By Maria Saporta
It makes so much sense.
The most walkable cities are the healthiest cities — economically, environmentally and emotionally.
Designing our streets, sidewalks, public spaces and buildings for pedestrians could be the soundest infrastructure investments we could make — on multiple levels.
That’s the overarching message made by Jeff Speck, author of a new book called: Walkable City: How Downtown can save America one step at a time. Speck was in Atlanta last week speaking to a group of the Midtown Alliance and conducting an all-day workshop for the Congress of New Urbanism – Atlanta.
Unfortunately, Atlanta is not well portrayed in Speck’s book, a fact that made him sound almost a bit apologetic. It is no secret that among that intellectual group of urban planners and architects, Atlanta has developed a bad reputation over the years for being a bastion of sprawl and unbridled development.
But that’s what happens when people begin to paint Atlanta with a broad brush.
One can’t compare what is happening in downtown, Midtown and Buckhead with what is going on in the suburban and exurban parts of the region.
One can’t even compare the enlightened town centers in our suburban counties — Roswell, Marietta, Lawrenceville, Chattahoochee Hills, Woodstock to those endless subdivisions connected by roadways lined with strip centers that a former Charlotte, N.C. mayor once called: “corridors of crap.”
So what is their distinguishing characteristic? Their walkability.
It’s only in the past decade where there’s been a convergence of appreciation of the role that walkability plays in American cities, according to Speck.
First, developers and economists have realized that the young and educated class prefer to live in walkable urban communities that provide a high quality of life. Also, as the baby boom generation gets older it also has been seeking more urban options that is not as dependent on the automobile.
Second, a trio of Atlanta public health leaders — Howard Frumkin, Lawrence Frank and Richard Jackson — published their book: Urban Sprawl and Public Health on July 9, 2004, which Speck calls the best day for being a city planner in America.
Jackson’s inspiration for the book was while driving on Buford Highway, a roadway with no sidewalks and traffic lights two miles apart, and seeing an older woman walking on the side of the road carrying shopping bags in 95-degree heat.
Jackson is quoted as saying: “If that poor woman had collapsed from heat stroke, we docs would have written the cause of death as heat stroke and not lack of trees and public transportation, poor urban form, and heat-island effects. If she had been killed by a truck going by, the cause of death would have been ‘motor-vehicle trauma,’ and not lack of sidewalks and transit, poor urban planning and failed political leadership. That was the ‘aha!’ moment for me.”
All of a sudden, walkability, cycling, transit and pedestrian-oriented urban design contributed to overall better public health.
Third, environmentalists also have begun to appreciate that people living in more compact communities with fewer cars and wider sidewalks decreases energy consumption and reduces our carbon footprint.
“Cities that are more walkable are more productive,” Speck said. “There is a strong economic argument.”
Speck said that the major cities around the world are figuring this out.
“Paris is committed to removing one million parking spaces in the next 20 years, that’s 50,000 a year,” Speck said.
Mercer does a quality of life index of the top 50 cities in the world. Interestingly enough, no U.S. city is listed in the top 25.
“There is not a non-walkable city in the top 50,” Speck said. “Having a walkable city makes you more sustainable.”
Kevin Green, president of the Midtown Alliance, pointed to the progress that is being made to make Peachtree and its surrounding streets more walkable. He pointed to how Juniper Street will soon go from being four lanes to two lanes with wider sidewalks and a separated bike path.
“We know it’s only going to get better,” Green said.
Cities interested in becoming more walkable can do a “walkability study,” which Speck said yields far better results than a traffic study or a master plan.
In his Atlanta workshop, Speck actually offered tools that the city can adopt to make it more walkable. He is a big advocate of road diets – reducing the amount of space devoted to cars and reallocating it to people.
Pick streets that are the most likely winners — those that are strong candidates to become pedestrian-friendly.
Reduce the number and/or width of the lanes, widen sidewalks, put in bike lanes, add parallel parking, plant street trees between the road and pedestrians and make sure there’s a building with active storefronts or restaurants opening up to sidewalk.
Nothing kills street life more than a surface parking lot or a lifeless concrete garage butting up to a sidewalk.
Speck is also a big believer in paint — for crosswalks and bike lanes. “Use the boldest strips and the brightest green,” Speck said. “It’s the best advertising you can do for your city.”
It does make so much sense. And better yet, it doesn’t seem that far out of reach.