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.

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:

My Tedx talk: America 6.0

The video is now up of my Tedx talk from two weeks ago. Titled "America 6.0," it's my look at where we've been, where we're going and why. In 12 minutes. Enjoy and please share. 

Friday design wars

It's a Friday, which must mean it's time to argue about architecture. Here's some recent items from the internets that highlight the ongoing battles in design thinking and theory:

First, David Brussat worries about design direction within the CNU and lashes out at the creeping desire to accept contemporary architecture in New Urbanism:

The New Urbanism is really the old urbanism guided by principles of human scale, residential density, proximity and walkability. Before World War II, cities, towns and villages got built and grew over time with few rules. Builders used forms and practices that had worked well throughout the history of human habitat.
That has changed, of course. Civic evolution was interrupted after the war by an ideological revolution. Tradition was dethroned by modern planning and design, based upon the dubious machine-age idea that honest design looks utilitarian and that beauty is expendable.
So by now, what is new in cities and towns is believed by most people to be worse than what it replaced. An entire movement, historic preservation, arose to defend old places against modern architecture.
New Urbanists be warned: The modernists are on the march. They have purged preservation of its founding fear that traditional neighborhoods are under assault. They have staged administrative coups at about half of the few remaining architecture departments that feature a classical curriculum (the University of Portugal at Viseu, the University of Oregon, the Prince’s Foundation, in London). Yes, there are only three or four architecture programs with a classical curriculum left in the world.
Modernism is like a virus that uses subtle techniques to infect its host and achieve brutal results. Modernism does not want to befriend tradition. New Urbanism has long had the virus in its blood. Now, in Buffalo, it has broken out in a rash. Watch out! Not pretty!

Speaking of tradition, the Frick Collection shows that you can in fact expand a museum with classical architecture. Yes, despite the howls of many architecture theorists, it is possible to build a new building that looks like the old:

Image by Neoscape, Inc. and the New York Times

Image by Neoscape, Inc. and the New York Times

Frick officials said the new design, by Davis Brody Bond, the architecture firm behind the interior of the new National September 11 Memorial Museum, was intended to be sensitive to the integrity of one of New York’s beloved historic buildings. It would retain the Beaux-Arts vernacular of the original home and use the same Indiana limestone.
Officials at the Frick are taking a decidedly different approach from those at the Morgan Library & Museum, which is housed in another Beaux-Arts building, but whose new wing, completed in 2006, features a contemporary design of steel and glass.

In the "how to do it" world, architect Donald Powers writes in Builder magazine about alternatives to the pervasive "pork chop" eave. Thank God that talented architects like Powers are writing for Builder mag:

The dreaded "pork chop" eave. Drawings by Donald Powers

The dreaded "pork chop" eave. Drawings by Donald Powers

The pork chop evolved from generations of builders trying to imitate homes with classical entablature and traditional eave construction. But because so much common knowledge about traditional form has been lost over the years, so, too, has the ability of consumers and professionals to discern what looks genuine and what doesn’t.
Pork chop eaves happened because they were efficient and simple. They didn’t stray too far from a traditional solution. A logical builder will say, “It saves work—what’s the problem?” The problem is it looks terrible.

And finally, just for old time's sake, here's a tired old argument straight out of the Bauhaus about architectural design:

If the “Vintage Collection” merely made reference to older building styles but were clearly new builds, it would be a different thing. But there is a huge difference between making reference to an older style versus actually just plain copying an older style. The latter is lazy and opportunistic. Instead of moving architecture forward, it slows and even reverses the creative momentum of the discipline by recreating styles, forms and details that made sense decades ago, but have nothing to do with our current times. Architecture is supposed to be a reflection of what is happening in the world today, the current technology and the current ethos of our culture. When buildings become nothing but bad copies of buildings past, it sullies the entire creative process of designing buildings.

The theme that happens in every architectural critique like this is the zeitgeist. I previously wrote about that fallacy here, and suggested an alternative mindset. Just to remind architects that are so eager to dismiss "vintage" styles - those old styles aren't popular just because of nostalgia. They're popular because they engage us as human beings. You get the feeling that there actually, you know, might be humans involved somewhere and not machines or industry.