On a rainy Thursday night not suited for walking, Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, addressed approximately 70 people gathered inside Sarasota City Hall for a public forum on walkability called “Working Together for a Walkable City.”
Defined as “a measure of how friendly an area is to walking,” walkability ties directly into the interests of the City of Sarasota, the Downtown Sarasota Alliance (DSA) and the Downtown Improvement District (DID)---the three primary sponsors of the March 21 event.
Other local businesses and organizations provided additional sponsorship for Speck’s Sarasota visit, which included a $40-per-person speaker’s luncheon the following day.
Speck is a Harvard-educated city planner and architect who spent a decade working at the Miami-based architectural and urban planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company under Andrés Duany, who is regarded as a pioneer of “New Urbanism” design that places greater emphasis on walkability.
In 2000, the Duany firm created the Sarasota Downtown Master Plan 2020 adopted by city commissioners in 2001. As Duany’s Director of Town Planning, Speck had limited involvement in creating the plan, but the experience provided him greater familiarity with downtown Sarasota.
Speck now owns the Washington, D.C.-based Speck and Associates design and planning firm and spends much of this time writing, lecturing and advocating for smart growth and sustainable design. He credits Duany for teaching him how to “make places, not buildings.”
Why walkability?During the forum, Speck concentrated mainly on the advantages of walkable communities and neighborhoods.
During the Q&A session that followed, he touched briefly on how walkability is accomplished, but saved most of that information for the following day’s luncheon.
Assessing downtown Sarasota’s walkability, Speck said, “It’s not that screwed up,” noting that he does not see major issues inhibiting Sarasota’s walkability, even though Fruitville Road is unlikely to ever become pedestrian-friendly due to its width, high traffic volume and the timing of the traffic signals.
He said architects and planners in the 1950s through the 1980s “screwed up” by planning cities dependent on suburban commuters.
Because of their aesthetic values, walkable communities began to appeal to younger planners and architects in the 1990s, which led to the conclusion that walkable communities were more vibrant and active. Over the past two decades, experts from other fields have touted the virtues of walkable communities and warned of the perils of those that are not.
According to Speck, many economists believe that walkable places perform better economically than auto-oriented places, in part because the “millennial” generation (folks 30 and younger) prefer living in urban cores that are less car-dependent.
“Millennials are the engines of entrepreneurship in your community,” he said, noting that most of the inventions and technological breakthroughs currently in demand came from people under 30.
Citing his current work in Grand Rapids, Mich., Speck said he hears comments like, “We want our kids to stay here. We want our grandkids to stay here. We don’t want them to move away. What can we do?”
Applying that line of the thinking to Sarasota, the question becomes, “What can be done to keep New College, Ringling and USF graduates here instead of them taking their degrees and acquired expertise elsewhere?”
According to Speck, epidemiologists---folks who study patterns, causes and effects of health conditions and disease among specific populations---have concluded that “sprawl is killing us and suburban sprawl is actually making us sick” due to inhalation of exhaust fumes, lack of exercise and death and injuries sustained in car accidents.
Speck said many environmentalists now consider urban areas to be more environmentally sound than suburban and rural areas due to auto emissions contributing to global warming.
“Now, by putting all these arguments together, we have compelling reasons as individuals to move to urban walkable places and to choose as citizens to make wherever we live more walkable and less dependent on the automobile. What we have here is a lifestyle shift---a new generation making the choice not to drive,” he said.
During the Q&A session that ended the 90-minute forum, Speck expressed support for greater downtown density and a paid parking program that places a premium on the most utilized parking spaces and provides cheaper parking along the perimeters.
What's your Walk Score?
Speck mentioned the Walk Score website that provides walkability scores for cities and specific neighborhoods, with rankings based on access to groceries, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, parks, schools, public transit and other essentials and amenities.
According to Walk Score, the city of Sarasota as a whole has a walkability score of 56 out of 100, making it “somewhat walkable.”
The three most walkable Sarasota neighborhoods are Downtown Sarasota (87), the Rosemary District (87) and Laurel Park (86), neighborhoods deemed “very walkable,” where “most errands can be accomplished on foot.”
Gillespie Park is ranked fourth among Sarasota neighborhoods, with a walkability score of 84, but when I typed in my former address at 504 Gillespie Ave. (along the southeast edge of the neighborhood) the walkability score jumped to a whopping 94, making it a “walker’s paradise,” where “daily errands do not require a car.”
Park East ranked fifth, with walkability score of 67, making it “somewhat walkable.”
My current apartment just outside the city limits, near the intersection of Fruitville and McIntosh roads, has a walkability score of 28, making it “car-dependent.” with “few amenities within walking distance.”
With a walkability score of 6, Bird Key ranks as the least walkable of the 19 Sarasota neighborhoods listed.
Speck’s 10 Steps of Walkability
Unable to attend the walkability luncheon and not in possession of a copy of Walkable City, I turned to the Internet to learn how walkability is accomplished. I found an article at the Natural Resources Defense Council website that summarized Speck’s 10 Steps of Walkability and included additional comments from Speck and blogger Ken Benfield:
- Put cars in their place: “The car-first approach has hurt American cities and traffic engineers have failed to acknowledge that increased roadway traffic capacity can lead to more, not fewer, cars on the road.”
- Mix the uses: “Neighborhoods with a diversity of uses and places to walk to have significantly more walking than those that don’t.”
- Get the parking right.
- Let transit work.
- Protect the pedestrian.
- Welcome bikes.
- Shape the spaces: “Get the design right and people will walk in almost any climate.”
- Plant trees: “Trees provide natural cooling, reduced emissions and lower demand for air conditioning.”
- Make friendly and unique [building] faces: “Pedestrians need to feel safe and comfortable, but they also need to be entertained.”
- Pick your winners: “Focus on downtowns first and on short corridors that can connect walkable neighborhoods.”
When it comes to more holistic forms of transportation, I often turn to Mike Lasche, a proponent of making Sarasota more pedestrian and bicycle friendly through his work with Florida Walks and Bikes. Here’s some of what he took from the forum, Speck’s book and his own research.
1) “Economist Joe Courtright has shown that for every one of the possible 100 points that a property has in terms of walkability, that property’s value rises $2,000. A property getting all 100 points rises in value by $200,000.”
2) “Since 1996, Portland, Ore. has seen a decline in motorized vehicle miles traveled. This is widely credited to Portland's decision to not widen roads and not allow sprawl. Instead, it went for skinny streets and urban boundaries, with the money saved spent on better housing instead of transportation costs.”
3) “The typical American spends one-fourth of their income on transportation and working Americans spend an even greater portion.”
4) “Wide lanes are a huge killer and much overused. 10-foot lanes work well in places where people live and are an integral part of some of America's finest streets, but FDOT loves 12-foot lanes designed for and encouraging 70 mph traffic.”
5) “The recent book Blue Zones tracks six populations that live exceptionally long and well and points out that frequent walking is common to these populations.”
6) “The Mercer Index measures cities around the world for quality of life. The top 50 cities have never been auto-centric. The highest-rated American city is Honolulu at 31. The highest rated city on the Mercer Index is Vancouver, Canada. In Vancouver, as the urban population and density have risen, motorized vehicle miles traveled have gone down. This is an important fact because in Florida the laws assume that greater urban population means that we have to have bigger roads, but in fact, a greater urban population leads to less need for bigger roads.”
Picking Brain’s Brain
Sarasota sociologist, New College professor, musician and former architect David Brain attended the walkability forum, but I was unable to speak with him that night. While appearing on the March 28 episode of WSLR’s Truly Sustainable Sarasota radio show (hosted by Francis Scheuer), I called and asked Brain for his thoughts on the forum, Speck’s book and walkability.
“He did a really nice job laying out all the various arguments and evidence that’s accumulated for the importance of walkability as a characteristic of a downtown,” Brain said. “He made clear that walkability is just a kind of umbrella concept for a whole lot of things that are related to the sustainability of a city and the quality of life of a city in terms of the health and the economic vitality of the community.
“I think the main thing that makes cities walkable is that you have an environment that’s pleasant and comfortable for people to walk in. People feel safe and interested if there are other people around.”
Commenting on Speck's step #9, Brain said, “Probably the biggest thing is what the building faces are like. People will walk along a main street and if there’s a gap in the street wall, a series of parking lots, buildings set back too far or bushes that suddenly make it less interesting to walk, people will stop, turn around and walk back in the other direction.
"What we see on our Main Street---because we have activity at the east end and the west end and a lower activity area in the middle---is that people will walk to a certain point and they will turn around and walk back because it becomes less interesting and there’s nothing to draw them to the other end of Main Street.”
Brain then addressed downtown density, an issue that continues to be a topic of conversation among the three remaining city commission candidates---heavily supported by Richard Dorfman, supported by incumbent Mayor Suzanne Atwell and less supported by Susan Chapman.
“I thought one of the more challenging points that Jeff Speck made was when he was asked what should be done. He said that there should be higher densities downtown. He made an interesting point that when you have restrictions that restrict the size, the volume and the height of a building, but also restrict the number of units, what you tend to get is larger, more expensive units that take full advantage of the real estate. You build larger units because you can make more money that way.
“If you release some of the density limitations and still limit the height and sizes, you make it possible for developers to build smaller, more affordable units downtown. I’ve seen where the density limits have gotten in the way of creating more affordable housing. People are eager to move downtown, but aren’t able to afford million-dollar condos.”
Expressing praise for the DSA, Brain said, “I have to give a lot of credit to the Downtown Sarasota Alliance for bringing in people like Jeff Speck and contributing to that level of community education. I think that’s really important.”
(The March 21 walkability forum can be seen in its entirety at the City of Sarasota website.)