Downtown Boise will be under the knife of intensive, outside scrutiny by acclaimed city planner and architectural designer Jeff Speck this week. In a process he calls, colorfully, “urban triage,” Speck plans to spend the next few days walking the city core, eventually prescribing a plan to help guide local planners in how to better draw pedestrians to Boise city streets.
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Speck spoke at the Egyptian Theatre June 24, after arriving late to the Boise Airport. There he outlined his “general theory of walkability.” He divides his time between his home in Washington, D.C., and work on-the-ground in communities acros the country, working with governments and private businesses to rebuild cities with a more pedestrian focus.
His central thesis of city planning—designing urban environments around pedestrians and their ability to walk—and his seminal work—Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time—are trumpeted by some city officials and urban theorists as tacit fact. The Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce and City of Boise contracted for Speck’s services, after a speech he delivered at the Chamber conference in Sun Valley in April.
His visit includes a series of meetings with city planners, the Ada County Highway District, Capital City Development Corporation (Boise’s urban renewal agency) and other stakeholders. The result will be what he calls a “walkability study” or “walkability analysis.”
“This is a study, it’s not a plan,” he noted. “This is much more about the facts on the ground. The reason I’m here to listen is because I need to learn better from you what the facts on the ground are. And I walk around and I see them, and believe me, at this point, I can figure out a lot of it on my own, but when this week is over, through the combination of what I notice and what I learn from you, I’ll be able to make specific recommendations I hope will lead you very efficiently, and cheaply, and quickly, to making those small changes downtown that can make the most impact on making the downtown more walkable, for the least time, and the least effort.”
Boise already has “good bones” in its downtown, according to Speck. He compared the block sizes and street widths of the City of Trees to those of Oklahoma City, Okl., Portland, Ore., and Salt Lake City, Utah, cities with somewhat similar grid patterns. Boise’s smaller blocks, not yet mashed together to make “superblocks,” and many right-sized streets offer opportunity for more walking, according to Speck.
The argument for more walkable cities is informed by environmental, sociological, economic and public health fields, according to Speck. Fostering a pedestrian culture in a mixed-use, downtown core can lead to a greener footprint, increased civic involvement, more economic opportunity and better public health, he claimed. Cities like Portland have already benefited by moving away from automobile-centric planning, he said.
“You look at the cities that have invested in walkability and biking… Portland made a series of decisions, starting in the ’70s, really, that over a few decades fundamentally changed the way Portlanders live. And now they drive 20 percent less. And they save four miles, or 11 minutes a day, that calculates out to 3.5 percent of all income earned in Portland does not have to go to driving,” he said.
Walkability may also be the key, according to Speck, to attracting demographic groups increasingly interested in urban environments—youth and seniors.
“If the city isn’t walkable, it doesn’t meet [those groups’] needs. There’s no question that millenials and boomers are moving to the city. The question is, will they move to your city? Will they move to your downtown? Will they move from suburban Boise to downtown Boise? “As a result, the automobile is transformed from an instrument of freedom into a prosthetic device.” — Boise Weekly interview with Speck. Or will they move to another city that has a better image of walkability, or a better reality of walkability?” said Speck.
Halfway through his speech, Speck asked how many visitors—a share of whom were city officials working downtown at City Hall or CCDC headquarters—had walked to the Egyptian.
“Wow!” exclaimed Speck as approximately half the crowd raised their hands. “There are certain cities that no matter what you felt, your lifestyle, very few of you would have been able to raise your hands. That says a lot about what you’ve been able to accomplish already.”
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.