A Sneak Preview of "Walkable City Rules"

Today’s guest post is by acclaimed urban planner and walkability expert Jeff Speck, whose new book Walkable City Rules is now available for purchase. The book, a follow-up to the bestselling and influential Walkable City, is a collection of 101 principles for achieving walkability that are, in Speck’s words, “organized for easy access, worded for arguments at the planning commission, illustrated for clarity, and packed with not just data but specifications.” Walkable City Rules is designed to be an advocate’s best tool to go out into the world and actually make change.

We’re happy to share a few excerpts from the book with you today, courtesy of Jeff. We will also be featuring Jeff on a special celebrity edition of our Ask Strong Towns webcast on Friday, November 9th, at 12 p.m. Central Time. This live Q&A will be open to members only, so if you are not yet a member of the Strong Towns movement, become a member today to get your invite now. (If you’re a member who can’t find your invite, just email member support and we’ll resend it to you right away.)

Thoughts on Writing a Sequel to Walkable City

Jeff Speck

Jeff Speck

North America, along with much of the world, has been building and rebuilding its cities and towns quite badly for more than half a century. To do it properly would have been easy; we used to be great at it. But, like voting for president, just because something is easy to do does not mean that it will be done, or done well.

The happy news is that the trends are positive. Cities have been on the upswing for two decades. To the degree that it is practiced in American communities, city planning is now doing more good than harm. But the results are incredibly spotty. Lacking information, city leaders are still repeating mistakes that were widely discredited years ago—among those who were paying attention.

To rectify the sporadic spread of city planning best practices, I published Walkable City in 2012. The timing was fortunate: while the term was not often used before 2010, walkability now seems to be the special sauce that every community wants. It took a while, but many of our leaders have realized that establishing walkability as a central goal can be an expeditious path to making our cities better in a whole host of ways.

Packaged as literary nonfiction and current affairs, Walkable City was effective at finding readers, armchair urbanists curious about what makes cities tick. It made its way into mayors’ offices, council chambers, and town meetings, held aloft by people demanding change. Sometimes, change was begun. . . and that’s when the problems started. While the book does a decent job of inspiring change, it doesn’t exactly tell you how to create it.

There is room for improvement in current walkability planning.

Hence the need for a new book, an effort to weaponize Walkable City for deployment in the field. Organized for easy access, worded for arguments at the planning commission, illustrated for clarity, and packed with not just data but specifications, Walkable City Rules is designed to be the most comprehensive tool available for bringing the latest and most impactful city planning practices to bear in your community. It is hoped that the format, as well as the information it holds, will allow it to be a force multiplier for place-makers and change-makers everywhere.

And if you haven’t read Walkable City, you should. It may be the best document available for winning converts to the cause. But, in the end, Walkable City is for readers. Walkable City Rules is for doers—like you.

If I can get autobiographical for a moment, here is a synopsis of my professional life since 1992: I spent twenty years listening to the best planners explain their best ideas the best way they knew how. I then wrote those ideas down in Walkable City, improving them if at all possible. Next, I recorded the Audible version of the book, which I then bought, and began listening to on airplanes. (Hearing my own voice calmly say familiar things seems to help me sleep.) Eventually, I memorized it. This has really been a great help, both in my lectures and in my work with cities and towns across North America. 

I plan to do the same with Walkable City Rules. I hope you will too—all of you. In my dreams, I imagine that this book is as familiar to you as it is to me. We are like the lifers in that old prison gag, telling jokes to each other by the number. Instead of asking a public works official to do a road diet, we just say “46!” Instead of admonishing a developer to hide a parking structure, it’s “92!”  And they all understand what we mean: in my dream prison, nobody tells the joke wrong.

Why are these Rules? I considered calling the book Walkable City Patterns, as a tribute to Christopher Alexander and a continuation of his technique of presenting a collection of co-dependent design principles across the full range of scales. But, as Alexander has himself admitted, today’s built environment is more than anything else the outcome of rules, an octopus-like litany of codes and ordinances that more often than not produce unfortunate if not unintended outcomes. You can’t fight rules with patterns, so Rules it is.

Let’s get started.

Rule 10: Do the Math

Compare apples to apples when making public investments.

THIS RULE is really about urban economics and municipal solvency rather than walkability, but it belongs here because it aligns almost perfectly with the goal of making more walkable cities. Communities that fund infrastructure with an eye to long-term return will invest in compact, mixed-use development—especially in historic districts—and not in sprawl. 

Minicozzi found that a traditional downtown midrise building generates more than thirteen times the tax revenue per acre than the city’s Walmart supercenter, and twelve times the jobs.

This image from Urban3 maps the properties of Lafayette, LA, in terms of net contribution per acre to the city’s municipal coffers.

(Image credit: Urban3)

In the book Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, and on the Strong Towns website, Charles Marohn Jr. illustrates how much suburban growth in the United States has effectively been a Ponzi scheme in which each round of unsustainable investment creates a long-term cash flow liability that is only prevented from tanking the city’s finances by the development fees generated by the next round of unsustainable investment. He observes that “cities routinely trade near-term cash advantages associated with new growth for long-term financial obligations associated with the maintenance of infrastructure.”[44] This presents suburban cities with an untenable choice: grow or die.

The underlying problem is that single-use, low-density suburban sprawl simply does not pay for itself. Marohn presents the case study of a typical suburban road. Resurfacing the road cost the city $354,000. Based on all the property taxes collected from residents along that road, it will take seventy-nine years to recoup that cost. But the road is likely to need repaving again in twenty years. Strong Towns is chock full of examples of this type, which were easy for Marohn to collect, as they are the standard. They are so common because, as Marohn notes, “None of our public officials has ever asked the question: will this public project generate enough tax revenue to sustain its maintenance over multiple life cycles?”

Asking that question would inevitably lead cities to invest differently. What these investments can yield has been best documented by a colleague of Marohn’s, Joe Minicozzi, whose firm Urban3 produces trenchant analyses of how cities misallocate their principal asset, land. In his work, Minicozzi insists that we look at each of our land allocations not as a standalone, and not just in comparison to each other, but in comparison to each other by acre. When you do this, the inefficiency of auto-centric development becomes painfully apparent. Studying Asheville, NC, Minicozzi found that a traditional downtown midrise building generates more than thirteen times the tax revenue per acre than the city’s Walmart supercenter, and twelve times the jobs.  

Recognizing that Asheville is a hopping tourist destination, Marohn applied the same analysis to the “blighted” main street of his home town, Brainerd, MN. He found that, per acre, ugly old stores downtown were generating 41% more tax revenue than a new auto-oriented Taco John’s restaurant whose construction the city had just subsidized.[45]

Minicozzi has found similar results nationwide, and illustrates them graphically as in the image above. In almost all cities, revenue-positive downtowns are footing the bill for subsidized sprawl. He sums up his conclusions: The urban environment, and downtowns in particular, are the breadwinners for successful communities. If you aren’t facilitating that type of walkable urban environment, you are essentially losing your wealth.[46]

Rule 10: Make zoning decisions and municipal investments with an eye to net revenue over time from each acre of land; doing so inevitably leads to more walkable urbanism.

Rule 13: Leverage Housing with Parking Lots

Lower the cost of new apartments by assigning them existing parking spaces.

WHETHER A CITY SHOULD BUILD any new downtown parking structures is a good question. The answer should be based on how auto-dependent the city is currently (arguing in favor) and how auto-dependent the city wants to be (arguing against). Given the onset of ridesharing services and, eventually, autonomous vehicles, the answer in most cases is probably no.

This debate is not an issue everywhere. Many cities face a glut of parking spaces in their downtowns, due typically to overbuilding in the 1980s and ’90s. It is not unusual for an American downtown to contain thousands of spaces that are empty overnight, many of which are empty during the day as well.

Lowell, MA, dedicated empty spaces in its municipal parking structures (top of image) to serve new apartments in rehabilitated buildings (bottom of image).

(Photo credit: Bing Maps)

This was the case in Lowell, MA, where five large parking structures were severely underutilized at the same time as the City was trying to encourage redevelopment of its many abandoned historic loft buildings. The problem was that developers could not deliver market-rate housing at a competitive cost, due in part to their lenders’ requirement that each apartment come with a parking spot.

City leaders came up with a plan: “What if we assign unused parking spaces in our City garages to developers?” They changed City rules to allow apartments to locate their parking anywhere within a 1,000-foot radius of the building, and wrote letters that developers could show their lenders.

The results were remarkable, as this unburdening lowered the cost of a typical unit by more than 10%, making renovations profitable. For this reason and others, the City was able to double its supply of downtown housing in a dozen years, and reduce its percentage of subsidized housing from almost 80% to below 50%.

Similar, if smaller, successes have been achieved in Hamilton, OH, and elsewhere, and could proliferate if more cities would try. Albuquerque has enough empty spaces in its four downtown municipal garages to support more than 500 apartments. Downtown West Palm Beach has enough for more than 900. Downtown Boise, more than 2,000.

In Boise, not all of these spaces are publicly owned, but that need not be a barrier. Cities with the will can broker deals between lot owners (usually big employers) and apartment developers, in which both parties profit. The fact is that a downtown parking space, especially in a structure, is an asset worth tens of thousands of dollars, and that asset is being wasted if empty.

The math is slightly tricky, and there is no established formula, but, to qualify, a parking lot must have a good amount of evening vacancy and a small but significant amount of daytime vacancy. Because office parking schedules and apartment parking schedules are almost perfectly complementary—most office workers vacate their spaces before most residents arrive home—only a limited number of daytime spaces must be kept available for residents who don’t drive to work. Apartment leases must be written carefully (with parking charged separately, as it always should be) and individual spaces may not be assigned. But the rest is pretty simple.

The fact is that a downtown parking space, especially in a structure, is an asset worth tens of thousands of dollars, and that asset is being wasted if empty.

It is unfortunate that developers and their banks still require nearby parking for new residential construction. That is changing in some places, and may eventually change everywhere. But, until it does, a strategy of matching wasted parking spaces with residential construction is a great way to leverage new housing downtown.

Rule 13: If your city has parking garages with vacancies, create a program assigning empty spaces to new housing construction nearby.

RULE 51: Expand the Fire Chief ’s Mandate

Shift the focus from response time to public safety

PERHAPS THE MOST IRONIC DAY IN THE LIFE of every city planner is the one on which she discovers that her greatest opponent in making her city’s streets safer is the fire chief. How this bizarre circumstance has come to occur in city after city across the United States is a veritable morality play on the topics of siloed thinking, the confusion of ends and means, and Murphy’s Law. It goes something like this:

A faster response time is good, but not at the expense of life safety.

Acknowledging that only 1.1% of its emergency calls were fire related, the City of Beaufort, SC, saved $500,000 by replacing two pumpers with these smaller all-purpose vehicles.[168]   (Photo credit: City of Beaufort/Town of Port Royal Fire Department and Spartan Fire & Emergency Apparatus Inc.)

Acknowledging that only 1.1% of its emergency calls were fire related, the City of Beaufort, SC, saved $500,000 by replacing two pumpers with these smaller all-purpose vehicles.[168]

(Photo credit: City of Beaufort/Town of Port Royal Fire Department and Spartan Fire & Emergency Apparatus Inc.)

The fire chief’s job performance is typically judged on response time. The fire department’s budget is often based on the number of calls that fire trucks respond to. These two facts conspire to replace a fire chief’s natural mandate, optimizing the life safety of the community, with a much narrower focus: sending out lots of trucks, and getting them to their destinations quickly.

Into this mix, we can throw two additional ingredients: union make-work and the fire-equipment upsell. Over the years, firefighters’ unions have introduced contractual language stipulating the minimum number of firefighters on a call. Simultaneously, firefighting equipment suppliers have infiltrated the ranks of the organizations drafting official guidelines for firefighting equipment. The unsurprising outcome: ever larger fire trucks.

As a result, most cities have found themselves under the protection of fire chiefs who, when introduced to the planning conversation, advocate for three things that make their cities more dangerous: wider streets, broader intersections, and the introduction of unwarranted traffic signals.

Wider streets: Rule 50 discussed 8-foot lanes and two- way 12-foot lanes, two things that increase safety in most older, walkable cities, and which are impermissible according to something called the “20-foot clear.” The 20-foot clear appears in the Universal Fire Code—not a law, but a standard that many cities adopt—and requires that all streets maintain 20 feet of clear space between any obstructions such as parked cars. Many fire chiefs apply this law indiscriminately, not realizing that it hails from cul-de-sac suburbia, where there is only one path to each fire. When a street can be entered from both ends, there is no longer a need to do what the 20-foot clear allows, which is to park a big truck, put down its stabilizers, and drive another big truck past it. Some fire chiefs, but not all, are willing to reject the 20-foot clear once they learn that it was written for cul-de-sacs.

Broader intersections: Many cities have minimum curb return radii for their corners, put in place to serve large fire trucks. The curb return radius measures how much swoop there is at the corner. Larger swoops allow big trucks to turn the corner without going into the opposing lane; they also allow drivers to speed around corners without applying the brake, while lengthening the amount of time that pedestrians are exposed to oncoming traffic. In most cities, these standards have been applied as a short cut to someone doing the (not very) hard work of designing each intersection independently with a fire-truck-turning template to make sure that the trucks can fit. When this is done properly, the curb radii become much smaller, especially when it is understood that fire trucks are allowed to cross into the opposing lane when making a turn. (They have sirens.)

Unwarranted traffic signals: As demonstrated ahead in Rule 76, replacing unwarranted signals with four-way stop signs results in great reductions in injuries. But fire chiefs prefer signals, because only with signals can you have signal preemption, which allows you to clear an intersection of cars as the fire truck approaches, speeding response time.

And a faster response time is good. But, as with the other two examples, not at the expense of life safety. If wider streets, broader intersections, and unwarranted signals all improve response time, while killing and maiming untold numbers of citizens in the process, it is clear that the cart is leading the horse. It will continue to do so until mayors and city managers provide their fire chiefs with different performance metrics, and a different job mandate.

Rule 51: Rewrite the fire chief’s mandate to optimize public safety, not response times. Replace the 20-foot clear and minimum curb radii with more precise measures. Do not add or keep unwarranted signals in the name of preemption. Size new fire trucks to the community and not vice versa.


44            Charles Marohn Jr., Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, vol. 1, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2012), 6.

45            Charles Marohn Jr., “The Cost of Auto Orientation, Update,” Strong Towns Journal (July 22, 2014), https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2014/7/22/the-cost-of-auto-orientation-update.html.

46            Ibid.

168         Luke Kerr-Dineen, Beaufort’s New Fire Trucks Hailed for a 6-figure Savings,” The Digitel (May 7, 2011), http://www.thedigitel.com/s/beaufort/news/beauforts-new-fire-trucks-hailed-6-figure-savings-110507-74112/.