A recent report from George Washington University suggests that a new pattern of urban development is emerging in the United States. The pattern does not conform to the previous model of two choices (urban vs suburban) that has held sway for the last 50 years. As new census data are revealing, there is a distinct reversal of a multi-decade trend of Americans moving outward and away from cities. (I mused about the outdated use of “suburb” myself in a past Crosscut article.)
But while many Generation Y Millennials and Boomers are choosing to live in urban areas, it is not entirely a back-to-the-city movement. The phenomenon is much richer and nuanced than that. The author of the George Washington University School of Business study, Christopher Leinberger, identifies a number of distinctly different forms of development, some in cities, some in suburbs, some in-between. All thes magnets have a common attribute: you can choose to walk to many different places within a neighborhood. He calls these communities Walkable Urban Places, or WalkUPs for short.
The ability to walk (or bicycle) to multiple destinations has become a major force in many people’s decisions about where to live. Leinberger previously identified a definite correlation between a neighborhood with a high Walkscore and higher property values. The reason is that people have become conscious of how much transportation costs increase with distance. Although housing close-in is more expensive, when the lower transportation costs are factored in, the walkable choice is less costly.
Arthur C. Nelson at the University of Utah has calculated that the average American household spends almost 49 percent of its income on both housing and transportation. This combined cost increases to 57 percent for households in neighborhoods that are automobile dependent. But it declines to 41 percent in neighborhoods that offer more options in how to move around. Leinberger’s research underscores that many people are beginning to make smarter choices about where to spend their income.
Recently, Emily Badger in The Atlantic Cities referenced Leinberger’s research. She notes that there is such a demand in the marketplace for more walkable neighborhoods that many people are actually willing to paysignificantly higher prices for greater choices in mobility and proximity. This is almost the polar opposite of what was happening a few decades ago when suburbs were commanding higher values.
In many regions, inner belt suburbs are now seen as places for immigrant families to find a good deal in a modest home, to start up a business, and to begin their participation in the American way of life. These diverse and mixed cultures are fueling a demand for places that provide opportunity, community, and multiple choices of movement, goods and services, and education. Go to any main street or shopping center in a formerly all-white suburb and you will see people of races and ethnicities from all over the world.
Leinberger identifies six separate types of walkable urban places. In many cities, the established downtown area, with older buildings, warehouses converted to lofts, and infill development is one type. Certainly this is the one that often makes news stories and magazine spreads. (Think of the area around Seattle's Pike Place Market.) But there are other forms, less well-publicized, that people are also choosing.
One consists of older areas adjacent to downtown cores, areas that were overlooked for decades, the “gray” areas that contained auto sales and services, parking lots, low-rise office buildings, miscellaneous retail and wholesale businesses. In many cities, these are now being transformed into attractive livable places. Somewhat rougher and less charming than the older urban cores, they can also have an edginess that is appealing to many. (Think Pike-Pine.)
Leinberger’s study also notes the rediscovery of urban commercial centers scattered throughout cities. Not long ago, these places used to be principally local service centers for their surrounding residential neighborhoods. Now they are teeming with new, multistory development, some of it above stores, others occupying lots that previously held parking or single-story structures. (Think Ballard.)
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