Walkable Urban Places

by Thomas P. Healy

Walkable urban places around the country are emerging as a highly desirable alternative to suburban sprawl, according to nationally recognized “smart growth” advocate Christopher Leinberger. For three decades, he has been studying this market-driven development paradigm he calls WalkUPs.

Leinberger’s research suggests that the path of walkable urbanism attracts an educated, high-income demographic, which results in increased property values, more support for local businesses and schools, greater demand for mass transit, and substantial new revenue for taxing districts.

His background as a real estate consultant, researcher, developer, and educator gives him a good perspective on the subject. According to Leinberger, walkable urban places are:

  • Dense: at least five times as dense as suburban sprawl
  • Mixed-use: combining residential, commercial, cultural, and educational uses
  • Compact: taller buildings clustered in districts between 100 and 500 acres
  • Accessible: transportation options abound (transit, bike, car)
  • Walkable: good pedestrian access to everything a person needs

Leinberger has been at the forefront of this trend, beginning with his book The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream (Island Press, 2007). To add some data to his assertions, Leinberger and Michael Rodriguez, his colleague at The George Washington University School of Business, regularly survey the country’s 30 largest metro areas in a study called “Foot Traffic Ahead.” What they found when they looked at office, retail, and multi-family housing in Indy’s peer cities is a 72%-per-square-foot premium for WalkUPs compared to drivable suburban places. “That’s the market saying, ‘Build more of this stuff,’” he said at a 2016 presentation at Ivy Tech’s Midtown campus, where he discussed the WalkUPs data.

Leinberger warned that if Indy doesn’t embrace the trend, “You’re stuck in the 20th-century economy and falling behind metropolitan areas” that are following it. “Walkable urban space is growing 77% faster than its market share in 2010, which means drivable suburban is shrinking,” he added. Leinberger noted that the last time a trend like this happened in the country’s real estate market was in the 1980s, when drivable suburban—such as regional malls, business parks, and limited access housing subdivisions—were in ascendancy. He characterized the shift to WalkUPs as “very dramatic” because it reverses a 60-year trend. “This is the beginning of the end of sprawl,” he said.

Indianapolis didn’t make the cut for the 2016 “Foot Traffic Ahead” report; it ranks 33rd in size, according to Leinberger’s metric. However, at the invitation of the City’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, Leinberger applied his methodology to Indy and surrounding counties. He identified seven WalkUPs in Central Indiana: Carmel Arts District and downtown Fishers in Hamilton County; and downtown, Fountain Square, Irvington, Meridian-Kessler, and Broad Ripple in Marion County.

Leinberger’s research suggests that the path of walkable urbanism attracts an educated, high-income demographic, which results in increased property values, more support for local businesses and schools, greater demand for mass transit, and substantial new revenue for taxing districts.

In his remarks at Ivy Tech, Leinberger noted that Indy is experiencing a shift toward walkable urban development. “You’ve turned the corner in this real estate sector,” he said, citing a retail premium in Broad Ripple and downtown thanks in part to high WalkScores. But more needs to be done. “You’re just starting on this but you need to invest in the right infrastructure,” he said, adding, “Transportation drives development so this BRT line [The Red Line] is really important.” It’s worth noting that has comments were made during a period when the Red Line was in the planning stages. His observations become even more relevant now that bus rapid transit service is underway.

Leinberger acknowledged the challenges in funding dense, mixed-use projects. “Bankers are very conservative people,” he said, but he noted that many are open to being educated. Then there’s the opposition from adjacent residential property owners. “NIMBY [not in my back yard] opposition is huge,” he said. “But we now have research that shows that single-family residences have an increased quality of life by being close to a WalkUP.” Sales price per square foot premiums range between 40% and 100%, he added. “The very opposition to the folks who are building the density are the ones who are going to benefit the most,” he said. “They’re living in suburbia, and they get to walk to urban places. They have the best of two worlds.”

A version of this article appeared in the August/September 2016 print edition of the magazine.

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