Spotlight on Walkable Neighborhoods Gets Brighter

New policies and reports buttress economic and social importance of high-density cities.

Amid the flood of ink about the fiscal cliff and its potential impact on local government, there’s been a steady flow of reports about something rather positive that cities can offer: walkable neighborhoods. For urbanists, the benefits, both economically and socially, of a walkable urban neighborhood are not new. But now the drumbeat has become louder, with at least one state setting a new policy to support walkable, compact neighborhoods backed by specific goals.

On November 14, Massachusetts announced a series of incentives to encourage the growth of dense, walkable neighborhoods. While the policies are modest—a minimum of four homes per developable acre, for example—they signal a shift away from traditional suburban development, which has dominated the state’s real estate sector for decades.

In the same month, two reports came out that reaffirmed the economic and social value of walkable neighborhoods in urban locations. The Congress for the New Urbanism analyzed the stability of Philadelphia-area home prices in walkable, urban neighborhoods versus home prices in exurban, auto-centric locations during the course of the Great Recession. What they found is that “the price of homes located near downtowns and town centers with a balanced mix of residential and commercial dwellings declined significantly less than the average home for the entire region.”

The second report, released by the George Washington University School of Business, looked at metro Washington, D.C., as a model for walkable urban development. It found that the region has a pent-up demand for housing in neighborhoods that have high density, use different transportation options and integrate commercial with residential real estate. Meanwhile, “drivable, suburban development, which has become overbuilt and was the primary cause of the mortgage meltdown that triggered the Great Recession, is on the wane.”

Christopher B. Leinberger, author of the report and a professor of urban real estate and GWU, says public policy response to this market trend should be twofold: Monitor the economic impact of walkable urban development, and make sure the proper zoning is in place and infrastructure is planned and financed to ensure job density increases to attract an educated workforce.

That model is beginning to unfold In Massachusetts. The state’s compact neighborhood policy, besides requiring 4 single housing units per acre, also stipulates that cities set a density of 8 units per acre for multi-family residential living, and ensure that at least 10 percent of new housing is considered affordable, while not restricting occupancy due to age or other restrictions. Cities that also change zoning ordinances to encourage residential development near transit and town centers will be given priority consideration in discretionary funding programs.

In conjunction with its compact neighborhood policy, Gov. Deval Patrick in November announced initiatives aimed at constructing 10,000 multi-family units of housing per year, “the first production goal of its kind set by any state in the country.” The initiative is one in a series aimed at boosting walkable urban development in the Bay State, which has numerous industrial age mill cities that have the assets for compact living but lack the ingredients to attract an educated workforce.

Are these reports and policy initiatives a harbinger of a major shift towards the development of compact, walkable neighborhoods?  Urbanists need to keep their expectations in check, say the experts. A 2010 research paper by the American Planning Association found that while public support for compact development is significant, it would be “premature to conclude America is on the cusp of a major surge in compact living.”

What the study found was that the public supported different elements of walkable cities, such as more transit or dense and mixed-used neighborhoods, but there was less support for some of the tradeoffs to achieve those goals, such as giving up a single dwelling lifestyle in exchange for a shorter commute.  And support for key elements of walkable neighborhoods often dropped among more individuals with more conservative political beliefs, as well as when factors such as age, race and children in the family were taken into account.


In other urban news, Clarence E. Anthony has been named executive director of National League of Cities. He replaces Donald Borut, who is retiring after serving as NLC’s director for 22 years. Anthony served as mayor of South Bay, Fla., for 24 years and as NLC president from 1998-1999.  NLC is the country’s largest association of municipalities, representing 19,000 cities, towns and villages.