Walkable City

The great tragedy of urban planning is that its practitioners, constantly challenged by their arch nemeses the civil engineers, feel compelled to discuss it as though it were a science. Confusion here is understandable, both because it’s common practice in the radically libertarian United States to consign all planning tasks to the engineering office (or alternately in the radically corporatist United States to the economic development office), and because, as a bureaucratic practice, planning comes with a plethora of codes, ordinances, regulations, and complicated maps.

Planning is not a science anymore than music, with its galaxy of modes, notations, and technologies, is a science. Just like there is no one song for every situation (well, maybe MacArthur Park), there is no one planning technique for every situation. Even worse, there is no one set of proscriptions that apply to a given set of conditions. In other words, urban planning doesn’t have an instruction manual, it can’t have an instruction manual, it can only be done well by someone with an eye who takes time to know a subject location intimately.

But if urban planning did have an instruction manual, Walkable City by Jeff Speck would comprise an important chapter. As you might guess, I see that both as a strength and a weakness. On the strength side, it’s probably the most complete and readable compendium of the current state of urbanist thinking (the urbanists being the faction that dominates discussion in the planning field, if not practice) on urban design. Speck does a great job organizing what is in reality a complex set of tools and approaches into 10 comprehensible categories. An example is the chapter Make Friendly and Unique Faces, which I’d summarize as the need to front public space (e.g. parks and streets) with permeable or at least interesting building frontages. Speck of course goes deeper than that, to cite just two examples: demanding parking ramps have first floor retail or be hidden on the interior of blocks, and recommending right-sized parks that facilitate recreation but don’t cut neighborhoods off from each other. These two topics could have been covered in a chapter about parking ramps and a chapter about open space, respectively, but by instead organizing them according to their effect, rather than their mere form, Speck guides the reader to the next level. This approach is a means of understanding the components that make up a place not just as a collection of Dungeons and Dragons characters with their various powers and differing attribute points, but as a collection of unique individuals that don’t always fit into categories and come together with unpredictable results. This approach is an artistic one.

Unfortunately it is not found consistently through the book. Speck too often falls in the engineeringist trap of absolute declarations. One that rubs me the wrong way is his insistence that on-street parking is always a good thing for a street. Certainly, in a place with high parking demand on-street parking will act as a buffer for pedestrians against the motorized traffic in the roadway. But even this is only beneficial if the parking also has the effect of making the roadway feel narrower for moving traffic, resulting in reduced speed – too often (Lake St in Uptown is a local example) roadways are designed with 12′ traffic lanes and 12′ parking lanes, in which case the parking is also a mental buffer for motorists, who can speed through their expressway without having to draw their attention to the human life in the margins. And on-street parking can have a significant downside at intersections if not paired with bump-outs or at least significant clear zones, since parked cars can often obscure any traffic using crosswalks to a turning motorist. Finally, on-street parking is only a buffer if it’s used. Empty parking spaces, as can be seen locally on 38th St, are just a psychological widening of the roadway, predictably increasing top speeds of cars and degrading the walking experience. For all the buffer that on-street parking can provide, a well-landscaped and ample boulevard is just as good a buffer, as can be experienced on Chicago’s State Street or even in places on our own Hennepin Ave. My point, of course, isn’t that on-street parking is always a bad buffer, but rather that it’s one of many tools in the toolbox and shouldn’t be universally prescribed as Speck seems to do at a couple points in his book.

But such absolutist moments are the exception, which is itself exceptional. The best ever book on urban planning – Death and Life of course – took an artistic approach as well, famously describing cities as a sidewalk ballet that couldn’t be taken apart and rebuilt as so many interchangeable or even reliably specialized lego blocks. Unfortunately, Jane Jacobs didn’t win the 20th century, the engineers did. And so engineeringese has predominated in too much of the planning discussion, which wastes vast quantities of hot air attempting to prove that because such and such a signal timing or so and so code phrasing worked in Town A, it’ll do the same thing in City B. While not perfect, Walkable City is a step in the right direction towards a discourse that acknowledges that cities are not perfect either, and as such there is no perfect approach to urban planning.

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One comment on “Walkable City

  1. planning is more like jazz; you learn a language, come up with with a skeletal plan, and then improvise and react to each other. hopefully, but not always, beauty results.

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