Walking the Walk

Urban design from the front lines

Kevin Klinkenberg

Using urban design to make our lives more enjoyable and create wealth

This site is for all those interested in the making of cities and towns, and especially the lives of the humans that inhabit them. Kevin Klinkenberg is an architect and urban designer who's practiced from coast-to-coast. He opines from here.

5 ways for today's civic leaders to get your minds right


I’ve had the good fortune to work with some terrific people while working in the planning and development world. In every community where I’ve worked, I’ve run across very dedicated, earnest people that are truly working to make their communities better. Whether they are elected officials, appointed commissioners, professional staff, business leaders or community advocates, it’s clear to me that most people that end up as leaders really are trying to do what’s best.

Of course, the world also has no shortage of nihilists, greedy opportunists and some downright nasty people. Fortunately most of them are confined to the ranks of Internet comment sections and Twitter. The people who bother to show up or get involved and work to improve a place generally are good stock.

But over the years I’ve also noticed that even the most well-intentioned people find themselves tripped up on old ideas or their own personal experience. I get it – the same thing happens to me as well. It’s hard to escape the inertia of life or our own biases. It takes tremendous discipline and energy to step back and be able to question your own views. Even when the evidence is clear, sometimes we just don’t want to believe it, because “that’s not how it is in my world.”

The thing is: leadership requires just that kind of longer view and the ability to understand changes that are taking place. When times and circumstances produce sweeping change, we’re given a choice. We can try and do the impossible, which is to resist the change. Or, we can look at new circumstances as an opportunity to reboot our thinking. You can probably guess which choice I prefer.

If you’ve read this blog at all, you probably know by now that I like the description that Chris Leinberger often uses of the two basic types of ways to build cities: walkable urban or drivable suburban. For about seventy years now nearly everything we’ve built has been the latter. In spite of the fact that we built only walkable places for thousands of years, the reality today is that the collective memory of that experience is basically gone. Very few people are alive that can remember a time when the norm was to build urban communities in the United States.

This was the norm for every city in America at one time, and we've forgotten what was involved with creating it.

But we've gotten really good at building this instead. This is the same street. 

Since the early 1990’s, we’ve seen a remarkable revival of interest in walkable urban. Often we’ve called it New Urbanism, because today’s version has inherent differences from what we routinely built 100 years ago. And since real estate is full of big, expensive, long-term products (you might call them buildings), the market swings tend to happen much more slowly than say, in smart phones. But if you pay attention, you can indeed see them happening. The market share for urbanism might still be small in your city or town, but the growing enthusiasm everywhere is real.

So here then is the crux of the issue, to restate: virtually no one is left alive from a time period when urbanism was the norm. From top to bottom of all of our various systems, whether that's economic development, policing, land use regulations, infrastructure, education, food and goods distribution and so much more, we’ve lost the knowledge of how to truly build walkable cities and towns. Yes, we have excellent designers who can draw what it should look like, but we have very few roadmaps for how to implement it quickly, affordably and in a way that pleases the market. Essentially all of our systems today are geared to build sprawl, for which they’re very efficient, but unfortunately those systems and mindsets don’t adapt well for urbanism. Now that the first wave of revival of interest in urbanism is over (it effectively ran from the early 1990's - 2008), we can look back and see the follies of trying to adapt suburban methods to urban communities. To be blunt: it just doesn’t work. We need new thinking and new models.

So as a leader in your community, either in the business or civic realm, now is the time to pay attention and reconsider some deeply held opinions. Human society has rediscovered urbanism and walking again, and I’m here to say that there’s no turning back. It's important to note that not everything can or will be urban, and your first task is to make sure you make sense of the possibilities in your own community. As we head into the next phase of change, I’d like to offer some observations on how to get your mind right and push that reset key for successful urbanism. Below are five over-arching thoughts to keep in mind, regardless of what plans you are undertaking, what rules you’re considering and what people you are talking with. These are the areas where I've seen good people get the most off-track.

  1. It's not all about cars. Yes, first and foremost this basic reality needs to sink in. If you’re planning and developing your urban neighborhoods and downtowns, stop obsessing about cars, traffic and parking. Even if, like me, you grew up with cars and parking and traffic, it’s time to shove that aside. These issues are much farther down the food chain than you realize. Don’t worry so much about what to do with people driving in from the outside. Your energy needs to be spent on creating the best possible walking environment for that segment of the population that really, really wants it. If you focus on that reality with your streets, public spaces and regulations, the market will respond. I’m not suggesting it will respond overnight or without bumps, but it will respond. Every parking lot you build and every lane that gives priority to fast-moving cars takes away from what fundamentally appeals to the residents of urban communities. Give this market your best chance, and you’ll see. But mostly, absolve yourself of worrying about parking!
  2. Let life happen. In many respects, urban living is the antithesis of the suburban lifestyle that many of us have known throughout our lives. In very successful suburbs, everything is highly controlled. The zoning and regulations are clear, precise and limiting. Life is segregated into discreet units – houses here, apartments there, shopping over yonder and workplaces even further away. It’s all very ordered and logical. Urban life is different, and we need to approach it with a different mindset. We need to learn to allow for human beings to make life happen. Our regulatory approach needs to be far, far different, and to learn not to be as stifling as it can be in suburbia. In fact, we should take the opposite approach: instead of wondering if we should allow something, we should say, why shouldn’t we? Planning was not meant to evolve into meddling into the daily affairs of every property owner, or the minutia of each person’s desires. It’s terribly damaging of urban communities when every every single project requires a board or commission approval (maybe even two or three), in addition to staff-level critique. Far too many cities of all sizes have fallen into this trap. We don’t have a commission review every approval for a building permit, nor should we. It’s time to put our trust back in simple, fair rules and let the professional staff interpret them. Perhaps then our planning and development commissions can think big-picture again, which is what they were intended for. Cities thrive on constant change and evolution, and we need to loosen up our minds to embrace that change. It’s what works for people that want urban living; not an urban-looking but fundamentally suburban-attitude approach.
  3. Don't wait for the big thing; act today. Look, I’m a planner by nature. Even if I hadn’t gone into urban planning, I’m sure I would have been a believer in the process. Long-term thinking is very important; in fact it is central to good governing. I firmly believe in the Iroquois principle of looking ahead and asking if what we’re doing will work for people and communities several generations from now. But I also believe in asking, “what can I do today?” And when the day is over, “what can I do tomorrow?” We will need to continue to do big and difficult things, but mostly we need to shift our minds to figure out how we can move ideas ahead now, instead of waiting for the big plan that may or may not be coming down the road. Life passes all-too-quickly; why should we suffer crappy streets and public spaces day after day after day because some magical change might be coming in a few years? Get tactical, use the scrum method; do it now.
  4. Size matters, but not in the way you think.  Sure, it’s a cliché that small is the new big. People love tiny homes, tiny art studios and micro apartments. But mostly, we need to value small increments of development. Some call it fine-grained. Others say small-scale. But the key is really about all of us remembering where we came from, and how we created great cities and prosperity to begin with. Smaller units of development are fundamental to making a great city, not the big, flashy, headline-grabbing projects. Small units enhance affordability, create wealth, and create life. Build enough of it, and you’ll be a prosperous place; much more so than the current big project that you’re considering. There’s no under-stating just how much work we all have to do in order to make incremental development easy, but it’s the most important work on your community’s “to-do” list.
  5. Human pleasure is not a frill. Here’s the thing – really great suburbs are all about enhancing the privacy that we crave at some point in the day or our lives. Done well, they are green, quiet, safe and a retreat from the busy world. But cities have a different focus. The good ones touch our senses, and encourage us to get out more in public. The great ones touch our basic humanity – our emotions, our love of beauty, how we revel in simple whimsy and yes, perhaps, even a little debauchery. It’s the whole point of making great, walkable places – not to save the planet or reduce energy costs. Those may be by-products, and good ones. But the point is human pleasure in our daily routines. The 20th century was obsessed with rational planning methods and efficiency. Let that all go, and imagine what it means to find beauty and wonder in the everyday.

Of course, every successful city absolutely has to do the basics well, such as law and order, cleanliness and transparency. These are essential, and in a certain sense go without saying. But if you really want your place to move beyond the basics and achieve long-lasting success, you’ll need to seriously consider where your own head needs to be. So take a step back, think about your own biases, and then start planning for tomorrow’s world today.

Going down the rabbit hole of sprawl repair

[Note: Grant Henninger kindly responded to my letter to Rob Steuteville on sprawl repair here. Below is my response.]

Dear Grant,

I appreciate your comments, and I also very much appreciate your dedication to your hometown. Would that everyone would have the same sort of long-term view!  I have a tendency to be a bit verbose, not to mention think through so many levels of details, so I apologize for the length of this response. As I got into it more, it sort of got away from me as a response directly to you, and more of an elaboration on my previous correspondence. So here goes-

Allow me to try and shift this conversation a bit more out of the abstract. These types of discussions can tend to quickly sound like political debate – all noise and vagaries, with very little of anything substantive that can affect people’s lives. I suppose that's one reason I find myself enjoying the Granola Shotgun blog so much - Johnny does an excellent job of relating specific situations.

Look, any individual can do what they want. God knows I’ve ignored plenty of advice, and you may completely ignore my thoughts here. That’s fine, and certainly your choice or anyone else’s. But I have learned a few useful things in doing this for two decades, and my desire is to share the lessons I’ve learned in this space. I want people to succeed, not fail, and desperately want us to produce more great walkable places in this country. The current supply is so pitifully small.

To some extent my evolving views are a product of age and experience, and to some extent they’re a product of living for a few years now in Savannah. When you actually get to experience a first-rate walkable city (at least a US version) day-in and day-out, it can't help but impact how you see the challenges and the opportunities.

As I reflect back on my own work over the years, a very high percentage has been on what some might call sprawl retrofit projects. Some of those have been with my favorite clients and people. The folks I’ve worked with in suburban municipalities are people in the profession that I have tremendous admiration for. The ones who bothered to hire someone like me are the ones trying really hard to make the world a better place. It's simply not part of my DNA to denigrate or mock them, or their work. Rather, I want them to find reward instead of frustration.

So, you'll not hear me say that anybody is wrong for pursuing their own idealistic goals of retrofitting sprawl. I am however saying that if you were a municipal client, I would point you towards where, in my opinion, you have the best chances for success. Or, if you were working for me, I would not let you do certain things. I would focus you in areas that I believe to be productive. All of that obviously leads to the next questions: what areas, and to what ends? That’s what I’d like to focus on today.

One of my key points from before is a simple declaration: let urbanism be urbanism, and let sprawl be sprawl.

First, can we please engage in some language clarification? Most people think of suburban and sprawl as synonyms. Clearly, they are not. Many suburbs were their own towns before the car era, and were simply absorbed by post-war growth. That’s entirely different from places built from the mid-60’s on, which were purpose-built for cars, and thus are correctly labeled as sprawl. That sprawl takes several different forms, which I previously outlined here.

Location is irrelevant; it’s pattern of development that matters. This may sound very basic to you, but many, many people get this wrong. As a simple example: Marietta is a suburb of Atlanta, but is also a county seat that’s existed for 200 years. It has a downtown that looks like this:

It also has a sea of development built later that looks like this.

The former is urban, the latter is sprawl – it matters not that it’s all today a “suburb” of Atlanta.

Once you understand this basic fact, you can dive deeper into the different types of sprawl. That’s why I wrote the piece on the four types – to get into more nuance about what people often perceive of as just one big “thing” out there. And it’s in that nuance where we can discover what deserves the attention of well-intentioned people and what does not.

Now, intentions are one thing, but return on investment is also critical. For an individual, there's a "return on investment" that is very personal in nature. If you're someone advocating big changes in anything, you likely have a set of measures that is above and beyond the financial. Where you invest your own time is related to a sense of personal satisfaction, or perhaps a sense of moral duty. I won't minimize that at all, especially since I've been know to suffer from that affliction throughout much of my own life.

But for communities there’s a real, tangible financial side. The Strong Towns blog often gets into this issue, and does it well. Given our understanding of the different types of development patterns, then, here’s what I’d like to do: draw a graph. Sometimes for me it helps to draw these things out, since I’m a visual person. I begin this process by listing all of the different types of patterns, both urban and sprawl. Then, based on my experience and understanding, I rated each of them relative to the level of investment risk and the probable financial return for a municipality. Investment risk in this case really means how much public investment is needed in order to make a type of pattern into a high-quality, successful walkable neighborhood. So, for example, big-city urban requires a fair amount more investment than small-town urban, but the returns are also much higher. Standard suburbia requires a correspondingly very large investment, but the return is more on the level of small-town urban in most cases. So then, if we’re looking to discuss what is a good investment for a community relative to the likelihood of making a real difference in our communities and in people’s lives, it shakes out this way in my opinion:

The area I circled correlates to lowest risk and highest return. It's my humble opinion that every community (and frankly every individual) should logically look for that combination. And this is not to say: don’t ever work in the various other types of settlements. It’s simply a reflection that it’s increasingly risky, depending on the pattern, and the return doesn’t necessarily correspond to the risk. Again, that doesn’t mean – don’t ever do this. It means we need to go into the discussion and problem with eyes wide open.

So then, what “to do?” That’s the logical question, for much of sprawl. And while I generally loathe generic rules (since so much of planning and development is specific to a place and a market), I’ll lay a few suggestions out here as starting points. Keep in mind that this advice is directed mostly at people who either are, or desire to be, leaders in their community. This is not really me telling an individual, “go do this and don’t do that,” although I’m happy to have that conversation on a personal basis.

For cities and towns, then, I’d suggest these priorities for your “suburban” areas, which all come a priority level down from the "urban" areas circled in yellow in the chart:

1st Order:

  • If you have a downtown, work to make it successful as its own walkable neighborhood. Whatever pre-1940’s bones you have are the most logical place to begin. Master plan it in detail, code it correctly, and start implementing immediately. In many suburban communities, this essentially takes the form of "small-town urban."
  • Reform your own greenfield development processes and rules, if you have such land available. The future can always be changed much more easily than the recent past, and let’s face it – in most US markets we’re going to continue to expand outward regardless of what many planners might desire. Let’s at least get the new stuff right. The logical place to start is by planning and platting as "small-town urban" and allowing for growth and change.
  • Build a network of bike paths, either on or off-street. In suburban areas, I’m far less dogmatic about the importance of on-street bike routes. But, in any situation, this is an inexpensive, simple way to provide transportation options for your residents. Biking pairs very well with urbanism, but it also enhances the lifestyle of suburban residents. And, over time, a really good network can transform how a place is experienced.

2nd Order:

  • Carefully consider areas of Pre-Interstate suburbia that are capable of urbanizing. Work closely with the public to show how such neighborhoods can evolve successfully into something more diverse and walkable. As you study these early post-war suburbs, you'll quickly notice differences between some that can successfully make the transition and others that may never be able to. Keep in mind that for the general public, this is going to be a tough sell, and you'd better approach this with honesty, transparency and good data.
  • If you have large office parks or regional malls, work with the owners (usually a single entity) to help transform them into town centers. These sites generally are large enough to give some sense of critical mass for walkability. Just don’t expect them to be more than isolated islands of walkability, and also don’t expect this to be easy. Some owners may want to pursue this route, but many simply don’t believe it’s viable. Even the successful examples will still require copious amounts of structured parking, due to their location in car-centric sprawl.
  • Work with the owners of small retail centers, especially at major intersections, to inject some housing and public space. Be prepared for opposition from the public and owners to take these steps, but if you find a couple, it’s a worthy endeavor. Again – just don’t expect nirvana from these, since it’s entirely likely that at least one side will be a terrible stroad.

3rd Order: (in other words, WAY down the list)

  • Reform your stroads into something else, such as a transit-oriented corridor.

In my own personal opinion, I hold out very little hope for some of the fantasies that I see drawn for standard suburbia. This is not meant to be a Debbie Downer; it's just been the reality after going through the wars for a fair amount of time. Concepts such as turning cul-de-sac, disconnected subdivisions into mixed-use or even mixed-residence neighborhoods; making long stretches of pad-site retail stroads into transit-oriented urbanism; or connecting together broken street networks - I just see very, very little of that actually happening in the future. The examples that do happen will struggle to be anything better than C+ urbanism, as I noted before, and will be far more car-dependent than even the lowest density small-town urbanism. I take it as more likely that some of those types of places will simply collapse of their own accord over time, rather than be repairable.

When it comes to thinking positively about the future (as I’m generally inclined to do, despite the paragraph above), it’s very easy to get caught up in beautiful renderings and compelling personalities. We look at drawings of sprawl repair and think -  wow, something really can be done for this crap! But even when drawn by the best, it’s a very different task than balancing the time and money investment relative to the reward.

In general, that really is the theme that I take away from much of the Strong Towns movement, and how I see today and the future. We need to focus talk of planning and development on more realistic cost/benefit scenarios. I’m not optimistic that most places are going to have a deluge of public money available to create place, and I’m also concerned about what sort of private financing will be available as interest rates begin to rise again. The short version: we’re all going to have do more with much less, and so our investments need to be strategic. We won’t have as much luxury to make expensive mistakes.

This is all also not to mention the sheer hubris that we SHOULD try to change it all, for whatever reason. The environmental arguments have never really convinced me, to be perfectly honest, and it’s increasingly obvious that technology will in fact change our perceptions of this realm. More on that another time. But the idea that every place should be walkable, well, I’m sorry, but no. It’s a big world full of choices, and who are we to say every choice should be urban just because (insert your reason)? Many people really do like their sprawl. As Chris Leinberger astutely notes, we only need 5% of the land area to accommodate the demand for walkable urbanism, anyway. We should focus on those areas where we can do it really, really well. We can’t possibly fix it all; the math (and the politics) just doesn’t work.

So to summarize a long-winded note: changing a 4 acre parcel off the stroad into an attractive, walking-ish development is not a bad thing. If that's important to you and your world, go for it. Make it beautiful and pleasurable. Just don’t expect it to be much more than that, ever. Don’t expect it to fundamentally change the DNA of the sprawl that encircles it. The only route to that kind of change is to fundamentally alter the pattern, and in most places that’s just not going to be worth the expense or the time. Since that is the sad reality of so much of what is built on the ground, my advice is to come to a Buddhist acceptance of what is, and focus your energy in the upper left-hand quadrant of my highly-scientific graph.

Look, I know reasonable people will disagree with me. These are my opinions and thoughts after working in the field for many years, and spending plenty of my own time tilting at windmills. I hope everyone keeps trying to make their own towns, no matter where they fall on the urban to suburban scale, into better, more livable places. In my own view, I still think the winning formula for urbanists is to let urbanism be urbanism and let sprawl be sprawl. It's the shortest route to success, politically an easy sell and oh by the way, it will work. If you are committed to living or working in a place that is sprawl, then my suggestions are to start with what I outlined above. Just, please, be strategic. Think very hard about the return on investment, and the real-world impact on people's lives. 

All the best,


Your defense of sprawl repair

Note to readers: In the spirit of the pre-computer world, I’m going to pen this as a letter to Rob Steuteville of Better! Cities and Towns. If he or anyone else is so inclined, I invite you to continue a discussion using this lost art of civilized communication.

Dear Rob,

I wish I had more time to write a lengthy response to your piece that you reposted to Build a Better Burb. But, alas, life has been getting in the way of my writing, so I’m going to just offer some fairly-quick thoughts.

The two points that I’d emphasize right up front are this: 1) I’m not saying “not ever” but I’m definitely saying “not now” when it comes to working on sprawl retrofit; and 2), it’s important when sifting through “what to do” that we realize what is rational versus what is emotional. When it comes to spending our own precious time and resources, we have to try (fruitless as it may be at times), but desperately try to be rational.

When you say that “It has too much impact on people’s health, social lives, and the economies of communities” – I basically agree. Obviously, I agree with the diagnosis. It’s why I do this. But, where I diverge is what the prescription should be. It’s just far too difficult and expensive of a chore to make nearly any suburbia post-1970 into something that corrects those ills. At some point in life we all have to make choices, and though those choices may be difficult, they are critically important nonetheless. So I'll repeat from before: there’s simply no upside to making un-walkable places into C- versions of walkable cities. Making marginal improvements to driveable suburbia really isn’t worth the effort. It actually builds mistrust since people’s lives haven’t been transformed like we’ve promised they will be. It gives the entire movement a black eye, and doesn't help us in our most important effort: continuing to build the constituency of people that support walkable, urbane places.

Hey, it’s fun to say, “we take on hard challenges. We are smart and tough!” I'm all for a good fight or challenge as much as anyone. In fact, as you know, most of my career hasn't been working in red-hot markets or with nationally-famous developers. It seems that back in the day we damn-near specialized in working through exceptionally difficult projects, and just figuring out a way. Most of the time, my own ego drove me to say, "Hell yes I'm smart enough to make that project work." But here's the thing: being smart and tough also means knowing which battles are not worth fighting, and which are worthy of digging deep. As a somewhat-older guy now, it's easier for me to see that achieving success is more important than just spoiling for a fight. More on that another time.

I have to say that I'm glad that you mentioned Belmar in Lakewood, CO as a sprawl repair example. I’ve been to Belmar many times, and even toured people around it. I think it’s great. In fact, I’d say it’s arguably the best dead-mall retrofit in the country, with an incredible development team.

Belmar - Lakewood, CO

Belmar - Lakewood, CO

But Belmar is also a great case study in the challenges. Even with its success, it remains today an island in a sea of sprawl – a sea that will take many, many decades to change. That is, if it even can change. The bordering arterials are still terrible stroads. Nothing around it in the last decade has even marginally urbanized to become walkable.

Belmar in context, via Google Maps

Belmar in context, via Google Maps

In the timespan it will take for this whole area to become even a C+ version of walkable urbanism, good and talented people could successfully redevelop a dozen older neighborhoods or build several new towns on greenfield sites. We could positively impact the lives of tens of thousands of people. OR, we could focus on painfully changing this corridor to improve the lives of hundreds of people, at great expense of time and money.. To continue down the road of sprawl repair at that point is beyond rational – it’s ego and emotion.

But again, I should make sure to clarify. I’m not saying, “not ever.” A time will hopefully come when it makes eminent sense to work especially on the pre-interstate suburbs, and maybe even some suburban corridors. Just - not now. It’s not worth the time, the financial or political risk and we have too many high-quality opportunities that would be stupid to pass up. Let’s not be the people that screw up by spreading ourselves so thin in so many different areas. Most cities in this country are not at all like DC, New York or San Francisco. They desperately need attention to their old, urban neighborhoods that really were built well originally. And, they still need great greenfield examples to show people another way to meet the market demand. Please, let’s keep doing more of that, and not tilt at windmills.

If I were to offer a retort to myself, I would say, “but people of good intention are already working in suburbs and trying to make the world better. It sounds like you're telling them to just give up or move somewhere else. That's not just ridiculous, it's also impractical.” I find that to be a very fair line of inquiry. I loathe talking in the abstract for long, and my personality is certainly one that focuses on "yeah, but, what do I actually do?"  So, I intend to reflect deeply on that in my next correspondence.

With best regards,


P.S. I sure hope you weren't a Mets fan.

Way to go Royals!

Way to go Royals!


We don't really care about car accidents

Last week, I had one of those experiences where a number stunned me. Maybe you’ve run across that – a statistic at the right time and the right place that really stopped and made you think.

Here’s the interesting part, at least for me: I know this number. Or at least, I know the much larger version of it. As a planning & transportation geek, I understand that each year, in the US, about 35,000 people are killed in car crashes, and about 2,000,000 are injured. I’ve known those numbers for years, and relayed that information in numerous presentations.

But for some reason, last week, while driving on I-95, a particular version of that statistic caught my attention. The number was on one of those electronic signs, above the roadway. You know them, they look something like this:

The sign said:

”716 dead on Georgia roadways this year. Arrive Alive.”

716. By mid-July. Perhaps it’s because it was in blazing numbers above the roadway, or perhaps I was just in a mood to pay attention. But it got me. 716 divides out to more than 100 people per month. Just in Georgia.

I can’t help but think about the comparisons to other modes of travel. For example, I’m fairly certain that if a plane fell out of the sky and killed 100 people, once a month, no one would be buying plane tickets. Airline travel would be decimated and we’d have daily news stories about WHAT TO DO.

Earlier this year, 8 people died in a tragic Amtrak wreck in Philadelphia. 8 people. Congressional hearings were held. Katie Couric tweeted it was “scary.”

I don’t mean to minimize the deaths of 8 people, but 8 people die every three days on our roadways in just this one state. More than 1,200 will die this year. There are 253 cities in Georgia that have fewer than 1,200 total residents. If the national ratios remain consistent, that also means about 6,000 people will be injured in Georgia every month or 72,000 in a year. Eleven cities in the entire state have more than 72,000 people. Wonder why there are so many ads for lawyers specializing in injury accidents?

But in the end, after all the numbers, after all the gruesome crashes, with countless little crosses lining the roadways, here’s what I’ve learned: We don’t really care. We don’t really care how many people die or are injured. We have come to accept that it’s just part of life in modern America. It’s no different than the sun coming up in the morning, or the tides rolling in and out every day. It just is what it is.

Even if we did care, we wouldn’t agree on what to do about it or wouldn’t want to do the things that would make the numbers drop.

We think, for example, that the answers are safer cars, wider roads and laws against texting. What we don’t talk about is that the “safer” we make cars and the wider we make the roads, the more we enable bad behavior and faster driving. And to put it bluntly, speed kills. Don’t even make me bring up the other obvious point, which is that we’ve designed our communities to compel driving for each and every activity of life. Oops – you just made me bring it up.

The truth is, driving is dangerous. It’s the leading cause of death for nearly everyone under 35. It’s probably the most dangerous single thing you do every day. The only truly effective ways to save lives are to make driving optional instead of a mandatory fact of life, to narrow roads so as to slow speeds, provide great public transportation options and enforce strict penalties for bad driving behavior.

But the truth is, we won’t do those things, except in a few “special” places where we’ve deemed it’s acceptable. Even then, it’s very difficult. The gnashing and wailing of teeth when it’s proposed to slow down cars or prioritize walking and biking is something to behold. Those objections are somewhat fewer today than say, ten years ago, but still they dominate.

It’s also not that we don’t have the money or that making the right changes wouldn’t actually work. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Making our world less about driving everywhere quickly is far cheaper than the alternative. It saves us money in the short-term and the long-term, which is kind of a win-win, isn’t it?

So, we can do these things, we can make our cities, towns and countryside safer. We can provide real, meaningful options of how to get around. We have the money; we have the know-how. Now, we just need to care.


4 Types of Sprawl

A couple of weeks ago I shared my thoughts on the idea of "sprawl retrofit" which also sometimes goes by the name "sprawl repair" or "suburban retrofit." Today it's time to take a step backwards and define what I actually mean by the very broad term "sprawl" since there's often so much confusion on the topic. 

In simple terms, I agree with how Chris Leinberger breaks out "walkable urbanism" and "drivable suburbia." I think this is a very good starting point, since it accurately describes the two very basic systems of how our cities our built. One system is essentially built around people on foot (or bike, since the two are mutually supportive) and the other is built around people moving in cars. 

Each broad system then has its sub-categories, which much more accurately describe the nuance of our actual built environment. Walkable places, for example, range from "small-town urban" up to "big-city urban." The scale and context differ, as do the design, policy and management solutions. The result is a range of living environments that we're capable of producing, all of which are fundamentally built around walking and biking. I've written about how to describe this taxonomy previously here. Note that today I'm going to give a touch more differentiation to that earlier breakdown.

Drivable suburbia, or sprawl, also is not just one, big, lumpy "thing." It's fine to use the basic term as a starting point, but it's important to also see the nuance that is found in the typical suburban environment. Here's how I would categorize four types of sprawl, then, each with aerial images to help illustrate the idea:

1. Pre-Interstate suburbia. (PIS)

2. Standard subdivision suburbia (SS) I called this Late Suburbia previously.

3. Master-plannned communities (MPC's)

4. Rural / Exurban sprawl (RX)

Last week, I mentioned that I think only one of the four types is worthy of any time or effort by urbanists. In my opinion, that's #1 - pre-interstate suburbia. And, I'd caution - not everywhere, in every community.

My rationale is pretty simple - most PIS was still built with reasonably-connected street networks, and not based on the mile-square grid that came into being with the interstate system. The streets are thus narrower, the lot pattern is smaller, and it's not at all impossible to imagine quite a bit of it evolving into a nice, B- version of small-town urbanism. The commercial parcels are generally small enough to convert to neighborhood centers, and some of these places even have a semblance of public parks and public spaces that can support walking and biking. The earlier it was developed, the better, since the homes are also small and thus can reach the affordable needs of those who want to take on smaller mortgages and rebuild or build up slowly. In essence, this era of suburbia was built before the era of "bigness" came into full flowering.

The major obstacle for these places evolving tend to be in the realm of zoning and legal code mechanisms. With quality plans and form-based codes, these could have substantially more housing diversity, and thus more affordability and wealth-building capabilities. Doing so would further enable the commercial sites to redevelop into fully-functional walkable neighborhood centers, and give these places a solid future. In some cases, the street networks and public spaces could also use rethinking, and fortunately those would likely be inexpensive repairs in the whole scheme of things. Also, since they tend to be adjacent to the pre-war urbanism a city had, they benefit from location and can support the urban revitalization of our cities and towns.

But the reality is, the political obstacles to making these kinds of changes are just too high today nearly everywhere. For most people living in PIS, the changes would be too radical and too urban. I do think in time that will change, especially with the success of the older urban areas, but for now in most places it's a very difficult proposition. Which is to say, that's all the more reason to focus on what we can make great today, and move to PIS later.

In terms of the other three sprawl categories, my feeling is that they don't merit the time and talent of new urbanists or urban advocates. As I argued previously, the rewards are just too little while the risks and effort are too much. SS - the standard, large-scale separation of uses that has come to define much of what we know as suburbia, is where so much energy and hand-wringing has been spent in recent years. It's organized around large arterial roadways spaced at one mile minimum separations, with large separate pods of garden apartments, differing kids of residential subdivisions, retail centers, office parks and shopping malls. Bigness, to the core.

Sure, it's a good thing if a regional mall or office park in SS redevelops into a walkable center. I've always thought that those types of evolutions were logical, and am not saying those are somehow "bad." We already have some solid examples to learn from and see how it can work. But ultimately these types of re-dos have two major problems: one is that they exist as urban islands in vast seas of drivable suburbia, and secondly that they simply aren't diverse. By that I mean, they are places that are generally in the hands of a single owner, or very few owners, and lend themselves to big-scale projects and interventions. There's no place or opportunity to create the kinds of gradual change that actually makes for great human settlements. To put it bluntly, these are consumable products, and their owners will turn on a dime to whatever they think is the prevailing market trend. Don't be surprised for a minute if some of our current "lifestyle centers" are torn down completely in 15 or 20 years to be replaced by the latest, greatest idea for big developments. In essence - they don't need you and your exceptional urbanist skills.

Type 3 is similar. These are big, sometimes enormous developments, often controlled by one entity. The opportunity for small-scale intervention is essentially nil. They rarely connect to anything beyond their own boundaries. But I would say this about MPC's: most are already more walking and biking-friendly than most urbanists will give them credit. Hilton Head Island has 65 miles of off-street bike paths that are pleasant and well-used - how many miles does your city have? Now, these places may have housing "product" all separated into their own pods, but these are still better than SS Suburbia. In fact, they're better because they were created in reaction to SS Suburbia - they are the next evolution of it. It's also conceivable that the commercial portions of these could evolve into something more walkable, much like Haile Village Center did on Haile Plantation. Today, Haile Village is still arguably one of the best TND's built, but it's nestled into a 1,700 acre MPC. For many people, that is just enough walkability to suit them, and the path for urbanists to create even more is fraught with serious difficulty. Again, in terms of where to spend precious time, I would advise against it unless you're on the payroll of the controlling entity. 

Type 4 - rural sprawl, is just plain silly for urbanists to wade into. Again, we need to realize that a portion of the market really likes this. Some folks VERY much desire the seclusion of this type of living, and are willing to do what it takes to enjoy it. My experience tells me that many people in rural sprawl don't want little hamlets or villages, no matter how great they might look on a rendering or a plan. They in fact want isolation in the woods, and don't mind the driving it takes to get to and from it. Some folks choose this in order to enjoy quiet solitude, while others enjoy the opportunity to grow something on a few acres or have animals. And, shocking as it may sound, quite a few people just don't like cities or being around other people. That is ok; why must we insist that it be otherwise? Now don't get me wrong - I enjoy quaint little hamlets and rural villages that I've visited in so many places, and it would be MY preference if I lived in the country. But then, I don't. I live in the city, and prefer being around people and urban life.

And let's get real. RX affects such a small percentage of people - why bother? Let's spend our time and energies in places that can impact the lives of thousnds or hundreds of thousands in a positive way, instead of making enemies of relatively small numbers of people that want a large-lot retreat from humanity. What does it really gain us? If there's a chance to control enough acreage and do a true town, go for it! But the fantasies of turning every large-lot sprawl area into rural urbanism needs to be put to bed.

So there you have it - four types of sprawl, each with its own context, and with some thoughts on their futures. Now, go forth, good people, and make the world a better place. But before doing so, ask yourself, "what do you really want to spend your life working on?" 

Car City, USA Redux

From Twitter, earlier today:

When I wrote KC: Car City, USA last year, some people took issue with my characterization. This week's news of the American Royal bbq moving to Arrowhead Stadium only confirms the byline. Taking a great event and moving it to a suburban site essentially because of parking is planting a big flag in the ground that says "we care more about cars than city life." I find it especially sad because some creative thinking to make it a urban event, in the city, of the city, about people mingling, walking, smelling, eating, drinking in the greatest bbq city in the world, would be an event of international importance. Can you even imagine how incredible it would be every fall to essentially shut the city down for a weekend for such a festival? But alas, no, the gods of parking and easy freeway access win again. If I still lived there, I'd be among the first in line to boycott the new location, and start a counter-festival the same weekend, in the actual city. Year one might have 6 teams and a keg of beer, but like First Fridays, I predict it would grow quickly and be it's own showcase event. 

Markets aren't always local

There've been so many articles lately on gentrification that it's been dizzying. Most have covered ground that people have written about for years, and repeat tired cliches on all sides of the issue. I confess to be tired of the old arguments, precisely because I think we're in a different era now with different concerns than 20 or 30 years ago. I even strongly dislike the term "gentrification" since it's a British term describing a particularly British phenomenon - then applied to American cities.  Personally, I think Megan McArdle's recent writings have been the best - especially this, this and this. The last one is outstanding, and it's interesting of course that someone who's not a planner has a better grasp of this than many planners. At any rate, below is a tweetstorm from today regarding another aspect of the conversation.

Fun with Finance

I've been busy enough lately that it's been difficult to find time to write. That's a good thing, but I'm not proud enough to say: I miss the blogging. In any case, I am still fairly active on Twitter @kevinklink if you'd like to continue the conversation about walking and making successful places for humans. Here's a small taste of something from earlier this year:

Upcoming speaking appearances

I haven't had much in the way of time to travel and speak in the last 6 months (nor blogging for that matter), but I do have a few upcoming in case you're in the Orlando or DC/Baltimore area. Thanks to all of those who've helped set these up, I think they'll be very interesting and entertaining. Contact me offline if you are interested in having me come your way. Here's the details:

"Why I Walk: the shift to a walking and biking culture"  - presentation and book signing

January 14, 6:00 PM  Orlando, FL

Canvs:  101 S Garland Ave, Suite 108, Orlando, Florida 32801

Facebook signup page


"Why I Walk: the rise of the walking and biking culture" - presentation & book signing

January 29, Noon, Washington, DC,

Torti Gallas & Partners: 1300 Spring Street #400, Silver Spring, MD 20910


"Why I Walk: the rise of the walking and biking culture" - presentation & book signing

January 30, 12:15 PM, Baltimore, MD

In concert with the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference

Hilton Baltimore Hotel, Key Ballroom 12, 2nd Floor

2014 - what a wild ride

Well, it's that time of the year again where we pause to both reflect on the past and look forward to the future. And, I've definitely found that the old cliche is true: time seems to speed up with age. This year just flew by.

For me, the year included time spent trying to build a car sharing company (with not much success), a new website and look to the blog, a whole new approach to blogging that included multiple daily posts, a TedX talk in the spring, the publishing of my first book, Why I Walk: Taking a Step in the Right Direction, and a new job in July as Executive Director of the Savannh Development and Renewal Authority

Oh, and yeah, I also got married and we adopted a dog, Moose (see my Instagram account for more on him.) Cue me breathing deeply now.

Sooo - what to make of it all?  is this just a big year of transition?

I don't think so, actually. Any more, it seems like every year is a transition in some important way. We all experience downs, ups and big changes whether we realize it at the time or not. And, we also live now in a world that just moves so fast. I remember one of my favorite lines from the ever-present on tv Shawshank Redemption, where old Brooks gets out of jail at last and says, "the whole world just went and got itself in a big damn hurry." Brooks was right, and the truth is it never really slows down for long. We're hard-wired for it more and more, despite our pleas otherwise.

As to 2015?  I hope that each of you is in a place where you're as excited as I am. The opportunities for redevelopment here in Savannah are exceptional, and I'm eager to get more accomplishments under the belt of SDRA. I hope at some point to begin blogging more regularly, since I enjoy it and love the conversation with all,of you that read. And, I think we'll have some good stories to tell from here in the Lowcountry.

if you're interested in having me speak in your town, please don't hesitate to drop me a line. I have January appearances lined up in Orlando (the 14th), DC (29th) and Baltimore (30th). Time is tight, but if it fits in my schedule I'll work with you. 

To all, I hope for a prosperous and happy 2015, and one that involves a lot of walking and biking.




Click on the image for more info

Click on the image for more info

I've got a few events coming up this fall and into the winter. Below are the scheduled events as well as tentative. If you're interested in having me come your way, please drop me a line at kevinklinkenberg@gmail.com. I do need to schedule at least a couple of months in advance generally, but I promise puppies, unicorns and free ice cream for all.

October 28th - Kansas City, MO: The Center for Architecture & Design

November 1st - Savannah, GA: Barnes and Noble (signing only)

November 9th - Savannah, GA: Flannery O'Conner Childhood Home

Pending: Orlando, FL; Charleston, SC; Washington, DC

The case for unremarkable buildings redux

Last week Strong Towns had a blog post about the benefits of just being "nice" for a community. It reminded me of this piece I wrote a while back - reposted and linked here for your enjoyment.


A great way to spend an hour

Joe Minicozzi talks about cities, taxes, economic development, beer and Asheville. It's a very entertaining and enlightening hour to spend - I highly recommend it for anyone remotely interested in these topics: