Walkability: ‘new urbanism’ and a dominate downtown

Photo by Charlene Belew

Charlene Belew
Managing Editor

City Planner and Urban Designer Jeff Speck took the stage as the third Academic Festival speaker with a variety of events to spread the message of walkability and sustainability in a community.

Various events consisted of a student session and a public session on Thursday, March 12, and a special session with the Lawton City Council on Friday, March 13.

Speck – who has served as Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2007 – spoke about four aspects during his evening presentation “Towards a Walkable Lawton,” that will help provide a bustling, more viable downtown area. These concepts include the walking environment being useful, safe, comfortable and interesting.

“If you want to get people in America to walk … the walk or the bike ride has to be as good as or better than the car ride,” Speck said. “If you design around the automobile, it makes you dependent upon it.”

As far as safety, Speck didn’t necessarily focus on crime. According to him, the largest safety problem is that of the automobile, and the variety of crashes, wrecks and deaths that are caused by it.

He said with a safer area to walk or ride bikes, such as sidewalks and bike lanes that are protected from main streets with parking, encourages more and more people to walk. He said a repercussion of this is that when there are large groups of people, crime is less likely to happen, especially in front of spectators.

“You have the proper skeleton to have a healthy body put on top of that,” Speck said in regards to Lawton’s layout. “You aren’t hindered until you get downtown.”

A majority of smaller cities are grandfathered into the design of “urban sprawl,” and a lot of larger, more sustainable cities use “new urbanism,” or a tighter zoning scheme to encourage citizens to walk from place to place, Speck said during his presentation.

“New urbanism is about being of your place,” Speck said. “A walking city is a successful city.”

Speck swayed the audience, saying connecting Lawton’s downtown area, complete with houses and main streets, to the heart of what he referred to as the “spaceship mall,” in a more effective way will bring a bustling, beautiful area.

“The more houses in the downtown area, the more walkable it becomes and then other things start to fall in to place … it is really the sweet spot,” he said.

As a writer and an architect, Speck said a lot of the main roads around Lawton are oversized, stating that a two-laned street can handle about 10,000 cars a day.

He offered suggestions to where improvements could be made throughout the city, including 6th Street, University Drive and C Avenue.

With a laugh, Speck said C Avenue takes the cake in this city with a design for 25,000 cars daily that barely traffics 2,830 per day.

“Excess capacity on asphalt is a waste of space and dangerous,” Speck said.

To combat this, Speck offered up ideas of creating bicycling lanes and on-street parking, saying they would serve as “an investment that invites people, cars and bikes.” He said a majority of these overly large streets could be downsized and safer driving would be encouraged.

“In urban environments, people drive the speed they feel most comfortable at,” Speck said, noting that a 12 to 13 foot wide lane is made for highway speeds of up to 70 miles per hour.

Speck, previously given the key to the City of Lawton, joked during his presentation that the key would be taken back from him with one of his final suggestions: ending the construction on Ft. Sill Blvd. Speck said the city is acquiring money for what they call “safety” when in actuality, it is more dangerous and better options are available.

“You are spending so much more money to kill people,” Speck said, with an immediate applause from the audience.

“It’s become, for me, about saving lives, but I see the bigger picture too and that’s to make a place successful.”

He suggested to the mayor to tally automobile related deaths on Ft. Sill Blvd. from the last five years, and if the construction continues, to tally similar deaths on the same street for the next five years. He guaranteed an increase in lost lives.

Speck also knocked the idea of “sharrows,” or biking symbols seen in roads around town indicating that drivers and bikers should share the road. According to him, sharrows are something of the past and are no longer effective.

“If you invest in real bike infrastructure, that really welcomes the bicycle,” he said. “That’s how you build a bicycling community.”

Ultimately, his solution was smaller widths of driving lanes and real bike lanes.

“A pedestrian culture will transform your city,” he said. “‘Good enough for Lawton’ is a time of the past.”

The next sustainability speaker will be Ed Begley, Jr. at 7:30 p.m. on May 8.


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