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How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

by Jeff Speck

Pub Date: Nov. 13th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-374-28581-4
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A city planner offers a blueprint for making midsize American cities more pedestrian-friendly.

What makes a city work? According to Washington, D.C.-based city planner Speck (co-author: Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, 2000, etc.), there’s one answer: Cities work best when people can safely and easily walk to most (if not all) aspects of their daily lives. However, the author is not interested in focusing on larger cities like New York or San Francisco, but rather, what “our other, more normal cities can learn.” To that end, he lays out a comprehensive program for smaller cities (think Providence or Grand Rapids), which he calls “The Ten Steps of Walkability.” Speck examines the specifics of each proposed step, with ideas such as fewer cars, more investment in public transit, protecting pedestrians and more. While the author claims that “this book is less a design treatise than an essential call to arms,” it is unfortunately a call to arms weighed down with stodgy prose, excessive statistics and clunky writing. Additionally, while Speck admits to “an antisuburban snobbery,” he gives short shrift to the accomplishments of larger cities, instead examining how their successes could be duplicated on smaller scales. Speck appears to have an especially contentious relationship with New York. For example, one chapter offers a section titled “Manhattan as Mecca,” in which he praises the city’s traffic-safety record, comprehensive public transit and more. But later in the book, he writes, “one can walk entire neighborhoods without a single tree sighting,” a claim many New Yorkers would dispute.

Some intriguing ideas amid a dry narrative.