Interview: Jeff Speck, Author Of 'Walkable City' City planner Jeff Speck says walking will remain a choice in most American cities for years to come, but that it's important to incentivize pedestrians. In his book, Walkable City, Speck says urban walks have to be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting.
NPR logo

What Makes A City 'Walkable' And Why It Matters

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Makes A City 'Walkable' And Why It Matters

What Makes A City 'Walkable' And Why It Matters

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


What makes a city walkable? We met one man who's given that question a lot of thought.

JEFF SPECK: I'm Jeff Speck. I'm a city planner. We're in Washington, D.C.

SIMON: Jeff Speck is also the author of a new book called "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time." And he gave us a quick tour of his neighborhood.

SPECK: So, look at this curb here? Does this feel like a safe sidewalk? And the answer is no, because there's no parallel parking. Parallel parking is a barrier of steel that protects the sidewalk from moving vehicles.


SPECK: Now, we're approaching the Blind Dog Cafe. The Blind Dog Cafe is a pop-up cafe. It's a bar at night. And these over-educated 20-somethings have dedicated themselves to the idea that this neighborhood deserves great coffee and a great place to hang out.


SPECK: Hi guys.



SPECK: Hi, buddy. You know, this part of the city is not for good for parks, but what's happening in neighborhoods like this now is the 20-somethings who moved in five or 10 years ago are now having their kids and they're demanding a lot of things that it's pretty hard for the neighborhood to provide.


SPECK: Here you have our U Street Metro stop.


SPECK: Metrorail, of course, was at first destructive to this neighborhood. Almost every store closed when they were building the Metrorail because the streets were torn up for close to a decade. But, of course, for the long run it's had a tremendously positive impact.

SIMON: Surveyor and planner Jeff Speck giving us a quick tour of his neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and he joins us now in the studio. Thanks so much for being with us.

SPECK: Hello, Scott. It's a real pleasure to be here.

SIMON: The sub-title of your book, of course, is "How Downtown Can Save American One Step at a Time." How do you see that happening?

SPECK: The interesting thing for me as a planner was to have focused on this issue from the design perspective for so many years, and actually to kind of be shouting into the wind about why from how these places looked and how they felt and the kind of social environments that they created cities were superior to sprawl. But what happened in the last decade is that these other groups who get a lot more attention - doctors, economists, scientists - have begun to realize that the traditional neighborhood, and particularly urban neighborhoods, are much more sustainable environmentally, much more successful economically and much, much better for us in terms of our health.

SIMON: Yeah. What are you looking for in a walkable city? What qualities?

SPECK: Well, you know, my book has the 10 steps of walkability. But I think the main point to be made is that in most American cities walking will remain a choice. For many years, I think, into the future driving will remain cheap enough and parking will remain cheap enough. And what we're trying to create is pedestrians by choice. And what that means is that the walk has to truly be useful, it has to be safe, it has to be comfortable and it has to be interesting.

SIMON: Do you mean walking to work, walking to a store?

SPECK: Yeah. Useful means essentially having the proper balance of use in your communities. Most American cities, the one that I work in that are mid-sized typically, do not have a proper ratio of housing downtown.

SIMON: Now, you don't mind talking about the fact that you drive a car, right?

SPECK: While I was writing this book...

SIMON: Not all the time but, yeah.

SPECK: It was really hard because while I was writing this book I acquired a car. And my wife and I had lived without one in D.C. for seven years.

SIMON: But you got a car because?

SPECK: We had our second child.

SIMON: May I ask the ages of your children?

SPECK: Two and four.

SIMON: What happens when school comes along?

SPECK: That is the million dollar question in so many cities. My wife is extremely active in the local schools and extremely supportive of our extremely local schools right next to our house, which are, as we speak, being shut down and consolidated and struggling. But that is why a lot of people are leaving the city because they see a better school system, even as D.C.'s improves. In many inner cities, schools improve, they see a better system just outside of town. So, we happen to be in with our two kids an excellent charter school. The downside there though, and this is a very interesting discussion, is that we not have a bit of a commute. My wife typically drives our kids to school. And she says, you know, I didn't move to the city to be a suburban commuter.

SIMON: It strikes me. Towards the end of your book you have this beautiful section about a beautiful urban vision of - a lot of people remember - Mary Tyler Moore walking the streets of Minneapolis - and you're going to - and throwing her hat up in the air.

SPECK: Yep. Mary Tyler Moore brings up a couple of really interesting things. The most interesting discussion is - I mean, what TV shows did I watch when I was a kid? "Gilligan's Island," "Partridge Family," "Brady Bunch"...

SIMON: Well, say what you will about "Gilligan's Island." That was a walkable environment.

SPECK: Well, it had very little to say about urbanity. But the other two, and all the shows on my TV that I was watching were either, you know, fun suburban environments or, you know, "Streets of San Francisco," "Mannix," "Hawaii Five-O," "Dragnet." It was the city but it was one thing: crime. Now, there was one exception, which is Mary Tyler Moore. And it's a strange exception. I don't understand its role. But the reason I bring this up is think about the kids who are moving to cities today - the millennials. They grew up on "Friends," on "Seinfeld," on "Sex and the City"...

SIMON: Upper West Side people.

SPECK: Yeah, it was all New York.

SIMON: They want the diner. They want the coffee shop. But here's the problem: millennials grow up. They start having families and they start looking for more space and good schools. And the problem is in walkable neighborhoods, the real estate gets more expensive. So, for more space they often have to move out of the city. And for that matter, their kids become of school age and they have to look for good schools.

SPECK: Well, the question really isn't just who our cities can serve, but can our cities thrive? These cities that currently don't have anyone in them have to start somewhere. And typically for those people schools are not an issue - but they become an issue very quickly.

SIMON: Jeff Speck, author of "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time." Thanks for coming in.

SPECK: Oh, it's a great pleasure, Scott. Thank you for having me.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.