If Des Moines wants to become a truly walkable city, many urban planning concepts from the last century need to be turned on their heads, urban designer Jeff Speck, author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” told a Des Moines audience last week. 

Here’s a few takeaways from Speck’s talk:
• Urban sprawl is out and dense populations are in, because the per-person carbon footprints of central cities are much smaller than those of suburban or rural areas. 
• Zoning laws that separate residential and business areas are outdated. Mixed uses that stack apartments on top of shops and meld offices and homes are the new rage because they create livable neighborhoods that don’t require long commutes. 
• Wide streets capable of moving lots of cars quickly can be counterproductive. Narrower roads with turning and bike lanes and wide sidewalks are often more efficient.
• Two-way streets are safer than one-way streets because they slow down traffic. 

Speck, who leads a design practice based in Washington, D.C., was invited to Des Moines by Mayor Frank Cownie and the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to talk about his urban design theories and what Des Moines can do to become more walkable.

Creating friendly, walkable cities is important, Speck said, because walking is an effective, inexpensive way to counter a growing number of health concerns, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Also, he said, walking and biking appeal to talented young adults, which is significant because the migration patterns of young people are different from earlier generations. 

“Millennials find where they want to live, move there and then look for a job,” Speck said. To attract talented young workers, cities must be livable, which means they must be walkable and bikeable. 

“I have one friend who describes painted bike lanes as horizontal billboards for Millennials,” he said. 

Although Des Moines still has much to learn about walkability, Speck said, “you are doing a great job” with the creation of the Principal Riverwalk, Gray’s Lake Trail and the current redesign of Walnut Street. 

“The problem with most cities today is we have designed the useful walk out of existence,” he said. 

That’s because city planners for most of the past century have focused on the automobile, making streets wider and faster to move people ever more quickly between home, work, shopping and entertainment. But efficiency has not improved. Traffic has gotten worse. And now the goals have changed, Speck said.

Today, health and safety are paramount concerns as urban planners attempt to re-create the 19th-century concept of neighborhoods by getting people out of their cars and back on their feet.

To succeed, Speck said, “walking has to offer something better than what we have.” The challenge for today’s urban designers is to create cities where walking is useful, safe, comfortable and interesting. In addition to reversing nearly 100 years of auto-centered transportation planning, Speck said there are other small changes that can make big differences. 

For example, he said, parallel parking on a street like Ingersoll Avenue takes up space, but it also provides a buffer between the sidewalk and traffic. Shorter city blocks are better than long blocks, Speck said, because they offer more options for getting around bottleneck traffic problems, and they are more pedestrian-friendly. 

Speck’s suggestions for making downtown Des Moines more walkable include eliminating some, but not all, of the one-way streets downtown and reassessing street use.

Current traffic numbers show that some downtown streets have more lanes than are needed, said Speck, who is working on what he described as “an urban triage diagram for downtown Des Moines.”