Real walkable neighborhoods[i] are in such demand today that they are creating a real estate frenzy[ii] in older walkable cities like San Francisco, Boston and New York. The reason for the frenzy is simple economics of supply and demand. The demand for Walkable Urbanism[iii] is increasingly outstripping the supply and this situation seems to be getting worse.
This imbalance is due partly to the fact that we failed to protect our Walkable Urbanism from destruction. Starting in the 1950’s huge swaths of Walkable Urbanism were destroyed (sadly, as you will see later, this trend continues to this day) to make way for parking lots and parking garages to store cars on the street level of our city blocks and our urban buildings.[iv] Whereas stores, restaurants and cultural venues of all types once occupied the diverse street level commercial spaces in our buildings, for the last 60 years these street level commercial spaces have been destroyed in order to accommodate parking cars.
Additionally, for the last 60 years, we have very nearly completely failed to build any Walkable Urbanism in this country. Most of us are familiar with the fact that after WWII, encouraged by massive public subsidies,[v] the development community turned completely away from building Walkable Urbanism to investing in, planning for and building auto-centric suburban development. What we are not as familiar with is the fact that while we in the development community (supported by the “Smart Growth”[vi] and “New Urbanism” movements) have moved back to building higher density residential projects in cities, we continue to build auto centric projects with parking on the street level instead of viable commercial spaces with apartments or condos above.[vii] The only real difference between these projects and the office buildings over parking lots that the New Urbanists decried in the 1980’s and 1990’s is that the parking is hidden behind solid walls to screen the cars. The effect on walkability and street safety however is the same. These projects diminish the availability of fine grained and diverse commercial spaces on the street level of our cities leading to a net decrease in walkable urbanism and street safety in our cities.
As the supply of Walkable Urbanism continues to decrease, the demand continues to increase, creating a massive discrepancy between demand for and the availability or supply of Walkable Urban neighborhoods. Adding to the demand for walkable areas is the rising demographic groups called the Creative Class[viii] and the Millennials[ix]. Individuals that make up these powerful demographic groups don’t care about owning a home and they don’t want to own a car let alone spend hours a day commuting to a boring job in one. They want to live in places that are authentic, often older, and highly walkable with a vibrant street life and night life, places that really only exist in our historic neighborhoods built before the car craze and all but destroyed in the last 50 years. This all leaves us in the situation we are in currently; increasingly, we want to live in the hip urban walkable neighborhoods many of which were destroyed and none being adequately replaced, leading to the current situation where even if we can find a place in one of these areas, most of us have no chance of affording it.
Why is it with such a massive demand of folks with means to pay for what they want that we cannot seem to build the places they want to live in? What are the barriers to building dynamic walkable neighborhoods with vibrant and safe streets and how can we move beyond them to once again constructing walkable neighborhoods like those we love in the older parts of our favorite cities?
The Problems: Structural reasons inhibiting the building of contemporary Walkable Urbanism:
There are three distinct communities that are responsible for our failures to protect and to build walkable urbanism: 1. Municipal leaders who have failed to reform regulations that create barriers for functional walkable developments, 2. large corporate development companies who have built more apartments and condos in the cities but have diminished walkable streets at the same time, and 3. financial institutions which are loath to invest in product that does not fit the standards that have developed in the modern era of auto-centric development.
- Municipal leaders are failing to create planning changes needed to create and enhance urban walkability.
The municipal planning codes which were developed and are enforced by municipal planners and planning commissions, still favor and reinforce auto-dependent design. These codes still limit density even in areas well served by transit and insist on developers providing minimum on-site parking spaces for each development. These requirements drive down walkability because they assign the street level real estate in our buildings to cars instead of uses that people need. UCLA planning Professor Don Shoup[x] calls the ubiquitous requirement for minimum off street parking “a great planning disaster.” It is a disaster which, to this day, leads to the evisceration of historic downtown walkable districts to make way for storing cars and thus largely prohibiting the development of spaces needed to create walkable urban streetscapes and places[xi]. Requiring off street parking for residents of high density apartment and condo projects skews the housing market economically to favor drivers over non drivers who are forced to pay for parking even if they don’t want or need it.[xii]
Cities also continue to subsidize low density development over high density development by charging the same impact fees for both while low density development has a higher cost per unit and therefore much higher impact than higher density development[xiii].
- Suburban “homebuilders” dominate the urban development market with awkward, monolithic, higher density mega-projects that use the street level to store cars instead of curating spaces for enterprises that serve people and curate walkability.
These developers lack experience in creating urban prototypes and prefer to build on large vacant sites. What is worse, if sites are not vacant these developers will often demolish the smaller scaled buildings that house a variety of businesses in under-performing economic zones. Then they create huge residential projects, often blocks wide, that have hundreds of residential units above parking garages on the street level for hundreds of cars. Of course what gets lost by storing all of those cars are the spaces needed to create the businesses and venues needed to serve the needs of the residents on site so they don’t need to drive to malls to get what they need. By building as many parking places as they do apartments or condos they diminish the availability of street level spaces that are essential for Walkable Urbanism and in doing so fail to capture returns from ever increasing market demand.[xiv]
- Institutional lenders are not comfortable lending to projects that do not fit the auto-centric suburban model which insists on storing cars on the street level instead of curating walkable spaces. Once something has been commoditized as a “home with a car” has, it becomes standardized as the only investment that fits the model. This has the effect of undermining innovation in real estate development. Commodification of real estate also has the mostly unintended function of pushing more cash into real estate and thus inflating real estate both for rent and for purchase. This is, ironically, especially true in highly desirable walkable places increasingly pushing out the very people walkable urbanism depends upon for its vitality, resilience and authenticity.
The Solutions: Steps we need to take to create and enhance walkable high density urban neighborhoods.
- Fix our municipal codes and zoning regulations to support high density walkable urbanism by doing the following:
- Eliminate requirements for minimum off street parking[xv]. Let the market and the standard entitlements process take care of solving the issue of how much and what kind of parking is provided for developments. Let developers have the power to come up with other ways to ensure that their tenants and residents get the access to vehicles and parking they need without continuing to have minimum parking requirements support the use of the private car.
- Un-bundle[xvi] the cost of parking from the user. By un-bundling the cost of the parking from the residential unit itself, developers can sell or rent units without the cost of the parking, making housing to those who don’t have cars more affordable. It also solves the issue of residents of a high density development not having the parking they want and need. They can then purchase an additional space that was made ready by the tenant or owner that did not need it. Everyone gains and the market can better help determine the real need for parking rather than being mandated by law to artificially inflate the “need” for parking.
- Implement market rate street parking programs[xvii] in all high density districts to ensure that adequate parking is always available on the street on every block so those who choose to drive can find parking easily and without creating traffic and congestion that result from cruising for parking when it is scares due to under market pricing. Dr. Shoup largely invented this program and again clearly describes its importance to a sensible way to manage cars in cities in his book “The High Cost of Free Parking”.
- Implement reliable and affordable driver based vehicle sharing[xviii] programs to reduce parking demand on high density urban neighborhoods and Implement reliable and affordable non-driver mobility systems like Kids Cab, etc.
- Eliminate the construction of more off street parking for private cars in urban cores. Rely instead on sharing existing parking.
- Allow existing commercial buildings to change use from office to residential without requiring parking.
- Increase allowable residential density in all transit rich urban cores. The densities in transit rich areas, including suburbs, tend to be too low to support vibrant walkable districts that are active day and night and therefore create civility and safety. Zoning laws for transit rich areas should allow a minimum of 100 units per acre[xix].
- Stop subsidizing suburban growth at the cost of Walkable Urbanism. Cities should lower impact fees for higher density projects that increase walkability and are a lower per unit cost to the city’s budget. In contrast, cities should increase impact fees for lower density projects that have a higher per unit cost to the city[xx].
- Place a moratorium on the demolition of the remaining walkable urban fabric. Encourage smaller infill projects and give incentives to smaller local urban developers over large national suburban dominant real estate firms.
- Work to establish the connection between the social and environmental “triple bottom line.” Such efforts result in Walkable Urban projects and supports the large and growing socially responsible investment market. Currently, socially responsible investors have no mechanisms available to invest in smaller innovative developers who want to create walkable urban projects with triple bottom line benefits. We urgently need a mechanism to bring the billion dollar socially responsible investment market into socially responsible urban development.
- Create programs and incentives to deploy businesses at the street level of new developments at and near transit nodes. In addition, continue to invest in creating, maintaining and improving mass transit in a variety of forms.[xxi]
Create a diversity of sizes in our street level commercial spaces in new projects to support a diversity of shops and venues. This is primarily a mistake of suburban developers moving into the high density urban core. They provide much too large commercial spaces[xxii] in their projects. These spaces go empty because they are too expensive for the smaller artisans, mom and pops, and start-ups to rent.
- Create affordable small or subsidized spaces for startups and those who help functional walkability and increase quality of life in urban cores. This is such a simple idea it is amazing that it is not practiced. In the East Bay Area, there are hundreds of vacant commercial spaces on the street level of newer large residential projects. When vacant, these spaces become urban voids, which decrease the safety and vitality of the area. In turn, they diminish the true market value of the apartments above them. Why not give away this space to businesses that would contribute value to the residents and neighbors? In turn, charge the residents a bit more for their units as a better way to compensate for the commercial space.
- Increase bicycle and pedestrian safety. Widen sidewalks, pop outs, bike commuter systems, etc. This is where cities should be spending municipal funds. In addition to the “walk score” concept we need a “bike score” which would provide a numeric indicator of the ability of a location to provide for goods and services by bike instead of car. Cities can increase the “bike score” of a neighborhood by making it safer to use a bike to shop, commute, see friends, and generally get where you want and need to go. I especially see promise in this idea with newer developments which might not be able to capture the authentic variety of pre-war walkable neighborhoods but which can be designed for bike travel better than many of those places. In that sense, they can meet a big need for safe avenues for pedal power transportation.
We are well past the point where we need a market study to determine the demand and need for Walkable Urbanism, especially places that are affordable. Furthermore we don’t need studies to show that there is a market for residential developments that provide less or no parking on site and pass on the savings for creating less parking onto the consumer. What we need are developers to lead the way and work with municipal planners and the investment community to break through the barriers to creating dynamic walkable mixed use projects in our cities. [xxiii]
Because they meet the pent up and increasing demand for the car-free walkable way of life, developers who persevere through the barriers described above to create true walkable urban projects, will most certainly be well compensated for their efforts. In addition to financial rewards, developers who build walkable urban projects will have the satisfaction of knowing they are building communities that are more dynamic, healthier and more sustainable than most of the monotonous auto-centric projects that continue to be built even in an era that, by all indications, suggests such projects, and the thinking that made them, are well past their prime.
[i] Not enough has been written about what constitutes a real walkable neighborhood vs. an artificial one. We should not call living next to a mall a walkable neighborhood though the technical “Walk score” as defined by the company with that name, might be 100 out of 100. Real walkable neighborhoods are not just those where you can walk to what you want and need, but where the street life is vibrant, unique and always changing. It is where the public sphere is not artificially conducted as in a mall or as it is in new mega projects, but where it has the diversity and ability to change and adopt as society changes. Architect Stephen Mouzon has pointed out that if the neighborhood is unsafe or unattractive such that pedestrians do not want to walk, a store might be two blocks away but you still drive to it. Conversely you will walk to a store 5 blocks way if you are walking in a beautiful safe area with vibrant sidewalks full of people, kids, etc. These safe vibrant streets with a diversity of shops are the lifeblood of a walkable area. Vibrant safe streets is the very thing that the current development community is so terrible at creating.
[ii] Rents in San Francisco have risen to a point unthinkable a few years ago……. if you are lucky enough to actually find an apartment.
[iii] “Walkable Urbanism” is a term I borrow from Christopher Leinberger, who uses this term in his seminal book “The Option of Urbanism.” Walkable Urbanism to Leinberger is the type of urban fabric which, taken together, creates an area where residents can access the things they need without a car. It is what we all experience and love in older walkable neighborhoods in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia. It is the fabric that was being decimated in the 1950’s and 1960’s, which Jane Jacobs observed in her classic “Death and Life of Great American Cities.” She chronicled the very elements that go into creating Walkable Urbanism and the factors leading to its destruction. Along with Donald Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking”, “Death and the Life of Great American Cities” is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in generating or preserving safe, vibrant walkable urban districts.
[iv] The destruction of our historic walkable cities is perfectly chronicled in Jane Jacobs masterpiece “Death and Life of Great American Cities” and essential reading. Though written 50 years ago, the book remains, sadly, equally relevant today.
[v] There was no greater financial incentive to suburban growth than President Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956[v]. This along with artificially low fuel costs due to federal incentives for oil and gas companies, provided low cost access to and typically low cost land outside of the cities.
[vi] The Smart Growth and New Urbanism movements have really done cities and residents a disservice by supporting what I call the “High Density Suburban” model of development which dominates new development in our cities and has, in almost every case, diminished walkability on their surrounding sidewalks and neighborhoods.
[vii] A phenomenon that I call “High Density Suburbanism”
[viii] See Richard Florida’s seminal work on this subject in his book “The Rise of The Creative Class.”
[ix] According to Leinberger, 77% of Millennials would prefer to live in the now very hip walkable neighborhoods of New York, Washington DC, and San Francisco to the now increasingly uncool auto dependent suburbs. In knowledge centers like the metropolitan Bay Area my guess is that number is closer to 90%.
[x] Dr. Shoup’s book “The High Cost of Free Parking” is in my view the most important book on urban design written since Jane Jacob’s masterpiece “The Death and Life of Great American Cities ” was written 50 years ago. It is essential reading for anyone wanting to protect and or manifest Walkable Urbanism.
[xi] Arguments for this effect are powerfully and clearly laid out in Shoup’s book “The High Cost of Free Parking,” which is a must read on this subject.
[xii] It is one of the crimes of this type of system that senior housing and affordable housing is often grossly over parked and that the parking is subsidized by tax dollars.
[xiii] The use of the private automobile in this country continues to be heavily subsidized such that the driver bears less than the actual cost for driving his or her vehicle such that we have made driving and parking artificially cheap. This has had the largely unintended consequence having induced the demand for privately owned vehicles since their cost of operation is in large part shouldered indirectly by higher taxes and higher costs of everything else. UCLA Professor Don Shoup says that providing free parking and roads to drivers is like “giving fertility drugs to cars.” This phenomenon skews the real estate offering toward providing product with lots of private car parking.
[xiv] According to Leinberger, the only type of real estate that held its value during the real estate crash of 2008-2012 was the walkable pre-war and pre-auto neighborhoods. These communities did not loose value while every single other sector of the market did – often disastrously so.
[xv] Dr. Shoup calls the creation of the ubiquitous municipal codes requiring a minimum number of off street parking spaces be made available in all new developments a “great planning disaster.” These laws effectively institutionalized the evisceration of walkable urban fabric and do more than any one thing to inhibit the development of walkable urban mixed use projects.
[xvi] Unbundling the cost of a parking space from the people space will allow those who do not want or need a car to not have to pay for a parking place. This will also have the effect of discontinuing the practice of hiding the cost of parking by charging more for everything else.
[xvii] See The High Cost of Free Parking for examples of this, including the system currently deployed in San Francisco called SF Park.
[xviii] Shared parking is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to decrease the amount of parking built in our high density neighborhoods. The concept is so easy it is amazing it is not more frequently done. The idea is that those commuters who commute to their city jobs from outside the city use a parking space that has been vacated by the city resident commuting to his or her job in another area. This increases the efficiency of parking and decreases the demand for parking in cities.
[xix] Municipalities can create a high density walkable overlay zone to upwardly adjust density without having to revise their general plan. Additionally, they can provide incentives and subsidies to support investment in walkable districts. Leinberger sites an example of this in his book. Illinois is giving businesses tax credits if they choose to locate their businesses where they are served by transit or close to affordable housing under their program called the Economic Development for a Growing Economy or EDGE.
[xx] Leinberger cites a 2004 city of Albuquerque New Mexico study, which found suburban development 22 times more costly for four infrastructure categories (roads, drainage, public safety and parks) than walkable high density urban development. As a result of this study the city council of Albuquerque approved impact fees eleven times greater for the suburbs ($11,000) than for developments in town ($1,000)
[xxi] Todd Jersey Architecture has the good fortune of being the design firm partner for an innovative, reliable, and affordable new transit system called CyberTran. Visit our website for more information on this system: www.toddjerseyarchitecture.com
[xxii] This is more than a missed opportunity and loss of income for the developer. Large often empty commercial spaces on city streets create a street that feels empty and is more dangerous and where people avoid walking. The opposite of what we want in a city. The once ubiquitous shoe repair shop is the small vendor who needs a small affordable space in areas of high density. This increases the functional walkability of the neighborhood.