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The comeback of America's cities & growing walkable suburbs

We’ve become a city planet (Stewart Brand’s term)- in 2008, for the first time over half of the world’s population lived in cities, and it’s predicted that by 2030, two-thirds of us will live in cities- and this could be good for the Earth.

City living tends to be better for the planet than most alternatives. “Cities beat suburbs,” argued Worldchanging’s Alex Steffen in Wired Magazine. “Manhattanites use less energy than most people in North America. Sprawl eats land and snarls traffic. Building homes close together is a more efficient use of space and infrastructure. It also encourages walking, promotes public transit, and fosters community.”

Surprisingly, 79% of Americans– according to the 2000 U.S. census- live in urban areas and while few of these “urbanized areas” (over 50,000 population) and “Urban Clusters” (2,500 to 49,999 population) have the density of a New York City or a Portland, Oregon, this may be beginning to change.

The urban real estate boom

Since 2000, redevelopment of America’s urban centers has outstripped construction in the suburbs. “Across the country, many urban neighborhoods are experiencing dramatic transformations,” states the EPA study, “parking lots, underused commercial properties, and former industrial sites are being replaced by condos, apartments, and townhouses.”

The study, entitled “Residential Construction Trends in America’s Metropolitan Regions”, found that this acceleration of residential construction in urban neighborhoods reflected a “fundamental shift in the real estate market“. In just over half of the country’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, the share of residential construction in urban centers has more than doubled since 2000.

The EPA is not alone in their analysis. The 2007 edition of the Emerging Trends in Real Estate report called infill and mixed-use development “best bets”, citing energy costs as well as the convenience and excitement of dense neighborhoods as reasoning for the high rating. “Far-flung greenfield homes may cost less, but filling the gas tank burns holes in wallets. Both empty nesters and their young adult offspring gravitate to live in more exciting and sophisticated 24-hour places—whether urban or suburban—with pedestrian-accessible retail, restaurants, parks, supermarkets, and offices. Transit-oriented development at subway or light-rail stations almost cannot miss.”

Not just Portland, but L.A. too

New York City topped the list of those cities building up their urban core (over the past 6 years, 48% of the regions’ permits were issued for the city; up from just 15% in the early nineties) and Portland, Oregon with the nation’s toughest land-use laws was not far behind, but even in sprawling cities like Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles redevelopment made up a quarter to a half of all new construction.

This trend toward creating more density in urban cores, as well as older suburbs, is reflected in the Obama Administration’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which is offering funds to help create denser, more transit-oriented communities, but this “Livability” program- contrary to criticism that it is telling people where to live- is only following what is happening in the free market.

“The livability initiative is in sync with where the marketplace was going anyway,” the Urban Land Institute’s Ed McMahon told the New York Times. “There’s been a pent-up demand for urban living, and that demand is evident in housing prices.”

When suburbs act like cities

While suburbs are often demonized by environmentalists for relying on cars and devouring green space, not all suburbs are built alike, or rebuilt alike. “’Suburbs’ is a clumsy word because it can mean a lot of different things,” explains Worldchanging’s Steffen in Grist. 

“One essential set of suburban interests are wealthier outer-ring suburbs, sprawl developers, highway builders, the auto industry, and oil companies. They are all in cahoots and have been for a long time. They’re a big part of the U.S. economy that is about building sprawl on the fringe. And they are pretty clear about their opposition to reinvesting in cities to and to fighting auto dependence.”

There is also a kinder, gentler type of suburb: the inner-ring suburbs, or what Joel Garreau coined Edge Cities in his 1991 book of the same name. Edge cities have more jobs than people and are end destinations, that is, they provide residents with all that cities could (entertainment, shopping, dining, etc). 

Stewart Brand argues that suburbs such as Levittowns of the ’40s and ’50s aren’t bad as they quickly developed a local identity- as opposed to the more property-value obsessed gated communities (see our article on Clothesline Wars). “If you want a new community to express local life and have deep adaptivity, emphasize the houses becoming homes rather than speculative real estate”.

Using walkability as a marker

Another way to measure the urban-ness of a place is by its walkability. “Urban spaces are, almost by definition, places where it is more convenient and common for people to walk between destinations than to take other modes of transportation,” explains economist Joe Cortright. 

“Places that are conducive to walking frequently have a host of other related characteristics: they are generally denser, better served by transit, more central, and have more of a mix of different land uses. As Jane Jacobs has observed, walkability is at the heart of urban vibrancy, short blocks, population density and diversity and a mix of uses, building types and ages that all play out in a ‘sidewalk ballet'”.

In their study Walking the Walk, CEO for Cities found that Americans are willing to pay a premium for walkability. They created a mashup of home sales data with “walkability” scores from WalkScore.com and found that in 13 of the 15 areas studied, homes in highly walkable areas sold for $4000 to $34000 more than for those in areas of average walkability. Only in Las Vegas were less-walkable neighborhoods more desirable.

What the realtors are seeing

Others have replicated the demand by Americans for more downtown living. A 2007 survey by the National Association of Realtors showed that 57% of Americans agreed with the statement that “business and homes should be built closer together, so that stores and shops are within walking distance and don’t require the use of an automobiles”.

In a 2008 Coldwell Banker Real Estate survey, 53% of surveyed sales associates noted “an increased interest in urban living compared to five years ago”. Their reasons:

  • 81% cite minimizing a reduced work commute as a reason for the interest in urban living
  • 75% agree that the ability to walk to more places is a positive
  • 54% agree that access to public transportation is appealing

Walkable urban vs drivable sub-urban

People are willing to pay a premium not just for urban downtowns, but even for newer suburbs with a dense, walkable urban core. Developers have noticed and have begun creating “lifestyle centers” to provide a downtown for suburbs that previously lacked one (these lifestyle centers are mixed use- business and retail- and not simply glorified malls). And residents are willing to pay a premium for many. 

As an example, the Reston Town Center outside Washington, D.C. has a density of over 5000 people per square mile and according to a Brookings Institute study, its apartments, office and retail space rent or sell for 50% more than comparable local housing and retail.

With the changing nature of the urban/suburban divide, Christopher Leinberger- author of “The Option of Urbanism: Investing in A New American Dream”- argues that we need to instead look to newer categories of “walkable urban” and “drivable sub-urban”. He further breaks down the category of walkable urban places that have emerged in the United States in recent years into the following types:

  • “Downtown—the original center city of the largest city in the metropolitan area, though many metropolitan areas are so large that one could argue that there are multiple “original” downtowns, such as the case with downtown Brooklyn and Jersey City in the New York metropolitan area.
  • Downtown Adjacent—Immediately adjacent to the original downtown or one or two transit stops away.
  • Suburban Town Center—18th or 19th century towns that have been swept up in the growth of the metropolitan area but were laid out before the advent of the car.
  • Suburban Redevelopment—failed drivable sub-urban commercial strips or regional malls that have been redeveloped into walkable urbanism.
  • Greenfield—a walkable urban place developed on a greenfield site, such as the current trend of developing mixed-use “lifestyle centers” (note: not retail-only lifestyle centers).”

In a field survey of the top 30 U.S. Metropolitan Areas, Leinberger found that once a metro area develops one walkable urban place, the phenomenon is contagious, that is, “hometown examples demonstrate function and market acceptance”. 

As an example, he cites Denver’s metropolitan area, where there was not one regional walkable urban place as of 1987: “downtown was an office-only place with few residents, cultural attractions, or retail while the rest of the region was basically drivable sub-urban in nature”. His survey identified 5 walkable urban places in 2007 with a number in the planning stages.

Why pay the urban premium?

Part of the demand for walkable neighborhoods is their scarcity, something that could reflect the lack of value urban planners have paid to walkability, and even urban living, in previous decades. 

The urban, or walkable surburban, premium also reflects a desire of many homeowners to have easy access to not just goods and services, but experiences (e.g. a city’s cultural offerings). Increasingly, urban dwellers are being given access to many shared services, like carsharing or bikesharing, something that would be impractical in a lower density environment.

One of the big draws of the urban life is what is most lacking in strip-mall-centered suburbs: a sense of community.  As Nobel-prize winning economist Robert Lucas explained it in 1988: “What can people be paying Manhattan or downtown Chicago rents for, if not for being near other people?”

See below the last comments on walkable suburbs from Twitter