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The solution to safer, stronger cities? Walkability!

JUNE 1: Stroll down to Concordia to see urban visionary Jeff Speck’s keynote lecture at the 2017 Next City Vanguard Conference
May 24, 2017
By Karen McCarthy


Jeff Speck contends that under the right conditions, pedestrians can thrive in cities.

“A city walk must fulfill some purpose, efficiently,” he says.

“You must feel that you have a fighting chance of not being run over by a car or truck. You must be offered urban spaces that are well shaped so your body feels comfortable moving through them. And you must not be bored by blank walls or parking lots, which will cause you to turn around from sheer ennui.”

The internationally renowned advocate, author, planner and urban designer comes to Concordia on June 1 for the keynote lecture at the 2017 Next City Vanguard Conference.

The Vanguard Conference is an annual experiential gathering of young leaders who are working across sectors to improve city life; this year’s edition is sponsored by Concordia.

In anticipation of his public keynote on Concordia’s Sir George Williams Campus, we asked Speck why — when it comes to walkable cities — “access is the new mobility.”

‘Walkable cities have powerful economic, health and environmental benefits’

What led you to become an ardent champion of walkable cities?

Jeff Speck: I am an architectural designer who became an urban designer and then a city planner because I just kept trying to have the most positive impact on people’s lives. It became clear over many years that all the things we were recommending to make cities better, and life better, were really just making walkability better on the way to achieving those goals.

I named the concept “walkability” in order to be more accurate and accessible. Most people can wrap their head around what walkability means. They may be a little less certain about “urbanism” or “city planning.”

Why is walkability important?

JS: The first part of my book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time is called “Why Walkability.” It lays out the powerful economic, health and environmental benefits that accrue to walkable places.

The short answer is that, for about 15 years, economists, epidemiologists and environmentalists have been advocating powerfully (and more so than planners) for walkable cities.

Discovering and sharing their work has been central to the effectiveness of my international efforts.

You have said that four conditions must exist to make a city walkable: useful, safe, comfortable and interesting. Why are these conditions important?

JS: People with a choice to walk will not make that choice unless all four of those conditions are met.

The walk must fulfill some purpose, efficiently. You must feel that you have a fighting chance of not being run over by a car or truck. You must be offered urban spaces that are well shaped so your body feels comfortable moving through them. And you must not be bored by blank walls or parking lots, which will cause you to turn around from sheer ennui.

Satisfying all four conditions is hard, but it’s necessary to meet them if you want to make places where people don’t automatically get in their cars.  

What are a few simple things that make cities more walkable?

Jeff Speck: The simplest, cheapest solution is to reallocate street space more equitably among modes. That means narrowing often overly wide travel lanes to their proper, safe width, and reducing their number if possible.

As a result, additional street space becomes available for buses in dedicated lanes, biking, parking and sidewalk extensions.

Usually we do not move the curbs; we simply restripe driving areas. When a wider sidewalk is needed, we often build pallets — usually wooden decks — that expand the sidewalk into the parking zone. This avoids having to rebuild concrete curbs, which are very expensive.   

What role does technology play?

JS: I am a supporter of smart cities, in the sense that it allows management to be much more effective.

For example, if every garbage can tells you when it is full and you can swarm garbage trucks only where the trash needs emptying, that’s a big win — one of many that new technology enables.

You can also use tools like cell phone mapping to determine where people are walking the most in a city, and direct investment accordingly. However, I’ve found it very easy to make the same assessment without technology!

Concordia co-hosts the 2017 Next City Vanguard Conference in Montreal from May 31 to June 3. Register today for Jeff Speck’s keynote address on June 1. And check out Speck’s TED talks, “The walkable city” or “4 ways to make a city more walkable”!


About the 2017 Next City Vanguard Conference

From May 31 to June 3, Concordia welcomes 45 urban leaders from different sectors, including architecture, urban planning and transportation.

The Montreal conference will match these vanguards with six community partners to stimulate learning about, and from, the city’s exemplars of citizen-driven planning, public-space design and cultural integration in a diverse population.

In addition to Speck’s June 1 keynote address, the Big Idea Challenge on June 2 is also open to the public. It brings together the vanguards and local partners to design solutions for an accessibility challenge currently faced by a community organization in Montreal.

Hosted by Andy Nulman, co-founder of Just for Laughs and CEO of Play the Future, the challenge provides an opportunity for the vanguards to leave a lasting impact on the conference’s host city. The event is free but registration is required.

Concordia’s Office of the Vice-President of Research and Graduate Studies and Office of Community Engagement are spearheading the 2017 Next City Vanguard Conference. The community partners are Bâtiment 7, Brique par Brique, CIVITASx, Montreal Urban Aboriginal Health Centre, NDG Food Depot and Tyndale St-Georges Community Centre.

The conference is also supported by a host committee with representatives from the public, private, community and non-profit sectors, including the City of MontréalMontréal InternationalPop Montréalje fais mtl, Hip Hop No Pop!, as well as entrepreneurs from startups including Trendr.


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