Whether you live in the city or the suburbs, being able to walk to retail stores, restaurants and parks is a huge boon to living in those communities. So, it’s no wonder that walkable communities are good for real estate prices, according to the study “2016 Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros,” by The George Washington University School of Business. The study shows that walkable urban places (WalkUPs) in all 30 of the largest metros are gaining market share over their drivable suburban competition — and showing substantially higher rental premiums.
“Walkable, urban for-sale housing is by far the most expensive housing in the country. The range, depending on the market, is between 40 percent and 200 percent greater than drivable, suburban housing,” said George Washington University’s Chris Leinberger, author of the report. “Twenty-five years ago, that relationship didn’t exist because walkability was not valued.”
Not only that, but according to the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS’® (NAR) 2017 National Community and Transportation Preference Survey, 53 percent would prefer a house with a small yard in a walkable neighborhood as compared to 47 percent who would choose a large yard in a neighborhood where you have to drive most places, and 80 percent believe it to be very or somewhat important in choosing a home, to be “within an easy walk of other places and things in the community.”
“There seems to be a perception out there that walkability is purely about personal [and] environmental health — which are both important — but Dan Burden [director of innovation and inspiration for Blue Zones LLC, a group that champions walkable communities] made it statistically clear that walkability has a direct link to increased property values, too,” according to Celeste Rueter, government affairs director for St. Louis Association of REALTORS®.
These facts are just a few of the reasons the NAR is taking a role in teaching leaders and citizens how to improve the walkability of their cities. To date, NAR has provided grants to six local associations through a pilot project that offers grants through NAR’s Smart Growth grant program. “The grants were offered to certain REALTOR® associations who already have a public commitment to make communities or neighborhoods more walkable,” says Holly Moskerintz, NAR’s community programs outreach manager.
Explaining a WalkShop
The grant allowed the associations to sponsor WalkShops, two-day events in collaboration with Dan Burden of Blue Zones. According to Burden, “if we plan for cars and traffic, we get cars and traffic. If, instead, we plan for people and places, we get people and places.”
Blue Zones works with cities and, through policy and programs, aims to transform communities across the United States into areas where the healthy choice is easy, and people live longer with a higher quality of life.
“Dan Burden is very well respected in helping communities become more walkable,” says Moskerintz. “He and Samantha Thomas, also of Blue Zones, were the consultants who conducted the WalkShops.”
Thomas notes that the purpose of the WalkShop is “to help empower and inspire local residents to design new ways to enhance the ability of people to walk or bike throughout the town. It also provides a social engagement where local citizens and community leaders are brought together to discuss the future of their community.”
The two-day event, presented to community stakeholders, such as city council members, local business owners, planning and transportation agencies and more, includes a presentation by Burden and a walk audit, where stakeholders take a deeper dive into the neighborhood by walking a route to identify barriers and make recommendations for creating a more walkable and safe community.
That’s where Burden’s expertise comes in. “In almost all of our Blue Zones communities, we want to create complete streets. It’s a whole movement to take all streets and make them walkable or bikeable,” says Burden. “We look for ways we can improve streets through better sidewalks, narrower lanes, reducing traffic and slowing down traffic,” he says.
Those recommendations are then taken to city leaders and planners with the idea that they will be implemented.
The REALTOR® Association as Expert
For the MIBOR REALTOR® Association in Indianapolis, Ind., the walkshop was not only helpful in bringing the REALTOR® to the center of the conversations about communities and neighborhoods, but it also helped to bring all key players together rather than piece out the conversations over a series of meetings.
The two-day event kicked off with a walk audit along a mile stretch of US 31 in Franklin, Ind. The Mayor of Franklin, Steve Barnett; City of Franklin planners; Indiana Department of Transportation officials; and representatives from the Johnson County Chamber of Commerce and Johnson County Development Corporation, joined local REALTORS® to participate in the audit.
“We cover 12 counties and many municipalities,” says Zach Churney, economic and community development liaison for MIBOR. “We chose Franklin because that community is doing a lot right now in redeveloping the town and updating the comprehensive plan,” he says.
The key, according to Lacey Everett, government and community relations strategist for MIBOR, was to “get the most out of it. Every one of the planners from across the region took back findings from this process so they could implement or take a look at the challenges in their area.”
At press time, MIBOR association leaders met with Franklin’s mayor, and Churney says, “they are moving forward by adding sidewalks, looking at street buffers and lane widths to make the downtown area more walkable.”
The association plans to continue to “educate and be an advocate at the table for upcoming developments,” says Everett. Churney agrees. “The REALTOR® Association should be at the table for these conversations. Walkable communities are in demand [by homebuyers], but the supply is limited. We can serve as the catalyst for getting local leaders thinking about ways to improve supply,” he says.
“Neighborhoods decline when the people who live there lose their connection and no longer feel part of their community,” said Burden. “Recapturing that sense of belonging and pride of place can be as simple as planting a civic garden or placing some benches in a park.”
Convincing Business Owners
Another Association that was part of the pilot project was Boise Regional REALTORS®, which had some unique challenges in their area.
“We were on NAR’s radar because we are a progressive city looking for these types of opportunities,” says Georgia Meacham, 2017 NAR Smart Growth vice chair and educator with Georgia Meacham & Company in Boise, Idaho. “The city took the lead in our project, and we involved the Idaho Department of Transportation; Ada County Highway District; neighborhood associations; local business owners; the Boise City Council President; and a member of the state legislature.”
A challenge unique to Idaho is that the Ada County Highway District controls the roads in the city. “Having the resources of NAR and expertise of Blue Zones’ consultants, we were able to create an incredibly successful two-day WalkShop,” says Soren Dorius, Director of Government Affairs for Boise Regional REALTORS®.
The Association and city chose to focus on Orchard Street, a main thoroughfare that gets about 20,000 cars a day, and the few existing sidewalks and crosswalks are dangerous for pedestrians, bicycles and those in wheelchairs. The area also has much retail that can benefit from better access to parking and more walkability.
“The whole experience was eye-opening and allowed us to start an important conversation about the future of Orchard Street and the many ways we can improve it, short- and long-term,” says Dorius.
From the WalkShop, the group created an action plan of the findings. “The plan is in place and moving forward,” says Meacham.
Although not without some hiccups. Two of the plan recommendations were to change traffic patterns and lower the speed limits. “Many of the local businesses were afraid proposed changes would restrict access to their storefronts,” says Meacham. The conversation helped business owners see that slower traffic, more parking, sidewalks, and safer crosswalks would actually increase business traffic.
“This is a wonderful example of public-private collaboration for a goal to make a community a more vibrant, sustainable place to live,” she says.
Dorius felt similarly. “The enthusiasm from all who participated was contagious, and it’s clear that we’ve started a powerful movement among these new collaborative partners. We have our work cut out for us, and look forward to future opportunities to engage our community with these amazing REALTOR® Party tools and resources.”
Part of that work is getting buy-in from the Ada County Highway District, which adds an additional layer to an already complicated process. Meacham has an optimistic outlook regarding the future of the project, adding, “I’m sure we can show community support and get buy-in.”
While there are challenges to creating or redeveloping communities to make them walkable, such as funding and a willingness to change city plans, one thing is certain. The demand for walkable communities is rising. According to the study Foot Traffic Ahead, walkable urban development appears to be a rising, or even a dominant, factor in real estate development. In the most highly ranked walkable urban metros, 81 percent of 2010-2015 office and rental multi-family absorption by square footage is now walkable urban.
That same study says that properties located in convenient, amenity-rich communities are commanding increases in the per-foot price of both commercial and residential spaces compared to those in neighborhoods where residents do not have amenities within walking distance. Walkable urban products in WalkUPs generate substantial rental premiums, suggesting pent-up demand for more walkable urban development.
This alone makes it vital for REALTORS® to continue to be a voice in their communities to facilitate change.
Tracey C. Velt is an Orlando-based freelance writer specializing in real estate and business.