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Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck

If you're a non-fiction lover (or looking for a gift for one!), this book is brilliant, hilarious, and so so fascinating

When you’re a big reader (and talk about books on your blog and Instagram regularly), you get the question “what are you reading?” all the time.

And let me tell you, nothing makes you sound more fascinating and hip than saying, “I’m reading this really amazing book about parking and traffic engineering.” You can see everyone going glassy-eyed in a nanosecond.

But seriously, Walkable City is fascinating. If you have a non-fiction lover in your life (ahem, your dad) and you need a gift idea for the holidays, bookmark this one.

I heard about this book from Modern Mrs. Darcy who listed it as one of the five best books she read this summer, and that was enough for me. And she wasn’t wrong – it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year too.

walkable city by jeff speck

The book is about how people are moving in droves to certain cities in the country and you can probably guess which ones they are – San Francisco, New York, Portland, Austin, Seattle, and DC.

One of the big draws for both the young creative class and empty nesters are thriving downtowns where you can walk most places and live close to where you work, eat, shop, worship, and work-out.

Jeff Speck works with city planning departments to help them design cities that are useful and draw both visitors and new residents, plus make the current residents happy, and in all his work, he’s determined that the walkability of a downtown is one of the biggest key factors.

He gives a brief overview of why a walking city is so great (health benefits, traffic and smog benefits, more social interaction, and on and on), and then dives into what a city needs to do to make it possible for a walking culture to flourish.

There are ten steps and they fall into three categories that make walking in a city realistic. And although I’ve been in plenty of walking cities, from London to Barcelona to NYC and Washington DC, I’d never thought of these before.

The first one is that walking needs to be useful – most people aren’t going to walk just for the sake of walking, so you need to design a downtown that makes it easy for people to walk to work, to grab a gallon of milk, or to meet friends for drinks. This means you don’t want a downtown that’s ONLY shopping or restaurants or housing, but a good mix.

The second is that walking needs to be safe. Not only do people need to feel like they aren’t going to get mugged downtown, but you also need to design safe places for people to walk so they don’t get hit by a car (did you know that the nicer, smoother and wider the streets, the more people speed? When the streets are narrow and rough with poor visibility, people drive carefully to protect themselves and that keeps pedestrians safer). And you want it to be safe for biking too, since there is a high correlation between a good walking city and a good biking city.

And third, you need that walk to be interesting. You want smaller blocks, varied architecture, few parking lots, and parks and green spaces that aren’t too big too walk across.

Every single section was fascinating to me and I basically talked the ears off anyone who would listen to me. If I was in my Texas book club and choosing a book for 2016, this would be my pick (and if someone from my Texas book club DOES pick this book, you better believe I’m going to try to time an Austin visit . . . . ).

This is one of those topics that requires a great writer with a strong voice to make it interesting, and Jeff Speck is perfect – I laughed, I marked big passages, and I learned so so much about city design and urban planning, a topic I knew little about prior to this.

It also completely changed how I think about parking (I’ve always wanted free parking everywhere I go, and suddenly I feel okay about paying for it because I understand better how it works and how it plays into a city’s budget and design). I will try very hard not to complain any more about parking costs.

I finished this on the airplane on my way to Portland for The Hello Sessions and since Portland is one of the cities he talks about a lot since it is doing so many things right, it was delightful to watch for those things as I drove and walked around the city for two days.

And. . . .it kind of made me want to move downtown.

Copy checked out from my local library

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  1. I just read a book about recycling and trash (Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter in case you're interested) and I was the same way. It was SO interesting and I learned a ton, which means I talked everyone's ears off about it for at least 3 weeks. I'm definitely adding this to my library queue!

  2. This sounds fascinating and SO up my alley. I'm always pro-anything that lessens car usage. Thanks for the rec! And your photo is awesome, I was actually kind of disappointed the toy cars weren't actually on the cover.

  3. This sounds super interesting! Our city has been doing a lot to revitalize downtown and I love that we can bike there from our house, just not a ton to do! Adding to my to-read list!

  4. Thanks for the review! I'll have to give it a read.

    I became somewhat aware of issues relating to transportation and city planning when I had to read about it for a class in high school and my interest and passion for the topic has been growing as I've read more kind of as a side hobby. It's one of those topics where you don't see it until you read about it or talk about it and then you start to notice the downstream effects of our car-centric policies everywhere.

  5. I admittedly saw this on Modern Mrs. Darcy too and thought it looked kind of snoozy! Given your ditto though, I'm going to give it a try.

  6. My brother-in-law is a city planner in Boston, so this looks especially interesting to me. Maybe I can finally figure out what he actually does.

  7. As an architect and city planner, I find this a very amusing topic. I'm checking my library catalogue to see if they have a copy of the book. Thanks for the recommendation!

  8. I love visiting walking cities and would have loved to live in one before I had children, but now that I do have children, the logistics of a walking city just seem so overwhelming. We live near Washington, DC, so I've been there plenty of times with the children to know how not kid-friendly they can be (small shops, lots of stairs, trying to find all of the elevators for the metro, imagining carrying my huge stroller up and down the stairs, imagining having to store my huge stroller in a small space). You lived in London with two small children. What if you threw in a third or fourth? How workable is it really to live in a walkable city with that type of family?

  9. I bet I'd like this book, because I loved A Pattern Language. Have you picked that one up? Gretchen Rubin has mentioned it a handful of times, and boy howdy it is great. Gotta get myself a copy.

  10. One of my friends from highschool is really into this and did her master's degree about this. She lives in Charlotte, NC and is trying to implement some of these things. No wonder the cobblestone streets in Europe is a thing… keeps people safe. I have to say one of the things that I miss about Europe is the ability to walk/bike places. I will have to check this book out.

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