Ode to the Livable City

smaller specksolnit

“Jeff Speck understands a key fact about great cities, which is that their streets matter more than their buildings. And he understands a key fact about great streets, which is that the people who walk along them matter more than the cars that drive through them. Walkable City is an eloquent ode to the livable city and to the values behind it.” — Paul Goldberger, author of Why Architecture Matters.

Jeff Speck is a veteran urban planner, and he has written one of the Land Library’s favorite books to the year: Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. This is a book that literally changes the way you look at the place you live. After reading this book, we have a better appreciation why some city blocks energize us, while others seemingly sap whatever life force we have!

Jeff Speck’s General Theory of Walkability says that a walk needs to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. It needs to engage us at a human level. Getting walkability right brings enormous benefits:

Walkability is both an end and a means, as well as a measure. While the physical and social rewards of walking are many, walkability is perhaps most useful as it contributes to urban vitality and most meaningful as an indicator of that vitality. After several decades spent redesigning pieces of cities, trying to make them more livable and more successful, I have watched my focus narrow to this topic as the one issue that seems to both influence and embody most of the others. Get walkability right and so much of the rest will follow.

Reading Walkable City reminded us of one of our favorite passages from Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking (also pictured above). She definitely knows all about walkability!

I lived in rural New Mexico long enough that when I came back home to San Francisco, I saw it for the first time as a stranger might. The exuberance of spring was urban for me that year, and I finally understood all those country songs about the lure of the bright lights of town. I walked everywhere in the balmy days and nights of May, amazed at how many possibilities could be crammed within the radius of those walks and thrilled by the idea I could just wander out the front door to find them. Every building, every storefront, seemed to open onto a different world, compressing all the variety of human life into a jumble of possibilities made all the richer by the conjunctions. Just as a bookshelf can jam together Japanese poetry, Mexican history, and Russian novels, so the buildings of my city contained Zen centers, Pentecostal churches, tattoo parlors, produce stores, burrito places, movie palaces, dim sum shops. Even the most ordinary things struck me with wonder, and the people on the street offered a thousand glimpses of lives like and utterly unlike mine.

abbey road

…since midcentury, whether intentionally or by accident, most American cities have effectively become no-walking zones. In the absence of any larger vision or mandate, city engineers — worshiping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking — have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at.” — from Walkable City

There’s nothing like the rambling meditation of a good walk. Over the years the Land Library’s Book Club has discussed two books on this theme — both are among our all-time favorites:

Connecting to Landscape and Yourself, simply by taking a walk: The Walk by William deBuys (solitary New Mexico hikes, along the same route over many years), and Chet Raymo’s customary walk to work, one that opens his eyes to worlds beyond: The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe.

If you live in a town or city, we hope you enjoy your explorations! Here’s a few good books to help you along the way:

Exploring Home, Wherever it May be

The greatest ownership of all is to look around and understandWilliam Stafford


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