Walking the talk about walkable urban places

Walkable streets mean viable shops Credit: City of Seattle

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 (I mused about the outdated use of “suburb” myself in a past Crosscut article.)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.)

He also notes the recent phenomenon of suburban town centers. Often these are built on the bones of an older town with a main street, library and city hall. In a sense, many people are rediscovering small town living, with greater intimacy and friendliness. But these are not the mythical, slowed-paced Mayberry transposed to the 21st Century. These are miniature downtowns, with lively streetscapes, public markets, unique shops and restaurants, denser housing and sophisticated urban parks. Frequently these places are found in the inner belt communities that 50 years ago were havens for “white flight,” but are now culturally diverse with people from all manner of races, incomes, ethnicities. They are pockets of urbanity. (Think Kirkland.)

He also identifies this transformation beginning to occur even in strip commercial development. (Think Crossroads in East Bellevue.) Finally, he notes the additional model of development in greenfields, though acknowledging that this has dramatically tapered off with the recession.

Within the Washington D.C area, Leinberger counts 43 areas that fit into one these categories. From the perspective of real estate development alone, these are related to a massive change in consumer preferences and behavior. Clearly we are the end of a long era of outward migration. And further demographic trends — smaller family sizes, delayed marriage and childbearing, an aging population that is living longer — will only solidify that shift.

Leinberger points to the resurgence of living in downtown Washington D.C., a place that only a few decades ago was all but abandoned, filled with derelict buildings, empty lots, x-rated theatres, and cheap discount stores. Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, and Capitol Hill are among the rebounded districts near downtown. I recall spending time on Capitol Hill less than 15 years ago when walking about during daylight hours was a dicey proposition. Now it’s a lively, solid neighborhood with both density and livability.

Walkable Urban Commercial districts include the venerable Georgetown, Adams Morgan (which began to come back20 years ago), along with H Street/Atlas, U Street, and others of more recent regeneration. There are certainly pockets of disinvestment in D.C. but nothing like when they dominated the place in every quarter of the city. 

In the larger metropolitan area, he notes the rise and transformation of places like Bethesda, Old Town Alexandria, Rockville, and Silver Spring, many of which were aided by the opening of the Metro subway system. It took a while, but these places are now coming into their own as desirable destinations for business and housing. Kentlands and Reston Town Center are called out as examples of urban-style development in greenfield locations.

Washington D.C., with its 5.5 million metropolitan-area population, concentration of government offices, and a long-standing investment in rail transit, might be expected to evolve into communities that are coalesced around transit hubs. Here in the Puget Sound area, with a population of 3.5 million, the economic drivers may be different but the emerging pattern is strikingly similar. Geography, topography, and the bodies of water certainly have influenced the settlement pattern. But in the last 20 years, the state’s Growth Management Act has contributed in a significant way to reorganizing growth and development in the region.

Back in the 1970s and 80s outward expansion was by far the dominant direction, with downtowns and inner city neighborhoods drained of life. Now lateral expansion has been dramatically slowed by policy, if not halted altogether by the recession. In its place, vertical expansion has been taking place, with distinct and even dramatic concentrations of urbanity in virtually every city in the four-county area.

Using Leinberger’s categories, I come up with at least three dozen places that have been transformed in the last 20 years. The downtowns of both Tacoma and Bremerton have come back almost with a vengeance. These places, formerly all but abandoned, are now filled with new parks, public amenities, housing, and attractions. And they continue to evolve into better urban centers.

Downtown Bellevue is its own nationally recognized phenomenon of a former bedrooms suburb noted for strip malls and subdivisions morphing into a significant regional city. Downtown Seattle is one of the healthiest places for retail in the country, and its share of dense housing has increased an astonishing rate.

Our various cities have seen the rise of unique, compact, entirely walkable urban neighborhoods, from Wallingford, Uptown, Ballard, and Columbia City in Seattle, to Crossroads in Bellevue, to the North End and Proctor in Tacoma. Wholly new centers are appearing along the light rail line.

But perhaps more striking than these examples are the many smaller and mid-sized communities that have been taking on a mixture of uses, including denser urban housing, along with investments in attractive streets and public spaces. Mercer Island now has a real town center, no longer one filled with one-story strip malls. Likewise, Bainbridge Island has a lively main street five blocks long and flanked with a wide range of housing types from cottages to stacked flats. Edmonds and Snohomish have continued to refine their tightly knit downtowns with additional housing, home-grown stores, and nightlife.

Kirkland has become built-up with a tight, walkable concentration of apartments, condominiums, shops, and cafes lining the streets. Similar mixes of use, especially dense housing, have been built in Renton, Redmond, Woodinville, Burien, Puyallup, and Sammamish. Dupont and Mill Creek created walkable urban centers out of whole cloth. Other cities, such as Bothell and Mountlake Terrace, are following suit with their own town center development plans.

What is remarkable is that these places, many of which were started before the recession, continue to be robust even now, while collateral damage from the financial downturn is still evident in the hinterlands.

None of this is happening by accident. It is a rare convergence of demographic change, market demand, and coordinated public policies and investments.

While the sea change described by the Leinberger study can be seen all over Puget Sound, it can also be seen in other places, some of them surprising. As I’ve traveled around the state, I’ve noted similar “bursts” of walkable urbanism in places like Walla Walla, Spokane, Bellingham, Sequim, Port Angeles, Olympia, and Vancouver. Its clear that many people are choosing to live in a different way than we have seen in decades.

When you think about it, the suburban pattern can be viewed as a 50-year aberration in a 250-year history. America is filled with hundreds of splendid, solid, and attractive urban places where people live without depending on the automobile for everything. We are simply returning to our roots.

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