Imagine trees – loads of them – in Times Square in New York City. Imagine looking north from Union Square and seeing a field stretch as far as your eye can see, with city blocks effectively creating a walled garden. It’s all part of urban designer Jeff Speck’s vision for turning a huge stretch of Broadway into a park. So far, it’s just a provocative idea. A radical thought-starter. Speck first made his pitch to green over Broadway in a newspaper back in 2013 as a way to take to the next level New York’s welcome adoption of pedestrian zones and increased cycle lanes under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In that manifesto, Speck admired New York’s innate sustainability, with its ubiquitous public transit and attractive streets, and wrote: “A city with such a green footprint deserves more green spaces, spaces that could be enjoyed by its citizens on an everyday basis, without having to make the trek to Central Park. If only there was a way to dramatically increase the supply of natural landscape in Manhattan without interrupting its tremendously walkable grid. There is a way. It’s called Broadway.”
Back then, it sounded like enlightened madness, or gentle provocation. These days, it sounds like genius. 2020 has seen our cities grind to a halt; traffic has disappeared; restaurants have taken over sidewalks; streets have closed in favor of pedestrians. For Speck, an influential Boston-based urban designer and city planner who has spent three decades telling American city bosses how to make their centers more sustainable in the era of climate change, it’s like watching years of slow progress speed up in real-time.
“It’s like becoming a veterinarian when nobody has a cat and all of a sudden everyone has a cat,” Speck joked to Time Out earlier this month. “A lot of city planners are thinking very hard now about what this moment means.”
Photograph: Will Crooks
Speck is a big advocate of the “walkable city” – which is also the name of his most well-known book, subtitled How downtown can save America, one step at a time. Now in his 50s, Speck has been an architect and planner since the early 1990s. He’s the author of several books, including Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps To Making Better Places and regularly speaks on how we can work to make our cities more “walkable”.
In line with many urban planners of his generation – together tagged the “new urbanists” – Speck believes that the cities “we designed before the automobile have served us best during the age of the automobile. They’re the most adaptable, the most resilient. It’s only cities designed around the automobile that don’t serve us well.” If Speck has a professional nemesis, it’s suburban sprawl – cities designed in such a way that you can’t avoid the car. They’re unhealthy, unsustainable and undesirable, especially as the threat from climate change increases every year.
Instead Speck’s mission is to create cities that are as walkable as possible: where the downtown area is a thriving and healthy mix of commercial, residential, retail and cultural, and where it’s safe and enjoyable to avoid using cars if you choose to. Or, even better, where you wouldn’t consider buying a car in the first place.
So where does 2020 fit into this vision? “A newspaper piece recently said that every group that has ever had a beef with society has used this year to say: ‘See! I’m right! You really need to do what I say. And I’m one of them! The danger is you appear opportunistic.”
Cities are making these changes and realizing: Wow, this is much better
For Speck and his peers, the radical upheavals of 2020 have turned American cities into living laboratories where urban designers and planners can consider firsthand the effects of such changes as increased working from home; a sudden decrease in commuting; and the new role of neighborhoods and community spaces.
In his own town of Brookline, near Boston, residents were quick to respond to events earlier this year. “We immediately took two lanes out of our main street, pushed the parking into the street and broadened the sidewalks for more walking and biking.” Previously, this kind of swift, temporary, activist-inspired bottom-up change was known as “tactical urbanism”. Now it is city-sponsored reality. In New York, restaurants took over sidewalks and entire streets shut for the whole weekend, all of it sanctioned by the authorities.
“Cities are making these changes and realizing: Wow, this is much better,” reasons Speck. “A lot of the restaurant stuff is going to be hard to get rid of, especially in the warmer climates where the weather won’t suck for eating outside. It’s jump-started a lot of thinking and talking in cities. It has the potential to influence permanent acts all over the place.”
What about the changes imposed on our city centers by remote-working? What would be the effect on our cities if a critical mass of people or companies chose to make these changes permanent?
“I wouldn’t say it’s positive,” he answers. “But there are a number of impacts which could be interpreted as a good thing. First of all, the flexibility that telework offers can take a little bit of the heat off some of our downtowns that were suffering from too much investment. Empty hotels and empty offices can be converted into housing. I think hotels will come back, but a lot of offices won’t, and converting offices into housing would provide a better balance of uses in our city centers.”
It’s not just workers who are operating more than ever before from the safety of home. So are shoppers. One recent report found that online sales in recent months were up more than 40% year over year. How will that affect how our cities are used in the long-term?
“It’s accelerated an existing trend,” Speck considers. “The future of retail which isn’t entertainment or lifestyle-orientated is bleak. If you take existing trends to their natural conclusion, non-luxury goods, non-food-and-beverage stores will gradually become rare. That’s a very sad thing about our main streets, but people will still be drawn there for other amenities.”
For now, Broadway in New York remains free of Speck’s vision of an urban forest. But imagine a future where inner-city physical retail is less frenzied and where cities are planned less around the need of the office-based commuter and even more around sustainability and survival. Perhaps, then, Speck’s rural-urban dream could become a reality.
To hear more about walkable cities, you can catch Jeff Speck speaking this week as part of WRLDCTY, a virtual world’s fair of cool culture, taking place from October 22-24. Check out wrldcty.com for the agenda including free events and use the code TIMEOUT20 for 20% off ticketed events. Time Out is a media partner of the event.