What Makes a Community Walkable?

After Clay Scarborough’s kids headed off to college a decade ago and he and his wife became empty nesters, they didn’t just downsize from their suburban home in the northern Atlanta suburbs.

“We were tired of commuting,” said Scarborough, who is now 62. “We knew we wanted to live in a more walkable community. So we sold our place in the suburbs and moved into a condominium in Decatur, which borders Atlanta and is just five miles east of downtown.” Their condo is 1,315 square feet and cost them $315,000.

“We got a place that is just about a block from the downtown square, which is ideal for us,” he explained, noting that within a short distance, he and his spouse can walk to a grocery store, pharmacy and restaurants. If they still had kids in the house, their children would be able to amble to school, too.

We knew we wanted to live in a more walkable community.

The Scarboroughs aren’t alone in their desire to live in walkable communities. Studies show there has been a shift in Americans’ attitudes toward living in walkable versus drive-only communities, some of which don’t even have sidewalks.

“The most requested attribute I hear is walkability,” said Andrea Evers, a REALTOR® with Evers & Co. Real Estate in Washington, D.C., and who grew up in the suburbs.

“I noticed the change start to happen about a decade ago,” said Evers.

And it’s not just baby boomers, either. According to a report by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, the percentage of people without a driver’s license increased between 2011 and 2014, across all age groups. The paper said only 69 percent of 19-yearolds had licenses in 2014, compared to 87.3 percent in 1983, a 21-percent drop.

That means they want to live in places where they can walk and have easy access to public transportation. The increased desirability of walkable neighborhoods and downtowns has driven up the prices of homes, condos and apartments in the communities that have them.

“When I was growing up, everyone who could afford it wanted to live in the suburbs,” Evers said. “But now cities are more vibrant, in part because they are walkable. My clients say they want to be in neighborhoods where they can walk to coffee shops, restaurants, the grocery and other stores, and entertainment.

“Some of them, especially younger ones, don’t even own cars. They’re doing this in part because they want to simplify their lives and they sure don’t want to be chained to their cars. But not all neighborhoods are walkable. ”

Scarborough, a semi-retired business executive, said he and his wife are convinced they now have a “healthier and better quality of life in Decatur. Atlanta has a lot of heavy traffic, but living here means we don’t have to be out in it much and that’s a pretty nice thing.

“I feel like we live in a wonderful bubble,” he said. “We walk for exercise and there is a great bike trail called the Path that starts in Atlanta, goes through Decatur and then continues 10 more miles or so out to Stone Mountain. After we moved here, we sold one of our two cars because we didn’t need it anymore.”

Settled in 1823, 14 years before neighboring Atlanta, Decatur covers four square miles, has a population of 19,000 and is the county seat of DeKalb County, Scarborough said. When he and his wife moved to Decatur, they purchased their condo in a building that has retail stores on the first floor with residences above them.

People want to live in places where they can walk and have easy access to public transportation.

“The town center has a great old square with the county courthouse that dates to the 1800s, a history center and a Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) stop,” he said. “There is a lot of development in new buildings close in, too. Ours is just 10 years old. There are also nice residential neighborhoods within a short walking distance, but we wanted the condo lifestyle.”

He said the square hosts frequent cultural events, including Saturday concerts, book, wine and other music festivals. Shops, restaurants, parks and churches are all within walking distance, too, he added.

Scarborough, who was the CEO of an Atlanta high-tech company and later ran a running shoe store in Decatur that he recently sold, said his wife works at the Emory University hospital, which is less than three miles from Decatur. Sometimes she takes the bus to work and then walks home, he said.

“We’re not quite ready to retire,” he said. “But we plan to age in place because Decatur is so nice. And the walkability is a big part of that.”

Kaid Benfield, author of “People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities,” said communities like Decatur are ahead of the curve because they have more than just safe sidewalks, but “interesting places to walk to like shops, restaurants, parks and transit.”

He said the best walkable communities — of all sizes — have short blocks, frequent intersections, and are wellconnected so pedestrians have a number of ways to get from their dwellings to sites they want to visit.

“The research shows people will walk around a quarter of a mile to get to a bus stop and half a mile to get to a rail stop, which roughly translates into five to 10 minutes,” said Benfield, who is Senior Counsel for Environmental Strategies for Placemakers, an urban design and planning company.

“People really are gravitating to neighborhoods that have good grids and connections,” he said. “They will pay on average another $100,000 for a house that has a 20 point increase in its walkscore.com grade. Generally, dense downtowns get a score close to 100, while a home out in the suburbs might only get a 50.”

He noted that towns that haven’t been that pedestrian friendly are changing their zoning codes to promote walkability. He said some of that has been driven by business executives who want to attract young talent.

The best walkable communities have short blocks, frequent intersections, and are well-connected.

Benfield said Dublin, Ohio — a well-to-do suburb of Columbus that is home to several corporate headquarters, is remaking its core into a walkable downtown with the Bridge Street Corridor revitalization as the centerpiece. The city has a population of around 45,000.

“They had more jobs than people and discovered that many recent college graduates didn’t want to live in suburbs that weren’t pedestrian friendly,” he said. “So the city, pushed by the business community, is doing things like re-making some of its giant parking lots. I think that’s a positive move.”

Karen Parolek, a principal with Berkeley, California-based Opticos Design, concurred with Benfield that “destinational” walking is key so pedestrians can easily get to stores, schools, restaurants, parks, public buildings and transit points.

“If a place is walkable, people will spend more money locally because it’s easier for them to peak into a window, stop in and shop,” she said. When that happens, the money circulates within the community much more than if residents are buying something at a chain store, she added.

Parolek said having a walking path “through a green space is lovely, but that does not make a community walkable. You really do actually have to have the destinations.”

The second major issue, she said is “always safety.” Sidewalks need to be separated from roads, have no connection gaps, and be wide enough for people to walk side-by-side and still be able to have someone pass them on the sidewalk.

Moreover, traffic speeds on roads by sidewalks should be moderated and it’s best to have separation barriers such as parked cars so pedestrians have the perception of safety, she added. In addition, she said narrow intersections are best so walkers don’t have to cross many lanes of traffic.

“Bulb-outs, or curb extensions, at intersections can help,” she noted, “because they shorten the distance where pedestrians are out in traffic. They can pull sidewalks out to where there is parallel parking so pedestrians have safe places to stand on the sidewalk and see moving traffic.”

Adequate street lighting is also important, especially for older adults because it increases their feelings of security, she said. Parolek — no fan of cul de sacs — is also big on efficient sidewalk networks, which means no meandering paths “that are best left for recreational strolling. For destinational walking, you want short and efficient blocks. The longer the length of a block, the more the pedestrian is stuck. These details make a big difference.”

Sidewalks need to be separated from roads, have no connection gaps, and be wide enough for people to walk side-by-side.

She praised new national standards around street design to make them “multi-modal, complete streets.”

“Changes in technical design can make streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists with shorter blocks, slower speeds and calmer traffic,” she said. “It also includes making driving lanes narrower, reducing them from 12 to 10 feet in some cases.”

Unfortunately, Parolek said, many communities fail to make their walking areas interesting.

“That’s a critical point that’s too-often missed,” she said. “For this to work, you need to make people want to get out on foot so it becomes a habit. The journey has to be engaging, so some communities are using parking spaces for ‘parklets’ with flowers and trees, as well as changing their zoning rules to allow sidewalk cafes and things like that.”

In addition, she said cities need to be thoughtful about what kinds of retail they allow on the ground floors of buildings in order to “activate” streets.

“Too often, when architects are designing multi-story housing, they don’t understand retail and don’t design store fronts that are attractive,” she said. “So retail doesn’t succeed, store fronts stay empty then people don’t want to walk there. Planners need to think about multi-story buildings from the ‘knees down’ so people will want to walk by them.”

Parolek, who also dislikes housing where garages face the street, acknowledged that not every part of a city or town can be made walkable.

“You have to make tradeoffs and look at options,” she said. “You’re probably not going to put your resources to make areas around factories walkable. The same is true with shopping centers. But you probably would spend your dollars in a place where there are those all-important destinations. You have to look at all things in context, so communities need to have challenging conversations.”

Christopher Coes is director of Smart Growth America’s LOCUS program, a network of real estate developers and investors who advocate for sustainable, walkable development. He said nearly all communities were laid out with classic grids and sidewalks prior to World War II.

You need to make people want to get out on foot.

“They were city oriented and developments were compact,” he said. “But after the war, there was a huge push for people to live in inner ring suburbs and later to exurban developments. It wasn't long before the rule of thumb was ‘how can we accommodate people who are driving from the burbs into the city in the morning and then back home in the afternoon. They wanted an easy commute rather than ways to walk or bike to work.”

That meant the safety of pedestrians often became an afterthought, he said, and some suburbs even dropped sidewalk requirements. City councils, pushed by neighborhood associations, voted in rules mandating wider “collector” streets so people could get to their jobs faster.

“In some cases, they even took out sidewalks as they widened roads, leaving less space for pedestrians,” he said. “Those kinds of things accumulated over the past 40 years so today the American built environment is primarily suburban.

“Now, though, we are noticing a shift in consumer preference. A lot of older, more-compact communities that have retained their natural walkability and fit the earlier model with grid streets have found themselves in a major recovery because they have a lot of goods and services in walking distance. They’ve taken off.”

Market studies have shown a strong demand for walkable real estate product.

He said market studies have shown a “strong demand for that kind of walkable real estate product. In some cases, we are seeing strip malls being redeveloped into walkable town centers. You’re also finding inner ring suburbs that are doing traditional town layouts and trying to return to that after 60 years.

“The pedestrian-oriented infrastructure was largely abandoned after WWII in favor of a car-oriented system. But now we are going back to reorient ourselves to a walking-friendly approach. Consumers are demanding it because, in large part, they don’t like being stuck in traffic while commuting.”

So they are voting with their feet and their checkbooks, just like the Scarboroughs in Decatur, Georgia.

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