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Suburbs have always been an indicator of economic status. If you lived in them, you were wealthy enough to take on a mortgage, maintain a house and yard, and eventually own and maintain one or even two cars.

At some point, that shifted. Living in the city and maintaining a middle class lifestyle took an upper class income. Limited attractive neighborhoods and buildings cost a premium. And if local schools and services were not up to par you needed to pay tuition and fees.

Now, according to Christopher Leinberger and Mariela Alfonzo in the New York Times, a larger number of city neighborhoods are outstripping the suburbs in desirability and thus in per square foot value. Their recent report finds that walkable places have “become more gentrified over the past decade,” with wealthier and more educated residents. And from a list of the walkable communities examined, you won’t be surprised by that finding–Bethesda, Penn Quarter, Logan Circle, Chevy Chase Lake.

But what are the quantifaible elements of a walkable community? He and his co-author found that “the absence of a clear classification of the mix of residential, office, and retail elements that comprise walkable urban places…has been one of the most significant barriers to addressing their demand.” But demand is there–he found that in Atlanta only 35 percent of people who wanted to live in a walkable community actually did.

The characteristics the authors used to define a walkable place are somewhat Lynchian (with my comments in parens):

  • aesthetics (some subjective judgement of decoration, but also views and outdoor dining)
  • connectivity (in the sense of barriers)
  • density
  • form (does the place feel like a place)
  • pedestrian amenities (both practical and decorative)
  • personal safety (judged by indicators like graffiti and litter)
  • physical activity
  • proximity of uses (mixed uses)
  • public spaces and parks (a la Holly White–movable chairs, touchable water)
  • traffic measures (not car throughput, but slowing measures–signals and calming)

(The not easily quanitifiable measure I use for a walkable place is the ice cream cone factor. Can I get a cone, and then have a nice and interesting walk while I eat it, and will there be a place to toss my napkin when I’m done. Extra points if I can ride my bike there and burn off some of those calories ! I wouldn’t last a day at Brookings.)

Once you can describe these places, their economic impact can be measured, and Leinberger finds that impact to be considerable. Even controlling for household incomes, walkable places show a higher economic performance, with premiums in office and residential rents as well as in retail sales and housing values.

From the report: “Federal, state, and local policy makers should conduct a systematic review of existing public policies that are biased against walkable development, and adopt new measures aimed at facilitating (or at least removing roadblocks to) this type of development.”

As a suburb within walking, biking, and transit distance of downtown, and one that has its own urban centers, Montgomery is advantagously postioned to add value by creating car alternatives to getting downtown (I’m looking at you bikeshare) and by building up its own urban areas.

The White Flint Plan, the BRT study, the zoning rewrite, even the Parks Department’s community garden program are all moves that will redfine how and were we live by adding more choices. With plenty of suburban single-family communities and the preservation of the Agricultural Reserve, Montgomery will become a layered place, one with options and interest that all add value.

where’s my ice cream cone?!





2 Responses to “Walkable Communities vs a Walk-in Closet”

  1. gk

    What the authors neglect is the scholarship that has identified this phenomenon for about 70 years, specifically the Hoyt model. Unlike Concentric Ring Theory that describe a strong CBD surrounded by ascending rings of relative affluence (more affluent the farther from the center), Hoyt modeled the same rings perturbed by the influence of radial arms. Hence a subway line could create it own axis of affluence within the larger model. Montgomery County’s Wedges and Corridor Plan is based on Hoyt. Hoyt also described pockets of high affluence directly adjacent to a CBD, because this is always a desirable spot.

    Cities have typically had these pockets or (re)created them from evolving housing stock. Boston’s Beacon Hill (south slope) is an example of the former and DC’s Georgetown an example of the latter. Cities that lack these pockets have typically lost them because the CBD has lost its attraction as well.

    To see how durable the model is, look at how it regenerates itself at a more regional level and how it appears at a subregional level. Bethesda and Chevy Chase were once the “country club” district of Washington because they were the outer layers of the onion in a particular direction. Today they remain (and are likely to remain) affluent close-in pockets as the County around them generally transforms. Where Georgetown is a pocket at the city scale, Chevy Chase is a pocket at the metro scale.

    Likewise at a sub-regional scale, Bethesda’s Edgemoor is a pocket of high affluence abutting the CBD of Bethesda. Here you can walk, get your ice cream and return at your front door as you are licking the final drips from the bottom of the cone.

    The attributes that draw people to these places are the ones you identify, but they are not totally new. The high values per square foot have always been there. The increased interest in these areas are probably a sign of the more wide-spread affluence that seeks this choice, the inclination to satisfy this urge in more and more close in territory, and the increasing dissonance and workaday hassle of far flung sprawl.

    In other words this is not a new phenomenon, just one that more people are taking part in and places, cities, and builders are taking notice.

  2. claudia

    everything you say is true, but the authors are also noting the phenomenon of urban neighborhoods changing–not just the perenially attractive neighborhoods. Kalorama-duh, but now the Yards along the Anacostia River(with ice cream cones soon to come).

    Also, what do you do with a Bethesda, which has been energized a la Hoyt with a metro station, but still faces a suburban mentality. Objectively, it’s obvious that you put density and change where infrastructure exists, but people view that as a threat.

    I have a corollary to the ice cream cone factor. It’s called the cupcake phenomenon. People fight against any change proposed by development or a plan. They then accept change and try to shape it (shorter, public art, brick). They complain about the upheaval of construction as proof that change was bad. The project is complete and tenanted, and they line up for cupcakes.

    Brookings, I’m waiting for your call!