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Review: Walkable City by Jeff Speck

Walkable CityThis review first ran in the Jan. 28 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

By Jeff Speck

Farrar, Straus And Giroux

I’d dodge four lanes of one-way traffic for a quinoa, chickpea & black bean salad and a Cuban super burger.

But I don’t need to risk life and limb because the Earth to Table Bread Bar and Chuck’s Burger Bar have set up shop on Locke Street South. It’s a thriving street in Hamilton’s lower city that proves Jeff Speck’s Theory of Walkability.

Speck, a city planner, architectural designer and author of Walkable City, says you can attract a whole lot of pedestrian traffic if you offer a walk that’s useful, safe, comfortable and interesting.

“Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well,” says Speck. “Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe, but feel safe.

“Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban streets into outdoor living rooms. Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and signs of humanity abound.”

Locke Street South delivers on all four counts with slow-moving two-way traffic, curbside parking and a healthy mix of restaurants, shops and residences. What’s more, the street isn’t saddled with long and boring swaths of vacant lots and blacktop or what Speck calls missing teeth.

“Get walkability right and so much of the rest will follow,” says Speck.

Downtown Hamilton’s answer to Locke Street South is James Street North. Speck would agree that converting the one-way street in 2005 was a smart move. “If your downtown lacks vitality and it’s got one-ways, it’s probably time for a change.”

Speck outlines a host of other ways that could revitalize the heart of Hamilton. Get more people living downtown by allowing homeowners to add granny flats and introduce inclusionary zoning to strike the right balance of market rate and affordable housing. Speck warns many downtowns have too much affordable housing.

Revisit how much parking is mandated for new businesses and condo developments. Rather than require parking beside or behind buildings, allow owners and developers to pay in-lieu fees for shared spaces at nearby and centrally located municipal lots and garages. “Instead of providing parking, businesses are only required to pay for it, which allows the parking to be located in the right place and, importantly, shared.” Allow owners and developers to offer parking cash-outs so employees and condo dwellers can trade their parking spaces for cash equivalents.

Put an end to cheap curbside parking and designate downtown as a parking benefit district so all the coins fed into meters are reinvested to enhance walkability in the core. “In addition to improving sidewalks, trees, lighting and street furniture, these districts can bury overhead wires, renovate storefronts, hire public service officers and keep everything spic and span.”

Set height limits on new construction to encourage more mid-rise development and avoid having entire downtown blocks dedicated to single tall towers set back from the street and surrounded by acres of parking. In the District of Columbia, buildings can only be 20 feet taller than their width.

Put fat roads on a diet and reuse eliminated lanes for a combination of angled street parking, separated bike lanes, wider sidewalks, patios, trees and awnings.

“These fixes simply give pedestrians a fighting chance, while also embracing bikes, enhancing transit and making downtown living attractive to a broader range of people,” says Speck. “Most are not expensive. Each one individually makes a difference; collectively, they can transform a city and the lives of its residents.”

Before spending a dime, downtown Hamilton needs an urban triage plan. Speck recommends ranking streets (James North would get an A) and mapping out the pedestrian traffic that’s already flowing between key points in the core. “Streets are either in or out,” says Speck about where to invest money to increase walkability. “Ideally, the entirety of city leadership, both public and private sector, comes together around a simple understanding: Build These Sites First.”

Whether we live in the core or the ’burbs, we should all be pushing for a pedestrian-friendly downtown. Offering a useful, safe, comfortable and interesting walk will bring in new businesses, retiring baby boomers and the young entrepreneurial talent that every city’s chasing. “Every relocation decision, be it a college graduate’s or a corporation’s, is made with an image of place in mind. And, with rare exception, that image is downtown. If the downtown doesn’t look good, the city doesn’t look good.”

And to borrow a line from Speck, we can’t afford to have a downtown that’s easy to drive to, but not worth arriving at.

Review: Startup Communities by Brad Feld

Startup CommunitiesThis review first ran in the Jan. 14 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City

By Brad Feld

$31.95

A question from the audience left Brad Feld stumped.

Feld, an early stage investor, entrepreneur and author of Startup Communities, was talking about Boulder’s thriving startup community with a local business and government crowd.

“What do you think ecodevos should be doing to help?” someone asked.

Feld was stumped. He had no clue what ecodevos were. “All I could think of was ‘Whip It’ from the punk rock band Devo and I had to restrain myself from blurting out ‘whip it, whip it good,’” says Feld.

He soon realized he was being asked about the City of Boulder’s economic development department. His advice?

“First, stop calling yourself an ecodevo since I’m certain there’s not a single entrepreneur in the room who has any idea what that means. “

Feld added that the economic development folks should stick to their role of being feeders for Boulder’s startup community and start asking entrepreneurs what they need to succeed.

“Once you’ve asked, you have a choice. You can say ‘we aren’t able to do that’ or ‘excellent idea — we are going to do that now.’ The worst thing you can do is to be in the middle with entrepreneurs.”

According to Feld, a successful and sustainable startup community needs both leaders and feeders such as economic development departments. Both are important, yet they have different roles and there can only be one true leader.

Regardless of the city, Feld says it’s essential that entrepreneurs who’ve co-founded high-growth companies actively lead the startup community. “Lots of different people are involved in the startup community and many non-entrepreneurs play key roles. Unless the entrepreneurs lead, the startup community will not be sustainable over time.”

Not only must entrepreneurs lead with a “give before you get” philosophy, they also need to make a long-term commitment to their community. “I like to say this has to be at least 20 years from today to reinforce the sense that this has to be meaningful in length.”

Established entrepreneurs also play a key role in fostering a philosophy of inclusiveness. Anyone who wants to get involved should be welcomed and quickly plugged in. “Building a startup community is not a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers: if everyone engages, they and the entire community can all be winners.”

Feld says there shouldn’t be a leader of the leaders and the classic patriarch problem is one to watch out for (“old white guys who made their money many years ago but still run the show”). The best startup communities aren’t hierarchies. They’re loosely organized networks with new leaders constantly stepping up, taking on and doling out community building assignments.

“Becoming a leader in a startup community is a function of what you do rather than being voted into office or selected by some secret committee in a dark, smoke-filled room,” says Feld.

When talking to groups about startup communities, Feld always asks how many people in the room are entrepreneurs. “If less than half the audience consists of entrepreneurs, there’s a fundamental problem.”

Feeders are everyone else in the startup community, including government, universities, investors, service providers and large companies.

Feld says universities have five resources that are relevant to entrepreneurship: students, professors, research labs, entrepreneurship programs and technology transfer answers. “The first two resources, which are people, are much more important than the last three,” says Feld. “Every year, a new crop of eager freshmen arrive on campus. Regardless of what they end up doing, they all bring new ideas and fresh perspectives to the community.”

The core entrepreneurship activity at the University of Colorado Boulder happens in the law school. Along with hosting conferences and groups, the school offers an entrepreneurship law clinic.

The two most important contributions that large companies can make are providing convening space and resources for local startups and encouraging startups to build companies that enhance the large company’s ecosystem.

Feld also says successful startup communities need regular activities like hackathons and startup weekends that bring and bond leaders and feeders together in working on real entrepreneurial activity.

“My favourite thing about startups is that they don’t require anyone’s permission,” says Feld, who in his book shows how a city with about a fifth of Hamilton’s population became a startup powerhouse. “Great entrepreneurs just start doing things. These are same entrepreneurs who can be the leaders of their startup community. They just do things.”

This is a must read and a powerful call to action for Greater Hamilton entrepreneurs.