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Jeff Speck

City planner, architectural designer, bestselling author and walkability guru


It was a foregone conclusion that at some point in his conversation with Boise Weekly, Jeff Speck would be walking while talking. In fact, as BW was going to press, the author of Walkable City said he would be doing quite a bit of walking in and around downtown Boise in the coming week.

After officials from the city of Boise and the Capital City Development Corporation first heard Speck speak at a Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce conference in Sun Valley, they instantly asked the smart growth consultant to return to Idaho, this time spending some more time in the City of Trees.

BW got Speck, 49, to stand still long enough to talk about what he's been asked to do for Boise city planners, one-way versus two-way thoroughfares, and how he's not interested in hearing what everybody wants.

Are you working on concurrent projects for a number of communities?

I probably have five overlapping clients at any time, but I'm typically focusing on one. In the case of my walkability studies, I associate with firms that help me with renderings or graphic layouts; but, unlike most city planners, when you're hiring my firm, you're really just getting me. Because of that, I've chosen to do less work more craftily rather than doing more work with a larger team.

I've heard that one of your earliest visions of an ideal city was when you watched the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

My recollection was that Mary Tyler Moore was probably the only thing on television that portrayed a city as something other than crime-infested. If you remember, most of the programs at that time were about violence in our cities. More recent generations grew up watching shows that portrayed cities more lovingly: Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City.

Those programs were all set in Manhattan.

For good reasons. Manhattan is a self-reinforcing cycle of transit and walkability. New Yorkers probably burn the least gasoline per citizen than anywhere else in America. Plus, they have the lowest vehicle fatality rate in the country. If the whole country shared that fatality rate, we'd save 24,000 people per year.

Is there a distinction between walkable cities east or west of the Mississippi?

It's not east or west. It's cities that developed before or after World War II. You'll find many West Coast cities like San Francisco perform a lot better than some East Coast cities. Jacksonville, Tampa and even Atlanta saw most of their development occur after World War II. They were all designed around the automobile. And of course, those are cities that are most effective in smashing automobiles into one another. These are cities that require you to drive. As a result, the automobile is transformed from an instrument of freedom into a prosthetic device.

Do you tailor your message from city to city?

There are 50 different parts of my presentation; 40 are relevant to wherever I speak and the rest are specific to where I'm talking. For instance, the issue of one-way streets or a city's bicycle infrastructure is going to be more important in some cities.

Perhaps more than any time in recent memory, officials in Boise have moved their conversations about one-way versus two-way and bicycle infrastructure into the fast lane.

There's a lot afoot. I've heard a lot of good things about Boise in terms of its livability and a great deal of enthusiasm. Nothing pleases a consultant more than to arrive in a city that is already improving.

In addition to your June 24 presentation about walkability at the Egyptian Theatre, what has CCDC and the city of Boise asked you to do?

I'm doing a walkability study for Boise. But I should tell you that I'm not playing secretary of the mob. I'm not necessarily interested in hearing what everyone wants. This is study based on facts on the ground. It will be based on my objective and subjective analysis as to how things are working or not working. I'll have three full mornings of multiple meetings. My advice to my hosts [CCDC and the city of Boise] was to select people for me to talk with--not based on political framework or their desire to be heard, but because they're people who will give me the best information.

Do you have a sense of Boise's biggest challenges?

First of all, there's the fact that the city of Boise doesn't own its own streets. Instead, you have this... what is it called?

The Ada County Highway District manages the majority of the curb-to-curb space.

That's a huge challenge. And helping you to surmount that challenge will be one of my goals.

Does that mean you'll be coming back to Boise to make a presentation later this summer?

Yes, in a couple of months I'll come back with a full report and my recommendations.

Let's talk about a specific real-world challenge. Charter schools are becoming more successful here, but transporting kids far from home is in direct conflict with the scenario of children walking to a neighborhood school.

Do you know why I own an SUV? It's because I send my kids to a charter school. Unfortunately, charter schools seem to be the best hope for education in many cities, but they're horrible from a planning perspective. No. 1, they dramatically increase the number of commuters. And No. 2, we're missing the way we used to form our communities around schools. Social capital usually arises around a schoolyard.

I'm presuming you've heard the cliche that Americans will walk more once gasoline is $10 a gallon.

That's certainly true. The greater question I have is: What will happen to cities like Atlanta, Jacksonville and Tampa that were designed around compulsory automobile use?

Can you point to a good example for Boiseans to look to as a walkable, bikeable model?

I'm sure you've heard this plenty, but I think Portland is a great model. They spent three decades investing less in driving and more in transit and bikeways. Portlanders now drive 20 percent less than the rest of America, and when you're saving money on driving, you tend to spend more on housing.

How do you encourage naysayers or those still uncommitted to your message?

I have to run, so I'm walking out the door as I talk to you. You may be on the fence whether you see what I see, but a walkable, bikeable city is one of the things that both millennials and empty nesters are demanding. And if you don't attract or keep those millennials, your city doesn't have a future.