Jeff Speck and Urban Design

August 3rd, 2015

If you have travelled downtown or to a central neighborhood in your city recently you may have been surprised by how much construction you saw. Cities like Austin, Portland, and Denver are growing at an accelerated clip since the Great Recession ended six years ago. The suburbs are still growing and more sprawling than ever across the nation but what’s different from the 70s through 90s is that walkable neighborhoods in cities’ central cores are also growing.

Jeff Speck is an Urban Designer and most people probably don’t know what an Urban Designer does. That’s not surprising because it is a very small field that doesn't get very much attention. It’s unfortunate that Urban Design is such a small field because it dictates so much of how every person experiences life. The video below is a TED talk by Jeff Speck and may give you a better idea of how Urban Design can better your life.

Jeff Speck’s most recent book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, focuses on the benefits of walkable city cores. For the last 50 plus years the idea of increasing livability of an area meant deciding how fast you could get from one place to another. That is without a doubt by the use of a car and we can make those trips even faster by widening existing roads and building freeways.

This has caused the disappearance of pedestrians and bicyclists as roads have become more dangerous for them. A lot of people consider living in a city as being more dangerous than a suburb generally because of the higher crime rates. Very few consider that if you live in the United States then the likelihood of you dying in a motor vehicle accident is 1 in 112. For comparison the likelihood of dying from assault by firearm is 1 in 356. Even with modern safety standards 32,719 people in the United States died in incidents including a motor vehicle. Car accidents can still be terrible without a resulting death either because of injury or property damage. If we drove less and walked more we would save money and more importantly lives.

Speck also outlines how many changes can be beneficial for both drivers and pedestrians. The act of “Right Sizing” streets which usually means taking a 4 lane road and reducing it to a 2 lane road with a single turning lane. This can increase the flow and safety of a road by introducing dedicated turning lanes. It also limits the weaving of cars around those stopped trying to make left turns. The extra space from the removed lane can be transferred to several other uses such as wider sidewalks, bike lanes or parking spaces. Increased street parking creates a barrier between fast moving traffic and sidewalks which makes pedestrians safer.

I hope you'll give Jeff Speck's book a chance if any of this interests you but you can also check out to see how your neighbourhood ranks in walkability.