Jeff Speck: Entrevista

City planner, consultor and author of bestselling books Suburban Nation, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step At a Time, and Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places. Jeff Speck has recently been in Monterrey, participating in the Placemaking initiative, talking with local authorities in San Pedro Garza García and Santa Catarina, and lecturing in Universidad de Monterrey.

Oscar Mendoza- For Louis Kahn, “served” spaces are those spaces in a building that are actively used, “servant” spaces being those spaces that serve the utilised. Do you think this approach could apply also for streets, so as to talk about "street habitability"? Does New Urbanism practices aim to shift the view of streets from mere "servant" spaces towards a mixture of "servant and served" places?

Jeff Speck- That’s a fascinating angle, as modern architecture is my first love and subject of study. I think you are getting somewhere, but there is more to say. Most public spaces in North America are streets, so if they are the Servant spaces, what is left as the Served spaces for enjoyment? The private realm. This is the great failure of sprawl, in which public places for everyone have ben sacrificed in favor of private places, like shopping malls, for those who can pay. New Urbanists understand that most streets (in non-industrial areas) are Served spaces that also perform a Servant function, but not to such an exclusive degree that it undermines their value as public space.
It is a uniquely modernist frame of mind to think that things and places must be sorted into opposite categories like Servant and Served, and it is antithetical to urbanism, which requires a sustained multivalence.

OM- You have recently visited Monterrey, and have been working here as a consultant for a couple of urban projects. You are aware of the inefficiency and general lack of vision in government urban planning. Do you think private real estate developers should aim to play a more leading role in city making?

JS- I have given advice on some urban projects in Monterrey but not actually done any consultant work yet. It is unfortunate that most governments (ours as well) do not play a more active role in the development of real estate. Given these circumstances, most US developers have performed unsustainably and without vision, creating principally car-dependent subdivisions that people only “want” because they have no real choice. But a few developers, especially in city centers, have been leading the way with truly urban, walkable, mixed-use projects that are hardly inferior to our historical inheritance. And new towns like Seaside in Florida show that it is possible to make new communities according to traditional principles.
The short answer to your question is that if private developers do not take the lead in making better cities, nobody else will.

OM- How meaningful can small scale urban projects be, in a context where there is practically no region-scale planning, such as regional or metropolitan transportation systems?

JS- That is the right question, because absent a regional plan that is based on good transit, it is fairly impossible to make sustainable cities, however nice and walkable an individual neighborhood might be. When the best parts of the city are most easily accessed by car, everyone who can afford a car will buy one, even if they live in walkable urbanism. But there are a couple of clear opportunities. First, in a place like Monterrey, with unbearable rush-hour traffic, cities can make transit preferable to driving by creating dedicated bus lanes (like in Bogota) that zip along quickly while drivers sit in traffic. All that is needed there is political will. Second, even a small mixed-use, walkable development of the New Urban sort, by including convenience stores, restaurants, sports facilities, and schools, can capture a large percentage of the car trips that would otherwise leave the development and clog highways. So, while the car is still needed for the regional work commute, it can otherwise be parked for the rest of the day.

OM- Analizing the opposite range of scale, do you consider microprojects such as tactical urbanism projects (parklets, temporary bike lanes, pedestrian plazas) or even individual building projects can be relevant in the making of a more habitable city?

JS- Every little bit helps, especially when it increases pedestrian safety. Most tactical urbanism projects address locations where, if traffic is calmed, lives will be saved. Each of these projects is important.

OM- When you were leading the design division at the National Endowment for the Arts, you helped run the Mayor's Institute on City Design program, where city leaders got together with designers in a room for a couple of days, trying to solve their cities most critical planning problems. This approach seems to make a lot of sense in highly hierarchical organizations (such as mexican urban planning and governance authorities) where educating some individuals at the top of the pyramid gives the impression of being easier than changing the culture of the rest of the society...

JS- Every nation needs its own Mayors’ Institute on City Design (see more at, which brings knowledge to power by bringing mayors together with leading designers to address their primary city planning challenges in an academic group setting. When I was at the NEA, I advised several other countries that were trying to start their own programs. Mexico could use one!

OM- In the same line of thought, you have played important roles both in theory (author, lecturer) and practice (designer and consultant) of urban planning. Would you think both approaches are equally important in the achievement of what you have called "urbanity"?

JS- Like many people, the biggest question I ask myself is which aspect of my work has the biggest impact per hour spent in terms of making change. I would say the books and TED talks are probably the most effective tools, since they spread the word most widely. One never knows how many people books or videos will reach, since they keep going after you stop. The local lectures in communities, like I did in Monterrey, also seem very impactful, because they inspire people to make changes after I leave, some of which I only hear about much later; there is a multiplier effect there as well. Finally, I think it is important to do individual design projects, which have much less multiplier effect, in order to actually know what works in the field, what practices are effective, what theories make sense in practice, and what challenges currently face our communities. If I didn’t do the projects, I wouldn’t have very much to write or lecture about . . . at least not with authority.

OM- Are walkable cities (and the rules you propose for achieving them) also helpful in the making of less inequal and spatially segregated cities? Would these practices help in every context, or are suburban zones and gated communities problems harder to solve than those in small block urban zones?

JS- I fear that design alone is not an adequate tool to fight the growing stratification of our society. We need politics too. That said, making safe, beautiful streets and public spaces benefits everyone, and making better sidewalks and cycling facilities benefits the poor disproportionately. In the US, for example, 39% of bicycle commuters come from the poorest 25% of workers, so there is a strong equity argument for making better, safer bike facilities.
But when it comes to the development of housing, design can make wealth integration possible or impossible, but it can’t make it happen. For example, a typical subdivision of all $500,000 houses ensures that people will only live with economically similar neighbors, which is a recipe for close-mindedness. A typical new-urban subdivision has houses and apartments at almost every price, which eliminates the enforced homogeneity. But because it is so much better than sprawl, even the smallest units can become expensive, since they are more desired. The result can be almost as much concentrated wealth as in the homogeneous subdivision. Because the market rewards excellence with a higher price, that has been the toughest nut for New Urbanism to crack, and the reason that government and politics have a role to play.

Oscar Fdo. Mendoza Lozano

Número 5. Enero - Abril 2019

Arquitectura y Seres Urbanos
Revista del Colegio de Arquitectos de Nuevo León