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Jeff Speck on Building Walkable Neighborhoods in Columbus

Brent Warren Brent Warren Jeff Speck on Building Walkable Neighborhoods in Columbus
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The Great Placemakers Lab kicks off Tuesday, September 16th at the Westin Great Southern Hotel downtown. Organizers promise a diverse lineup of speakers, neighborhood tours and activities, all united by the common theme of building great neighborhoods.

One facet of a great neighborhood is its walkability, and Jeff Speck may be the foremost expert on the subject. Apart from his work as a New Urbanist city planner and urban designer, his recent TED talk on walkability has been viewed almost 800,000 times, and his book, Walkable City, was named a Best Book of the Year by both Planetizen and the American Society of Landscape Architects.

jeff-speckSpeck will be giving a keynote speech and leading sessions on walkability at Great Placemakers on September 17th. He recently answered some questions via email in advance of his appearance in Columbus next week.

Q: The Great Placemakers Lab is being pitched as a conference for both professional planners and architects as well as local neighborhood activists – what kind of advice would you give to an activist working at the grassroots level for a more walkable neighborhood?

A: The biggest public realm concern for neighborhood activists has got to be reforming local streets so that they no longer encourage speeding traffic. As a designer / urban planner concerned about quality of life (and its prolongation!) I have found my focus narrow and narrow to one simple question: how are the streets striped?

Are the driving lanes 10 feet wide maximum? Does the street have no more lanes than traffic volumes demand? Are there no unnecessary or over-long left-hand turn lanes? Are there no right-hand turn lanes? Are there bike lanes if there’s room — protected if possible? ? Is parallel parking protecting the sidewalk? Are there no unwarranted signals where 4-way stops will serve? These are the questions that need to be answered entirely yes. If not, the activist would be smart to fight for change.

Q: What about on the policy side? What’s the single most important thing that cities can do to improve their walkability?

A: Elaborating on the above: many cities have public works standards that violate the prescriptions above. Some require 12-foot driving lanes, even for the smallest local street. Some enforce minimum-design-speed standards that produce streets that invite speeding. Fire departments also are a problem, demanding 20 foot clear on all streets, a suburban standard based on getting one truck past another parked on a cul-de-sac — irrelevant to the city grid. These fire-department-widened streets kill more people in a year than fires kill in a decade.

Q: People often have a negative reaction to any development in their neighborhood that increases density – in Columbus we’ve seen plenty of battles recently over this issue – from a walkability and livability standpoint, what are some of the benefits that come with living in a denser neighborhood?

A: My experience is not that people don’t want more neighbors, but that they don’t want more cars. In this regard, the best thing a NIMBY can do, contrary to intuition, is to insist that all new buildings have no parking spaces under them, and that tenants sign leases in which they agree not to park on street. But first, the city must establish a resident-only parking permit system in which current residents only qualify. This is possible in transit-served places. In places like DC and Somerville (MA), developers only attract car-owning tenants when they provide on-site parking.

Q: You’ve noted that walkability is now being studied from an economic, public health, and environmental perspective – are these new disciplines helping to raise the profile of the issue?

A: Tremendously. In my book, I outline how the epidemiologists, economists, and ecologists are all sounding the same alarm: sprawl is bankrupting us, making us obese, and destroying the planet. People listen to these folks much more than to planners, and it’s great to see. (If people want to hear a 16-minute rant on this topic, they can find me on TED.com!) Or just read Walkable City!

For more information, tickets and event details, visit www.GreatPlacemakers.org.

For more from Jeff Speck, visit www.jeffspeck.com.

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