May 31, 2019

A Night with Jeff Speck: Cars Moving Slowly, Deep Walkability & Recreating the Traditional American Town

“There are places we love, and places we hate…at a certain point, we made it illegal to make the places we love anymore, and we were only allowed to make the places we hate.”

So says Jeff Speck, one of North America’s top urban designers, and a leader of the new urbanism movement, in a recent visit — his first — to Vancouver.

As co-author of 2010’s Suburban Nation with his mentors Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (of architecture and town planning firm DPZ Partners), Speck reached a new level of mainstream urban nerd renown in 2012 with Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.

Next came its follow-up, a tactical guide for planners, activists, and even the odd engineer, 2018’s Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places. As part of a speaking tour to promote the book, Speck accepted an invitation from Canada Lands Company and MST Development Corporation to make his first visit to Vancouver, and present at the Inspire Jericho Talks series on May 23.

As a sneak preview, he joined us for a Price Talks soiree, our third such live recording with Gord and friends. Speck covers a variety of topics, including: the formative roles played by Duany and Plater-Zyberk and their early work at Miami-based Arquitectonica in influencing his career choice and trajectory; his early interest in helping to recreate Florida’s throwback vernacular architecture (think Seaside, the un-ironic setting for The Truman Show); the bad news about ride hailing…and the worse news about autonomous vehicles; and, of course, what he means by ‘deep walkability’.

“My audiences tend to self-select”, he says modestly — and while this may be true of his clients, once the The Wall Street Journal calls one of your books “the urbanist’s bible”, such self-effacing statements no longer hold water.

Turning Speck’s own words back on him — if you’re interested in urban design, find this guy.

A Night with Jeff Speck: Cars Moving Slowly, Deep Walkability & Recreating the Traditional American Town

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  1. This is the first Price Talk I’ve listened to. Though I agree with pretty much everything, I have a few thoughts.

    I have great respect for him choosing not to write about community until he had data. I don’t think that’s the decision I would have made, but I salute such dedication to empirical evidence.

    He didn’t use the word, but I agree strongly with his implicit arguments for subsidiarity.

    While it doesn’t apply to Vancouver, when it’s 30 below and the few steps from the vestibule/air lock of your house to your car is enough to freeze you for the quarter half hour, twelve-month walkability is a tough sell.

    I like his four necessary conditions for walkability: utility (density+diverse uses), safety, comfort (scale?) and interest. Concerning comfort, I think his criticism of wide streets and open spaces is important. I think most urban green space is bad – when you remove the padding (as Switzerland does, for example), decent plazas, parks, and nearby wild areas are far superior to crappy lawns all over the place.

    I think his discussion of interesting architecture misses the mark. Architecture is minimally important to making a city interesting. It’s important if it’s all you’ve got, but if that’s the case, you haven’t got much. Take a stroll down Commercial Drive if you don’t believe me. Or Tokyo, or Paris, or any number of famous cities: which are generally physically quite homely. It is dynamic activity that takes place there that makes a city compelling. This is mostly human activity, but not only: wildlife, weather, time of day and season all contribute dynamism.

    (Architecture is also inordinately obsessed with looks. My most powerful moments in places have involved sounds, smells, and touch – e.g. the caress of a breeze, the warmth of sunlight, the tapping of raindrops, the feel of lying on a stone wall.)

    The built environment’s primary role is to define space – not to be the focus of attention itself. City life takes place in negative space. This is why I loved the old Granville wall of the much-reviled old Eaton Centre: its blankness highlighted pedestrian traffic. (Not a trick that will work in many places, mind.) I also enjoy seeing laundry hung out of windows to dry. My big takeaway from Jane Jacobs’s eyes on the street is the importance of the invisible boundary between private and public, which is crossed by key interactions. Camillo Sitte loves to blur the boundary between the inside and outside of buildings.

    I think it’s not just dynamic movement. It’s *repeated* movement: cycles, patterns, habits. Meaning, I believe, comes (always) from repetition: specifically, repetition with change (rhyme, melody, dance). It is these patterns that truly compose a place. This reminds me of Christopher Alexander and his team, for whom the intangible pattern of activity is the foundation of physical design.

    It isn’t just design, though. I believe that our foolish (and capitalism’s profitable) use of technology – especially the car, the television and the smart phone – has dissolved human relations, detaching us from the world and leaving us alienated and fragile when faced with institutions and historical changes before which we are insignificant. Places and repeated practices can help us reconnect and cope. (A major benefit of walking or transit is how it throws us together with others.)

    A short note on community: community is important, but communities are also echo chambers. Cities are not communities, and rely on modes of relating to strangers – modes that often are opposed to or in tension with community. Much of the damage that has been done has been to these non-community relationships and bonds; some of the greatest potential of cities is to reawaken other kinds of relating that make large scale societies work.

    That said, I don’t want to make too much of my quibbles (I bet he addressed them in his books, which I haven’t read). When it comes down to it, what we have to work with are bricks and buses, not patterns of movement and meaning. Those are important, but it’s easy to be distracted by ethereal ideals from the often technical tasks of making things work.

    There is one question I really wanted to hear: For decades, motordom was the dominant dogma. What is the corresponding dogma of today? Assuming that we are as humanly flawed as our predecessors, what can we do to limit the harm of our mistakes?

  2. The Guggenheim in Bilbao turned that nothing place into a destination. It made a fortune for that port city. Absolutely monumentally transformational.
    We have the Seawall. Of the two, I’ll take the Seawall.
    Great architecture is important. One of my favourites is the Aga Khan award winner – Bridge School. If I had occasion to go to China, I’d like to see it. Genius Loci.
    Motordom is still the dominant dogma. We the vulnerable are agitating for space. Remember the struggle for space on the Burrard Bridge. Do you remember what it was like to cycle on that thing – narrow, with a huge curb drop.
    My question is the why of movement of people and stuff. Like kids in a sandbox, it is perceived by some to be a good thing to be busy – even if it means driving to a factory to assemble landmines.
    Order of Canada recipient Pierre Berton said he was willing to pay for people to stay home to do whatever – drink coffee; compose poetry. Odds are, many would use the time productively to self-actualize – maybe move society forward – whatever that means.

    1. “My question is the why of movement of people and stuff”

      I have concerns about this at global, national, and local levels. Globally, it seems evident that world travel simply can’t scale. First we had the jet set; then it became a luxury available to a western middle class. We were then a fraction of the world’s population: as access expands, I don’t see how that can persist unless it’s boiled down to the travel equivalent of fast food. (And then there’s the carbon cost.) It’s very nice for elites, but if everyone did it, it would be ruined. I feel a bit funny when people talk about travel broadening the mind: it sounds a bit like let them eat cake.

      At the national level, the neoliberal ideal has been a flexible labour market. People go where the jobs are; if they will not, then the consequences are on them. Again, here is a class divide. The more educated you are, the more specialized, which means the supply of potential employers is much more limited and you’re more likely to have to move cities or even countries to pursue your career. This contributes to the separation between space and place described by Manuel Castells: the professional class are embedded in global networks but disconnected from local places. It blows apart families. It increases individualization and alienation. If you’re a member of the mass of the population who would have trouble making ends meet if a paycheck is missed, on the other hand, you are far more likely to be connected to your local family or community, who in practice are your insurance when things go wrong. Pulling up stakes to head out of town means abandoning your safety net and the people who give meaning to life.

      At the local level, there’s a similar dynamic. With the advent of two-income families, it becomes very difficult for both husband and wife to find work close to home (or home close to work). Long commutes are inevitable. Commute length is correlated with divorce. If we’re already driving half way across the region every day, that normalizes driving everywhere else. This hits kids most obviously, if their friends don’t live in range or they are constantly being driven from one activity to another, but I suspect the impact on adult friendships is equally great. The old are probably hurt most of all, but we hide them away and don’t think about them.

      I think this is a deadly culture. My (Chinese) father in law spent two weeks in hospital this spring. My wife visited him daily, and her mother spent every day by his side. My wife noticed something very sad: the white patients in the unit had almost no visitors. A student came to talk to one of them, and you could see he was just craving the interaction.

      This division between the inhabitants of globalized spaces and local places is at the heart of our current political tearing apart. It’s a dangerous division; the old word for this is cosmopolitan, with at one time antisemitic overtones; the connection to xenophobia is also obvious. Yet there is real alienation, loneliness, and hurt. We all need belonging. We call travel freedom (the watch-word of neoliberalism). I’m not sure that it is.

      You propose something like universal basic income. I am ambivalent. I am less persuaded than I used to be that people would use the time productively. To prevent ourselves from self-medicating (with alcohol, drugs, video games, TVs and smart phones), I think we need community and we need purpose. There was a time when culture, including entertainment, was something that we did, not something that we consumed. Most people could sing or play a musical instrument – and did, with others, to pass the time. Now we listen to music. There was a time when people played sports; now we watch. We used to build our own homes, treat our own illnesses, raise our own children. We often worked where we lived. It certainly wasn’t all roses (starvation when the crops failed, for example), but there were things to be done that weren’t wage employment that pulled people together. Now? I don’t know. I know I could find something useful to do; I bet you could too. But we may not be representative – and in any case, we’d be fighting the tide of commodification that turns human relationships and desires into absences, then sells us products that never quite fill them up.

    2. A couple of recent relevant articles (and a third related one) about the knowledge economy and the the growing divide between cosmopolitan cities and the hinterlands:

      “As more and more tech-industry players migrate into brain hubs, the benefits of the knowledge economy become increasingly concentrated in a few isolated places. . . . The result . . . is an America segregated not by race but by geography. Big cities keep getting bigger, rural communities fall further behind.”

      “the majority of the working class in the West live in places that do not count anymore, that no longer exist culturally.”

      “The city engages in a very progressive discourse on the environment, socially very progressive, very progressive on openness. . . . The cool bourgeoisie does not accept its class position. In contrast to the traditional bourgeoisie, it does not acknowledge a rank in the social hierarchy. It refuses the very idea of a society that is divided by class, and imposes its choices on society. But when doing this it shuts itself into these little bubbles, and it’s regularly the class that uses invisible barriers to segregate itself.”

      “Guilluy describes twenty-first-century France as “an ‘American’ society like any other, unequal and multicultural.” It’s a controversial premise—that inequality and racial diversity are linked as part of the same (American-type) system and that they progress or decline together.”

      “Never have conditions been more favorable for deluding a class of fortunate people into thinking that they owe their privilege to being nicer, or smarter, or more honest, than everyone else. Why would they think otherwise? They never meet anyone who disagrees with them.”

      “the new economy is more like a private utility: it provides money and goods the way, say, the power company provides electricity. If you’ve always had electricity in your house, what’s the worry? But it’s quite possible to get cut off.”

  3. ‘Travel’ is from the French word ‘travail’ (work, labour, torment); and Latin word ‘tripalium’ – an instrument of torture. The travel industry has morphed it into something desirable and expensive – shades of ‘Love Boat’.

    Not only is travel, for the most part, not edifying, it is a waste of time and money with a huge carbon footprint and the potential of spreading disease. Hello SARS.
    The human traffic jam on Everest recently … really, can’t people find something else to do that doesn’t involve spending a pile of cash and energy to die on a mountain? Some would call the recent deaths a tragedy. No – more like comeuppance. Why not do something useful instead?

    “…we need community and we need purpose.”
    “Community” is a word with desirable overtones – a nice fluffy word. What is my “community”? Don’t know. We need purpose first – something to do. With that, generally, comes contact with others.

    Agree with singing and playing music. I do that every day – until my fingers, back, or vocal chords won’t allow me to continue. It’s pleasure and meditation. Almost never listen to others’ music – too boring. Everyone should sing.

    Watching sports … stuffing gullets with industrial food while drinking corporate beer while watching corporate teams play. Wasting our lives working to pay to watch others play. Not good. The odd little book ‘Ecotopia’ has an interesting view of sports.

  4. ” I feel a bit funny when people talk about travel broadening the mind”

    I share this sentiment. IShould I believe all the great thinkers of the world who never travelled beyond their local environs were somehow super sentients, capable of compassion and good judgement without a well-stamped passport, and the rest of us can’t manage to be community-minded without sun and sand?

    One might go a step further and intimate the possibility that a need for travel to cultivate humanity is an indicator of deficiency on the part of the passport holder, but that kind of talk won’t get you invited to cocktail parties. 🙂

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