We have a lot of exciting news to share.
Throughout U.S. history, we have had divides. Initially we had a lot of land to conquer, and we drew a line between settled and frontier. That gave way to urban versus rural. As we moved from an agrarian society to a mechanized one, the urban versus suburban divide became the key differentiator and has remained so. Some notable researchers, including Livability advisor Christopher Leinberger, are proposing a divide between Walkable Urban and Drivable Suburban. The trick is that Walkable Urban Places (WalkUPs, as he calls them) can and need to exist within our suburbs. His new research shows that these areas are not evenly spread through our largest metro areas and that the divide will increase in coming years.
Most importantly, this research shows that there is pent-up demand for this kind of development as evidenced by the premium paid for properties in these areas. That makes a great case for more development – even in some of the most car-centric areas.The current ranking of Walkable Urban Places.
The argument to add density to the suburbs isn’t a new one, but this study gives some good ammunition of the kind that developers and politicians love: economic incentive. For example:
- Areas with more WalkUPs had a higher GDP per capita.
- Residents in areas with more WalkUPs had a higher level of education. Whether that means more educated people move to or stay in places like this is hard to discern, but regardless, they’re there. If your business is looking for that kind of workforce, you’ll want to be there, too.
- In the 30 largest metro areas, WalkUP office rents are a 74 percent premium over space in drivable suburbs.
- Fifty-eight percent of WalkUPs are in the central city, while 42 percent are in the suburbs, according to the study. The office and retail space, however, is not so well divided. Eighty-two percent is in the WalkUPs.
Given that, it’s especially interesting to look at the “future” ranking provided in the study. You see Chicago fall dramatically from No. 5 to No. 15. Miami, conversely, pops up from No. 23 to No. 4. Even Detroit moves from the bottom portion of the list (No. 22) up to No. 8.The projected ranking of Walkable Urban Places.
The key to Chicago and Detroit’s change seem to be in the suburbs. We’ve written about some projects in both of these cities that will help. But it clearly won’t be enough. Adding residential space in the downtown – as Chicago has done and as I saw last week in Syracuse – will help, too. But it won’t be enough, either. In a conference call announcing the findings, Mr. Leinberger said that it will take 20 to 30 years to catch up to the demand.
He also points out something we’ve talked about before: Walkability and urban density (even in the suburbs) comes with a price premium, which leads to an affordability problem. What happens when desirable living and working conditions wind up pricing too many people out of the market and become a luxury item? How will that impact the fabric of these cities?
One suggestion offered is to create more rentable space in existing places by allowing more flexibility in the laws. Currently it’s hard to rent out a spare bedroom or put an apartment over a garage as rentable space. Allowing these auxiliary spaces to go on the market would create affordable housing for those who live in them, but also help the owners better afford their own living spaces.
However, it’s also hard not to come to the conclusion that if we’re not careful, walkability will become our new sprawl. We’ll replace one problem with a perhaps better, but not inherently different problem. It's going to take smart planning, cooperative governments and developers with their eyes on the big picture to keep our cities great places to live – for everyone.
Seven years ago, we found our perfect place. We skipped condo buying and went straight for a house in the city. It seemed kind of suburban to do that, and yet we were well within the Chicago city limits. We had a yard and a fence. Our house is close to everything: Target. Home Depot. A supermarket that we could walk to. It's near a park, the highway and public transportation that would get us downtown or to the airport in a breeze.
We knew all that going in. We didn’t know how much we would come to love the gyro joint at the end of the block. Or the incredible selection of beers and ciders at the liquor store next to it.
There were places to eat and drink and enjoy our lives as newlyweds.
Then a funny thing happened. And then two more funny things happened. Now we had a 150 percent increase in the number of people occupying our little three-bedroom/two-bath. We'd meant for this to be our "starter" home all along, and we thought we'd stay for about five years and then see where we landed from there. Now we just had a little more reason to pack up than we'd thought.
The location became more important when our kids were young. We lived right near the highway, which was great for when we drove or carpooled to work. Living just outside of the express lanes cut our commute even further. If we didn't want to drive, two bus lines ran right at the end of the block that would connect to a subway line. We could also walk to the train if weather and time permitted.
Being near the highway also meant we could easily get out to the suburbs to see family or shop. The suburban Costco was much more minivan friendly. The Chicago Botanic Garden became a needed refuge for our family to find some nature and quiet just outside our city.
As our kids have grown, we need more and different space. The fenced-in backyard let the kids play safely, but backyards can isolate us. Bigger front yards encourage kids to play together with their neighbors.
The park a few blocks away was always a treat no matter how many times we swung on its swings and slid down its slides. The sidewalk outside worked well for tiny wheels and tentative steps. But all around us were busy streets. Supervised walks were great; freedom to roam was out of the question. Walkability can also be defined differently for adults or adults holding the hands of fidgety toddlers.
Our daughter wound up in a great program offered by Chicago Public Schools, but the trade-off was a 20-minute drive each way because it wasn’t in the neighborhood. The way the selective enrollment and lottery systems work, it was almost certain that her siblings wouldn't get into the same school. In fact, they could easily wind up in three different schools in three different parts of the city. That means that her classmates are also spread around. There's no playing on the block after school. There's no walking home together. It's much harder to form community.
I can't imagine a better reason to move to the suburbs than that.
The school situation also meant that my commute, which used to be quick and easy on public transportation or even bike, now was taking me close to 90 minutes a day.
All of this is to say that we're a little less "city" now than we were when we were in our 20s and even our 30s. There's nothing inherently wrong with our current place. Instead, our changing demographics lead to changing definitions of livability and a need to rethink if this was still the best place for us.
And so, we’re packing up. We’re leaving the big city we love. We’re headed for someplace similar but different. Smaller. It's still kind of city-like, but with great schools and a real sense of community.
Stay tuned for more on that. But first, I’ve got to tell you how we sold this house.