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MARCH/APRIL 2008
 

Walkability Steps into the Mainstream

A funny thing happened to Tim Ryan on his way to build a gated community in the mountains of North Carolina.

He discovered the delights of walkable traditional neighborhoods, and now he's building one himself.

When Ryan and his wife, Iva, moved to Franklin, N.C., from Miami some years back, they were ready for a break from the pressures of life in the big city. They settled in what he describes as "the most common type of community" that people like him tend to look for under those circumstances: "High mountains, a retreat-type place, with long-range views . that is appealing to people in high-stress areas."

Eventually the Ryans started acquiring land on which to build a new development. They assumed it would be a "traditional subdivision, a gated community," Tim explains. But then, at a home show, he happened to meet Bill Allison, principal of Allison Ramsey Architects, a new urbanist firm based in Asheville.

The principles Allison introduced Ryan to changed his vision for what he wanted to do as a developer. Now he's thinking less about retreat and more about community. He's building the Sanctuary Village, a neighborhood that will eventually comprise 160 to 180 houses five blocks away from Franklin's 150-year-old traditional main street. "That connectivity to community, not having to drive everywhere, is very appealing," he says. Tim Ryan is both a sign of the times and part of the solution to a problem many people may be unaware of. It has become glaringly apparent, however, to close students of the real estate market, such as Arthur C. Nelson of Virginia Tech, and Christopher Leinberger, currently a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The problem is that just as many Americans are deciding to forsake car-dependent suburbia for walkable urban neighborhoods, they're finding those neighborhoods in very short supply.

Leinberger points out that real estate has always been a cyclical industry, subject to major corrections every several years. But the current slump is more than a cyclical downturn, he says. It's "masking a structural shift in what the market demands." It's the pendulum swing toward demand for walkable urban communities.


Americans may not have the same promenade tradition as the Mediterranean peoples.
But the possibility of serendipitous encounters along paths like this one, along Lake I'On
outside Charleston, S.C., is one of the reasons for a market shift toward demand
for more walkable neighborhoods. Photo courtesy of the I'On Company.

They won't be for everyone, as Leinberger implicitly acknowledges in the title of his new book, "The Option of Urbanism." But he sees the new urbanist trend as a shift in the nature of the built environment as significant as what happened in the years after World War II, when so much of the middle class fled the cities for the suburbs.

Leinberger calculates that it could take decades for this pent-up demand to be satisfied. Here's how he does the math: If about 35 percent of the public wants to live in walkable urban neighborhoods, but only 5 percent of the existing housing stock is in such neighborhoods, 30 percent of the public will be dissatisfied with available options.

This is the pent-up demand, and the market will respond to satisfy it. But it will take time. In a good year, the nation adds only 2 percent, just maybe at a stretch 3 percent, to its housing stock every year. Thirty percent divided by 2 or 3 percent equals 10 or 15 years -- and that's how long it would take to satisfy pent-up demand if nothing but walkable urban neighborhoods were built over that time, a situation no one expects.

Meanwhile, the shortage is doing what shortages always do in free markets: It's driving up prices. Leinberger's research indicates that walkable urban dwellings are commanding a price premium of 40 to 200 percent per square foot above comparable dwellings in drive-everywhere neighborhoods.

As Leinberger sees it, the imagery of television is no small part of what's driving the interest in walkable neighborhoods. Baby boomers grew up with the Cleavers in suburbia. Later on, their image of urban living was shaped by police shows like "Hill Street Blues." These carried the message that big cities were dangerous places.

But Gen Y-ers and Millennials have come of age watching "Seinfeld," "Friends," "Sex and the City," and other shows whose background message was that cities are interesting places to live and run into friends on the street. This cohort sees an opportunity to live large by living in the whole urban space.

This development has not gone unnoticed by the National Association of Realtors -- and they're not exactly a band of wild-eyed avant-gardistes.

"We like walkability," says Hugh Morris, Smart Growth representative at the NAR headquarters in Washington.

He cites the work of Arthur C. Nelson of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, who is predicting a surplus of 22 million large-lot (sixth of an acre or bigger) houses on the market by 2025. "We pay attention to what he says," Morris says simply.

NAR surveys of both recent homebuyers and the public at large show growing interest in what might be broadly described as new urbanist concerns, including walkability. "This is a shift in taste in what people want," he says. Part of the NAR's activism on this front includes providing grants to state and local affiliates who want to get involved in changing the zoning laws that have made traditional neighborhood development illegal in most places.

Public health concerns are helping promote walkability as well. The federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta have a "healthy places" initiative whose glossary defines walkable communities in terms very familiar to a new urbanist.

Charles Ferguson's Meridian Company in Beaufort, S.C., is developing Mariner's Watch, a five-unit complex on the historic waterfront of nearby Port Royal. "It's almost not new anymore," says Ferguson of walkable neighborhood design, "especially in infill projects. It seems to be standard practice."

With the zeal of a convert, Ryan says, "People truly want to connect with others."


Sidebar: A New Metric for Walkability

The viral Internet success of walkscore.com, a Web site that shows what's within the pedestrian shed of a given location, is another sign of interest in walkability going mainstream.

The Web site launched "accidentally," explained Matt Lerner, chief technology officer for Front Seat Management, the Seattle company behind the site: The company sent it to 20 people for an informal preview, and after that it was effectively launched. When it made the front page of Digg, the company's server melted down.

Visitors to the site simply enter an address (typically of an apartment they are considering) and hit the "go" button. Google technology generates a local map, a walkability score of 0 to 100, and a listing of what's available in the neighborhood -- amenities ranging from coffee shops and bars to libraries and parks.

Walkability, as new urbanists understand it, is a complex phenomenon involving such elements as sidewalks, appealing streetscapes, and doors facing the street. But from the perspective of someone trying to decide on a dwelling, the most basic measure of walkability is, "What can I walk to from here?"

Lerner and his team based their site on the idea of a quarter-mile ped shed. And they're interested in neighborhood walkability for the same reasons as new urbanists: the health and environmental benefits, the social capital developed and maintained when serendipitous encounters are possible, and the desire to support local business rather than national chains.

There's a "real estate tile," a little snippet of code that can be downloaded and used to add walkability scores to real estate listings. Many people are finding "walkability" a useful way of talking about "density," noted Lerner.

Data wonkiness is not unknown here: The listing for my own home included a Walgreens drugstore at an address obviously some miles away. And walkscore.com measures distance as the crow flies. It doesn't take into account that the Starbucks 0.38 miles from my door is on the other side of a multilane arterial with zero provision for pedestrians. But people scouting out new homes are obviously finding it useful. "'What I can walk to?' has always been a criterion for me" in choosing a new home, Lerner said. He sees the success of walkscore.com tapping into a growing awareness that the car-dependent suburb is "not a very sustainable model."

Americans may not have the same promenade tradition as the Mediterranean peoples. But the possibility of serendipitous encounters along paths like this one, along Lake I'On outside Charleston, S.C., is one of the reasons for a market shift toward demand for more walkable neighborhoods.