Ballet of the Sidewalk

Author Jeff Speck asks how lively streets can make for not just walkable cities, but good and just ones.

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Moves + Pepsi, New York City, 1955  © William Klein 

The soul of a city can be found by taking a walk. This is the essential premise behind all great street photography. Here we present both classic examples and contemporary work, from Vivian Maier and William Klein to Boogie.

Now that my book Walkable City (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) has been out for more than a year—and has found a larger audience than I had expected—it seemed a good time to reflect on the book’s message, and consider what I might have overlooked. One thing I missed was pictures. On the advice of Witold Rybczynski, I left them out, and I’m glad. Real writing doesn’t need it, he said, and—more importantly—picture books get shelved in the back under “Architecture” rather than in front under “Current Affairs.” Also, however many words a picture may be worth, there is perhaps a greater value in letting people imagine their own pictures from your words. The better-paid public speakers have better PowerPoints, but the best paid have none.

But some folks still want pictures, clear illustrations of how it can be done, and my next book will most likely have them, because it—the walkable city—can be done, is being done, and should be done, everywhere. In the meantime, I hope that these images of timeless urbanity by the likes of Vivian Maier and William Klein provide a suitable backdrop to what follows, the main theme missing from my book: walkable cities are better for your soul.

My confidence has been steeled for this task by another book, just out, Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), and also by a recent visit to my personal version of hell, also known as the sprawl. In this case, the sprawl was West Jordan, Utah, home to my in-laws, whom I adore, and about the least happy place I can imagine.

The natural landscape could hardly be more spiritual; the Mormons stopped at Salt Lake for a reason. With the Wasatch Range to the east and the Oquirrh to the west, breathtaking views abound. On clear days—increasingly rare, thanks to car exhaust—it feels godly. Until one lowers one’s gaze to the earth, which has been colonized—planned, by planners—to be the most soul-crushing place on the planet.

West Jordan, population 108,000, sits 18 miles south of Salt Lake City, where it was once its own town. It has since been subsumed by the creeping sprawl of the Salt Lake City metro, in which more than one million people have spread like a rarefied gas across more than six million acres. From the sky, hardly a person can be seen, as the vast majority of time in the public realm is spent in automobiles, traveling between stoplights a half-mile apart at speeds approaching 50 miles per hour. The standard nonresidential street is 80 feet from curb to curb and flanked by nothing but chain stores behind parking lots. One intersection famously sports two massive 7-Eleven gas stations, right across the road from each other.

December 21, 1961Chicago, IL. © Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection 

The homes, while nondescript, are lovely. Step inside from the garage—front doors are rarely used—and you’re met with vast expanses of space in which every amenity can be found. All the pleasures that were once provided publicly by the community are now provided privately by the middle-class house. The theater has been replaced by the giant-screen TV, the pool hall has made its way into the rec room, and the playground has become the backyard jungle gym.  

This is wrong. The privatization of the public realm means the end of community life, and we don’t need a new, better pope to tell us what that does to our spirit. Actually, all we need is Harvard University professor Robert Putnam, who, in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000) mapped a clear connection between suburbanization and a decline in civic engagement. As we drive more, we spend less time publicly, which allows the public realm to deteriorate further, causing us to drive more. 

And is there a less noble version of a human than the motorist? Whether due to the sheer sense of power that the automobile confers, or the fact that our lives are literally at risk for much of the time on the road, driving has a profoundly uncivilizing effect. You don’t need me to prove this to you; how many times have you given someone the finger as a pedestrian? 

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