Jeff Speck is author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.” Speck consulted with Oklahoma City on the makeover of downtown streets and sidewalks and will be signing copies of his book at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Full Circle Books in 50 Penn Place.
Q: You have gained a national reputation as an expert and advocate of making cities more walkable. Is this a quality-of-life issue, or an economic development issue?
A: Ignoring the connection between those two categories, we can certainly say that it is both. While many people will always prefer the Hummer and the acre on a cul-de-sac, polls now show that the majority of Americans would rather live in a walkable neighborhood that provides them easy access to daily needs without requiring the automobile as a prosthetic device. Moreover, the studies are now documenting how urban environments outpace suburban ones in terms of their innovation, measured for example in the production of patents per capita. Interestingly, the more miles that people in a given state drive, the worse it performs economically.
Q: Your latest book, Walkable City, argues that the transformation of America back into a country that encourages pedestrian traffic begins with downtowns. You have also played a significant role in the transformation of downtown Oklahoma City via Project 180. Do you see your theories playing out in Oklahoma City?
A: It's a multistep process, and it's happening faster in Oklahoma City than anywhere else I've worked — which may not seem fast enough to many of your readers. The first step is to make the streets more walkable, as you are doing with gusto, albeit a little more slowly than hoped (due, I believe, to the unexpectedly reduced costs of building Devon Tower, which reduced the spinoff funds for Project 180). The next step is that more people will come live downtown, as is already happening. Once you achieve a critical mass of downtown residents, then you will start to see the arrival of all the amenities that really make the downtown come alive, like food markets. It's a virtuous cycle that you have jump-started with the Project 180 investment.
Q: Hundreds of residents became involved in pushing state highway engineers to change their plans for a new downtown boulevard that is set to replace the old alignment of the Interstate 40 Crosstown Expressway. You consulted on this project — did the changes agreed to by the state and city make the boulevard more or less friendly to pedestrian traffic?
A: The engineers have yet to complete their design for the portion running through the heart of the downtown. I proposed a design for that section, along with a 10-step code that very clearly articulated the details that would distinguish this avenue from the highway that it could still very well become if designed around the typical criterion of smooth traffic flow. I'd be happy to share it! I was impressed by the commitment of the engineers in charge to do it right, but we won't know until we see it. I keep stressing that, the day this street comes on line, it will all be excess capacity in a system that is functioning perfectly well without it, so it needs to be designed around the criteria of livability, not volume. I'm not sure if I've won that argument.
Q: What, in your observation, is the biggest impediment to walkability yet to be addressed in downtown Oklahoma City?
A: If Project 180 and the boulevard are both well-executed, it will then be a question of how quickly developers can build attainable market-rate housing downtown to meet the demand that we know exists. Building downtown is more expensive than building on a greenfield out in the sprawl, and I'm hoping that the city will circle the wagons around making it reasonable profitable for more developers to get involved. I would also add that the Riverwalk is on the cusp of being a truly great place, but it would appear that some landowners are wrecking the game for everyone by not moving forward with development on their unsightly parking lots. Here comes the part where I cough into my hand and it sounds a lot like “Eminent Domain!”
Q: What shift, if any, have you noticed in discussion and prioritization of walkability since you first visited Oklahoma City in 2007?
A: Not to soft pedal it, but I have to say that OKCers seemed to be shockingly pro-walkability, even back then. Being named the “least walkable city in America” by Prevention Magazine seems to have done its job. The proof of the pudding for me was the Engineering Department's acceptance of the lane reductions we proposed for Project 180, and the one-way to two-way conversions. Their old-school transportation consultants said it would cause gridlock, and our progressive ones said it wouldn't, and they trusted us. In a city where the car has been king for so many years, that takes courage.