The Have and Have-Nots of Walkable Urbanism

June 26, 2014 at 5:40 am CDT

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 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 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.

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