Big Ideas

Urban Planner Jeff Speck Is on a Mission To Promote Walkable Cities

The more that you can give meeting attendees an experience of being out on the street in a walkable urban environment, it’s going to be a preferred experience, says a leading urban planner.

In Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, published in 2000, urban planners Jeff Speck, Andrés Duany, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk depicted America’s post-World War II.This was a world where car-centered suburban communities were afflicted with a soul-bruising malaise. The rise of the automobile, zoning regulations, and federal policy had led, they wrote, to widespread environmental damage and people who were increasingly isolated from one another.

The book was a bestseller, but for much of his career, Speck said, he and other planners felt like they were “shouting into the wilderness” when they talked about the wastefulness of suburban sprawl. That’s changing, the planner told Convene in a recent interview, as walkable downtowns have become linked to economic development and public heath. “The conventional wisdom,” Speck writes in his 2012 book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, “used to be that creating a strong economy came first, and that increased population and a higher quality of life would follow. The converse now seems more likely: creating a higher quality of life is the first step to attracting new residents and jobs.”

And walkability, or the lack of it, has become part of the debate over the nation’s declining health. In 2004 — on what Speck calls “the best day for being a city planner in America” — a trio of physicians released a book called Urban Sprawl and Public Health, which linked the nation’s epidemic of obesity and other health problems to, among other things, the demise of walking. They were documenting, Speck writes, “how our built environment was killing us.”

A walkable city is not just a “nice idealistic notion,” Speck writes. “Rather, it is a simple, practical-minded solution to a host of complex problems that we face as a society, problems that daily undermine our nation’s economic competitiveness, public welfare, and environmental sustainability.”

Meetings have a part to play, said Speck, who once served as director of design for National Endowment for the Arts, where he oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design. “Attendees are natural walkers,” he said, “and convention centers can serve to connect visitors with the fabric of a city.”

But as a consultant to city governments, Speck frequently encounters convention centers that throw up barriers to walking, such as long, featureless exterior walls or loading docks and roadways that cut off pedestrian traffic.

Speck also experiences convention centers in a more visceral way — as a user. Since the publication of Walkable City, his speaking schedule has gone into overdrive. “I go to a heck of a lot of these places, because often I am speaking in them,” he said. “And I am always amazed at how many cities are essentially leaving money on the table by the way that they fail to integrate these facilities into their community.”

Where do you place convention centers in the framework of walkable cities?

There is no greater collector and disgorger of pedestrians in a city than conventioneers. Unlike most citizens, at least in driving cities, conventioneers try to arrive without a vehicle and are so willing and so ready to be pedestrians in the city. And they arrive in such great numbers that they are a tremendous resource. But, as you well know, [convention centers] tend to have between two to three-and-a-half blank sides — sides that are either just blank walls or service bays, or, more likely, service bays located behind blank walls.

So the way that a convention center integrates with the surrounding community, how it gives pedestrians access to the street in the right locations, is make or break in terms of whether it is going to generate pedestrians or both fail to energize the city and fail to entertain the conventioneers.

Is there a change in the willingness of city governments to look at walkability as something that is an economic-development tool?

Absolutely. It’s not that they were ever against it; it’s just that it didn’t really come up. It used to be that the city’s planning director might have been arguing for walkability, but, typically, the planning director would answer to or be considered less important than the economic-development director, who would generally just grab whatever big boxes he could to get tax revenue. What has changed is not what the planners are saying — it’s what the economic-development people are saying. Economic-development people are now understanding that the best thing a city can do to develop is to become a place where people want to be. Nowadays, people can locate anywhere. People can work from anywhere. And lifestyle is now considered a much more important factor in the decisions that people make.

Furthermore, the up-and-coming generation of the Millennials is an extremely pro-urban generation. I quote [Brookings Institution Fellow Chris Leinberger], who talks about how, “You know, well, my generation was raised on ‘The Partridge Family’ and ‘The Brady Bunch.’ Theirs was raised on ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends.’”

Conventioneers arrive without any preconceived notions. They are so ready to use the city if the city welcomes them properly. The last thing you want is a convention center/parking facility/hotel that lands like a spaceship in your downtown, one which people do not have to exit to move around.

[Millennials] grew up idolizing the city. And one statistic I have in my book is that 64 percent of educated Millennials decide first where they want to live, then they move there, then they look for a job. And fully 77 percent of them say that they want to live in America’s urban core. There is definitely a growing demand for walkable urbanism … like Manhattan. And the closer you can get to that experience, the more compelling.

Are there in your mind any distinctions between temporary visitors and permanent residents, in terms of their habits and needs?

Totally different. The wonderful thing is that, you know, full-time residents have their habits, and often you can even improve a downtown dramatically and it takes them a long time to change their habits. So people who are used to either driving through, or just not stopping or visiting in the downtown, as you improve that downtown, it takes a lot to get them to change their behavior. But the conventioneers arrive without any preconceived notions. They are so ready to use the city if the city welcomes them properly. And this is all about that interface.

In terms of encouraging walkability, what mistakes do you see cities making in developing convention centers?

If you want any facility that you’re investing in — be it a convention center, be it a sports facility, anything — to truly contribute people to your sidewalks, then you should put some space between its different parts. And the key different parts are the facility itself, parking, and hotels. The last thing you want is a convention center/parking facility/hotel that lands like a spaceship in your downtown, one which people do not have to exit to move around.

It’s a two-part deal. We’re asking conventioneers to use the city, but in return, we’re going to make that piece of the city truly excellent. So if you take the parking deck and put it a block away, and take the hotels and put them a block or two away, and then really invest in the quality of those streets, that is how you create a mixed-use district where everyone is out walking.

So this idea of anchors and paths and the mandate [to] pull the anchors a little bit apart in order to create life between them — if you do it right, no one will complain. No one, because you’re providing them with delight. The alternative, of course, is the skybridge and this internalized facility where conventioneers can spend a week and never touch a foot on your sidewalk.

Again, it’s a two-part deal. You can’t ask to separate the parking lot from the convention center and not have a bridge unless you make sure that the design of the streets between them has retail fronting the sidewalks. I mean, nothing truly is as interesting to visitors as retail.

Suppose a city does have a big-box convention center. Are there some relatively easy things you can do to improve its integration with the surrounding community?

A lot of convention centers and other larger box buildings perform the double sin of pulling back from the sidewalk and having a blank wall. And the nice thing, of course, is when you have a blank wall that is, say, 20 to 30 feet from the sidewalk. You could actually build stores in there.

And conventioneers, of course, one of their responsibilities is, certainly if they’ve been partying for three days away from home, they need to bring a gift home. Conventioneers are looking for entertainment, but they’re also looking for shopping.

Do you think it’s a good strategy for convention centers to include restaurants and retail that are open to the public as a way of energizing the surrounding area?

Yes, as long the convention center’s mixed-use pieces have doors in and out. Obviously, they need to be accessed from the convention center, if the convention center [users] are going to like it. But it also needs to have doors and windows towards the street. And that is also a technique that supermarkets are now doing. They take some of the sub-businesses within the supermarket, like a pharmacy or a photo shop, and give them their own street front, so you can access them both from the street and from the larger facility. The same thing is the best way to do it within convention centers.

But the goal is to get as many people on the sidewalk as possible, in the same way that shopping malls are now not cool. The more that you can give the conventioneer an experience of being out on the street in a walkable urban environment, it’s going to be a preferred experience.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.