The Hippo


Jul 17, 2019








Attend the event

Where: New Hampshire Institute of Art, 148 Concord St., Manchester
When: Monday, Nov. 9, from 6:30 to 9 p.m.
Admission: Free; includes book signing, Q&A and reception

Walkable downtowns
NHIA hosts city planner, author, architectural designer Jeff Speck

By Kelly Sennott

Making downtowns more walkable benefits entire communities, from businesses and employees to residents and visitors. It’s why, for example, the Concord Main Street Project is in full swing — according to the project website, the city’s new Main Street “will enhance opportunities for cultural events, social gatherings and doing business” — and it’s why Manchester is welcoming ideas for improving its own downtown.

Hosting a series of speakers about how to do this seemed like a no-brainer to New Hampshire Institute of Art President Kent Devereaux, who’s also a member of the Manchester Cultural District Coalition, a nonpolitical group looking to create a cultural corridor in the city. 
The first presenter is architectural designer and city planner Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, who visits the school Monday, Nov. 9, from 6:30 to 9 p.m.
Devereaux said via phone last week he’s been following Speck’s work for years. Speck was director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2007, oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design and created the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, a federal program that helps state governors fight suburban sprawl. He’s provided plans and suggestions for downtowns across the country, including mid-sized cities like Lowell, Mass., Des Moines, Iowa, and Boise, Idaho.
“He’s since become the preeminent advocate and expert on … making downtowns more walkable and liveable,” Devereaux said. “Many of his ideas have to do with, how can we make our streets safer and more conducive for businesses?”
Speck said via phone that what makes a city walkable is consistent across the board.
“If we’re going to get people to walk [downtown], the walk has to be as good as the drive. It has to simultaneously do four things: be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting,” Speck said.
To make it useful, Speck suggested providing more affordable downtown living options. To make it safer, look at the size of city blocks and streets and adjust accordingly. Generally, the smaller the block, the safer the roads; more intersections force people to drive slower. And consider traffic patterns; are streets one-way? Two-way? Multi-laned?
“If a one-way has one lane, it’s not dangerous. What’s dangerous is giving people the opportunity to jockey,” Speck said.
Where many downtowns fail walkability-wise is in parking and drug stores. People hate looking at parking lots and boarded-up windows, which is often what happens in these shops to make way for shelving units. 
Speck said people prefer seeing downtown living spaces with definitive edges and interesting angles. They like city walls that are covered with windows, doors, stoops, porches and benches. Cars should be hidden away or lining main streets, not filling up large pieces of no man’s land.
“We humans are among the social primates. Nothing interests us more than other humans. If there are no signs of humanity — if the only signs are parked cars — then it’s not a place we want to walk around,” Speck said. 
Better yet, Speck said, make it easier to not drive at all. Make it bike-friendly, and you’ll attract millennials from all over, since fewer and fewer young people are obtaining driver’s licenses.
“They’re more interested in having choices in transit. Seventy-seven percent of American millennials polled plan on living in America’s urban cores, but they want to live in urban cores that can provide a real city experience while not being tied to the automobile,” Speck said. “The cities that have made the greatest [walkability] gains are biking cities.”
How do you create a biking culture? Speck says it’s as easy as installing safe bike facilities. He cited Minneapolis as an example.
Walkability has become incredibly important to downtown economies, Speck said, because the way millennials decide to live has changed. No longer do they find jobs before re-locating. More important is a city’s quality of life.
“Sixty-four percent of millennials decide first where they want to live, then they move there and look for a job. It’s very different from my generation,” Speck said.
Speck said to start small. Make one block absolutely perfect and move outward from there, rather than making a whole city decent or mediocre. Determine, what are the easy wins? What can you do with the smallest amount of effort? Gather grassroots support.
“Most of the changes I recommend in cities only happen because of active citizens,” Speck said. 
Devereaux said he hopes for a full crowd and lots of implementable ideas for Manchester.
“I’m hoping he has lots of ideas and observations about what other communities are doing, and hopefully we can borrow or steal the best ideas,” Devereaux said. 

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