Mr. Speck Goes to Washington
Jeff Speck is a youthful 40-year-old man. Good-looking,
single, polished and charming, Speck is the recently appointed director
of design at the National Endowment for the Arts. The job must be a good
match for him; in an interview, Speck radiates the unmistakable enthusiasm
of somebody doing something he cares a lot about.
Until recently, Jeff Speck was director of town planning at the internationally-known,
Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company new urbanist design, planning
and architecture firm.
Speck is also an accomplished writer. With his new urbanist mentors at
DPZ, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, he coauthored the groundbreaking,
"Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream"
(published March 2000 by North Point Press/Farrar Straus Giroux), a primer
on the mediocrity and wrongness of suburban sprawl -- and a clear explanation
of the new urbanist principles pioneered at DPZ and other firms and by
the Congress for the New Urbanism.
The book has sold well, says Speck. It was also very well reviewed. According
to Paul Goldberger in The New Yorker, one of many distinguished critics
who gave the book a 'thumbs-up,' "[The authors] set forth more clearly
than anyone has done in our time the elements of good town planning."
After a decade based in DPZ's Miami headquarters, Speck has left a job
he says he loved. In mid-August, he answered a call to public service
and accepted a two-year assignment at the National Endowment for the Arts
as director of design.
At NEA, Speck supervises the panel selection and grant-making process
in design. "Every object crafted by man represents design," says Speck.
"Design at the NEA includes planning, urban design, architecture, landscape
architecture, interior design, product design and graphic design.
"The message of the NEA is that design directly affects the quality of
life. We want people to know, 'You have a voice,'" says Speck. "I want
to get the message about the importance of each person's relationship
to design and planning out to the public any way I can.
"I want to promote a general realization by the public about just how
much is designed -- and the great degree to which design, environment
and quality of life are bound together.
"In our grant-making, we give grants to about one half of the organizations
that apply. Although we no longer give grants to individuals, we work
with 501c (3) organizations through which individuals can often create
strong proposals." Speck adds that a major goal is to increase the numbers
of grant applicants. "More should apply."
Speck also oversees the Mayors' Institute on City Design and the Your
Town programs, (both programs provide direct contact between planners
and designers, and municipal leaders) and provides professional leadership
to the field.
Speck says new urbanism is much more mainstream America than it was a
"In my first year at DPZ, it felt like we were swimming upstream [utilizing
new urbanist principles with clients]. But it wasn't long before we went
from a third to nine-tenths of the people calling knowing what new urbanism
"It seems that today, every client wants 100 percent of what DPZ has to
offer," he says. "The tide has turned."
Speck says the first time he heard Andrés Duany speak, "I knew just enough
to know he was right.
"He was able to explain some things I had always thought about but never
understood. When you can explain to people why they hate something, they
"I would have been happy to spend the rest of my life designing kitchens
for the wealthy, but this work is so much more important and has so much
impact on people's lives."
For Speck, Washington, D.C., has meant a lifestyle change and immersion
in a very different culture. Prior to coming to the area, Speck was a
resident of infamous, "extremely-hot-right-now-and-perhaps-forever" South
Beach, Miami. Coming to work in Washington meant doing some shopping for
clothes, he notes, not because of the colder climate, but because of the
more formal shirt and tie culture that thrives in the nation's capitol.
Speck, the new urbanist, appreciates the city's public transportation
and pedestrian orientation. He has dispensed with the car he needed in
As far as the growing realization of the importance of new urbanism, Speck
points to the very fact of his new job at NEA. "My appointment says a
lot about the place of new urbanism in planning and design."
And maybe that says it all.
A native of Boston, Mass., Speck joined Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk
as a project manager in 1993. He received a master's in architecture with
distinction from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he studied
under Raphael Moneo, Fred Koetter and Jorge Silvetti and served as a head
teaching fellow in fine arts at Harvard College. He graduated magna cum
laude from Williams College and also holds a master's in art history,
earned as a Syracuse University fellow in Florence, Italy. Prior to his
graduate study, Speck worked as a financial analyst in the housing group
at the investment bank of First Boston. Projects he directed or managed
for DPZ include new neighborhoods in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Colorado,
Toronto, Germany and Belgium.
The National Endowment for the Arts exists to foster, preserve and promote
excellence in the arts, to bring art to all Americans, and to provide
leadership in arts education. The organization was established by Congress
in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government, since then,
it has awarded more than 119,000 grants in all 50 states and the six U.S.
jurisdictions. The Endowment's Fiscal Year 2002 budget was $115 million,
which cost each American less than 40 cents per year.
The Endowment is the nation's largest annual funder of the arts, bringing
great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner cities and military
The Endowment awards grants to nonprofit organizations in three areas:
Grants for Art Projects, Leadership Initiatives and Partnership Agreements.
In addition, the Endowment awards individual fellowships in literature
and honorary fellowships in jazz and the folk and traditional arts. Forty
percent of Endowment funds are awarded to the state and jurisdictional
arts agencies and the six regional arts organizations.
Independent, national panels of experts and laypersons evaluate grant
applications that are then reviewed by the National Council on the Arts,
the Endowment's advisory body, and the Endowment chairman for final approval.
Endowment funds for organizations must be matched with non-federal dollars
on at least a one-to-one basis.
Grants for Arts projects support exemplary projects in dance, design,
folk and traditional arts, literature, media arts, museums, music, musical
theater, opera, theater, visual arts and multidisciplinary forms. Grants
are awarded on the basis of artistic excellence and merit, including such
factors as the project's potential influences and the applicant's ability
to carry out the project.
For more information phone 202.682.5400, or visit online at www.nea.gov