Give the people what they want: A walkable city

June 4, 2012

Caroline O'Donovan

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A few weeks ago, Steve Edwards and the Afternoon Shift talked about urban walkability with WBEZ blogger Lee Bey and Melody Geraci, Deputy Director of the Active Transportation Alliance. “A walkable city has a few different elements,” Geraci said, “compact land use and mixed land use.” They talked about everything from creating development around transportation nodes, expansion of light rail, the health benefits of pedestrianism. “We need to use that awful d-word density of people and of place and they need to be mixed up,” she said.

The question is, what is so attractive about these mixed-up neighborhoods, and is it a trend that will last? It was less than two decades ago that having a car and a garage in the suburbs to park it in was the hallmark of affluence. We’ve all seen the episodes of Mad Men in which Don Draper cruises to the park with his family in a new convertible, the epitome of the modern man.

The dream, however, might be changing. Walkability in a neighborhood has long been a desire of those who consider themselves urbanists (though the majority of people are still living in suburbs). A new study out of the Brookings Institute, however, explores whether the re-urbanization of city centers and broader cultural shift towards diverse-use, walkable neighborhoods might be permanent.

Christopher Leinberger, co-author of the new report along with Urban Imprint president Mariela Alfonzo, is a firm believer that the field of urbanism lacks the quantifiable, underlying principles that other sciences have. With his study of metropolitan Washington, DC, he hoped to find a way to prove that an important change was taking place in neighborhoods that city dwellers “basically threw away” twenty years ago. When they abandoned those neighborhoods, Leinberger said, boomers move to the outer suburbs, but now they want that walkable lifestyle back, and what’s important is that they’re willing to pay for it.

It starts with a cultural anchor, like a church with a big congregation. Then, through urban entertainment venues like restaurants, theaters and bars, the neighborhood will begin to draw visitors from throughout the region. As people begin to populate the street, those visitors will increasingly consider moving to a more dynamic place, somewhere they don’t have to drive to the grocery store, or where they can meet their neighbors on the sidewalk. The infrastructure and public policy that is needed to abutt and sustain this kind of neighborhood is sure to follow.

Chicago magazine’s Dennis Rodkin, who will join Leinberger in a discussion about property values in walkable cities on Monday on Eight Forty-Eight, says one of the best ways to promote walkable cities is simply to walk. “You’ll be walking to the store for a gallon of milk and ask, Why is there no sidewalk here?” Rodkin points to South Loop industrial corridor development along Roosevelt Road as proof that the times are a-changing. He'll also highlight areas like Libertyville, Oak Park and Lakeview whose density provided them some respite from plummeting housing prices during the recession.

When he began writing about real estate in the late 1980s, Rodkin said, nobody would have dreamed of putting a Target or a Whole Foods or new condos along what used to be the crossroads of the American railroad. Now, he says, young urbanites are shopping at box stores where their grandparents once bought uniforms, fabric and shoes from small, specialty goods stores.

One man who experienced first hand how best to make these shifts a reality is former Mayor of Milwaukee John Norquist. Norquist brings his experience as a municipal leader to his position as President of the Congress for the New Urbanism. He'll explain how the CNU approaches the Federal Housing Administration in terms of creating the traditional, mixed-use development that the market is increasingly demanding. On Monday, he joins Brookings’ Leinberger and Rodkin in their attempt to figure out how to encourage the growth of valuable, walkable properties.

A correction has been made to this story. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that Christopher Leinberger was the sole author of the report "Walk this Way:The Economic Promise of Walkable Places in Metropolitan Washington, D.C." The report was co-authored by Leinberger and Mariela Alfonzo.