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Freeing Towns From the Tyranny of the Automobile: A How-To Guide

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Paul Seheult / Eye Ubiquitous / UIG / Getty Images

By Jeff Turrentine

What do we mean when we say that a city is "healthy"? Do we mean that it's cleaner, safer and less polluted than others? That its economy is booming? That it spends its taxpayers' money wisely, on projects that benefit the many over the few? That it prioritizes the building of community—not just in the social but in the physical sense?


Jeff Speck believes that for a city to be described as healthy, it can't just be one, or even some, of these things; it has to be all of them. And he believes cities can achieve them by committing to the principles of walkability, the idea that communities should be built to meet the needs of pedestrians, not automobiles.

Speck, an architect by training, altered the course of our national conversation about urban planning six years ago with the publication of Walkable City. Pointed, funny and acerbic, his book railed against our sprawling automobile-focused culture and made the case for a human-scaled alternative. To historically dry discussions of things like municipal parking policies, congestion pricing and traffic flow, Speck brought a fresh voice and a no-holds-barred attitude; reading him was a bit like reading Anthony Bourdain, if the late food writer and TV host been more interested in sidewalk regulations than sidewalk cafes.

Walkable City became something of an evangelizing tool for advocates of smart growth and pedestrian-friendly communities, with adherents zealously handing out copies of the book to friends and acquaintances—"like tabs at a Grateful Dead concert," as Speck puts it (very Speckishly, I might add). But while Walkable City may have been terrific at summarizing a new philosophy, it wasn't necessarily the best how-to guide for, say, swaying a city council member to narrow traffic lanes or persuading a mayor to install speed bumps or a new traffic circle.

Enter Speck's new book, Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places (Island Press). Filled with the photos, graphics and charts that many of his fans felt were missing from the last book, the new volume comprises 101 mini-chapters, each of which elegantly distills a single precept from his philosophy over the course of just two pages. If the first book was written to convince you—the reader who has already evinced a keen interest in urban planning—of the manifest benefits of walkability, the second book, in Speck's words, "is meant to help you convince other people."

The book cover for Walkable City Rules.Island Press

Those benefits are walkability's demonstrably positive effects on a city's wealth, public health, equity goals, sense of community and, of course, climate change mitigation. My conversation with Speck took place shortly after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its much talked-about report detailing the consequences of allowing global temperatures to rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Naturally, we discussed how investing in walkability can help cities lead the way in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Speck had a lot to say.

"If you count both first-order and second-order impacts, I think it's absolutely clear that the car-dependent lifestyle—one that both is caused by and also causes sprawl—is the number one contributor to our destruction of the human habitat," Speck told me. "The first-order impacts, of course, are all the emissions that come from driving, and the other pollutants that come from it, from the petroleum in our asphalt to the acid in our car batteries. But as my friend [New Yorker staff writer] David Owen has pointed out, the biggest contribution that driving makes to our environment is that it causes us to spread out. And when we spread out, we consume more land; we require more infrastructure per capita; there's more sewers and electrical lines per person. We consume just so much more."

Speck's new book can be thought of as a primer on how to free our cities from the tyranny of the automobile, moving them closer to their original identities as urban villages that foster community interaction by encouraging people to stroll sidewalks and linger in public spaces. Among other things, it focuses on promoting dense, mixed-use development, ramping up bike infrastructure and right-sizing lanes (in both width and number) to lower traffic speeds and increase safety. And it makes clear that in this era of near-constant bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion, quick and dependable mass transit—and not cars—is what offers citizens the greatest amount of personal freedom.

In dendritic sprawl, most streets are cul-de-sacs and loops, so connectivity falls to a small number of collector streets that are designed as highways.Alex S. MacLean / Landslides Aerial Photography

Way back in 2000, Speck coauthored the seminal Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, which laid the theoretical groundwork for a New Urbanist movement that championed density, walkability and shared public space as the bedrock elements of community. While it may not be accurate to say that the author has softened his stance on sprawl since then, it's probably fair to state that he has come to accept the fact of its continued existence—and would rather spend his time and energy these days on making suburbs and exurbs greener, smarter, and healthier than simply excoriating those who choose to live there.

Speck sees an example of what he deems "training-wheel urbanism" in the current vogue for open-air, mixed-use "lifestyle centers." These giant mixed-use developments, often found in exurbs, typically combine shopping, apartments, restaurants, cinemas, hotels and public parks or fountains, all designed to mimic the dynamism and vitality of a city streetscape. The success of these projects outside Atlanta, Houston, Denver and other places signifies the public's deep desire, be it expressed or latent, to have the walkable-city experience even though they may be "surrounded by the miasma of sprawl," in Speck's words. And he's convinced that most suburbs built before World War II are sitting on economic gold mines in the form of abandoned Main Streets that are ripe for rediscovery and resuscitation along walkable, New Urbanist lines.

Speck and his firm keep quite busy these days consulting with cities large and small, studying traffic patterns, measuring sidewalk and lane widths, and helping city managers find new ways to incorporate walkability. But he sounds sincere when he says that he hopes his new book will put him out of a job. "I don't care if I never do another walkability study again," he says. "Not so long as lots of other people are doing them. I'd much rather be designing buildings!"

Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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