Read an Excerpt
How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at A Time
By Jeff Speck
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux Copyright © 2012 Jeff Speck
All rights reserved.
While battle was never declared, many American cities seem to have been made and remade with a mandate to defeat pedestrians. Fattened roads, emaciated sidewalks, deleted trees, fry-pit drive-thrus, and ten-acre parking lots have reduced many of our streetscapes to auto zones in which pedestrian life is but a theoretical possibility.
The causes of this transformation are sometimes surprising. In Miami, for example, people wonder why intersections in residential neighborhoods are often so fat: two relatively narrow streets will meet in a sweeping expanse of asphalt that seems to take hours to walk across. The answer is that the firefighters' union once struck a deal that no truck would ever be dispatched without a hefty number of firemen on it. That's good for safety and even better for job security, but the fire chief's response was to purchase only the heftiest trucks. So, for many years, one-story residential neighborhoods in Miami had to be designed around the lumbering turning radius of a truck built for tall-building fires.
The above anecdote is far from unusual in today's landscape of disassociated professions and special interests that determine the shape of our communities. The modern world is full of experts who are paid to ignore criteria beyond their professions. The school and parks departments will push for fewer, larger facilities, since these are easier to maintain — and show off. The public works department will insist that new neighborhoods be designed principally around snow and trash removal. The department of transportation will build new roads to ease traffic generated by the very sprawl that they cause. Each of these approaches may seem correct in a vacuum, but is wrong in a city.
If they are to function properly, cities need to be planned by generalists, as they once were. Generalists understand that consolidating parks means that fewer people can walk to them. Generalists understand that infrastructure organized in service of big trucks is not always inviting to small people. And generalists, finally, are coming to understand that more lanes usually just lead to more traffic.
Most significantly, generalists — such as planners and, one hopes, mayors — ask the big-picture questions that are so often forgotten among the day-to-day shuffle of city governance. Questions like: What kind of city will help us thrive economically? What kind of city will keep our citizens not just safe, but healthy? What kind of city will be sustainable for generations to come?
These three issues — wealth, health, and sustainability — are, not coincidentally, the three principal arguments for making our cities more walkable.
WALKING, THE URBAN DVANTAGE
The walking generation; A demographic perfect storm; The walkability dividend
Many of my client cities ask me the same question: "How can we attract corporations, citizens, and especially young, entrepreneurial talent?" In Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I am employed by the city's leading philanthropists, they ask it differently: "How can we keep our children from leaving? How can we keep our grandchildren from leaving?"
The obvious answer is that cities need to provide the sort of environment that these people want. Surveys — as if we needed them — show how creative-class citizens, especially millennials, vastly favor communities with street life, the pedestrian culture that can only come from walkability.
A lack of street life was one reason why the leadership at Wolverine World Wide, the manufacturers of Merrell and Patagonia Footwear, was having trouble keeping new creative workers from jumping ship from their suburban West Michigan headquarters. The problem was not the company, but the impression among newly arrived spouses that they had no way to break into the social scene ... even though West Michiganders are known for their openness and hospitality. So what was going on? It turns out that this social scene could only be accessed by car and thus by invitation. With no pedestrian culture, there were no opportunities for the chance encounters that turn into friendships.
When it came time to launch a new apparel division, they decided to base it in Portland, Oregon.
Since that time, Wolverine has set up a new innovation center along with three other top West Michigan companies in downtown Grand Rapids. According to Blake Krueger, Wolverine's president and CEO, the company needed "an urban hub that attracts and retains the millennial creative class. You need a vibrant city heartbeat for these people. Downtown, they're in a more creative live/work/play environment than if they are stuck out here in suburbia." This facility now includes designers and product developers across a dozen different brands.
For many companies, an urban satellite is not enough. Brand Muscle, formerly of leafy Beachwood, Ohio, recently relocated all of its 150 employees to downtown Cleveland, thanks in part to the desires of a largely twentysomething workforce. Now staffer Kristen Babjack brags about her urban lifestyle: "We can leave our apartment and walk five feet to a restaurant to get something to eat, or to go shopping. We have all of our arenas and sporting areas and concerts all in one pretty much walkable area." Similar stories are making the news in Saint Louis, Buffalo, and even in beleaguered Detroit.
The economic advantage that has already begun to accrue to walkable places can be attributed to three key factors. First, for certain segments of the population, chief among them young "creatives," urban living is simply more appealing; many wouldn't be caught dead anywhere else. Second, massive demographic shifts occurring right now mean that these pro-urban segments of the population are becoming dominant, creating a spike in demand that is expected to last for decades. Third, the choice to live the walkable life generates considerable savings for these households, and much of these savings are spent locally. I will address each of these factors in turn.
THE WALKING GENERATION
When I worked for the town planning firm DPZ in Miami in the nineties, everyone drove to the office, without exception. Taking transit or bicycling made no sense at all, as the buses took forever and the biking was worse than perilous. In more recent visits, I learned that a significant segment of the young designer workforce now bikes or rides the bus, even though the conditions for either are hardly better.
These are the same folks who have put a composting bin in the office kitchen ... so are they just the exceptions to the rule?
It turns out that since the late nineties, the share of automobile miles driven by Americans in their twenties has dropped from 20.8 percent to just 13.7 percent. And if one looks at teens, future shifts seem likely to be greater. The number of nineteen-year-olds who have opted out of earning driver's licenses has almost tripled since the late seventies, from 8 percent to 23 percent. This statistic is particularly meaningful when one considers how the American landscape has changed since the seventies, when most American teens could walk to school, to the store, and to the soccer field, in stark contrast to the realities of today's autocentric sprawl.
This trend began well before the recession of 2008 and subsequent fuel spikes, and is seen as cultural, not economic. Market researchers J. D. Power — hardly part of the anticar lobby — report that "online discussions by teens indicate shifts in perceptions regarding the necessity of and desire to have cars." In "The Great Car Reset," Richard Florida observes: "Younger people today ... no longer see the car as a necessary expense or a source of personal freedom. In fact, it is increasingly just the opposite: not owning a car and not owning a house are seen by more and more as a path to greater flexibility, choice, and personal autonomy." These driving trends are only a small part of a larger picture that has less to do with cars and more to do with cities, and specifically with how young professionals today view themselves in relation to the city, especially in comparison to previous generations.
Born as the baby boom ended, I grew up watching three television shows almost daily: Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, and The Partridge Family. While Gilligan's Island may have had little to say about urbanism, the other two were extremely instructive. They idealized the mid-twentieth-century suburban standard of low-slung houses on leafy lots, surrounded by more of the same. This was normal and good. As a would-be architect, I was particularly susceptible to the charms of Mike Brady's self-built split-level. This is not to say that there were no urban shows on my television set. I saw a good amount of four: Dragnet, Mannix, The Streets of San Francisco, and Hawaii 5-0 — all focused on one subject: crime.
Now, contrast my experience growing up in the seventies with that of a child growing up in or around the nineties, watching Seinfeld, Friends, and, eventually, Sex and the City. In these shows, the big city (in all cases New York) was lovingly portrayed as a largely benevolent and always interesting force, often a character and coconspirator in its own right. The most urban of American cities was the new normal, and certainly good.
The first thing that I take away from this comparison is that I watched far too much television as a child. But the real point here is that today's young professionals grew up in a mass culture — of which TV was only one part — that has predisposed them to look favorably upon cities; indeed, to aspire to live in them. I grew up in the suburbs watching shows about the suburbs. They grew up in the suburbs watching shows about the city. My complacency has been replaced by their longing.
This group, the millennials, represent the biggest population bubble in fifty years. Sixty-four percent of college-educated millennials choose first where they want to live, and only then do they look for a job. Fully 77 percent of them plan to live in America's urban cores.
A DEMOGRAPHIC PERFECT STORM
Meanwhile, the generation raised on Friends is not the only major cohort looking for new places to live. There's a larger one: the millennials' parents, the front-end boomers. They are citizens that every city wants — significant personal savings, no schoolkids.
And according to Christopher Leinberger, the Brookings Institution economist who first brought my attention to the Brady Bunch/Friends phenomenon, empty nesters want walkability:
At approximately 77 million Americans, they are fully one-quarter of the population. With the leading edge of the boomers now approaching sixty-five years old, the group is finding that their suburban houses are too big. Their child-rearing days are ending, and all those empty rooms have to be heated, cooled, and cleaned, and the unused backyard maintained. Suburban houses can be socially isolating, especially as aging eyes and slower reflexes make driving everywhere less comfortable. Freedom for many in this generation means living in walkable, accessible communities with convenient transit linkages and good public services like libraries, cultural activities, and health care.
In the 1980s, my city-planning colleagues and I began hearing from sociologists about something called a NORC, a naturally occurring retirement community. Over the past decade, I have watched a growing number of my parents' generation abandon their large-lot houses to resettle in mixed-use urban centers. My own parents finally jumped ship last year, moving from leafy Belmont Hill, Massachusetts, to only-slightly-less-leafy but much more walkable Lexington Center. For them, that increased walkability means all the difference between an essentially housebound existence and what we all hope will be several decades of continued independence.
On the cusp of their eighties, my parents could be considered late adopters. But as pre-boomers, they represent a trickle of what is to become a torrent. Leinberger notes how, starting now, an average of 1.5 million Americans will be turning sixty-five every year, quadruple the rate of a decade ago. This rate will not begin to plateau until 2020 and we will not see it return to current levels until 2033.
In combination with their independent children, these retiring boomers will numerically overwhelm those families of child-rearing age who typically prefer the suburbs. This upcoming convergence represents "the biggest demographic event since the baby boom itself." Of the 101 million new households expected to take shape between now and 2025, fully 88 percent are projected to be childless. This is a dramatic change from 1970, when almost half of all households included children. These new adults-only households won't give a hoot about the quality of local schools or the size of their backyards. "This fact will open up many possibilities," Leinberger observes.
As that current statistical oddity, a parent of young children, I often advocate for stronger public schools and neighborhood parks to benefit families. I remind people that a community cannot fully thrive in the absence of any generational cohort, since we all support one another. I like to quote David Byrne: "If we can build a successful city for children, we can build a successful city for all people." This is true enough, but I am often reminded that I lived comfortably for a full decade in one of the most extreme exceptions to that rule, Miami's South Beach, where I could easily go for a month at a time without a stroller sighting. Not one adult in my neighborhood appeared to be between thirty-five and fifty-five, and none seemed (productively) fertile. Yet South Beach was and remains a great place physically, socially, and economically. Demographically speaking, South Beach is the future of many American cities.
That seems to be the case in walkable Washington, D.C., where the past decade has seen a 23 percent uptick in the number of residents between twenty and thirty-four, simultaneous with an increased number of adults in their fifties and early sixties. Meanwhile, the number of children under fifteen has dropped by 20 percent.
Clearly, Leinberger is optimistic about the larger impact of these population trends on cities. Writing in Grist, he concludes that "meeting the pent-up demand for walkable urban development will take a generation. It will be a boon to the real estate industry and put a foundation under the American economy for decades, just as the construction of low-density suburbs did during the last half of the 20th century." Whether or not it can salvage our struggling economy, he makes a convincing case that people will be moving back to the city.
The question that remains is: Will they be moving back to your city, or to someone else's? The answer may well lie in its walkability.
Christopher Leinberger was once the owner of Robert Charles Lesser & Co., the largest real estate advisory firm in the United States, which means that he helped to build a lot of sprawl. He is now convinced that much of suburbia is poised to become "The Next Slum."
In order to study real estate performance, Leinberger divides the American built environment into two categories: walkable urbanism and drivable sub-urbanism. In the Detroit region, he finds that housing in walkable urbanism fetches a 40 percent price premium over similar housing in drivable sub-urbanism; in the Seattle region, that premium is 51 percent; in Denver, it's 150 percent. New York City, unsurprisingly, tops the list at 200 percent — that is to say, people are paying three times as much per square foot for apartments in walkable neighborhoods as for comparable suburban houses. In most markets, the demand for walkable urbanism dramatically outpaces the supply: in Atlanta, only 35 percent of poll respondents who want to live in a walkable urban place are able to find and afford it.
A similar dynamic can be found at work for commercial properties. In Washington, D.C., walkable office space recently leased at a 27 percent premium over drivable suburban office space and had single-digit rather than double-digit vacancy rates. The Wall Street Journal has confirmed similar trends nationwide: while the suburban office vacancy rate has jumped 2.3 points since 2005, occupancy in America's downtowns has held steady.
Looking at these numbers, Leinberger concludes:
The metropolitan area that does not offer walkable urbanism is probably destined to lose economic development opportunities; the creative class will gravitate to those metro areas that offer multiple choices in living arrangements. ... As consumer surveys in downtown Philadelphia and Detroit in 2006 have shown, this seems to be particularly true for the well-educated, who seem to have a predilection for living in walkable urban places.
This growing demand for pedestrian-friendly places is reflected in the runaway success of Walk Score, the website that calculates neighborhood walkability. It was started on a lark in 2007 by Matt Lerner, Mike Mathieu, and Jesse Kocher, three partners in a software company with the incongruously automotive name of Front Seat. "I had heard a story on NPR about food miles in England — labeling food with how far it had to travel to get to you," Lerner told me recently, "and I thought, why not instead measure house miles: how many miles from your house you had to go for daily errands."
Excerpted from Walkable City by Jeff Speck. Copyright © 2012 Jeff Speck. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
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