Urban Life


How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

By Jeff Speck Farrar Straus Giroux. 312 pp. $27

Especially in large East Coast cities, nothing annoys drivers more than pedestrians. They jaywalk. They clog intersections with their irksome canines and oversize strollers, which often end up denting the fenders of otherwise-unmarred SUVs. And they always have the right of way. But, according to urban planner Jeff Speck, cities live or die by their walkability.

“After several decades spent redesigning pieces of cities, trying to make them more livable and more successful, I have watched my focus narrow to this topic as the one issue that seems to both influence and embody most of the others,” writes Speck, co-author of “Suburban Nation,” a bestseller that took on automobile-supported sprawl 10 years ago. “Get walkability right and so much of the rest will follow.”

‘Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time’ by Jeff Speck (FSG)

Speck’s 10-step manifesto for more walkability urges more trees, smaller roads to discourage driving, more interesting architecture and more complicated traffic patterns. Such lessons should speak to mayors everywhere, but Speck lives in D.C. Since he’s local, “Walkable City” is especially relevant to District residents who have seen major corridors reinvented — or, from the perspective of some cabbies and opponents of gentrification, sacrificed — for bike lanes, carshares and pedestrians.

Case in point: the DC USA shopping mall in Columbia Heights, which features a Target, a Bed Bath & Beyond and other national chains new to the once-blighted area. “DC USA has become a resounding success, having brought new life to a struggling eighborhood,” Speck writes. “And the parking garage is empty — so empty that its managers routinely shut off one of its two levels completely, an unvisited $20 million underground air museum.” Though Speck’s strident anti-automobile rhetoric will frustrate transplanted suburbanites partial to car-friendly strip malls and drive-thrus, “Walkability” sheds light on what reborn, rebuilt cities such as Washington will need to succeed as gas prices continue to rise.

Justin Moyer