Urban planner encourages Jacksonville to invest in ‘walkability’

Jeff Speck speaks at downtown breakfast meeting

By Nancy Lee Bethea
Resident Community News

If Jeff Speck has his way, Jacksonville’s podiatrists will be a happy bunch. That’s because Speck, an urban planner and author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” promotes walkability – the idea of creating more walkable cities through planning and design.

Speck spoke to a 400-seat crowd made up of city leaders, arts employees and business owners, among others, on Dec. 10 at the Omni Jacksonville Hotel. Hosted by The Jacksonville Business Journal, Speck’s talk generated audible cheers as he shared how downtown Jacksonville can become a more walkable city.

• Downtown is key

A city’s downtown is tied to its identity. The more walkable an area is, the more vibrant the community. “Downtown belongs to everybody. It’s the one part of the city that is everybody’s. It’s also the part of the city where its reputation is built,” Speck said.

Five years ago, Prevention Magazine ranked Oklahoma City as the worst city for pedestrians, Speck said. Since then, the city has rebuilt its downtown core making it more walkable. Jacksonville can do the same thing if city leaders do it right.

“The tendency is to sprinkle walkability fairy dust everywhere, but [cities should] invest where it’s going to make a difference and start in [their] downtowns,” Speck added.

• Investing in Downtown

After Speck’s talk, a panel of city leaders discussed downtown Jacksonville’s potential to become more walkable. Moderated by David Sillick, president and publisher of The Jacksonville Business Journal, panelists discussed ways to bring both residential and retail development downtown.
When asked to share the most salient point from Speck’s presentation, panelist Alex Coley, co-founder and principal, NAI Hallmark Partners, said creating walkability downtown is achievable. Later, he encouraged residents to be active citizens and stand behind the City’s new leaders. The room erupted in applause.

“We’ve had a chance to go to other cities. We’ve seen how they did it there,” Coley said. “Residential is the absolute base block. Job one. Following that will be retail.”
Another panelist, Daniel Davis, president and CEO of Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, shared a memory from his youth. Loading up in their station wagon, his family drove 30 minutes to get anywhere in Jacksonville. Davis senses change coming to the city, though, focusing on Downtown. “Something is happening – an energy, a synergy, a sense of community,” he added.

• Building community

Community is created in two ways, according to Speck. First is through neighborhoods. Since they are small and connected, residents can get to work, play, worship and shopping quickly. Neighborhoods are compact, mixed-use and walkable, he added.
Second is through sprawl, which is large, single use, not walkable and usually disconnected. The automobile is a necessity to get places. “This is why we have ‘soccer moms.’ The landscape is shaped around automobile use,” Speck said. “The useful walk has been designed out of existence.”

To help Jacksonville’s Downtown become more walkable, Speck suggested asking a few questions. First, what is missing or underrepresented Downtown? “In most cities, and in Jacksonville, it’s housing,” he said. Citing statistics on Millennials, the generation born between 1977 and 1998, Speck said Jacksonville can attract these entrepreneurial thinkers and innovators by providing more housing Downtown.

Second, what is overpriced and underrepresented in downtown Jacksonville? Usually, the answer is parking. “Parking covers more land than any other land use in America,” Speck said. He recommended raising the price of parking to make Downtown thrive. “Price parking in response to demand for parking,” he said. “The parking meter was invented to create turnover.”
Third, what is valuable yet wasted in downtown Jacksonville? Again, the answer in Jacksonville is parking, he said. Jacksonville has lots of parking Downtown, he said, but it’s never full.

Speck also suggested joining Jacksonville’s most walkable neighborhoods with public transit. “Connect them to each other so people can get to cool places,” he said. “Walkable neighborhoods don’t need transit, but walkable cities do. If [it’s not there], more people buy cars and [then] cities respond to that.”

• Walking is healthy

Making a city more walkable not only impacts its economy and environment, it also helps citizens stay healthy, Speck said. Statistics show when a neighborhood or a city is more walkable, there is less obesity, less asthma and fewer car crashes.

Comparing Jacksonville to other American cities such as Portland, OR, and Atlanta, GA, Speck encouraged the city to act quickly. Areas of Atlanta were not walkable until about 10 to 15 years ago, Speck shared, when the city reversed some of its poor design. Jacksonville can do the same thing.
“Jacksonville is not competitive, but we can change dramatically and quickly,” Speck said. Like Atlanta, Jacksonville will need to make planning and design changes in order to attract residents and retail operations.

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