Jeff Speck is a city planner and urban designer who, through writing, lectures, and built work, advocates internationally for smart growth and sustainable design.
The worst idea Americans have ever had is urban sprawl, and it is being emulated in other countries. Through it the automobile, that was once a symbol of freedom, has become a gas-belching, time-wasting, life-threatening prosthetic device that people need just to live their daily lives. Jeff wants to make cities more walkable to free us from relying on cars, for 3 reasons
- Economic: in the 70s the average american spent 10% of their income on transport, now the spend 20%. Working families now spend more on transport than housing, since they travel further to find cheaper houses.
- Health: in the 70s 1 in 10 Americans were obese, now it is 1 in 3. The current generation is expected to live a shorter life than its predecessor. Jeff sees this as an urban design problem – by denying people chances to be active in their daily life. There are clear correlations between how walkable a region is and the obesity of its residents. Asthma rates are also up due to car exhaust. Car accidents are the single largest killer of healthy adults. We think of it as a natural event, but rates are far less in cities which have been designed to reduce car usage.
- Environmental: Cities reduce CO2 emissions per capita, with densely populated cities reducing emissions more. However cities can always reduce more.
Portland has instituted policies to differentiate it from other US cities. It has instituted a city boundary to limit sprawl, reduced the width of roads, and increased cycling infrastructure. As a result, Portland residents drive 4 miles and 11 minutes less per day – which is saving 3.5% of their income. It has also attracted young workers, because people want to be in that sort of city.
Jeff argues our houses are getting greener in the wrong way. We’re looking for greener gadgets and ideas to add to our houses, but the impact of energy saving bulbs is a fraction of the impact of living in a walkable city. People shouldn’t be afraid of selling the lifestyle of living in a more walkable city. The lifestyle of people living in cities is studied and these studies show that people are happier in cities with better sustainability. It isn’t an easy transition, but it can be done and is worth trying.
Winston Churchill said “Americans can be counted on to do the right thing, once they have exhausted the alternatives”.