An interview with Jeff Speck

I got the chance to sit down briefly (very briefly) with Jeff Speck. Speck is the nation’s preeminent urban planner and is the author of the best-seller Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. We talked about the future of small metros, if town center developments (like what’s going to replace Westdale) are really urban, and what’s going to happen to the suburbs.

I wasn’t the only member of local media to talk to Speck. The Gazette’s Rick Smith sat down with him. So did Matt Hammill from CBS 2. If you’re not familiar with Speck check those articles to get a good gist of his work. They cover his core arguments for walkability and his work as a post-flood consultant to Cedar Rapids. Speck was a consultant that helped create a plan for reorganizing downtown streets to get rid of one-ways, add more on-street parking and create more robust bike facilities. Speck did not create the final plan that’s being implemented downtown (but he likes it!).

Here’s the conversation Speck and I had. It has been edited for clarity.

The corner of 3rd Ave and 8th St SE in Cedar Rapids. At this intersection 3rd Ave switches from a one-way into a two-way. The city is slowly changing 3rd Ave and other downtown one-ways into two-way streets. Photo taken April 29, 2013 by Ben Kaplan.
“The biggest challenge that the cities I work in, like Albuquerque, like Lancaster Pennsylvania, like Cedar Rapids, is bringing new housing to market at an obtainable cost.”

Ben Kaplan: What’s next for small metros, places like Peoria, Cedar Rapids, Grand Rapids?

Jeff Speck: I think the biggest question is do they offer an urbanism that is urban enough to capture the imagination of the Friends/Sienfeld/Sex and the City generation. What’s stopping you from moving to Chicago?

BK: Not a lot.*

JS: Right. My answer to that question is; What they can offer is that urbanity, that grit, that authenticity, but they have to offer it at a competitive price or they won’t keep the kids home.

So if they can offer, even at a smaller scale, what I call urbanity, then they will succeed if they can do it a competitive price. The biggest challenge that the cities I work in, like Albuquerque, like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, like Cedar Rapids, is bringing new housing to market at an obtainable cost.

BK: What happens to a downtown once you bring people back in?

JS: The ideal downtown, to have it running on all cylinders is a jobs/housing balance. The typical American downtown like yours has way more jobs than housing in the heart of the downtown. That’s not unusual, but it limits you. Jane Jacobs, writing in 1961 about Wall Street, and remember this is Wall Street in 1961, she said, of course there’s no great restaurants in Wall Street, there’s no great gyms in Wall Street. You can’t have a truly great restaurant or a truly great gym without lunchtime and nighttime customers. What housing downtown does is it gives all the other businesses and activities and other things downtown twice the potential customer base. The other thing is that it’s only when people live in a place they begin to take care of it and cherish it.

This is the real failure of the three generations of cannibalistic retail we’ve seen since the shopping mall. You know the shopping malls and the strip centers and the lifestyle centers and the big box centers. One just eats the previous ones lunch. You know they depreciate over 12 years, you can write them down over 12 years as a developer and no one ever cares about them because no one lives in them. So any part of a city that people live in is much more likely to be loved and, of course, being loved is the first step to living a long time.

One of the Little Free Libraries in Wellington Heights. Photo taken September 8, 2014 by Ben Kaplan.[
“Any part of a city that people live in is much more likely to be loved and, of course, being loved is the first step to living a long time.”

BK: I’m really glad you brought up shopping malls because we had an enclosed mall for a long time, Westdale, and its going to be rebuilt as a town center which is a trend…

JS: A lifestyle center?

BK: A lifestyle center, it’s going to have housing, it’s going to have offices and of course it’s going to have retail.

JS: If it has housing and it’s organized in a remotely urban way, than it has the potential to not be a development but to be a place. Even though it is a real estate development. You know, most of the great places in America were at one point real estate developments. The way that something comes to be, even if it’s instantaneous, to me is not a test of how good it is. The test of how good it is, is how balanced it is, how diverse it is in terms of what it offers people in it and who it attracts, and then if it’s organized in a way that you don’t have to drive everywhere to take advantage of it.

BK: So, do you think the trend that we’re seeing where you’re replacing enclosed shopping malls with town centers is…

JS: I work with the developers who invest in a lot of these things or who have invested in all of these kinds of things. They view the lifestyle center, which you may or may not know, is basically the mall with the roof off, the lifestyle center trend, which was big for 12 or 15 years, they view that as a fad because all it did was present a different kind of mall. But they view the town center concept, in which you actually include a balance of jobs, not just merchant jobs but office jobs, and housing as actually returning to the creation of conventional, I should say, traditional, communities, which is places that have the value that accrues when you have the synergy of live, work, play, recreate, educate all in one place.

The downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library under construction. Photo taken May 21, 2012 by Ben Kaplan.
“The Sprawl Repair Manual has a big central chapter on how to retrofit a residential subdivision that has no basis in reality.”

BK: Do you think these projects will be catalysts for the areas they are in to redevelop in an urban way?

JS: It depends, if they are surrounded by conventional sprawl, complete with homeowners associations and everything else, for better or for worse those neighborhoods tend to be cast in amber. Because the homeowners documents often don’t let you change them or just the NIMBY phenomenon. A residential subdivision has to undergo a tremendous amount of strife before people will allow it to change because people are fearful. They invested in one thing, what happens if that investment changes, right? So, it’s very difficult to molt suburbia.

One of the things that distinguishes urbanism from suburbanism is that urbanism is constantly molting. The grid network of small properties in a porous, flexible system of streets allows for a consistent change. You know, most of the cities we know were once towns, that were once villages, that were once main streets, right? And, that doesn’t happen in suburbia except when you have the wholesale replacement of a mall or an office park with something else.

BK: What are we gonna do with all of the suburbia thats falling apart because it’s seventy years old?

JS: It’s the next slum. I say that with apparently no sympathy for a building type, or I should say a neighborhood type that I regret, but with tremendous sympathy for the people who are going to end up living there. Which, we now know that the majority of America’s poor now live in the suburbs and not in the city. As more people with choice make the choice to move to the city and are poor population increases, which it is doing and is expected to do, we’re gonna have a doubly painful form of poverty where not only are you poor, but you have to own a car to have a chance of getting work. And we’ve already seen that in many communities.”

BK: Do you think that the reason it’s going to turn into slums is sort of that people don’t see think it’s possible to redevelop sprawl?

JS: Yeah, I mean the road networks are not conducive to increased density. One thing you notice about sprawl is that grows very little before it starts choking on traffic because of the lack of porousness and flexibility in the street system. The cul-de-sac nature of sprawl, or the looping non-connective tissue of sprawl, makes densification a challenge to say the least.

Moreoever, it doesn’t provide that sort of car-free lifestyle that more and more people want to have, or let’s just say car optional that more and more people want to have, and that certain people without money should be allowed to have. So this isn’t as much a prediction as an observation that what you see happening is a lot of close in Suburban areas like Ferguson are becoming principally impoverished.

BK: But there’s been books coming out about retrofitting suburbia…

JS: There’s the Sprawl Repair Manual by Galina Tachieva, there’s Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and a coauthor June Williamson, that actually has many examples of the stuff that is possible. Which is the well located malls and office parks. Which tend to be under single ownership so they’re not so difficult to reshape. That stuff is also in the Sprawl Repair Manual, but the Sprawl Repair Manual has a big central chapter on how to retrofit a residential subdivision that has no basis in reality. I made these drawings too, just like Galina. We sat together and we made these drawings. That’s what should happen to sprawl, but it’s what isn’t happening to housing sprawl. Because of homeowners associations that limit any change, because the resistance of homeowners to accept a cul-de-sac being turned into a through street and the resistance to accept any sort of retail in a residential subdivision and the general incapacity of that sparse hierarchy road network to allow for growth, I don’t think there’s any plausible future for the low density auto dependent suburbs except to either stay the same or if people move towards cities, which is what the trends suggest, to get worse. Then you’re going to start to see, as you are already seeing in places like California, single family houses holding like three families and nine jobs.

BK: What you’re saying is all the aspects that sprawl and the suburb model that we use that we’re designed to prevent slumification are going to exacerbate the creation of slums in those places?

JS: I wouldn’t say they were designed to prevent slumification, you could say, and I know where you’re headed here, that they were designed to confuse visitors and keep certain people out. I don’t think suburbs were designed to forestall decline. They were designed as an alternative to the city and all that the city represented, including diversity.

Sadly, that was all the time Speck and I had. For more on the history of the suburbs check out our Urbanist Goodreads on economic inequality and suburban poverty. If you want to know more we about Speck and his ideas we also have a post of some of his best stuff on the wider web.

*Okay, that’s not true. Plenty is keeping me here actually! Cedar Rapids is changing for the better at a truly incredible pace. We’re on track to build a ton of downtown housing. The city has invested wisely in public spaces in key core neighborhoods. This has been a catalyst for private development and brought civic life and engagement back into the city’s core. From my apartment I can walk to work, two coffee shops, a book store, a brewery, bars, galleries and great spots for live music. I live in a neighborhood I love and help make it better. What more could I want?