Why walkability?

The Wilder School hosts famed urban planner Jeff Speck at inaugural Urban and Regional Planning Lecture

He calls himself a New Urbanist and refers to cars as “gas-belching, time-wasting, life-threatening prosthetic devices.”

Jeff Speck is an international advocate of smart growth and sustainable design in city planning and architectural design. He was asked by the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs to speak last week at the school’s inaugural Morton B. Gulak Urban and Regional Planning Lecture in the University Student Commons Commonwealth Ballroom.

Speck stood away from the podium throughout his 45-minute lecture on the “walkability” of cities, joking and clearly comfortable with the words of advice he’d recited to countless other cities hoping to turn their town into the next Portland, Oregon. (A city that consistently ranks high for being bicycle and pedestrian friendly, while also being referred to as one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the United States.)

He joked he’s a bit tired from having just flown back from giving the same lecture to a city in Australia, but, if he really was, it was not evident to the more than 300 people who filled the ballroom.  The only time he stumbled was when trying to remember the term “indentured servitude” in closing his thoughts on how governments spend money to build more roads to affordable suburbs farther and farther away from a city center, while ignoring the increased fuel costs for these commuters. He likened this suburban sprawl to a self-perpetuating traffic problem related to induced demand.

“Just today, the Virginia Department of Transportation approved the investment of $106 million to take five miles of route 606 in beautiful, rural Virginia and double it from a two-laner to a four-laner,” Speck said. “One-hundred-and-six million dollars to turn two lanes of choked traffic into four lanes of choked traffic, which will be choked within three years. I promise you. Mark my words.”

His new book, “Walkable City,” mirrors much of his lecture content as it explains why modern metropolises bustling with sidewalks, vital mass transit and a pedestrian-friendly urban core are so important for our collective future.

He said the people to listen to are the economists, epidemiologists and environmentalists.

Economists say that walkable cities attract millennials (those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s) and retirees. Cities need millennials for their creativity and entrepreneurialism and retirees for their wealth. Epidemiologists look at the health risks facing suburbanites, the three largest being obesity, commuter traffic-induced asthma and car wrecks. They also tout the fact that on average, when a person switches from commuting to transit, they lose six pounds. Lastly, despite the density of cities, environmentalists argue that individual carbon footprints per household drop dramatically for city dwellers when compared to their 30-mile commute suburban counterparts.

Still, Speck reminded the Richmond crowd that it takes time to dethrone cars as kings of the road. As an urban planner, he looks at things in 20-year increments and pointed out that Portland’s current success began with big changes made nearly 30 years ago.

It’s worth noting that according to Walk Score, the VCU neighborhood (23284 zip code) is considered “very walkable,” achieving a score of 78 out of 100 for the fact that most errands can be accomplished on foot.

John Accordino, Ph.D., professor and director of the center for Urban and Regional Development with the Wilder School, played host for the evening and was pleased with both Speck’s lecture and the turnout.

“First of all, for me, this event is partly about my dear friend and colleague Mort Gulak, who lived and worked for this stuff,” he said. “Many people work on an issue, but not everybody can bring it together and really articulate it as well as some other people. Speck says things that many of us think, but he says it in a focused way that helps people understand. It’s so important to have him here carrying forward a message like this. … I really feel like he hit it out of the park.”

The lecture was supported by the Gulak Family, generous supporters of the Morton B. Gulak Associate Professor Emeritus Fund, established in September in honor of Morton Gulak, Ph.D., who passed away on March 12, 2012. Gulak was an ardent advocate and friend of the university and the Central Virginia planning community for nearly four decades. His leadership was instrumental in the establishment of the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at VCU.

Additional sponsors include the Parternership for Smarter Growth, Glave and Holmes Architecture and the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

To learn more about Speck’s thoughts on Walkability, watch his TED talk.


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