Category Archives: sprawl

Canton: The Once and Future City

Photo: Jon Dawson

To me, Canton, Ohio, is a place that drips memories. I can see and feel them come at me in great waves as I drive down Cleveland Avenue to the still-beating heart of a once great city. Canton: a place I knew as an outsider from the suburbs; a place where I first saw both the solemn ugliness of the world and the gentle beauty of street life. This is a city of wonder and a city of ugliness. Even at its nadir in the 1990s, you knew Canton was a place that many once cared about deeply. I searched endlessly for the origins of those feelings in the dusty downtown and its many architectural wonders. Few my age did the same. The young of my generation held Canton in low regard—a place to, if anything, enjoy with a sense of irony. When I finally left, I didn’t look back. But in my absence Canton began a transformation. No one can say for sure where that transformation is heading, but the city is reorganizing itself despite long odds.

In many ways, the “Hall of Fame City” is the archetypal shrinking city. The beautiful but bruised downtown is surrounded by an inner ring of worn neighborhoods scarred by vacancy. The struggling manufacturing economy in the city’s core is overshadowed by a neglectful and unconcerned suburbia. Canton is struggling to overcome what Catherine Tumber calls “the growing invisibility” of smaller post-industrial cities.

Canton first became notable for producing agricultural machinery. By the end of the nineteenth century, it had become one of the world’s primary manufacturers of paving-bricks. The city later emerged as a big player in the iron and specialty steel industries. Like so many other industrial cities, the population grew in tandem with the plentiful jobs offered in local manufacturing concerns.

By 1950, 116,000 people called Canton home, and the city’s charming downtown had reached its peak. However, unbeknownst to the city fathers, the long descent was already underway. In the next few decades, tracts of farmland in the surfeit of suburbs started to transform into growing communities. The decentralization of retail soon followed. In 1965, the Mellett Mall (later Canton Centre) arrived as the first challenger to the hegemony of the downtown commercial district. But only five years later the suburban Belden Village Mall opened in Jackson Township. This started the process of drawing retail out of the city into the growing hinterlands.

The Canton I came to know in the 1990s had shrunk to about 84,000 people. With a coterie of friends—some from the city and some from the suburbs—I explored the maze of the city’s streets, apartments, and vacant buildings. We were a generation raised on the idea that the city was a foreign place—a place to be rejected. Instead, I found a city beaten and somewhat unrecognizable, but still vibrant. Local institutions like Taggart’s, a pre-war ice cream parlor/restaurant, introduced us to mixed-use development and businesses that weren’t cut from the sterile cloth of fast food franchisedom. Bars like George’s Lounge gave us a place to crash that didn’t bear the imprint of a sterile chain tavern. As manufacturing began to fade, Canton rebranded itself. Known as the city that birthed professional football, Canton hosts the Pro Football Hall of Fame annual induction ceremony and parade. And every July before http://viagrabuy-online24.com/ the festivities the “clean-up” began—an effort to temporarily hide prostitutes and the homeless who haunted the streets from Cherry to Shorb.

At night, that side of Canton came to life. We might often forget, but the city belongs to everyone, from the banker to the bordello worker. And during those years the city belonged maximum dose cialis per day as much to the working class and the “under-class” as it did to anyone. The McKinley Monument—the burial place of President McKinley—and surrounding Monument Park saw the mingling of ravers, viagra generic hustlers, and the disturbed in the humid summer months. Some unseemliness certainly existed, but nothing like what would come with gradual rise of gang culture. Today, a kind of border fence separates the graveyard from the monument, and the park is heavily policed after dark. Homicides and home invasions occur much more regularly. This devolution, sadly, is symbolic of what’s happened to far too many of the city’s core neighborhoods.

Despite Canton’s declining population, the best of the area’s built environment is still in the city: the beautifully restored Victorian Professional Building; the classical the female viagra brick streets of the inner core; and the stately elegance of the historic Ridgewood neighborhood, whose mix of revival-style houses represent American architecture at its height. And the principal cultural institutions in the county are located in the city—the symphony, the ballet, The Player’s Guild, etc.

I often wandered the half-abandoned downtown of the late-90s. The silent splendor of the neo-classical Key Bank Building and the Neo-Renaissance Onesto Hotel served as guideposts for my travels through the dusky streets. Back then, the downtown offered little. An adult bookstore/video arcade even dominated the main entrance into the old commercial district. Only the grandeur of the nearby Palace Theater, a 20’s era movie house, gave any indication of what a joint the downtown must have once been.

The moribund and derelict downtown of the 90s is rapidly giving way to pockets of re-growth. In 2003, the city issued the first downtown development plan. Within a few years an arts district was established. Coffee shops, some retail, and a broad range of new eateries followed—including Muggswigz Coffee, which made USA Today’s “10 best coffeehouses in America” list.

The downtown of the late 90s lacked almost any active edges. Few of the streets seemed lively http://viagrabuy-online24.com/ at all. Today, that’s changing. Despite the fact it is too large –with many gaps that prove unfriendly to pedestrians looking for connections between parts of the downtown—some wonderful blocks have emerged. The art galleries on Sixth are a fine example of what revitalized streets should look like. Even the Subway fast-food joint on Market properly conforms to the street, fitting in perfectly with the other gorgeous storefronts. Still, downtown is only fully activated for a small portion of the year. Blight issues in the corridor and competition from the massive suburban shopping center around Belden Village are holding back the next stage of development.

Canton’s best buildings come from the pre-war era and still show the obvious marks of craftsmanship that separate the city from its surrounding communities—like the aptly named Plain Township. The best of these—the Carnegie Library (done by a Youngstown, Ohio native) and the Stark County Court House, among others—are in the Beaux-Arts style. These civic maste
rpieces convey a sense of history and of destiny—that Cantonians were, and are, a capable people made in the mold of the ancients. These buildings remind us of a once great and future city.

I recently drove down 5th Street for the first time in well over a decade. Even then, the area was distressed and considered “unsafe.” I remember driving passed Martin’s Carryout on the weekends, an improvised bodega that was once obviously a residential unit. Every year it looked a little worse. Today it’s boarded up, and the area around it is becoming an urban prairie dotted with tax credit housing. This is one possible future for Canton. The other is the reactivation—already underway—of the city center. Its likely young Millennials will be the ones who will have to complete this job.

Like much in urban life, walking through the center city is an occasion for both a melancholic and memorable experience. The dreariness of recent decades is still obvious, but so is the weight of a more distant past. The long forgotten memories of the stone masons, steel workers, and craftsmen who built the city are so thick and alive that one can’t help but feel them all around. What would they whisper to this generation? What would they expect from those who have inherited this battered city? The answers are swirling in every alley, storefront, and house along the arteries of Canton. They only wait for us to come and find them.

By Sean Posey

 

 

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Filed under architecture, Brain Drain, Crime, Economic Development, Headline, sprawl, Urban Planning

Ohio and the Fate of the "Big Eight"

The 2010 Census produced mixed results for America’s “legacy cities,” that is deindustrialized cities located primarily, but not exclusively, in the Midwest and in the Mid-Atlantic states. While east coast cities like Newark and Philadelphia actually posted population gains, Midwestern Rust Belt cities generally continued their long slide down in terms of population growth. This proved especially true in the state of Ohio, formerly a key manufacturing hub and once arguably the heartland of Industrial North America. For not only have Ohio’s major cities continued to shrink, their population loss actually ACCELERATED from 2000 to 2010. The same largely holds true for the shrinking counties that are home to Ohio’s seven withering major cities.

All of this leads to a central question: How long will it be before Ohio itself loses population? Much is at stake. Not just tax bases, representation in the house, and federal funding, but national relevance. With the decline of the Upper Midwest/Great Lakes region, Ohio’s internal decay is even more of a pressing issue.

The state has been traditionally known for its “Big Eight” cities: Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, Akron, Dayton, Canton, and Youngstown. All of these cities, save the capital city of Columbus, owe their existence to the explosion in manufacturing in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Cleveland was an early leader in automotive production before diversifying into other manufacturing sectors as the twentieth century wore on. Youngstown was a steel center, known as “America’s Ruhr Valley.” Dayton’s manufacturing muscle grew on, among other things, automobiles, foundries, and printing plants. Toledo was also known for auto manufacturing and the glass industry.

Suburbanization in the post-war era and deindustrialization hit Ohio’s cities as hard as any in the nation. From the early 1970s to the mid 1980s, Ohio’s manufacturing employment dropped by nearly 20 percent. Simultaneously, Ohio’s metropolitan areas decentralized. Seven of the Big Eight began to crumble, albeit at various speeds. The deterioration in the economic and social fortunes of Ohio’s cities through the 1980s has been well covered in a variety of venues. What has been less mentioned is that, unlike east coast legacy cities, the decline of Ohio’s major cities accelerated from 2000 to 2010. And according to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the decline continues.

Figure one is a comparison of the change in population for seven of Ohio’s Big Eight from the 2000 to 2010 census.

Figure 1

Every one of these cities experienced a larger decline in 2010 than they did in 2000. Cleveland’s collapse is particularly shocking, as are Dayton and Youngstown’s double-digit losses. Even Akron, somewhat of a success story, experienced a surprising drop in 2010. After seeing a substantial improvement in its population numbers in 2000, the city registered its largest population decline since 1980 in the year 2010. The 2012 census estimates look equally dismal: Only one out of 15 Ohio cities with a population of over 50,000 managed not to lose residents. Two of Ohio’s cities (Cleveland and Youngstown) were among the seven fastest shrinking cities in the entire nation during that period. Youngstown was the country’s fastest shrinking city.

Counties containing a major shrinking city are on a similar path of continued contraction. With the exception of Stark and Summit in 2000, accelerated population loss has become the norm, as figure two below shows.

Figure 2

(Chart shows negative population loss. Negative numbers are positive)

Lucas County, Mahoning, and Cuyahoga experienced large decreases in the period from 2000 to 2010. Cuyahoga, home to the second largest city in the state, is the fastest shrinking county in the state. Mahoning County in particular faces a troubled future. Between the middle of 2008 and the middle of 2009, Mahoning had more deaths than births. This is termed “negative natural increase.” Once a county experiences a cycle of negative natural increase, it is likely to re-enter the cycle again at some point.

The population decrease of the state’s major cities and counties is almost certainly a prelude to state population loss; a major sign is the disappearance of young people, a problem especially centered in counties housing the state’s largest cities. Cuyahoga County’s under-18 population dipped 16 percent between 2000 and 2010. In fact, Ohio’s drop in people under 18 was the third worst in the nation.

Ohio’s manufacturing employment wasn’t just hard hit during the seventies and eighties. At the beginning of the century Ohio had nearly a million manufacturing jobs. A little over a decade later just under 350,000 of those jobs remained. Manufacturing is the crucial piece of the economic puzzle in Ohio. And as the “recovery” begins to pick up steam, especially for automobile production and pipe production for energy exploration, manufacturing will continue to be a centerpiece of the state domestic product. However, it’s unlikely job growth will ever return to the numbers seen in the nineties, much less the seventies. Also present is a significant skills gap, particularly in distressed urban communities, between what modern manufacturing employers are demanding and what job seekers possess. Lost manufacturing jobs are particularly troubling considering that average compensation in manufacturing for the year 2009 was nearly $68,000, while non-farm, non-manufacturing sectors averaged only about $42,000.

As important as the decline in manufacturing jobs is for the state, there are other negative long-term indicators. According to the Brookings Institute, “Ohio underperformed the national average on employment in every industry from 2000 to 2008. Ohio’s shrinking industries are declining faster than its growing industries are gaining ground.” There have been bright spots, like the creation of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown or the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland-a green worker co-op that’s part of a highly innovative “Cleveland Model.” The model partners community co-ops and anchor institutions (like universities and hospitals) with a large local footprint that could utilize services in their surrounding communities. Still, it’s unclear how long these initiatives will take to have a measurable impact. And time is not on the side of the “Big Seven.”

The term Big Seven denotes the absence of the capital city of Columbus. Unlike the others, Columbus has seemingly prospered while urban flight and deindustrialization ate away at her brethren. Columbus’ diversified economy traditionally buffered it from the extremely cyclical nature of Ohio’s manufacturing cities. And while sprawl devastated other cities in the state, Columbus annexed outlying areas, withholding the extension of water lines to areas that might resist incorporation into the city. Annexation disguises the low-density nature of the city. The urban core of Columbus has been hit hard by foreclosure and disinvestment. The near east side and south side are also experiencing disinvestment, yet, Columbus is drawing people from all over Ohio. It is the only one of the Big Eight with a growing population.

Franklin County, however, which Columbus dominates, has a child poverty rate of almost 27 percent.[vii] For several years child poverty in Ohio has eclipsed the national average; approximately one in four children live in poverty. Black child poverty in Ohio is three times higher than all other child poverty. The percentage of black children living in poverty in Ohio’s Big Eight is much higher than the state average. In 2003, over 40 percent of black children in Youngstown, Toledo, Akron, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Canton lived below the poverty line. In 2011, that number was over 50 percent in Toledo and around 56 percent in Youngstown.

Ohio is now very likely to join Michigan as the only other state in the union to have lost population. While recent census estimates show a very slight uptick in growth, long-term trends are more than enough to reverse this. Overall population growth is trending in the wrong direction. Ohio’s metropolitan areas are no closer to resolving long-standing conflicts between city and suburb; instead, shrinking counties are home to a polyglot of municipalities fighting over ever-decreasing economic pies. The federal government has long been an absentee voice in the realm of urban issues, so what is being done at the state level? States have toolboxes that can hinder or help cities. Ohio’s poor record on fostering municipal cooperation, encouraging sprawl and green field development, as well as failing to invest in twenty first century transportation infrastructure, is more than discouraging-it’s akin to promoting spatial suicide. Since Ohio’s 2005 tax cut-that largely benefited top-earners-job growth in every sector has trailed the national average. From 2005 to 2009, Ohio eliminated its corporate income tax, instead establishing a “commercial activity tax” in 2010. Unfortunately corporations are multi-state enterprises and are likely to invest such tax breaks in places other than Ohio, which is apparently what happened. Since 2005, only three other states have worse job growth rates.

Ohio’s budget for 2014 and 2015 also features income tax cuts (mostly benefiting the wealthy, again) and an increase in the regressive sales tax. Tax cuts up to $250,000 for small business owners won’t add up to much of a stimulus when most small business owners make under $30,000 a year. Estate taxes, the majority of which fund local government, are now gone. Distressed cities in Ohio will likely have to enact further reductions in services, which in turn will make them even less desirable places to live.

Ohio is in crisis mode, whether the state government realizes it or not. Seven out of Ohio’s eight major cities are in various states of decline or even collapse. The economy is moribund on many levels. The decline of manufacturing employment is hurting working class families at a time when few opportunities for college graduates are driving more young people to the Sun Belt and elsewhere. As the Greater Ohio Policy Center points out, “Ohio’s seven largest metro areas are home to 71 percent of its population, 76 percent of its jobs, and 80 percent of the states’ gross domestic product.” With accelerating blight and population loss, metropolitan fragmentation, and a disconnected state government more interested in restricting access to abortion than in increasing access to education and jobs for low-income households, Ohio faces a race to the bottom of states in terms of opportunity and quality of life.

–Sean Posey

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"Bikenomics" – An Instant Classic for Planners and Bicycling Advocates

Source: takingthelane.com

Certain books become a classic in their field of study because of their comprehensive nature (i.e. The City in History). Others do from their advocacy and groundbreaking nature (i.e. Silent Spring).  In the case of Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy, both of these reasons apply. Author Elly Blue has written “the” definitive book on bicycle planning that clearly identifies the societal, physical, environmental, and economic benefits of bicycling, while also completely debunking the myths, fables, urban legends, half-truths, and outright lies spread by naysayers and automotive apologists.

Facts are funny things. They tend to get in the way of spurious and superfluous arguments. In Bikenomics, Ms. Blue lays down the gauntlet with factual truths about bicycling and how a vibrant cycling culture can go a long way to curing many of our nation’s ills. If one could quote the entire book in a blogpost, I would.  There are so many quotable gems contained within this publication, that I could fill gigabytes of pages with them. But alas, you should read the book, so I have only provided a few of them at the end of this post.

Believe me when I say this is a book that every planning professional must read and own. It will single-handedly serve as your go-to resource on the benefits of bicycle planning in your community. Kudos to Ms. Blue providing all of us with a fantastic source of information. Enjoy!

Here are a sampling of quotes from the book:

“People who ride bicycles also pay taxes, which means they often pay more into the road system than they cost it. By one estimate, a carfree cyclist would overpay by an average of $250 a year — a few dollars more than the amount that the average driver underpays.” (page 13)

“As it turns out, gas taxes have paid for about 70% of the construction and maintenance costs of the Interstate system to date, with that percentage going down with each passing year. Local roads fare worse when it comes user funding. If you take the nation’s road system as a whole, only 51% of its cost over the years has come from direct user fees.” (page 39)

“When you brush away the rhetoric, though, even the fanciest bikeways are a screaming bargain. For the cost of one freeway interchange, you can completely transform your city and immeasurably improve the wealth, health, and happiness of its citizens.”  (page 49)

“Large road projects are often funded in a down economy because they create jobs. But roads are actually the least job-intensive of any transportation investment. Bikeways are the most, creating more jobs per million dollars spent than roads-this is because there are so few materials involved and most of the budget goes to workers.” (page 51)

“Bikes may not be able to solve our health care crisis singlehanded…But bicycling is one of the rare areas where people can directly and concretely address our own health and the health of our community, and quickly see big results. In this light, bicycling for transportation isn’t so much a lifestyle choice as it’s a form of civic action.” (page 61)

“Minimum parking requirements act like a fertility drug for cars’ – Donald Shoup.” (page 89)

“In the US, 99% of trips by car end up in a free spot [parking spot]. The value of that land—and to a lesser extent, the costs of paving, sweeping, policing, and maintaining it—makes [parking one of the largest subsides going.” (page 90)

“In a car-oriented world, old age becomes a disability for many, long before it might in a more walkable neighborhood. The more car-reliant your daily life, the lower the threshold becomes for frailness, injury, or failing eyesight to be experienced as outright disabling.” (page 104)

– Rick Brown

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Ten Lessons from Boulder, Colorado

 

View of Boulder from the Flatiron Mountains - photo by author

I had the great pleasure of visiting Boulder, Colorado for the first time over an extended weekend. As an urban planner, I was able to take away many useful lessons for Rust Belt communities from the lovely city abutting the Front Range. Granted, not every place can be set aside majestic mountains, but every community does have unique attributes.

Here are what I would quantify as the top ten. Many of these are remarkably similar to the ten lessons from European industrial cities published earlier this month.

  • Cherish, protect, enhance, and enjoy your natural surroundings, attributes, and amenities.
  • Don’t worry, be active! As one of the healthiest and most active cities in the United States, Boulder residents practice this every day.
  • Active transportation (walking, hiking, cycling, mass transit) is absolutely key to a vibrant, healthy community.
  • Design the city to be human-scaled and pedestrian friendly.
  • There is a place for cars, but not at the forefront (both in the city and on college campuses) – the University of Colorado campus is amazingly compact and is only bisected by a few streets.
  • Skyscrapers and sprawl are not necessary for a healthy community – sprawl, in particular, is the antithesis of a healthy community.
  • Create third places and amenitiesdowntown Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall (a closed street) is an amazing third place filled with people and constant activity.
  • Embrace street art, performers, and vendors – they add life and vibrancy.
  • Preserve and protect your community’s architecture and cultural heritage – they’re the only ones you’ve got!
  • People will pay the necessary premiums (taxes, fees, rent, cost of living, etc.) to live, work, and play in a well-planned, diverse, eccentric, healthy, innovative, and sustainable community.

– Rick Brown

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Shared Responsibility for Detroit's Woes

Source: greatbigcanvas.com

As a Michigander for the past 21 years, I’ve heard my share of Detroit criticisms, jokes, and put downs, both from within and outside the Great Lakes State. While fingers can be  pointed at the lack of past civic and political leadership in Detroit, our collective actions (or lack thereof) can certainly share in the responsibility. Some may scoff at such a notion, but here’re a few reasons why:

  • As a nation we elected leaders who adopted a tax code and laws that advocated, promoted, and accelerated flight from cities and suburban sprawl. Many in this nation continue to support such policies. Granted, this affects every city, but that doesn’t mean it was beneficial for them unless they had scads of excess land for new subdivisions or the ability to annex freely.
  • As a nation, we collectively turned our backs on inner cities and the residents thereof many years ago, only seeing fit to reverse course when the notion of revitalization became profitable.
  • As a state, Michigan has some of the most arcane home rule laws that created thousands of 36 square mile “kingdumbs” (pun intended) that fight with each other like cats and dogs and seldom do the right thing.
  • This nation very nearly turned its collective back on the auto industry due to political self-interest.
  • As a state and nation we allowed expressways, poorly placed factories, urban renewal projects, sports stadiums, and other projects to carve up and displace perfectly healthy inner city neighborhoods, leaving a tattered and disjointed landscape.
  • Residents/politicians living in outstate Michigan from Detroit would short-sightedly say, act, and vote as if Detroit was not their problem too.
  • In Southeast Michigan, leaders and residents alike outside of Wayne County often could care less what happened south of Eight Mile.
Source: detroittransithistory.info
Source: detroittransithistory.info
  • One of the best interurban transit systems in the nation was torn up and replaced by diesel-belching buses that have as many endearing qualities as a lump of coal.
  • Corporations ran away from the city in the ’60s and ’70s…with some finally seeing the light of their actions and returning to Detroit in the ’00s and ’10s.
  • Half of Detroit’s professional sport franchises left for the ‘burbs with one, the Pistons, still playing practically closer to Flint than Detroit.
  • Far too many lenders and insurance companies red-lined inner city neighborhoods.
  • Shady lenders who offered inner city loans foreclosed on homeowners the first chance they got.
  • Absentee landlords let their properties decline into disrepair and blight.
  • Politicians shied away from making the tough decisions, and rhetoric replaced reason in far too many discussions and decisions concerning Detroit.
  • Too many people in Southeast Michigan acted like the city was an island unto itself, when, like it or not, their collective futures have been inexorably linked to Detroit’s fate.
  • Up until recent years, the national media tended to solely focus on the bad news  about Detroit. There are many great things about Detroit, and piling on does nothing to reverse problems: it only reinforces misperceptions and stereotypes.

Shall I go on?

– Rick Brown

 

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Filed under architecture, Crime, Economic Development, Featured, Great Lakes, Politics, Public Transportation, Race Relations, Real Estate, Sports, sprawl, The Media, U.S. Auto Industry, Urban Planning, Urban Poverty

Metro Detroit's Mad Hatter Approach to Development

I wrote a story this week at Streetsblog attributing Detroit’s bankruptcy to sprawl. Someone left this comment that I thought was really brilliant. It’s about no-growth sprawl, like we see in Detroit and Cleveland and Youngstown and Buffalo–really any rust belt metro.

Check it out:

I call this type of sprawl, in which the wealthiest keep moving further out in search of something newer and better, the “clean plate” theory of urban development, after this exchange in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “‘I want a clean cup,’ interrupted the Hatter: ‘let’s all move one place on.’ He moved on as he http://cialis7days-pharmacy.com/ spoke, and the Dormouse http://cialis7days-pharmacy.com/ followed him: the March Hare moved into the Dormouse’s place, and Alice rather unwillingly took the place of the March Hare. The Hatter was the only one who got any advantage from the change and Alice was a good deal worse off than before, as the March Hare buy trileptal had here sinemet just upset the milk-jug into his plate.”

I just thought that was brilliant celexa and wanted to share.

— A.S.

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Walkable City Author Jeff Speck on the One Thing that Can Wreck a City

The post originally appeared on Streetsblog.

What makes a city great? According to Jeff Speck, the secret sauce is, quite simply, walking. If your city is a good place to walk — that is, walking is safe, comfortable, interesting, and useful — everything else will fall into place.

In Walkable City, his talked-about manifesto about healthy urban places, Speck lays out a simple formula for any city to become a pedestrian haven. “Putting cars in their place,” “mixing uses,” “getting parking right,” and supporting transit and cycling are a few of the 10 principles, he says, that separate the successful cities from the rest.

A planner and urban design consultant, Speck has a few other books under his belt. In 2000, he co-authored Suburban Nation with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and he also co-wrote the recently released Smart Growth Manual with Duany and Mike Lydon. Meanwhile, Speck has served as the director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts and headed the Mayors’ Institute on City Design.

In Walkable City, he lays out a powerful argument, supported by careful research and highly-Tweetable facts, that fostering a culture of walking should be a central aim of every American city.

If you’re a professional planner or advocate, Walkable City is a new, essential reference. If you’re new to the subject, there’s no better introduction.

Streetsblog reached Speck this morning for an interview. Here’s what he had to say…

Angie Schmitt: You’ve taken the broad concept of civic health and boiled it down to this one act: walking. Can you talk a little about why this one activity is so important? How did you come to that conclusion?

Jeff Speck: I came to it very indirectly. I am a designer. I am a city planner. I was never focused on walking in any way, from a health perspective or a recreational perspective.

But then I started working with a lot of mayors. I oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design for four years. Every two months, eight mayors and eight designers would meet. Each mayor would bring their top city planning challenge.

Listening to mayor after mayor and how they explained their idea of a successful city, it became very clear that both the best measure of a thriving place and perhaps the best contributor to a thriving place was street life: walkability. Being successful in walkablity is really nothing less than providing street life. In our age of digital connectedness, I think for a while people forgot how important it was to have a public realm where we come to gather physically. That is still in our DNA. We need that.

It became clear to me that solving the walkability problem ended up addressing all their other concerns as well. It was not a strategic choice, to reframe this argument under the realm of walkability, but I have to say it may finally be the outfit that allows this concept to sell. We can clothe it in other terms like New Urbanism, which scares conservatives, and neo-traditionalism, which scares liberals. But no one doesn’t like walking.

AS: What is the biggest mistake cities make?

JS: I’ve repeated it so much I hate to tell you the same thing, but it’s the honest truth. The biggest mistake cities make is to allow themselves to effectively be designed by their director of public works. The director of public works, he or she is making decisions every single day about the width of streets, the presence of parking, the question of bike lanes. And he’s doing it in response to the complaints he’s hearing. But if you satisfy those complaints you wreck the city.

A typical public works director doesn’t think about “What kind of city do we want to be?” They think about what people complain about, and it’s almost always traffic and parking.

The one thing we’ve learned without any doubt, is the more room you give the car the more room they will take and that will wreck cities. Optimizing any of these practical considerations — sewers, parking, vehicle capacity — almost always makes a city less walkable.

AS: What do the effective cities do instead?

Planner and author Jeff Speck is the former director of the Mayor's Institute on City Design and the National Endowment for the Arts' design division.

JS: In more effective cities there’s a mayor who sees that he’s more or less the chief designer of the city. Charleston’s mayor, Joseph Riley, woke up one morning, slapped his head and said, “Oh my God, I am the chief designer of my city. I need to start making decisions that make my city more beautiful and functional in a more holistic way.”

Cities need specialists that help define what make them a great city. Is it going to make you a great city having an 18 minute commute versus a 20 minute commute? Or is it going to make you a great city to have a smaller carbon footprint and more transportation choices?

Those cities that recognize that they’re not generating the economic activity that they could because they’re not generating a street life and their population is sick, overweight, because they’re not getting enough exercise, they’re not getting a useful walk — those are the cities that are succeeding. If they decide that those are the objectives: economic health, public health, and environmental sustainability – [they] all mandate a city which is walkable city.

AS: You single out smaller, “more normal” cities as sort of the next frontier of this movement, as opposed to livability stars like New York and San Francisco. How do you reach these less progressive places?

JS: There is a lot of data from New York and San Francisco in it, but this book is firmly directed at the Clevelands, the Las Vegases, the Dallases, the Cedar Rapids. The cities that, if they’ve figured it out, they’re not showing it.

My book is part of it but it can’t be just me. My small firm only does so much work, now with my book out I’m doing much less [planning] work. I think it’s much more important to spread the message than to make more examples.

I lecture to the largest possible audience and then generally someone from the city council says, “We need you to help us.” But that is not a strategy for fixing our country. There will be, and there are, dozens of practitioners that will hopefully take this to their cities. This book will hopefully increase the demand for them, for their work as well.

There are probably 500 cities in America that have one-way streets through their downtown or a four-lane, two-way road that could get a road diet. They just need to come to understand this discussion.

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Filed under Book review, Featured, Public Transportation, sprawl