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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.

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