Jeff Speck: An urban planner's approach to designing walkable, 15-minute cities Imagine everything you need—shops, parks, schools, and more—is within walking or biking distance of your home. Urban planner Jeff Speck is bringing a walkable lifestyle to cities across the U.S.

How can more U.S. cities become more walkable? Here's one urban planner's approach

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, a more walkable world.


ANNE HIDALGO: (Speaking French).

ZOMORODI: In 2020, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo won reelection in part by putting one particular idea at the heart of her campaign.


HIDALGO: (Speaking French).

ZOMORODI: The idea? To transform Paris into a 15-minute city, meaning make it possible for Parisians to live, work, buy groceries, play in the park, all within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from their front door. Her plans included removing 60,000 parking spots, adding bike lanes, urban forests and more local businesses, all to make the city more climate-conscious and give its citizens a better quality of life. And Paris isn't alone.


SARA SHOOKMAN: Imagine a Cleveland where everything you need is less than 15 minutes away.

JUSTIN BIBB: Regardless of where you live, you have access to a good grocery store, vibrant parks and a job you can get to.


ZOMORODI: Yes, Cleveland hopes to give it a try. Dublin is the latest to embrace it. But while the term is new, the concept itself is not.

JEFF SPECK: You know, it's the old meal in a new wrapper.

ZOMORODI: This is urban planner Jeff Speck. He's been talking about 15-minute cities for over a decade, but he's been using a different name for it - the Walkable City.

SPECK: Yeah. It's the same concept. It's just another way of describing this idea that most of your daily needs are at arm's length.

ZOMORODI: Jeff's 2012 book, "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At A Time," became kind of an urban planning bible, and he says that since then, many cities have followed the playbook to get their citizens out of the car and onto their feet - or bike.

SPECK: Almost everywhere I work understands the value of becoming a place where the car is an instrument of freedom, rather than a prosthetic device that you need to live your daily life.

ZOMORODI: And now, all these years later, the data show that walkability improves so many things for city dwellers.

SPECK: Traffic safety, community identity, tourism, stormwater management, transit effectiveness, urban competitiveness. It reduces obesity, other chronic disease, health care costs, crime, traffic congestion, maintenance costs, fossil fuel dependency, air pollution, ambient noise. And it increases lifespans, neighborhood vitality, worker creativity, social interaction, intergenerational connectedness, community inclusivity, employment rates, economic productivity, local investment, property value, efficiency of land, public and civic responsibility, urban resiliency, beauty and happiness.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. Clearly, the list goes on and on. And to experience it, Jeff says, go visit Portland, Ore., and then go visit Salt Lake City, Utah.

SPECK: Those are two cities from the same era, just designed based on different approaches. Walking around Portland is so much more pleasant than walking around Salt Lake City.

ZOMORODI: Part of the reason? Portland has shorter street blocks.

SPECK: You can fit nine Portland blocks inside a Salt Lake City block.

ZOMORODI: Those blocks have more things to look at, places to run into people.

SPECK: What's amazing when you walk down a street in Portland is that you're presented with so many different choices. You're also presented with a ton of corners, right? And every corner is showing you at least four different shops. But imagine the choices that you have. One morning, on your way to work, you may need to pass the dry cleaner. Another morning, you may be, you know, dropping your kid off at school.

ZOMORODI: Traffic is not the focus.


SPECK: The typical street in Salt Lake to carry the traffic that serves all that real estate has five or six lanes in it, whereas the typical street in Portland has two lanes in it.

ZOMORODI: Jeff Speck continues from the TED stage.


SPECK: Portland made a bunch of decisions in the 1970s that began to distinguish it from almost every other American city. While most other cities were growing an undifferentiated spare tire of sprawl, they instituted an urban growth boundary. While most cities were reaming out their roads, removing parallel parking and trees in order to flow more traffic, they instituted a skinny streets program. And while most cities were investing in more roads and more highways, they actually invested in bicycling and in walking. And they spent $60 million on bike facilities, which seems like a lot of money, but it was spent over about 30 years, so $2 million a year, not that much, and half the price of the one cloverleaf that they decided to rebuild in that city.

These changes and others like them changed the way that Portlanders live. And their vehicle miles traveled per day, the amount that each person drives, actually peaked in 1996, has been dropping ever since, and they now drive 20% less than the rest of the country.

ZOMORODI: So Portland has been this shining example of walkability for a while now. And so - but where have you been working more recently? What cities are now trying to become more walkable and to catch up? And how hard is it?

SPECK: Well, I would say the real challenge is the many really small communities that don't have the wherewithal, the budget, the leadership to change themselves. And that's something you find in both well-off and less well-off communities. But I work mostly in midsize cities. Interestingly, I work in a lot of red cities - Grand Rapids, Oklahoma City - where local business leaders understand that being a place where people want to be is the key to driving their economic growth forward. That's been a new development in how cities view their future, that they realize now that the workforce is mobile and that people will locate in places that are more desirable. So a lot of cities who might otherwise have been resistant to change are saying, geez, how can we become more walkable so that we become more desirable?

ZOMORODI: Oh, interesting. So you're hearing from more places who are like, OK, yes, we're ready to pull the trigger on this. We need to get going with turning our city into a walkable one.

SPECK: Yeah. So what that means at a deeper level is to create an environment in which people will make the choice to walk or to bike, or to use some other form of micromobility, rather than driving. And to do that, according to my general theory of walkability, the walk has to be as good as the drive, which means it has to satisfy four basic criteria. It needs to be useful, it needs to be safe, it needs to be comfortable and it needs to be interesting. And each one of those criteria then places upon us a series of mandates that surround urban design and city planning, my profession, to create that environment for the potential pedestrian or cyclist.


ZOMORODI: OK. So to be walkable, the city needs to do those four things. They need these attributes for every walk a person takes. Let's start with the first. The walk needs to be useful. What do you mean by that?

SPECK: So useful has to do with the proper mix of uses. So places to live, work, shop, recreate all within walking distance. It typically means having more housing in your downtown, which would balance the uses in your downtown and have it be active around the clock. I think that it's important to go back to Jane Jacobs who wrote the most important planning book of our era, "The Death And Life Of Great American Cities." She said a great place has to have people in it around the clock, and you can't have a great restaurant or a great gym without a dinner crowd, as well as a lunchtime crowd, that when a neighborhood, which is principally a business district becomes a truly mixed-use district with the proper balance of jobs and housing, it then comes to life. And that's a strange benefit of COVID that we've seen in a number of our communities is that more people are living and working in the same place.


SPECK: But a lot of suburban areas that were just bedroom communities are now places where people are also working and the downtowns have actually gotten a real shot in the arm as a function of that.

ZOMORODI: OK, so we've made our city. We've made our walk useful. Now we need to make walking safe.



SPECK: So the typical American street is designed for speeds well over the posted limit, and it's designed to encourage antisocial and quite dangerous driving - right? - I mean, I was once working in a project in Alabama where we wanted the speed limit to be 25. And the engineer, the local engineer made us engineer the streets for 35, because that's how the rules work. And that's the exact opposite of what they do in the Netherlands, for example, where you make the streets as tight as they need to be to cause the drivers to go the speed that is safe for the community.

The resistance that you find to accomplishing this typically lies in public works departments and engineering departments, which are led by engineers who haven't been back to school in the last 20 years and who still embrace the older concept of traffic safety, which in America grew out of highway safety. And an important thing to clarify is that what makes you safe on a highway is the exact opposite of what makes you safe in a downtown. So if you think about yourself when you're driving on a highway where your speed is a constant, anything you can do to reduce opportunities for conflict, to increase elbow room, is going to make that street safer. So wider lanes, one-way traffic, no parallel parking, no trees - that's the clear zone - you know, big, swooping curves - right? - all those things make a highway safer.

But it's precisely the opposite that makes a downtown safe. You want to have narrow lanes, you want to have parallel parking, you want to have two-way traffic, you want to have lots of intersections and lots of other things going on. Trees actually make streets safer. The studies show that very clearly. And so the biggest impediment often in cities to making them safe and comfortable to walk around is a traffic engineer who is trained on highway design and has brought it into city design.


ZOMORODI: OK. Our walk is useful, our walk is safe. How do we make it - number three - comfortable for walking?

SPECK: So comfortable is the most design-y aspect of the discussion because, and it's a little counterintuitive, we like to be in places that have spatial definition. All animals, humans among them, are seeking two things according to evolutionary biologists. They're seeking prospect and refuge. You want to be able to see your predators before they attack you and you want to feel that your flanks are covered from attack. And that's in our bones and we can't help it. So if you can picture Lower Manhattan or, you know, the cranky parts of our oldest cities, those have the smallest blocks of all. And if you think about most European cities, they have a medieval core, which is the most delightful place to spend time. But not only are the blocks small, but, of course, the street spaces are very tight. And that gets us into the comfortable walk and that delightful feeling of being embraced by buildings on both sides.


SPECK: So that idea of spatial definition and creating outdoor living rooms is central to making walkable places. And we, you know, our favorite streets tend to be quite narrow and then the buildings aren't that tall, but they're considerably taller than the streets are wide.


ZOMORODI: And that brings us to the fourth and final principle of making a city walkable, which is that the walk needs to be interesting.

SPECK: Yeah. So the final category of interesting is basically not having blank walls, not having parking structures, having lots of eyes on the street in the form of doors and windows and signs of human activity. You know, we humans are among the social primates. Nothing interests us more than other humans, and that's what causes us to walk.

ZOMORODI: So when you arrive at a city to work with them, do you find that you need to first sort of change their cultural outlook on how to provide the best thing for their citizens? Is there a mind shift that you have to get them to do before you actually start talking about the details?

SPECK: Well, I think what's different now as opposed to 10 years ago or even certainly 30 years ago when I started doing this work, is that there's now an openness within public works departments and engineering departments to this information. And the thing that has evolved the fastest is bicycle infrastructure. And when we're building new projects now, we're mandated by the city to not have the bike lane in the street. The new standard is to put it up on the sidewalk edge.

ZOMORODI: I mean, you're speaking to number two, a safe walk or a safe ride, in this case, on a bicycle. But we've been hearing so many headlines about the rise in pedestrian and, I believe, biker deaths. So if more cities are becoming more welcoming to walking and riding bikes, why is this happening?

SPECK: So more cities are getting more serious about improving pedestrian safety, but that's really just starting to kick in at volume now. And it used to be that, you know, the poor people lived in the inner city and the wealthy people were suburbanizing. Now many more of America's poor are living in these places where you have to get further and further from the city center in order to afford a mortgage. That's where a lot of people are stuck now, and sadly, they're stuck there without cars, many of them. So you have kind of the double whammy of people living without cars in an environment that was designed without ever imagining people living there or using it without cars.

And cities that want to see themselves thrive in the long term have been even actively subsidizing the creation of housing in their downtown cores. And that's even before we acknowledged that we had a national housing crisis. That's one condition. I think the larger factor is the rise of the SUV and the pickup truck as the standard vehicle for getting around our cities. They're heavier, they have more momentum, they're harder to break, but more importantly, the hoods are very high. So instead of being hit in the legs and landing on the hood, you're hit in the torso and you're under the vehicle.

ZOMORODI: Oh, gosh.

SPECK: Your likelihood of being killed by an SUV when you're hit versus a car is about two to one.


ZOMORODI: But we haven't gotten to the point where we are giving up our cars - right? - I mean, there's a lot of talk right now about climate change and that one of the solutions is to, if you can, buy an electric car. Why aren't we talking about giving up our cars yet? I mean, it feels un-American to even say that, but I live in a town, Brooklyn, where I can walk everywhere. But to get out of New York City, to go anywhere remotely rural is not easy with public transportation.

SPECK: So there's a couple things to unpack there. The first is that everyone who can get an electric car should get an electric car. That's very clear. The main answer to your question, though, is that so much of the American landscape has been built to mandate automobile use. And there are a large number of Americans, perhaps a majority of Americans, who through no fault of their own and often through no choice of their own, live in a place where the automobile is this prosthetic device that they need to get around. In those conditions, then, the question is what can you do to improve their quality of life, to lighten their - you know, their carbon footprint to make them safer?

A number of suburbs have managed to consolidate enough property, like a dead mall or a dead office park, that they could create a new little town center. You find that in a place called Avalon in Alpharetta, Ga., outside of Atlanta, or a place called CityCentre, Houston, where it was maybe 25 acres and they put everything there. They put places to live, work, shop, recreate. And now it's becoming a real community, even though it's just a small-ish property in the heart of suburbia. But in terms of my own experience, I'm - I actually - I grew up loving cars.


SPECK: I'm a car nut. And that's the - kind of my big, dark secret.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

SPECK: But it just gets to the larger issue of cars in the right number, in the right place. You know, cars aren't the problem. They become the problem because we've allowed ourselves to design our society around them.

ZOMORODI: So, I don't know, should we just give up on ending sprawl, Jeff, and accept that we'll need to create cities that continue to turn into suburbs that go on for miles and that people will continue to need cars, even if small pockets of these places are walkable?

SPECK: So when I joined this movement in the '80s, I really thought we could stop sprawl. I've pretty much given up on that goal after - what? - after 40 years. But I've replaced it with a new goal, which is essentially to offer the walkable quality of life, you know, the walking lifestyle to as many more Americans as possible. And that's why, you know, I'm going where the people are and doing much more downtown work. And most of my work is for cities who call me in and say, you know, we realize that we could be so much better if we made our downtown more walkable, and what are the steps to getting there?


ZOMORODI: That's city planner Jeff Speck. His book is called "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time." You can see both of his talks at On the show today, a more walkable world. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Don't walk away.


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