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Author cites benefits of  'walkable' towns

BY DAVID ZOELLER dzoeller@paducahsun.com

Walkable cities, towns and villages are economically superior, healthier, and more dynamic than urban "sprawl," according to nationally known author Jeff Speck, who spent the past few days walking in Paducah.

Speck, the author of "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time," spoke Thursday at the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce's August Power in Partnership Breakfast. He gave a more detailed presentation Thursday night at the Maiden Alley Cinema on his analysis of the city's walkability, pedestrian and street connectivity and appearance, plus his recommendations for improvement.

The discussion on walkability and related issues has not centered on life in large cities as much as in towns, Speck said.

"By towns I mean places that feel a little bit more like Paducah ... understand this is not a big-city discussion."

The suburban model of development did not develop naturally in response to man's needs, Speck said, "but was invented after the (world) wars around the celebration of universal automobile use."

Communities need to understand there is a different way to live when you can actually walk to the shop, school and playground. "You don't need a 2,000 pound prosthetic device to get cat food," Speck said.

During his career as a city planner, working mostly with architects, the issue was seen largely as a design challenge.

"Those of us who are designers found that discussion interesting, and some regular folks who aren't designers found it interesting, but not that many. Then, sociologists started talking about it," said Speck.

In his book "Bowling Alone: Collapse and Revival of American Community," author Robert Putnam mapped what he described as a decline of civic interest in the country, Speck said. In trying to answer the question why Americans participate less in community activities, Speck found the single greatest factor is the length of their commute.

"The more time you spend driving to and from work, or just driving around to get where you're going, the less likely you are to be a den mother, run for office, or go to church ... all of these other things that add up to community involvement," Speck said.

"What we've created by making this drivable society is a burden that the poor are especially suffering from: the burden that you need a car to survive and to work," Speck said. "We all actually work, on average, until April 15 each year not to pay our taxes, but to pay for our cars. It takes a lot of money to pay for this device (a car). If we designed our communities right, we wouldn't need as much (money)."

There are powerful economic and health arguments to be made for being a more walkable city, Speck said.

"We have a health problem in this country," Speck said. "And for years we've been talking about diet, exercise, and making sure we have gym classes in our schools. What doctors are telling us now, particularly in the book 'Urban Sprawl and Public Health,' is that we are a moribund society, a sick society, because we have engineered out of existence the useful walk."

Streets used to be places where people came together as a society, Speck said, but now "some of those streets are controlled by folks who only think of them as places for moving cars." According to Speck, many states design their highways in ways that actually encourage people to drive fast, citing the portion of Third and Fourth streets downtown around the "swoop" curve near the Julian Carroll Convention Center as an example.

"You have a very nice grid in this neighborhood that is now destroyed. Where people live and walk and work and play, don't swoop your roads," Speck said. "You make it, if not impossible, a bit scary for a conventioneer to walk downtown. There's no reason for that."

Speck said it is clear to him that the design and direction of Third and Fourth streets are hurting the community.

"At a certain point when you are ready, and maybe you are ready now, you need to rise up as a community with a single message ... give us our grid back," Speck said. "When that happens you will become an even more walkable city."

Contact David Zoeller, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676.

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