Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Walking The Walk Pays Neighborhood Dividends

Perhaps, the old home-buying axiom, “drive until you qualify,” should more accurately be “walk your way to wealth.”

Or at least that seems to be the lesson from Portland economist Joe Cortright’s latest compelling report for CEOs for Cities, headed up by our colleague Carol Coletta.

He analyzed 94,000 real estate transactions in 15 major cities and concluded that in 13 of them, higher levels of walkability (using Walk Score information) were a straight line to higher home values. In his 30-page report, “How Walkability Raises Home Values in U.S. Cities,” Mr. Cortright concluded that “walkability of cities translates directly into increases in home values.”

“Homes located in more walkable neighborhoods – those with a mix of common daily shopping and social destinations within a short distance – command a price premium of about $4,000 to $34,000 over houses with just average levels of walkability in the typical metropolitan areas studied,” he said.

Market Forces

In other words, consumers place value an alternative way to get to stores, schools, services and parks instead of getting in a car and driving. In effect, this point is proven in the higher prices that consumers pay to live in these kinds of walkable neighborhoods.

It’s an equation Memphis should pay attention to, because perhaps this is a competitive advantage that we should be investing in, not to mention, getting deadly serious about.

Forget the additional lanes of traffic. Forget about more shopping malls on the eastern ring of Memphis. Forget about suburban development touting “green houses” but are located so far out that the green house is permanently attached to a non-green, car-centric lifestyle.

It’s worth saying again that the 25-34 year-old, college-educated workers that we need are 30% more likely to live within three miles of the central business district than other age groups. That’s a revolution since 1970, because in the the two decades to 1990, there wasn’t much difference in this group from others. They were about 11% more likely to live close to the CBID, but in the 1990s, something changed, and there’s no reason to think the trend isn’t escalating.

Engineering Better Neighborhoods

In other words, it seems to us that young professionals got to the crux of this issue before the rest of us – the qualities of a walkable neighborhood can be the key to the overall positive quality of your life.

In a way, it’s back to the future. After all, nothing goes more in hand than cities and walking. When we talk here about the great cities that we love to visit, it’s inevitably a city that’s easy to walk and explore. “The resurgent interest in downtowns and in promoting mixed-use developments throughout metropolitan areas is in part driven by a recognition of the value of walkability,” said Mr. Cortright. “For a long time, walking has received little respect as a means of transportation or as an essential part of vibrant urban spaces.”

Amen. And if walking hasn’t gotten enough respect here, biking has been treated with pure insolence. Despite all evidence to the contrary, city engineering does little to promote walkable neighborhoods and pushes forward with the ill-conceived idea that bike routes are better than bike lanes.

In this way, the analysis by Joe Cortright is a wake-up call, underscoring the need for a sense of urgency that should be as much a part of our civic personality as our self-loathing. We are a city of great neighborhoods – from Cooper-Young to Prospect Park and from Central Gardens to Glenview – and we need to put them at the top of our agenda if we are indeed serious about expanding our economy.

Getting Priorities Right

What might be the outcomes and the agenda if our economic development officials set walkability and vibrancy as top priorities? We know they would likely find such an idea laughable, but here’s what Mr. Cortright said: “Walking is both important in and of itself and as a marker of vibrant urban spaces. 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.

“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 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.’”

Mr. Cortright was one of the urbanists whose work guided the development of the Sustainable Shelby plan. Another was Doug Farr, author of Sustainable Urbanism and prominent “green architect,” who said in an interview on Smart City that sustainable urbanism is a 5,000 year-old idea in new clothes, “that is, (it was) the way we settled land organized around how far we can walk in a day. It’s a really old pattern, and to me, that is the basis for all discussion about sustainability.”

Since 1970, the average American house has grown in square footage by 50 percent while occupancy has dropped 20 percent, a trend that exacerbates the lack of density and walkability. “A neighborhood can be thought of as a pedestrian shed,” he said. “Sort of a catchment area that represents what a person will reasonable walk to meet their daily needs year in and year out.”

Foot Power

The ultimate vision is for “a place so well-defined that people will choose to meet their daily needs on foot and a car on occasion.” He said the successful cities are making the connection between sustainability and competiveness, particularly in the retention of young professional. “A community invests money in public schools and university dollars in educating these people,” he said. “Suddenly, they are adults in their mid-20’s and they have choices, and they can’t be retained, causing a brain drain. There’s an urgent need for a lot of communities to retain the investment that they have made.”

Mr. Cortright’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, is regarded as one of the nation’s greenest cities, and to his comments, Memphians generally say something like “well, that’s Portland and we’re Memphis.” Mr. Cortright is impatient with such excuses, because when Portland began its journey toward the present, it was a city burdened with problems and was nothing special, he said.

The change began when the people of Portland developed a different mindset and a DIY attitude toward their city. He said, “If Portland can do it, why should Memphians think they can’t do it? It’s time to replace the cliché of green policy as sacrifice and instead recognize that for progressive regions and their residents, being green pays handsome dividends,” he said.

Playing Catch Up

“These findings are significant for policy makers,” said Ms. Coletta. “They tell us that if urban leaders are intentional about developing and redeveloping their cities to make them more walkable, it will not only enhance the local tax base but will also contribute to individual wealth by increasing the value of what is, for most people, their biggest asset.

“There are a number of trends that are reshaping the American Dream. The value home buyers now place on living close to more daily destinations is one of the most important. Now, planning, zoning and development decisions have to catch up to consumers."

Hopefully, we’ll begin to catch up with the results of this special election, giving us a new mayor that actually does more than just talk about helping neighborhoods.

As we have learned, talking the talk is cheap. As we now know, walking the walk pays big dividends.


Anonymous said...

"We are a city of great neighborhoods – from Cooper-Young to Prospect Park and from Central Gardens to Glenview – and we need to put them at the top of our agenda if we are indeed serious about expanding our economy."

New Chicago, Douglass/Bungalow, and South Memphis can wait, eh?

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I imagine Lamar-Parkway all the way to Lamar-Southern as a walkable mix-use thoroughfare featuring shops, restauraunts, office space, and retail. That's the only thing holding Glenview from prosperity.

Look at google maps and you will realize that the Southern Norfolk railroad runs from Collierville past every stop on Poplar, through Cooper Young and the University of Memphis, through Glenview and Soulsville and takes you downtown to Danny Thomas.

That should be the first leg of Memphis light rail as Memphis moves towards transit oriented development and train stations along this Eastern route.

Janis Foster Richardson said...

I agree that Memphis is a city of great neighborhoods and that walkability is a factor. I know that the great neighborhoods that you mentioned and a dozen others that I would add to that list are great now because of people who have workd for better zoning and code enforcement, better lighting, better parks and yes, more walkable and bikable communities. This may sound trite but the infrastructure that supports the social networks, community cohesion and active citizenship that is needed for good neighborhoods is just as important (if not more) than the good planning that pays attention to walkability. As an expatriate Memphian, it now appears that other than the CD Council, there is no institutional support that promotes active citizenship at the neighborhood level in Memphis. Your post is on target, but my hunch is that pairing more attention to the issues like walkability with more tangible support for what the residents in the neighborhoods can do to improve neighborhood livability and viability will be a bulls-eye.

toltecs said...

"...but in the 1990s, something changed..."

I believe the catalyst was a generation that lived their entire lives in SUBurban communities. When they got their own places to live, they decided they wanted to get out. I grew up in the suburbs and can confidently say that is why I don't live there now.

REB2 said...

Tom, I just uploaded your walkability post onto the ULI Memphis web site, having scanned so many paragraphs that well articulate how key Walkability is to building Great Neighborhoods. Hands down, it is number one in my book because it means you really have to have both a great public realm as well as something I like to call permeability - that is teh ability to get to where you want to go fairly directly, not having to walk miles to get a 100 feet as the crow flies. That said, I disagree about the third bridge issue. Those of us who have championed the bridge are motivated by three sober realizations. First and foremost is that the whole central/eastern portion of the United States is heavily dependant on rail service across our one lone bridge over the Mississippi. Talk about a terrorist dream. Cut off that very vulnerable bridge by a terrorist act and you literally would have a lot of the country on its knees. So first and foremost, it is a National issue and a Homeland Security issue. I would personally prefer that it NOT come through our immediate urban area because we have an increasing problem of rail traffic cutting Memphis is two along the Norfolk Southern. But a multi-modal bridge, yes. The seoond vulnerbility is seismic. Obviously the current rail bridge is very vulnerable on that score. The third reason is trucking vulnerability. So most of the folks I know who have been thinking about it have been thinking about redundancy. It's a lot of dough, but at a National level view, particularly thinking about the eastern/central zone, I think it makes long term sense. I would hope that no local money would have to be involved because it truely is a multi state regional issue. Anyway, that's one man's take.

Wain Gaskins said...

As with many of the blog posts, engineering gets far more credit that we deserve. It is important to note that the Engineering Division does not do zoning. We address issues created by zoning and follow zoning regulations when reviewing impacts on the public infrastructure. Engineering reviews the plans submitted by the developers. I do not recall the Engineering Division designing cul-de-sacs in neighborhoods which is allowable by the subdivision regulations. We like connectivity of streets. We assure that sidewalks are a part of the public improvements. We would have lobbied for a sidewalk wider than the one shown in the picture at the top of your blog to accommodate the volume of pedestrians. We can only make sure the sidewalk is there for use. Planning and zoning determines if there is anything to walk to. Engineering is supportive of the upcoming UDC and has already started applying some if its principles prior to it being adopted. Engineering doesn’t decide if there is a mixed use of commercial, retail, residential, etc. We do look at street design/layout with safety in mind and that does include emergency vehicle access based on the requirements of the public safety divisions.

Engineering is not promoting bike routes over bike lanes as suggested in your blog. We are promoting whatever is the best fit for a particular corridor. This includes bike lanes, wide outside lanes, shared lanes, or none of the above.

We are always looking to improve while following regulations, laws and guidelines that are always evident to others.

I will let others address the blog comments regarding the 3rd Mississippi River bridge issue where national economic impacts and homeland security issues come into play.

patricia said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



Zippy the giver said...

The past of Memphis is full of waiting on funds from somewhere else to get better neighborhoods, and when the money gets there the priority silently changes to something more sinister.
Gotta get away from that. Little Rock used to suck and it got better before the federal funds came along because people in neighborhoods just did more.
We do a lot of the same things here but not so effectively, and we undermine our own efforts with policies about totally unrelated things that will effectively undermine neighborhoods.
We also avoid stats like the plague. That's a real loser.
We've been indoctrinated into being an "anti-results" culture.
All that may sound negative to you but it's not, it's an easy fix on a personal level if you know how.
It's not as far away as "federal funds" it's as close as a change in your paradigm about life. Maybe a paradigm as simple as to empower you to mow your next door neighbor's yard, because she can't, is better than fear of what will happen. I kill my neighbor's weeds because they can't afford it, I mow their lawns when I can, I teach my kids to do that, my neighbors bring me cakes and pies. My neighborhood IN MEMPHIS is close to all kinds of shopping, walking distance, and it is AWESOME.
I lived in New Chicago and did the same things, but, the neighbors were extremely fearful of each other and engaged in petty racist practices. They could not learn or be moved to be generous or contribute to anyone else. SUCKERS.

Smart City Consulting said...


Thanks for the comments and your elaboration about the third bridge. We weren't saying we were against the bridge. We were just saying that more explanation is needed with the general public and that we wished that there was a coalition pushing walkable neighborhoods as vigorously as transportation projects.

Appreciate the post and your always wise counsel.

Patricia: Welcome aboard and thanks for the comment.

Janis: You are exactly right about the CD Council. They are a bright light in our city.

Anonymous said...

We got the point. There's always somebody pushing another road or bridge project. And I guess terrorists would never think about blowing up a third bridge with the others. The city engineer can talk about homeland security but this project was being pushed here long before 9/11. It's a lobby, folks, so don't believe all the justifications based on homeland security.

Midtowner said...

Sorry to throw cold water on your enthusiasm, but correlation is not causation.

Even the study admits that the correlation does not hold true in all the cities in the study.

I have had experience in both the appraisal industry and doing statistical analysis. Indeed, one might say they are related.

So when he states, "Our data did not include many detailed housing attributes known to influence home values, and so we were unable to model them.", that throws up a HUGE red flag.

In other words, he doesn't really know.

This reminds me of the often touted "studies" that if one puts in light rail that property values will increase, etc. This has been shown to be false, but the idea is still thrown out there as if it is a fact.

But we can see the examples of where it doesn't work right here in Memphis. If light rail were such a godsend, then Main Street would be booming but after more than 15 years of the Trolley, it is still pretty dull.

There are plenty of "walkable" neighborhoods here in Midtown that aren't booming in value. If you could move my house a couple of miles, it's value would triple. Both neighborhoods are "walkable", the houses are from the same era, the construction is the same, I've renovated it well above some of the higher value houses, yet, it isn't valued as much ... location, location, location.

Cortright stated the conclusion he wanted, not one that is mathematically and statistically defendable.

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