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High-rise tower-houses made of rammed earth in Sana’a, Yemen, are one indication of the infinite resourcefulness of city-dwellers. (Rex Features/Rex Feature Ltd.)
High-rise tower-houses made of rammed earth in Sana’a, Yemen, are one indication of the infinite resourcefulness of city-dwellers. (Rex Features/Rex Feature Ltd.)

New books explore why cities matter, and how we can save them Add to ...

For the time being, though, I’m enjoying the literary swaggering of the new city gang. Standing up for the skyscraper, there’s Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, whose Triumph of the City makes a tough case against overzealous historic preservation as an impediment to a manifest urban destiny. There’s New Yorker essayist David Owen, whose Green Metropolis provides strong evidence for the environmental benefits of dense urban living (and a stinging takedown of back-to-the-land greens, whose VW vans and wood stoves make them profligate carbon emitters).

And then there’s über-urbanist Richard Florida – now Toronto-based, but raised on the mean streets of Newark and Pittsburgh – author of The Rise of the Creative Class and, more recently, The Great Reset. Florida’s energetically argued case for attracting a “super-creative core” of scientists, artists and academics to cities has lately generated a backlash against those who see the current urban renaissance as so much pernicious gentrification.

It’s time to add a new name to the roll call of the city gang. Jeff Speck’s urbanist cred goes back a long way: Since the 1980s, he has worked on 75 plans for cities, towns and villages, and in 2002 co-wrote Suburban Nation with Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the Miami-based duo who pioneered New Urbanism.

In Walkable City – not to be confused with Montrealer Mary Soderstrom’s lively book of the same name – Speck strikes out on his own, building a strong case for neighbourhood walkability as the summum bonum for the car-challenged cities of North America. Making a strong case against “fattened roads, emaciated sidewalks, deleted trees, fry-pit drive-thrus, and ten-acre parking lots,” he walks readers through the benefits of high-density, mixed-use, transit-served neighbourhoods, without succumbing to extremism. For Speck, bike riders, public-transport users, pedestrians and, yes, drivers, are all key to complete streets and healthy cities. “Specialists,” he observes, “are the enemy of the city, which by definition is a general enterprise.”

Too many of the urbanists I’ve read have a penchant for jargon, and an anti-talent for anecdote, which can make reading their prose feel like an uphill slog through mud. Speck is a welcome exception. Making it clear that he walks the walkability walk, he writes of his move from Miami’s South Beach to Washington, D.C., where he met his future wife on a mass-transit platform and struggled, successfully, to turn his home’s zoning-mandated parking space into a garden.

And I thought I had heard everything hearable about vehicles and the city, but, as I read, I found myself jotting down – and tweeting – quotes, statistics and factoids that had somehow escaped my attention. Intersections in Miami’s suburbs are incredibly broad, Speck writes, because the firefighters’ union once struck a deal that permitted only four-man teams to be sent out on calls – meaning that entire residential neighbourhoods had to be built to cater to the turning radius of hook-and-ladder trucks. I also learned that, at any one time, there are half a billion empty parking spaces in the United States, and that every minute, Americans send $612,500 overseas to support their automotive lifestyle.

If Walkable City has something of the PowerPoint about it – the bulk of the text is devoted to 10 prescriptions for promoting walkability, from Plant Trees to my favourite, Let Transit Work – that’s not necessarily a bad thing; as Speck points out, the founding cris de coeur against city-wrecking modernism and car culture have already been written (think Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or James Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere). It turns out to be exactly the right time for a down-and-dirty, step-by-step seminar on city repair – especially one conducted by as genial a presenter as Speck.

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