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Walkability = liveability = economic sustainability!!!

March 9, 2014

We recently decided not to pursue buying a house that we really liked and could actually afford. Why? Because an arterial road filled with fast moving cars and trucks lay between that house and most of the places I walk to.

I’m not alone in caring about walkability. I’ve just finished reading Walkable City by Jeff Speck, a chatty, entertaining book by an experienced urban planner that convincingly argues that walkability is pretty much THE factor that makes or breaks a liveable, lovable city. Speck shows that improving walkability (which goes hand in hand with good public transport and bikeability, amongst other factors) is a potent catalyst for vibrant, economically and culturally thriving urban communities, while building freeways tears apart the very fabric of neighbourhoods, sending communities into decline and reducing property values.

Speck also argues that urban planning decisions need to be made by generalists. Not traffic engineers who will only consider the needs of drivers, nor only local residents or business owners, or cycling or even pedestrian advocates. The best decisions will consider the needs and interests of everyone, and will look at the urban environment wholistically. The advice offered throughout the book on how to achieve a walkable city, and the examples and studies that back it all up, is fascinating. Plus Speck grasps – unlike so many politicians, planners and bureaucrats – that to improve a place you actually have to focus on creating the specific attributes that would make the place better, not just on having a strong economy:

The conventional wisdom used to be that creating a strong economy came first, and that increased population and a higher quality of life would follow. The converse now seems more likely: creating a higher quality of life is the first step to attracting new residents and jobs. This is why Chris Leinberger believes that  “all the fancy economic development strategies, such as developing a biomedical cluster, an aerospace cluster, or whatever the current economic development ‘flavor of the month’ might be, do not hold a candle to the power of a great walkable urban place.”

From Walkable City: how downtown can save America, one step at a time by Jeff Speck

Surely this is a point that applies not just to city planning but to all planning? Cater for the needs and wants of humans and the humans, and their economy, will tend to thrive… But I digress.

If I were rich I’d love to send a copy of this book to every politician and planner in Australia. Although I guess most of them wouldn’t read it anyway… But if you care about urban planning, public health, sustainability and just generally creating happier, healthier futures for human beings, please give it a read, or take a look at Speck’s TED talk.

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