buildings, trees and structures to feel comfortable.
He showed a slide of the Needham Free Public Library as an example of how a surface parking lot can ruin the walking experience.
“The trees certainly help, but you no longer are comfortable — or frankly interested — walking along this sidewalk,” he said.
He said of Needham Center, “you see what you want to see in a town square. It’s shaped on all four edges. It really is an outdoor living room. The buildings could be taller, but you do feel a nice sense of enclosure.”
See related story here: http://www.nnchamber.com/news/WashingtonSt