Tue. Jun 6th, 2023

Jeff Speck [00:00:00] That’s absolutely one of my favorites. Many of my favorite books are the ones that were the most work. It is wonderful, wonderful.

Anne Bogel [00:00:07] A lot of work, but the payoff is there.

Hey readers, I’m Anne Bogel and this is What Should I Read Next? Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader, What Should I Read Next? We don’t get bossy on the show. What we will do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read.

[00:00:41] Readers, today I’m chatting with Jeff Speck, author of the book Walkable City that I have referred to numerous times on the show. So this feels like a real full-circle moment today.

Jeff’s work has inspired countless conversations in our home about city budgets and crosswalk design and planting trees and downtown parking and all the factors involved, and my husband Will’s desire to get an e-bike and about how the right book can allow us to see and understand the world around us in a whole new way.

I’m an unabashed fan of books like Walkable City that take a fundamental aspect of our lives and make it fascinating or reveal the unexpected interestingness of a topic we didn’t know much about.

I’m excited to hear more today about Jeff’s professional and writing life, how his book came to be chosen for the Tenth Anniversary treatment and to compile a reading list of fascinating nonfiction and fiction that opens up the world for readers.

Let’s get to it.

[00:01:32] Jeff, welcome to the show.

Jeff Speck [00:01:33] Hey, I’m so glad to be here, Anne. All my literary friends tell me that it’s the show to be on. So I made it.

Anne Bogel [00:01:39] Well, that’s so kind. I feel like we’ve been talking about making this happen since the earliest pandemic days now. Because listeners, how this happened is I chose Walkable City as one of three books that have made a difference in my life when I talked to Neil Pasricha on his 3 Books Podcast. And then he had you on his show, Jeff. I think we’ve had a triangle email thread ever since.

Jeff Speck [00:02:00] Yes. And then COVID happened, other things happened. I don’t know what. I don’t know what delayed it honestly. But this is the ideal time for me to talk to you because I’m flogging a new book. But my book that you enjoyed, Walkable City, has just been re-released in a Tenth Anniversary Edition with 100 new pages that I wrote over the last year, and a lovely introduction by Janette Sadik-Khan, who’s pretty well-known. If you’re in my business, she’s a famous traffic engineer. So I really want people to read my book that I’ve put so much more effort into after the initial many years of effort.

Anne Bogel [00:02:36] Honestly, Jeff, we talked about a lot of books on this podcast. And I read a lot of books, our listeners read a lot of books where they think, If more people read this book, they would have a better life. But I feel like that’s so true of Walkable City because people who read this book feel differently about the cities they live in, they advocate for different things, they see more possibilities.

The timing feels right for our conversation today, in part because I am here in Louisville, Kentucky, where you were saying you’ve just been just before COVID, and we are in the middle of a redesign of my neighborhood.

Jeff Speck [00:03:07] Mm, wow.

Anne Bogel [00:03:08] They’re repaving, restriping, they’re quieting the streets. The plans are, I think, kind of terrible, but it’s not too late to make them better. But I mean, Jeff, if I could sell a copy of a book to someone every time I said, “Well, Jeff Speck says… Jeff Speck says… I learned in Walkable City…” your book would be at the top of the charts.

Jeff Speck [00:03:29] Well, you’re very kind. Maybe you could just buy a bunch and hand them out. That’d be awesome.

Anne Bogel [00:03:34] To all the city planners.

Jeff Speck [00:03:36] Many places where I go, where I’m asked to go and get involved are places where someone has bought a couple boxes of the book and just handed it out to the city councilors and the planners and everyone else.

But you said reading this book would make people happier. I would say that depends. Some people read it and get depressed because they look around and they say, “I don’t live in that kind of place and I can’t move.” Some people read it and move. Probably most people read it and get involved, and then do stuff in their community to make their community more walkable and more livable. And of course, that’s my goal audience.

Anne Bogel [00:04:13] That is an interesting point. That completely makes sense. And I can say that reading your book sometimes can be quite frustrating because it’s very clear why the crosswalk will never work the way it’s supposed to exist right by my child’s school.

But Jeff, let’s roll back a little bit. What is it that you do exactly that brought you to write such a work?

Jeff Speck [00:04:32] So I’m a city planner who also happens to write. And I’ve always been a big reader, and can’t be a good writer without being a good reader. And whenever I’m doing something, I mean, I’m almost 60 now, and my whole life whenever I’ve been involved in something and there have been ideas that surface that excite me or challenge me or frustrate me, I’ve always ended up writing about them.

And since I found my profession in city planning, wouldn’t you know it? There’s a whole bunch of stuff that city planners have been getting wrong for so long and that of course city planners have been getting right but that cities have been getting wrong ignoring their planners for a couple decades that I tried to put all those together into a book that was really…

I wouldn’t say I wrote it just to release my frustrations. But I was driven by the idea of sharing everything that I had discovered about how cities are made badly and how actually they can be made well, and how some of us are working to make them better. And that became the book Walkable City. So that’s where we are.

There’s more background in the sense that I was studying architecture. I thought I’d be an architect. And here I was a would-be architect looking at a potentially happy future of designing people’s kitchens and bathrooms and stumbled onto a lecture by Andrés Duany, D-U-A-N-Y, in 1989. And I was about to go to architecture school, and he gave this talk—that he ended up giving all over the country. And he’s stopped giving it because he’s sick of it, but I still give it—called Towns Versus Sprawl.

The talk basically laid out that there were two different ways to build communities. Throughout history, we’ve only built by the thousands two different types of urbanism. One is the traditional neighborhood as it exists in villages, towns, and cities. And the other is suburban sprawl.

The big distinction being that the latter was not something that evolved naturally alongside man, but an invention at the middle of the 20th century with the presumption of universal automotive enslavement, as I would call it, that we would all be required to drive all the time. And that creates a different type of landscape and a different type of life for people who inhabit it.

And I heard him give this talk in 1989. I had realized prior that there were certain places I loved to be in, certain places I hated being, and I didn’t really fully understand why. I didn’t understand the laws, rules, regulations, policies that had led to the replacement of neighborhoods with sprawl as the fundamental planning model in the US and in many other parts of the world.

And I had not yet become fully aware that it was rather illegal in most of America to build more of the places that we love and want to spend our time. So I joined this movement that became known as New Urbanism, which is all about stopping sprawl or doing our best to stop it and then building new places that are modeled on older places, and perhaps most importantly, trying to resuscitate our older places that have been damaged and degraded by the automotive-oriented development patterns that took over in the latter half of the middle of the 20th century.

So that got me launched on this path towards place-making and place-improving, but I turned at a certain point more towards… Although I still do both kinds of work, I turned more towards looking at city centers, more recently focusing on that because I was for four years, the Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts here in the US, which put me partly in charge of this program called the Mayors’ Institute on City Design.

And I won’t get into the details of that program, except to say that I worked with a couple hundred mayors one-on-one in intense three-day chunks, multiple times a year for four years, trying to make their cities better. And that taught me a hell of a lot, which ended up in Walkable City.

Anne Bogel [00:08:40] That completely makes sense to me as someone who week in week out talks to readers about how to make their reading lives better, and their specific goals-

Jeff Speck [00:08:45] There you go.

Anne Bogel [00:08:46] …and their triumphs. Yes, totally different format, but similar purpose.

Jeff Speck [00:08:52] I think what distinguishes my books from other planning books and why they sell so well is because they’re not geared towards planners, they’re geared towards humans. So, my whole role in this movement, in this New Urbanism movement or just in the intersection between planning and reality has been to try to disseminate, to promulgate, to make common among everyone else the sort of understandings that planners share, that well-educated planners share and the sort of conversations that are going on in the planning world and the efforts that planners are making to make cities better.

Some misconstrued, like putting, you know, Elon Musk’s tunnels under Fort Lauderdale, and others rather intelligent and really just resuscitating a fine craft, I will call it, an art but a craft that, you know, until the middle of the 20th century was practiced very well around the world.

Anne Bogel [00:09:47] I love the words that Janette Sadik-Khan shared in the introduction to your new Tenth Anniversary Edition. She said something that made me go, Yes, that’s exactly it. “Great books give fresh definition to facts that people have always known, making the end visible and the obscure obvious. And more essentially, they give the reader agency to act.” And that’s something I really love about Walkable City.

My experience with the book was my father-in-law asked for a book for Christmas in the 90s. That led me to James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere. So it wasn’t long that I got to Suburban Nation when it came out in 2000, and then found yours, which my father-in-law got a copy of shortly thereafter.

I do appreciate how it’s a book that helps us understand the world around us, no matter where you are, and what kind of world you’re moving through, helps you understand how it got to be that way, and why, and how the shape of the structure you’re moving through affects your actions, whether or not you realize it. But you realize it after reading your book.

Jeff, you say that walkability is basically the key to everything in Walkable City. Get walkability right and the rest of creating a human landscape that’s pleasant to be in will follow. Would you give us a brief synopsis of walkability for those who haven’t yet picked up the book?

Jeff Speck [00:10:56] Yeah. I want to say that, you know, I came to walkability in a roundabout way. My goal was just to learn as much about city planning as possible and be a good city planner. And the way we described what we did, which was to replace automotive-based development patterns with human-based development patterns, has had a bunch of different names over the years.

So when Andrés and Liz, my mentors, first described it, it was Neo-traditional town planning. That turned off the liberals. And then it became known and we started calling it the New Urbanism, which turned off the conservatives. It could more accurately be called just best practices in urban planning but that doesn’t have much of a ring to it.

It was only when I was able to reframe it through the rubric of walkability that I found I was able to communicate it effectively to most audiences. But an interesting thing happened, which is when I started calling it walkability, I started looking at my planning through that window of walkability.

And I should say something I do in a bunch of cities where I work, I’ve done 15 so far, is what I call a walkability study, where I go into a downtown—it’s almost always in downtown—and I ask the question with my team, How, for the least amount of money and in the shortest period of time, can we make changes that will result in the most clear, palpable experience of more people walking and biking in your downtown?

And that leads to a bunch of changes that we make in communities that are circling the wagons around that objective of walkability. So, while I was describing good planning as walkability, when I started to think about what makes good planning as making places more walkable, it actually changed some of the things I did, and I think allowed me to be a better planner.

So yes, I have embraced this idea that I think I’m waiting for someone to disagree, let alone provide evidence rebutting it, that to make a place better you make it more walkable.

And then you ask what makes a walkable place. I have what I call my general theory of walkability that says in America in particular, but certainly there’s interest globally—there’s been about eight translations so far. But in America, where driving is so cheap and so easy, and you don’t pay the full cost of driving by a longshot, and the smart thing to do if you own a car, because the fixed prices are so high and the variable costs are quite low, the smart thing is to drive as much as possible. And for most people, it’s sitting there in the driveway between them and everything.

Under those circumstances, how do you get people to walk? And the answer is the walk has to be as good as the drive. So what does it have to do to satisfy that? It has to do four things simultaneously. It has to be useful, it has to be safe, it has to be comfortable, and it has to be interesting. You really need to provide all four of those things if people who have a choice will make the choice to walk.

And of course there are lots of people who don’t have a choice. Fully a third of us don’t drive. What about that? What about them? You know, what about the people who are too young, too old, too infirm, too poor to drive a car? You know, they become stranded or dependent on others or others become chauffeurs who would rather be doing other things with their lives.

But for those who don’t have a choice, of course, we need to make places more walkable. Those of us who do have a choice tend to be the ones who make the decisions. And therefore I’ve always worked towards creating an environment in which people will happily make the choice because, you know, it’s only when the majority of us, and honestly looking at America, when the people with power are going to make the choice to walk that the landscape begins to reflect that choice.

Anne Bogel [00:14:41] Let’s talk more about the Tenth Anniversary Edition. It’s not every book by a longshot that gets this treatment. I’m interested in hearing how it came to be.

Jeff Speck [00:14:50] Well, Suburban Nation got that treatment because it sold well. And we have a great publisher. You probably know about Farrar, Straus, which is such an amazing publisher.

In fact, there was a book written about Farrar, Straus. I believe it’s called Hothouse, about a publisher that punches way above its weight although it’s… It is a mainstream publisher but in terms of the amazing authors, you know, from Flannery O’Connor to Tom Wolfe, to so many authors who undeservedly honored to share a publisher with. But they’re very literary focused, and they care about books that are about issues, as well as publishing fiction. And also being business-focused, when a book does well, they want to keep it doing well.

And Walkable City made a real effort to be timeless. I mean, it really tried to… Not timeless for the centuries for sure, because it’s mostly about modern living. But, you know, I try not to tie it to any one decade. But cities evolve and cities change.

Particularly over the past decade, and it’s not just COVID, there are a bunch of really interesting things that either happened or came to my attention over the past decade that demanded that the book receive a supplement. That supplement was supposed to be 50 pages, it turned out to be 100 pages worth of stuff that I wanted to talk about.

And flipping through the table of contents right now, as I speak to you, certainly COVID required discussion because of the impact that it had on cities. Two types of housing crises that arose during the last 10, 15 years. The first being, of course, the fact that we now can see, can witness that we just have a housing shortage. Period. Right? Across the US there’s a dramatic housing shortage that needs fixing, particularly in our bigger and busier cities.

But secondarily I was not fully aware when I wrote the first version of the book of the conversation that can be found in a wonderful book called The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. I don’t know if you’re aware of this book. But it’s the bestselling book on urban issues right now and has been since it came out, talking about how the…

Of course, we knew this years ago, but we didn’t fully understand it. That, you know, redlining, which kept whites and blacks separate and kept investment out of Black neighborhoods and essentially prohibited Black folks and other people of color from participating in the American dream of homeownership.

I always thought it was the banks, you know, the banks that were redlining. But no, it was the Federal Home Loan agencies. It was Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the federal government that actually made it impossible for people of color to get insured mortgages, which, you know, is the principal way that the middle class in America has built wealth over the last, you know, 60, 70 years is through the 30 year home mortgage interest tax deduction, right? So they were robbed of that ability to grow wealth.

But more significantly that there was an actual federal campaign, stated or not, that kept people of color out of white neighborhoods that was perpetuated when race-based zoning was made illegal by the Supreme Court, was perpetuated stealthily through single-family zoning rules that just removed the color from the discussion but had the exact same impacts and continue to have those impacts to this day because of the wealth that African Americans have had not been allowed to build.

And then also that all of the housing developments, you know, the public housing that the federal government invested in had to be single race. So that’s a fascinating story that I synopsize as I do so many other stories in the book.

Harland Bartholomew was a planner who most of us worshiped as one of the fathers of city planning in the US. He was probably the worst perpetrator of turning race-based zoning into single-family zoning. Anyway, that’s a fascinating story that I felt needed to be shared.

And actually, our book Suburban Nation, in describing the causes of sprawl, describing the Federal Highway programs that subsidized the decanting of our cities or the federal loan programs that, again, made it cheaper to actually fall into a new house in Levittown than to maintain your urban apartment after coming home from World War II. We really neglected to talk about the racial causes of sprawl, which are absolutely a huge part of that conversation.

So I needed to correct that record. I also needed in talking, as I do in the beginning, the first segment of Walkable City is called Why Walkability? and it gives the three main reasons, the health reasons, the wealth reasons, and the environmental reasons why walkable cities are better. It neglected to talk about the equity reasons and how the automotive landscape disproportionately punishes people of color through both causing them to live in places where no one was ever meant to live without a car, right? And you’ve got all these people now who can’t afford cars living in the automotive landscape, which is one reason why the pedestrian death rate has gone up 82% in the last 14 years.

And then you have beyond that, the asthma impacts, the dramatic, you know, massive health quality impacts from living near and around highways that’s disproportionately punished people of color.

And the car crash statistics, which is that if you’re Black or Native American, you’re twice as likely to be killed as a pedestrian than if you’re not. So these are conversations that we had to have.

Anne Bogel [00:20:30] Right.

Jeff Speck [00:20:31] SUVs are the biggest problem. You know, when you’re hit by an SUV, you’re probably four times as likely to die as being hit by a sedan. And of course, SUVs have taken over, so that SUV sales dramatically outpace sedan sales.

The rise of the SUV, electric or not, is the principal contributor to this massive epidemic we have of pedestrian, cyclist deaths. People thought it was cell phones. But there are cell phones in Europe and Europe’s been reducing pedestrian deaths every year.

In Europe, they test vehicles not just for the safety of the passengers with the crash dummies but for the safety of people outside the vehicle with crash dummies. They don’t do that in the US. And if they did, SUVs would be illegal. But of course, that’s never going to happen because they’re huge profit sources for the auto industry. So that’s a big factor.

And then the other huge factor is just the way that, as I’ve alluded to earlier, the way that American engineers design streets is fundamentally unsafe because highway thinking is brought into residential and business communities, and has the opposite impact. So I wanted to talk a lot about that.

And I quote a lot from another book. And you know, Anne, reading my books that mostly I’m just collecting the wisdom of others. I quote a lot from Charles Marohn. And Charles Marohn is someone who I quoted an essay of his at length in the first edition of Walkable City that was called Confessions of a Recovering Engineer.

And he’s since wrote a book with the same title that came out maybe two years ago, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, that is fantastic and has a lot more evidence in it about the different ways that we can and often fail to make our cities safer and more walkable.

For example, when you replace a signalized intersection with an all-way stop intersection, which I’ve done in dozens of intersections over my career, the number of pedestrian severe injury crashes drops by about 68%. Just [00:22:30] one thing. Well, why aren’t we doing it? Right? Why aren’t we doing it? Why isn’t that happening across the country?

And books like mine are, you know, in the editorial I had in The Hill two weeks ago, are hopeful that if more people learn about this stuff, they will start doing it more. It’d be nice to save some lives. Right? Why aren’t we doing it?

Anne Bogel [00:22:50] Jeff, I have to tell you I read this new Anniversary Edition with fresh eyes, not just because you have this great 100-page update about what the situation is right now, but also my kids are 10 years older. They were babies that I put in car seats when I read the book the first time and now they’re teenage drivers. And I see every-

Jeff Speck [00:23:07] Mm, Sorry.

Anne Bogel [00:23:08] Everything is terrifying when I surveyed the landscape.

Jeff Speck [00:23:12] Yeah. My older son, Milo, who’s 14, I’ll be driving with him and he’ll be like, Go faster, floor it. And I’ll be like, You know, Milo, you’re never getting a driver’s license. I just wanted to make that clear. Some people weren’t meant to be drivers, and one of them is you.

Anne Bogel [00:23:29] Oh, Milo, we all knew it was a bad idea to say specifically to your dad that thing. Jeff, you’ve been very free to credit those whose ideas you’ve benefited from who are also contributing to the conversation. And Walkable City is one book in a long line of books advocating for better spaces for people to live in, not just cars to drive through. I’d love to hear you speak about some of your influences.

Jeff Speck [00:23:52] There’s a wonderful book called Green Metropolis by David Owen that was going to be called Green New York in which he demonstrates at great length, but not too much. It’s very readable. He’s a New Yorker writer so he’s a delightful writer. He talks about what makes Manhattan the greenest, statistically the most sustainable place in America. Which you know, looking at it, you wouldn’t really think that, right?

But they have like a quarter of the electricity use of Houston and one-tenth of the gasoline use and all these other things. That’s a book that very much influenced the chapter of my book on sustainability, which I call The Wrong Color Green, about how the sustainability discussion in the US for so long has been basically about what I can buy to add to what I already have in order to lighten my footprint. But also he points out all the wonderful ways that urban living is greener than suburban living.

Jane Jacobs, of course, is the most important best planning book ever written, I would say. The Death and Life of Great American Cities written in 1961 I believe, maybe ’63, but early 60s and still incredibly relevant. And really not wrong about much of anything, although she failed to foresee what would happen with the gentrification of the neighborhoods that she loved so well like Greenwich Village where she lived.

But just fundamentals about what makes cities work. And of course, what makes cities work is density, variety and the focus on the street. That’s a super important book.

Anne Bogel [00:25:28] And what is especially interesting about Jane Jacobs is that she was not a professional, as you well know.

Jeff Speck [00:25:35] Yeah. She was a mere writer, but she was a great writer, a great thinker. She grew up in Scranton when it was in its heyday before she moved to New York City. I made a pilgrimage to her house because I am redesigning the street network in Scranton right now.

We’re doing the best to do so when there’s a lot of state control that limits what we’re able to do. And I walked the same street she walked, I walked down the alley that she walked to school. I really wanted to get a sense of the environment that shaped her. I even posed and tried to exactly mimic the photograph of her being taken in front of her house. She just observed, you know. She was a great… Great writing as I always say is great thinking and great thinking is I think often great observation. And she was just someone who stopped and looked.

And it’s funny, I do think in some ways that the biggest part of what I have to do in my job is just to observe. I was an art history major, and they say that that’s not the most lucrative choice of careers, or I should say major choice for your career.

But the very first task when we had decided, I guess, the beginning of junior year that we wanted to be art history majors, the very first task that we were given involved writing a paper but we had to go to The Clark – Art Institute, which is in Williamstown next to Williams College where I went to school, and look at a painting for eight hours.

Anne Bogel [00:26:54] I read about this in Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks. And that was only three, I thought it was a long time.

Jeff Speck [00:27:00] Well, let me just say, you know, the biggest thing you do as a city planner is to stop, observe, and then explain to others what you’re looking at. If you’re going to be a designer, but certainly someone who works with cities, that’s the most important thing you can do.

And explain to people what they’re seeing because people just don’t look. People aren’t in the habit of looking. And of course, too a little deeper, the best way to look is to draw. And I had my very first architecture professor who said to us as we were walking around Florence, Italy, “Why do we draw? We draw in order to see.” And it’s true, you don’t necessarily see something fully until you try to replicate it on a piece of paper. But now I’m getting really into the weeds.

Anne Bogel [00:27:38] Oh, I don’t think so. I was just thinking I admire people for whom that’s true. But for me, I think the best way to look and to think is to write.

Jeff Speck [00:27:45] Well, you’re also finding a way to reproduce what you’ve observed or to explain what you’ve observed.

Anne Bogel [00:27:52] And force yourself to reckon with whether or not you truly understand it.

Jeff Speck [00:27:56] Yeah, yeah. We were talking about other books that were influential. Two rather technical books that are still good reading. One is called Urban Sprawl and Public Health, which form the basis of a chapter of Walkable City on the fact that as three epidemiologists told us, we have designed out of existence, the useful walk in our communities, and it’s the reason why we have a morbid society.

And then the other really well-written book, but it’s three and a half pounds and 723 pages is The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup.

Anne Bogel [00:28:30] I loved this book, Jeff.

Jeff Speck [00:28:32] In which Donald Shoup demonstrates actively how we’ve been asking the wrong question about parking for the eternity of the provision of parking, which is how can we provide enough parking? When, if you ask a different question, which is, how can parking be provided, designed, and managed in order to cause cities to thrive? you get an entirely different outcome.

And he charts the path of many cities, but particularly he contrasts Old Town Pasadena with Westwood, very close to each other, both in LA, who faced the same problem of a perception of crowding, of not having enough parking took opposite paths in terms of Westwood made his parking free, which if you study one day of economics you know that’s not the way to get rid of over demand.

And then Pasadena responded by making his parking more expensive and plowing the revenues from that more expensive parking back into the streetscape, storefronts, trees, environment of Pasadena. And as a simple result of that one choice about parking pricing, one neighborhood soared and the other sank.

Anne Bogel [00:29:39] For listeners who are thinking, “Well, that sounds really esoteric,” and if I’m not a city planner, I don’t need to read about parking, I really appreciate how a book like this can make things in your life you take for granted suddenly spring vividly to life. They make the unseen seen.

I mean, so many of you are listening to this podcast in your car. That’s why we take pains to make our show notes very thorough, we share every book title there so that you’re not a hazard to yourself and others while you’re trying to jot something down while you’re driving.

Jeff Speck [00:30:06] You know, whenever I go to a city, there’s usually a lecture. And after the lecture, there’s a dinner for the people who paid for the lecture. And about half an hour into that dinner, I say, “Can we now stop talking about parking?” Because that’s the thing that most people, you know, find is present in their everyday experience of struggles within their city. And it’s because in many cities, parking is, again, what economists call a free good.

And the classic statement about that, as you know, of course, there’s not enough parking. If pizza were free, would there be enough pizza? So it’s a matter of just letting the market determine outcomes, which currently doesn’t happen in so many downtowns.

I want to mention some recent books I’ve read that didn’t find their way into at least the first edition of Walkable City that are-

Anne Bogel [00:30:54] Oh, yes, please.

Jeff Speck [00:30:55] …are really great. I mentioned The Color of Law. Very readable, very accessible book for anyone who’s interested in that history. Evicted is a fantastic book. I mean, there’s so much in that book. But the surprise to me in that book was it basically costs as much to live in slumlord housing as it does to live in luxury housing. It’s just a certain segment of the population has found its way through making one or two mistakes into that condition. Or just being born in the wrong place has found its way into the cycle of being stuck in slum housing. And it’s extremely impossible to remove oneself from this condition.

I think for the work I do as a planner, the book How to Be an Antiracist has been extremely helpful. On that same subject, I just finished reading, and was absolutely fascinated by the book Caste, C-A-S-T-E, which I think is the most important book on racial and social issues of the past number of years.

It basically compares and contrasts the American slavery and civil rights circumstance and Jim Crow and all of that with the caste system in India, with South African apartheid, and with the Holocaust in World War II, and talks about universal human conditions and characteristics that lead to kind of the worst feature of human society. That’s a fascinating book: Caste.

Anne Bogel [00:32:26] Yes. And speaking of making the invisible visible, as you did with our previous work, The Great Migration, which explains so much about how the world is that I didn’t know there were reasons for very specific and distinct reasons for.

Jeff Speck [00:32:42] And then two new books that came out recently. I mentioned one, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer by Chuck Marohn. But a great book that has a broader focus and a broader audience is There Are No Accidents by Jessie Singer.

Anne Bogel [00:32:56] Oh, I don’t know this one.

Jeff Speck [00:32:57] It’s winning all kinds of awards. She’s basically the new Ralph Nader. And she demonstrates quite convincingly how almost everything that would cause an accident these days, with a focus on traffic, but also looking at, you know, Triangle Shirtwaist fire on how almost all workplace accidents when they are no longer defined as accidents but recognized as outcomes of specific decisions can simply be eliminated.

There are no accidents. Because when one values the folks who are putting food on our table and clothes on our backs and makes decisions that says that their lives matter, you can actually cause these quote-unquote accents to go away.

Anne Bogel [00:33:42] Jeff, I’m so grateful for those current suggestions. And something I do love about Walkable City is it could send you down quite the rabbit hole, readers, if you thought that sounded like a good time. But from my non-professional experience, I’d just love to share a couple books along these lines that I have really loved and that you may perhaps have led me to.

Anything by Witold Rybczynski I’ve just adored, especially A Clearing In The Distance, which was published in 1999. It’s been around some time now. But he writes about Frederick Law Olmsted and how he became the world’s premier landscape architect at a time when there was no such thing. And I just thought the story of a man at work, Central Park, my own city’s park system, how his work transformed the profession was fascinating.

Jeff Speck [00:34:27] That’s a great book by a great writer. Anything Witold Rybczynski has written is very readable. And I read that book with great interest. My mother-in-law gave it to me, but I needed to read it. I learned a couple of things.

I knew that He lived and worked in Brookline, Massachusetts, which is why I proudly say to people who ask me where my home and office is that it’s not in Boston, it’s in Brookline, which is a piece of Boston. It’s a piece of Boston that Boston forgot to annex. And it’s both quite green and leafy but supremely walkable and transit-served at least in the neighborhood that I live in.

But a funny story about Olmsted that I learned from the book was one of the places he designed was the McLean Hospital, which was a mental hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, not very far from here, next to Cambridge where I grew up. I grew up in Belmont. I’m very close to McLean. Not in McLean but next to McLean. And they botched it.

So he designed it, they botched it. He was very unhappy with what they made of his plan. And then he went senile, and where did they put him? In McLean Hospital, So he had to spend the last years of his life wandering the landscape that they had botched of his design, which must have been the most horrible way to end your life that you can possibly imagine.

Anne Bogel [00:35:42] Oh, that’s horrible. I did not know that.

Jeff Speck [00:35:45] As a designer, that’s a really heartbreaking story. What else do you recommend?

Anne Bogel [00:35:50] Oh, I love A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, which is a book very much about architecture. But Jeff, this one’s written for me, squarely for the layperson because he believes in advocates that people like myself who don’t have tons of formal training can still design my own houses, streets, and communities because I’m the one who knows what I love. I can still recognize the patterns I love and that suit my needs, and I can combine them to create a space that I would love to live in.

Some of his more citywide and especially regional ideas that we absolutely do not practice blew my mind and were still really interesting thought exercises. Love it.

Jeff Speck [00:36:25] That’s such an important book, such an influential book for me and for so many New urbanists. I recommend it to all your readers. It’s not going to be like the regular books they have, right? It looks like a Bible, like a fatter, thicker Bible.

Anne Bogel [00:36:37] Oh, it’s like a dictionary.

Jeff Speck [00:36:40] It’s a little brick. It has hundreds of patterns that run from the scale of the region to the scale of the desk or the chair. It’s just an open window to a brilliant, genius mind at work.

Anne Bogel [00:36:54] This is a doorstop.

Jeff Speck [00:36:56] Yeah.

Anne Bogel [00:36:57] One I’m happy to have taking up the space of five novels on my shelf.

Jeff Speck [00:37:00] There you go!

Anne Bogel [00:37:01] And there’s newer work that came to mind when you’re speaking of the Power of Law, and also Caste, and that is by Deirdre Mask. It’s called The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal about Identity, Race, Wealth and Power. It is fascinating. It’s not just US-based. She explores the hidden history and meanings of the street address that take her all the way from ancient Rome, to the slums in Mumbai, to contemporary US cities.

And this came out one month into the pandemic, which is so interesting, because a recurring theme in the book that reads very differently than I imagined mask intended is the role of street addresses in identifying and stopping epidemics.

Jeff Speck [00:37:38] I think because of my particular experience as a planner, it was less revelatory than some of the others that I was reading.

Anne Bogel [00:37:47] I can see that.

Jeff Speck [00:37:48] I think for a lay reader, it would be a good choice.

Anne Bogel [00:37:52] I found it fascinating and highly relevant to so many of the issues we’ve discussed today for right now. Jeff, what have you been reading lately that’s not planning-related?

Jeff Speck [00:38:03] A couple books that I would characterize as in between fiction and nonfiction would be The Overstory by Richard Powers.

Anne Bogel [00:38:09] Oh, interesting.

Jeff Speck [00:38:11] He’s maybe our best novelist. Galatea. 2.2 is perhaps the most moving book I’ve ever read by him. I mean, period. But it’s by him.

Anne Bogel [00:38:22] I don’t know that one. I’ve only read his more recent work.

Jeff Speck [00:38:24] It’s about English Master’s student who’s tasked with the job of teaching a computer to pass The Turing Test in AI. And it’s real pressure. It came out in the 90s. And it’s just, you know, what happens to the computer when it basically is fed a diet of every book ever. It is wonderful.

Anne Bogel [00:38:43] What happens to the computer, Jeff?

Jeff Speck [00:38:45] Well, I don’t want to give anything away.

Anne Bogel [00:38:49] I’ll have to read it.

Jeff Speck [00:38:50] And then Ministry of the Future, which you’ve probably read or heard about.

Anne Bogel [00:38:56] No, I have not read this one.

Jeff Speck [00:38:57] Ministry of the future it’s a best bestseller. It’s a very, very thick novel about climate change. And I learned more about climate change from that fiction book than I have from any other book. It’s deeply, deeply researched. The author was profiled in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

I go to New Hampshire and back… in New Hampshire because I’m building a cabin. And while I’m driving to New Hampshire and back, I listen to books. That’s my principle. Listening to book time as opposed to reading with my eyes. And Ministry of the Future took many trips but was well worth it.

And then another book I listened to and so much enjoyed driving, pure fiction, Beautiful Ruins. That is just a fun book of love story.

Anne Bogel [00:39:45] It is quite different from your other books you’ve referenced so far.

Jeff Speck [00:39:48] You know, I read it because I read an article about the best narrators in the world who Audible and others can script to read the books. And they describe this Italian American gentleman who was the best in the world, and he reads Beautiful Ruins, which of course takes place partly in Italy. So that was fantastic. I had to hear what the best narrator in the world sounds like. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Anne Bogel [00:40:16] I did not know that about Edoardo Ballerini, who I’ve listened to read Daniel Silva novels. But I did not know that about Beautiful Ruins. Now I feel like I missed out by reading it in print.

Jeff Speck [00:40:26] And then I just read A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers. And I like everything. Everything David Eggers writes that I’ve read I’ve enjoyed. A Hologram for the King was just recommended to me by a friend Liza. And she was right, that was a lot of fun.

Anne Bogel [00:40:41] Jeff, I know you’re on the record as saying you’ve spent a lot of time reading, planning, Twitter. But when you’re picking up books for your own enjoyment, what is it that you’re looking for?

Jeff Speck [00:40:50] It’s pretty random. But first of all, unfortunately, due to Twitter and just life, I don’t read anywhere near as much as your listeners are probably thinking until I’ve said this. And I don’t want them to think badly of me but I am constantly, constantly, you know, swept up by Twitter and other things that haven’t had to have reduced the amount that I’m reading.

But I read half nonfiction stuff that overlaps with the work that I do. So if it’s related to climate or to society, since planning is about societies, or anything related to the making of places, then I’m super interested in that.

And then fiction, I just want… You know, I want great writing. I don’t care if your plot is incredible, you know, if it’s written by Grisham or Dan Brown, I cannot read a page of it, even though his plots are miraculous. So it has to be thoughtful writing.

And I read nonfiction mostly because there’s so much stuff that fascinates me. But when I’m writing, I only read fiction because fiction writing is generally better written than nonfiction writing, and you want to get those feelings of… you want to get that music and those rhythms in your head.

Also when I write I try to… although Miami doesn’t really qualify, when I’m starting a book, I try to be in a foreign country where no one’s speaking English.

Anne Bogel [00:42:16] Oh, really?

Jeff Speck [00:42:18] Yeah.

Anne Bogel [00:42:18] That’s interesting. Tell me more about that.

Jeff Speck [00:42:20] Well, it’s isolating. Right? And I don’t want to hear normal spoken English when I’m writing because most of it is so bad. Although, as you know, good writing does sound like people talking and I try to write in a conversational way. You know, there’s so many different factors. I’m probably over-poetizing it. But-

Anne Bogel [00:42:40] I mean, your painting is a picture. Might as well make it grand.

Jeff Speck [00:42:42] Yeah, I mean, being in Italy, for example, which is where I wrote most of Walkable City, there’s fewer distractions, the phone’s less likely to ring, people aren’t going to bother me. But also I just like being isolated from everyday English while I’m writing.

Anne Bogel [00:42:58] Do you have any other writing projects on the horizon?

Jeff Speck [00:43:01] I have actually nothing that I’m writing right now because I just finished writing—I guess it was six months ago—and I am really sick of it.

Anne Bogel [00:43:13] That’s fair.

Jeff Speck [00:43:15] Whenever I finish a book, I think I have nothing else to say because I’ve hopefully had the good fortune of getting it out and then, you know, 10 years later I won’t feel that way. Or maybe five years. Maybe five years later I won’t feel that way.

So I want to say that I’m done because you know, writing isn’t my main activity. I want to say that I’m done. But I highly suspect that in five or 10 years, I’ll have something else to say. But right now, I’ve said it.

The other thing is I am writing op-eds and stuff around the material in the book. And I recently wrote an op-ed for The Hill. There’s a recent op-ed I wrote about traffic engineering that was intended for the broadest possible and the most connected political audience.

In fact, I think I can say an aide for John Fetterman called me subsequently and we talked yesterday about what the federal government can do to make our streets safer.

Anne Bogel [00:44:04] Yeah, well, that’s promising to hear. Jeff, I have to give you a thank you. It perhaps was in Walkable City Rules where you shared your practice of listening to your own audiobooks on planes, and it made your speaking better, which led to me listening to my own audiobooks on planes. And I’d like to think that it helps me a little bit but it never would have occurred to me to do that without you. I’d much rather be listening to somebody else’s words. But in the interest of delivering a great talk, I took your tip, and I’m grateful for it.

Jeff Speck [00:44:35] I mention that in the preface to Walkable City Rules. That’s the book we have not discussed. That’s a book that I would direct your audience to with the understanding that it’s meant for activists and professionals and others who are making change.

If you are listening to this recording and you are not just interested in reading a lively book but want to make your neighborhood better, the book that was designed to help you do that is called Walkable City Rules. And it breaks down the lessons of Walkable City, adds a ton more information, there’s a lot of charts, graphs, data, photographs.

The subtitle is 101 Steps to Making Better Places. And the book’s heart is 202 pages. Each rule is two pages that face each other with a rule at the end, such as, replace your signals with Always Stop signs. That’s one rule. And the information you might need to convince your city council or planning commission or city planner, engineer, whomever to make these changes in your community. So I would highlight that book for folks who are doing the work because that’s who it was written for.

Anne Bogel [00:45:46] Thank you. That’s good to hear, how to take that next step to action and not just reading. Jeff, you’re not in the middle of writing a book right now. Is there any book that you’re in the middle of reading?

Jeff Speck [00:45:55] I am actually in the middle of reading There Are No Accidents. I didn’t finish it yet. But I just completed, like last week, Hologram for the King. So I’m in between. What should I read next, Anne?

Anne Bogel [00:46:11] Oh, what should you read next?

Jeff Speck [00:46:15] What fiction book would you recommend to me? I was about to start Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Anne Bogel [00:46:21] Ah, that’s beautiful writing that will keep you busy for a long time.

Jeff Speck [00:46:24] Yeah, it’s a long book. He wrote All the Light We Cannot See. What’s his name?

Anne Bogel [00:46:30] Anthony Doerr.

Jeff Speck [00:46:31] I read a book by him, which he’s at the American Academy in Rome, where I too have been a visiting scholar and I loved it, of course, because I had a similar experience of living that incredible-

Anne Bogel [00:46:41] Oh, good. So you read his memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, where he talks about writing all the light, but he’s living in Rome with six-month-old twins.

Jeff Speck [00:46:49] So sorry. I’m about to read Cloud Cuckoo Land. Is there something else you’d direct me to first?

Anne Bogel [00:46:53] Sure. Oh, no, I don’t want to derail you from your [plan?]. Cloud Cuckoo Land sounds great. What I’m thinking of now is how I’ve been excited to see a whole host of novels that have been about urban planners and about cities. And, Jeff, I haven’t really enjoyed any of them

Jeff Speck [00:47:09] Interesting.

Anne Bogel [00:47:10] That is the direction I was going. Jeff, I do have a book for you.

Jeff Speck [00:47:14] Okay.

Anne Bogel [00:47:15] Okay. So you’ve read Four Seasons in Rome, which is the first thing that came to mind for me, that memoir by Anthony Doerr. And I don’t want to derail you from reading Cloud Cuckoo Land. If that is what is calling to your heart and your brain, by all means, go for it.

But your interest in literary, like really amazing writing, plus, you clearly have a sci-fi bend, I’m thinking of Emily St. John Mandel and her most recent release, Sea of Tranquility.

Jeff Speck [00:47:41] I’ve heard of that. I’m ready to get down.

Anne Bogel [00:47:43] It’s short. It’s closer to that Anthony Doerr memoir in length than to something like The Overstory or Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Jeff Speck [00:47:51] Okay, I’ll read it.

Anne Bogel [00:47:52] I hope you like it. So there are three main threads here. It’s kind of time travel element, which I did not expect as a seasoned Emily St. John Mandel reader from her. But there’s an exiled 18-year-old who hears sounds in the Canadian forest a long time ago. There’s an author whose book tour takes her to the moon, and a detective who ties all these tales together.

Jeff Speck [00:48:11] Yeah, I have a bent a little bit toward science fiction, it’s very human, and also towards comedy. One of my favorite books is A Confederacy of Dunces.

Anne Bogel [00:48:22] Oh, that’s so funny because I’ve been meaning to read that forever and I just actually downloaded the audiobook onto my phone, so that I would actually do-

Jeff Speck [00:48:28] Oh, it’s so good. You’re gonna love it.

Anne Bogel [00:48:31] I mean, New Orleans in the spring. Not that that’s the only thing that book is about. But it was a selling point for me.

Jeff Speck [00:48:36] That’s absolutely one of my favorites. Many of my favorite books are the ones that were the most work. I think my favorite book of all time was Magic Mountain, which is incredibly difficult. When Settembrini and Naphta are having their long conversations I basically tune out. But it is wonderful, wonderful.

Anne Bogel [00:48:53] Okay, a lot of work, but the payoff is there.

Jeff Speck [00:48:55] Yeah, absolutely.

Anne Bogel [00:48:57] Okay. Well, thank you for the nudge on Confederacy. Well, Jeff, I’m so glad we got to finally make this conversation happen. And I wish we could be having this conversation in person. A couple blocks from here, I want you to look at my road that I drive down every day that I want to walk on and say… first of all, validate me, this is what needs to change, right?

And second of all, how do we make this happen? I know that’s what you do professionally and I wish you were doing it in my community right now. Thanks so much for coming on.

Jeff Speck [00:49:25] I really enjoyed it. I was looking forward to it and I can’t wait to hear it.

Anne Bogel [00:49:34] Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Jeff. I’d love to hear what books have given fresh definitions to things you have always known. Tell us there in comments. Find Jeff at his website, Jeffspeck.com. See full list of the titles we discussed today at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com.

If you enjoyed our conversation today, I’ve got a backlist podcast recommendation for you. Check out Episode 289 with Neil Pasricha: a ridiculous plan to read more books.

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Thanks to the people who make this show happen. What Should I Read Next? is created each week by Will Bogel, Holly Wielkoszewski, and Studio D Podcast Production. Our community manager is Sarah Aeder. Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening. And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “Ah! how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.

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