Urban

Some Cities Are Spurring the End of Sprawl

A new report claims there's an historic shift in suburbs from being car-dependent to walkable places, blurring the lines between "urban" and "suburban."
by | June 17, 2014
A virtually empty parking lot in Tyson's Corner, Va.
A virtually empty parking lot in Tysons Corner, Va., which is trying to free itself from car-dependency with the help of new parks, trails and four Metro stations. David Kidd/Governing

Washington, D.C., New York and Boston are “witnessing the end of sprawl” -- and several other cities may soon join them, according to advocates who studied job centers in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

“This is a major change in how we build the country,” said Christopher Leinberger, one of the researchers who surveyed the country’s most populous 30 metropolitan areas. The shift from car-friendly suburbs to foot-friendly urban areas is as significant, he said, as the closing of the American frontier in the 1890s.

One indicator of that change is the development of pedestrian-friendly city centers in the suburbs, said Leinberger and fellow George Washington University real estate professor Patrick Lynch.

That is true in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., where office buildings and condos crowd around Metro subway stations. A sprawling suburban shopping complex known as Tysons is even trying to free itself from car-dependency with the help of new parks, trails and four Metro stations.

In fact, nearly half of the walkable office or retail space in Washington’s metro area is located outside of the central city, the researchers found.

But the spread of walkable urban spaces to the suburbs is happening in less likely places, too, like Birmingham, outside of Detroit and Pasadena near Los Angeles.

“We’re seeing a lot of suburban office parks are really struggling today, because companies are wanting to attract new employees,” said Rod Lawrence, a partner with JBG Companies, a major developer in the D.C. market. “New employees want to be in these walkable urban places where they can walk out and have lunch options.”

The suburban development of walkable neighborhoods blur the distinction between “urban” and “suburban” regions, the professors wrote in a report released today. The report was backed by Locus, a group of real estate developers who focus on pedestrian-friendly projects, and Smart Growth America.

“New development patterns suggest this old dichotomy is less meaningful today. Now, the only reason to use the old dichotomy is to show how far we have moved beyond it,” the professors said.

To get a better sense of the changes, the researchers ranked metro areas based on how likely it is that people could get to their jobs or go shopping on foot. Washington, D.C., came out first, with 43 percent of its office and retail space in walkable areas. New York (38 percent walkable), Boston (36 percent), San Francisco (30 percent), Chicago (29 percent) and Seattle (27 percent) have the next-highest rates.

The order could shift dramatically in coming years, the researchers said, after looking at how much extra landlords charged for rental space in walkable areas and other indicators of potential growth.

Boston could overtake Washington, D.C., they predicted. Cities such as Miami, Atlanta, Detroit and Denver would climb. Chicago could drop below Tampa, Los Angeles and Houston, because the Windy City’s suburbs largely have not embraced walkable development.

Some of the resistance to pedestrian-friendly development in Chicago’s suburbs could be attributed to its balkanized system of local government, the researchers suggested. The Chicago area has 388 local jurisdictions controlling land use, compared to just seven in the Washington area.

Many of the cities expected to add the most walkable commercial space are also adding more transit options. Los Angeles is rapidly expanding its subway; Atlanta is planning a system of streetcars and light rail; and cities such as Phoenix and Houston are adding or expanding light rail.

Advocates say interest among public officials in building walkable neighborhoods has accelerated over the last decade.

“What the political leaders are seeing is that this can be much more efficient model for growth and much more efficient for their tax base. They use less land. They get more out of their infrastructure,” said Lawrence, the Washington-area developer.

A significant downside, though, is the lack of affordable housing that often results from these projects, cautioned Leinberger, the professor. “In our country, our unofficial affordable housing strategy has been ‘Drive ‘til you qualify.’ That does not work in an urban environment.”

This story has been corrected to remove Tampa, Fla., from the list of cities developing light rail. Tampa does not have a light rail network. It has a streetcar system.

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