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VOL. 5, NO. 5 -- WINTER 2003

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 decade ago.

"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 is.

"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 become interested.

"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 Florida.

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 bases.

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