Urban designer Jeff Speck on walkable cities and economic development

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Jeff Speck

Jeff Speck is a city planner, urban designer, author, and lecturer who advocates for more walkable cities. He advises municipalities and real estate developers through Speck & Associates, his consultancy in Brookline, Mass. Speck is the author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time” and was previously director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts.

UBJ interviewed Speck on April 12 while he was in Greenville for a speaking engagement at the downtown offices of Clemson University’s MBA program. The event was sponsored by the Greenville chapter of the American Institute of Architects and 21 other groups.

What is a walkable city?

In America it’s fair to say a walkable city is a city in which you can live a full and fruitful life without relying on an automobile. That doesn’t mean that a lot of people aren’t driving. It just means that the car is an empowering instrument of freedom, as opposed to a prosthetic device, which is what it’s become for so many Americans.

Why is it important for a city to be walkable?

The economists have made it very clear that living in a way that we are dependent on automobiles is extremely inefficient and wasteful and actually causes people who aren’t wealthy to feel poor much sooner than would be the case in other types of environments.

Secondarily, it’s been shown that walkable places tend to produce more wealth. Some of that is coincidence, but some of it is the fact that you can just be much more efficient in a place in which you don’t have to drive hours between every appointment. But also that more patents are generated in places with higher walk scores because of the intellectual community that forms around walkability.

Is there a relationship between urban planning and economic development?

What we’re finding now is that talent is mobile. Most folks now, not all of them, but a good portion of the creative, educated workforce, can live anywhere. And so they decide first where they want to live, and then they create wealth and jobs and a strong economy. For that reason, many cities have realized that the best economic development strategy is a place-making strategy. Let’s become a place where people want to be. And if we achieve that, everything else should follow. And I think Greenville has already crested that hill. And every additional step that the city takes to make itself more livable and more walkable will accrue to that success.

Some of the most effective cities I’ve ever worked in have actually had a head of planning and economic development, and linked the two together, understanding that one was a function of the other. In most cities, those are typically … separate departments of equal power that report similarly to the, let’s say, city manager or mayor. And economic development directors who do not understand the power of place-making will often cause city leaders to accept projects that are detrimental to the quality of place of the city, in a way that in the long run do much more damage than good. And so getting economic development and planning out of their separate silos has to be a key effort of any city leader who wants to see a thriving downtown and central business district, as an example.

 Are there ways to facilitate good urban planning that works with the private market as opposed to simply government legislation?

More than half of the successful plans I’ve done have been with private developers rather than with cities. The city needs to have a light touch, but it needs to have the right touch. … Right now [in Greenville], I understand that the city has completed some downtown design guidelines, which I’ve reviewed and which look very effective. That’s the sort of leadership that a city should show in terms of encouraging developers to do the right thing. Developers are smart, but they’re not all smart.

You have the new development happening on the newspaper property that’s running along Main Street. One would hope the developers are smart enough without the regulation to put stores continually on that Main Street edge, because if they don’t, it ruins the connectivity of that corridor from Falls Park to the best part of your downtown. But I’m glad to know that the city requires it, just in case, because there are developers of all kinds, and some get it and some don’t.

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