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.
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.”
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.