Authors declare 'The beginning of the end of sprawl'
The meatpacking district in Manhattan, a walkable urban place.
A strong trend toward walkable urban places marks "the beginning of the end of sprawl," according to Christopher Leinberger and Patrick Lynch, authors of Foot Traffic Ahead, a study of 30 top US metro areas.
"The end of sprawl is as significant as when historian Fredrick Jackson Turner proclaimed the 'closing of the frontier' in 1893," the authors note.
The report identifies 588 "regionally significant" walkable urban places (WalkUPs) -- major urban centers including downtowns, suburban town centers, small city centers, and transit-oriented developments that have a Walk Score of at least 70. These WalkUPs are scattered throughout most of the 30 regions, not just concentrated in cities.
WalkUPs account for about 1 percent of the metropolitan land area but a substantial and growing percentage of the commercial development. In DC, for example, WalkUPs currently account for 48 percent of the area's new office, hotel, and rental apartment square footage. In Atlanta, 27 WalkUPs account for 50 percent of recent commercial development.
Foot Traffic Ahead offers one measure of walkable urbanism, focusing exclusively on "commercial development" that includes office buildings, hotels, major retail, and large multifamily buildings. It excludes single-family home construction. "Two caveats accompany this prediction. First, further in-depth analysis of all real estate products, particularly for-sale housing, needs to be conducted to confirm this conclusion.
"Second, the end of sprawl does not mean sprawl will disappear immediately. Rather, its end marks a gradual shift from drivable sub-urban development as the dominant real-estate trend to walkable urban development. Even in Washington, DC, and Boston, two of the most walkable urban metros in the country, fringe, single-family drivable sub-urban housing is being built. However, this product type makes up less of the recent housing stock, as it is increasingly difficult to finance."
A matrix shows place types in major metro areas.
These 30 metro areas contain 146 million people — 46 percent of the US population and account for 58 percent of its gross domestic product.
The top metro areas for "walkable urbanism," according to the report's definition, are DC, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle. The report identifies many other metro areas -- Denver, Los Angeles, Portland (OR), Miami, Atlanta, and Detroit -- that are projected to "accelerate their shift to walkable urban." Some metro areas, such as Philadelphia, have strong walkable urbanism in the central city but little in the suburbs.
Man bites dog stories
Leinberger said two of the emerging "walkable urban" metro areas are "man bites dog" stories, because they are so associated with sprawl and/or urban decline. Atlanta is the most spread out metro area in the country, according to a recent report by Smart Growth America. Since 2009, in the current real estate cycle, Atlanta has "turned a corner" and ranks fourth in the nation in building walkable urbanism, by the definition of this study. The question going forward is whether Atlanta will build the infrastructure necessary to support walkable urbanism -- namely the proposed Belt Line transit system.
Detroit is the other surprise. That city ranks low -- 22 out of 30 -- in percentage of WalkUPs. Yet a "future ranking," which measures development in this real estate cycle, puts Detroit at number 8. The big difference has been a downtown resurgence in the Motor City.
In order to meet market demand, Leinberger notes that hundreds of new WalkUPs have to be created with hundreds of millions of square feet of commercial development. Such development could boost the US economy, he says. "The reason why the economy is bumping along at 2 percent when it should be at 3.5 percent is that we in real estate have not figured out how to create walkable urban places," he says. The biggest economic development opportunity around New York City is to urbanize the suburbs and take advantage of that great rail system, he added.
Boston is projected to the top metro for walkable urban development in coming years.
It's not just about where real estate is located, but also public policy. DC leads the nation in development of walkable urbanism because of local, not federal policy, he explained. "The public sector really understood how to create walkable urbanism," he said. "They put in place the zoning to make walkable urbanism legal."
Beyond zoning, the art and science of placemaking is key, notes Richard Bradley, Executive Director of the DC's Downtown Business Improvement District.
"What is making us competitive is place. It's the mixed-use environment. It's the attention to details," he says. Since late 1990s, DC added thousands of downtown outdoor cafe tables, for example. "We were very intentional about the experience that we wanted people to have downtown."
Robert Steuteville is editor and executive director of Better! Cities & Towns.