Tag Archives: Walkability

Private Investment in the Public Realm

libbie_mill_lake
by James A. Bacon

The American suburbs built since World War II have many deficiencies, not the least of which are expensive, fiscally unsustainable infrastructure and a proclivity toward traffic congestion. But the greatest drawback of all gets the least attention: the poverty of the public realm. Outside of shopping malls, there really is no public realm in the post-World War II suburbs. Streets are not designed for walking. There are no plazas. Parks are accessibly mainly by automobile. The only gathering places are found indoors — libraries, churches, fitness clubs and the like.

But tastes are changing, and a new generation of real estate developers understands that creating quality public spaces — particularly streets, sidewalks and parks — allows them to charge premium prices for their buildings. The key insight they have grasped is that humans are social creatures. Yes, people like their privacy of their homes, but they also enjoy being around other people. They like to walk. They like to watch other people. They like gathering in groups.

Developers in the Richmond region have gotten the message that there is a large unmet demand for “walkable urbanism,” places that make it easy, even delightful, for people to walk around. Walkability goes deeper than the utilitarian function of allowing people to substitute walk trips for car trips, thus reducing traffic congestion. People like walkability because it facilitates social interaction. Sadly, most efforts to build walkable communities in the Richmond suburbs have been underwhelming.

That’s why I’m paying close attention to the development of Libbie Mill-Midtown in Henrico County. Gumenick Properties may be paying keener attention to the quality of the public spaces they’re building in the 800-acre, $434 million project than has any other suburban developer in the history of the Richmond region. As a sign of how seriously Gumenick takes the public realm, the company has engaged the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit organization launched by William Whyte, the pioneer who first studied the sociology of small public spaces from a scientific perspective.

Little of what Gumenick is doing is new — it’s just been forgotten. Company spokesman Ed Crews describes the project as “retro.” Libbie Mill-Midtown seeks to create “what the urban environment was a century ago,” before counties outlawed mixed-use zoning and developers designed communities largely around the car.

As I explained in a recent post (see “The Invisible Parking Garage“),  Gumenick is building a pedestrian-friendly community. The mixed-use  project is laid out in a street grid with wide sidewalks. Great attention is paid to defining the pedestrian street space and providing a variety of destinations within easy walking distance of apartments and town homes. Gumenick donated land for construction of a new Henrico County library, and plans call for lots of street-level space for restaurants, shops and local services.

Parking is only one dimension of the challenge. The landscape of the Richmond region is pocked with ugly sediment ponds installed to manage storm water. Occasionally, someone sticks some gazebos by them or turns them into something visually interesting like a man-made wetlands. But Gumenick is investing the resources to transform its storm water pond into the focal point of the entire development.

The rendering above is a conceptual sketch of what that lake might look like. The final design will depend upon the buildings constructed around it. But there will be trails, a fountain, plazas, an amphitheater and places where people can touch the water. One of the key insights learned from the Project for Public Spaces, says Crews, is not to fill in the public space with fixed benches and other objects. Instead, provide portable furniture that people can rearrange to accommodate the size of their small groups.

Shane Finnegan, vice president of construction, says the plaza will be built for flexibility in order to accommodate a wide range of activities. For instance, to accommodate tents for farmer’s markets and other events, the design calls for embedding hold-downs in the pavement. Alternatively, the community might bring in taco trucks and a marimba band. The programmatic element of bringing in events and concerts will be important in Libbie Mill-Midtown, as it is in downtown Richmond, Innsbrook and other areas. The difference is that in Libbie Mill, the physical space will be designed from the beginning with that programmatic element in mind.

“This won’t be built in a day,” cautions Crews. Indeed, the project is expected to take 10 years to complete, depending upon market conditions. There needs to be a critical mass of people living and working in the neighborhood for activity in the public spaces to take off.

Bacon’s bottom line: Gumenick is betting that investing in the public realm will pay off. I’d wager that the company has it right.

The Invisible Parking Garage

Draft rendering of planned apartment building at Libbie Mill-Midtown shows how garage rooftop will be used as communal space.

Draft rendering of a planned apartment building at Libbie Mill-Midtown shows how garage rooftop will be used as communal space. Illustration credit: Gumenick Properties.

by James A. Bacon

It is axiomatic among New Urbanists and like-minded brethren in the Smart Growth movement that parking garages create dead space in the urban fabric that discourages walkability and depresses neighboring property values. Some architects try to dress up the structures by giving them facades that imitate the look of regular buildings, draping them with plantings or otherwise making them visually interesting. Another strategy is to hide garages underground or relegate them to the middle of the block.

There is nothing new under the sun, as the old saying goes, so the Gumenick Properties design for a planned apartment building in its Libbie Mill-Midtown project may not be the first of its kind. But I feel safe in saying that it is unique to the Richmond real estate market — and it’s a solution that, economics permitting, should be employed more frequently.

Libbie Mill-Midtown is an 80-acre mixed-use development in Henrico County roughly midway between downtown Richmond and the Innsbrook Corporate Center. The company is billing the $434 million community as “ten minutes from everything.” When complete in ten years or so, depending upon market conditions, the project is expected to have 994 for-sale homes, 1,096 apartments, 160,000 square feet of retail space, a public library and office space. Marketing the project to people who want to rely upon the automobile less, Gumenick is placing tremendous emphasis on walkability.

The development will contain a grid street system and wide sidewalks, and designers are paying close attention to the science of “place making — creating public spaces where people enjoy spending time, as I gathered during an interview last week with  Shane Finnegan, Gumenick’s vice president of construction, and Ed Crews, company spokesman.

This schematic shows the ground-level view of the retail-apartment building planned for Libbie Mill-Midtown.

This schematic shows the ground-level view of the retail-apartment building planned for Libbie Mill-Midtown. (Click for larger image.)

One of the basic rules of place making is to minimize the expanse of parking lots and to hide the parking garages from view. Having erected two retail-office buildings, Gumenick now is designing the first apartment building, which will consist of 40,000 square feet of street-level retail space and 327 apartment units above. In a nod to market reality, the developer acknowledges that most suburban Henrico tenants, while wanting to live in a walkable community, still will own automobiles. Rather than surround the apartments in a sea of asphalt parking, which would diminish the appeal of the streetscape, Gumenick plans to encase the parking garage inside street-facing stores.

Other developers have done the same thing but Gumenick is going one step further. It’s building a pool, terrace and public area on the roof of the parking garage. The parking lot will be totally hidden from view, not just from the street but from the perspective of the tenants living in the apartment building.

Bacon’s bottom line: Gumenick did not divulge financial details of the planned parking structure, but it doesn’t take a construction engineer to figure out that reinforcing a garage so it can support trees, decks and a swimming pool is not an inexpensive proposition. But the invisible parking garage accomplishes two important goals. First, it allows Gumenick to create a shared recreation/courtyard for its tenants. Second, it tucks parking into the middle of the block, preserving pedestrian-enhancing streetscapes. It will be interesting to see how the market responds. Will people pay a premium to live in a walkable community with such amenities? I would. I’m betting others would, too.

Getting Around London

red_buses

by James A. Bacon

London is one of the most photographed cities in the world. Tourists flock there by the millions, and most of them have cameras. The Parliament building, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey… the list of world-class photo-worthy historical sites goes on an on. And then there’s the scene shown above — nothing that the typical tourist would care to capture digitally. But it caught my eye because four double-decker red buses were visible on the same street in one shot, and it illustrated one of the more mundane aspects of London — how the 8.5 million inhabitants get around.

While the Bacon family rushed from one incredible attraction to another on vacation last week, I bedeviled my wife and son by pausing at seemingly random spots to capture images of things that visitors take for granted, such as parks, buses, crosswalks, plazas, sidewalks and ordinary streets full of ordinary houses. As an amateur student of human settlement patterns, I have a keen appreciation for how people organize their build environment. Citizens of countries around the world flock to London not just to visit but, despite a punishing cost of living, to live and work. Even if you stripped away the metropolis’ impossible-to-reproduce historical attractions, it still would be an awesome place. Part of that awesomeness, which won London recognition last year as the “best” city on the planet, is its transportation infrastructure.

London has an excellent mass-transit system, which includes the London Underground, a network of double-decker buses and some light rail. We had no trouble whatsoever getting around the city without a car. Actually, a car would have been a hassle because parking is difficult and there is an £11.50 congestion charge for entering the busy center city.

crosswalkThe key to making mass transit workable is creating hospitable pedestrian environments. London sweats the details. The first thing to notice is that crosswalks are not located at the edge of intersections, as they are in the United States but set back by several yards. The necessity of considering only left-right traffic flows as opposed to multi-directional traffic flow in the intersection, I presume, is improved safety. In London, the on-street signage remind pedestrians which way to look for oncoming traffic (of particular help to foreigners, most of whom drive on the opposite side of the road).

pedestrian_spaceThere is nothing resembling a street grid in London, so streets intersect at all manner of odd angles. As a consequence, street designers create a lot of pedestrian islands that allow people to stop halfway across busy intersections rather than risk crossing all the way. The city also installs wrought-iron rails to prevent people from stepping into parts of the street where they have no business stepping. Considering how fast Londoners drive — faster and more aggressively than in most parts of the States — these design precautions make sense.

cyclistI sense that it has been more difficult grafting bicycle-friendly infrastructure onto the street network. How would you like to be the cyclist at left, riding that close to a huge bus?  Cycling remains relatively dangerous by comparison to other transportation modes. There have been five cycling fatalities in London so far this year. Just last week, 55-year-old Moira Gimmell, recently picked by Queen Elizabeth to oversee renovations at Windsor Castle, was struck and killed by a truck.

Despite the issues unique to bicycles, London as a excellent transportation system overall. An American friend, who has lived in London for about a decade, does not own a car. He doesn’t need one. I’m sure that millions of other Londoners have made the same choice of going carless. A trip on the Underground near the center city costs about £1.7 (more if you’re traveling to outer boroughs), or $3.00. Say the average Londoner takes three bus or rail trips daily, costing about $10 daily. That’s $3,600 a year, or half the price of owning a car. That savings helps offset the mind-numbing price of real estate. (A two-bedroom flat on the street where we stayed is on sale for £1,250,000, about $1.8 million.)

How much does it cost to maintain this system? Thanks to the density of development and the high cost of operating an automobile, Transport of London captures a large share of total travel. Revenues in the year ending in 2013 (the most recent year I could find) amounted to about £5.6 billion, generating a loss of £1.2 billion, or about 20%. I suspect that’s pretty efficient by the standards of mass transit authorities in the United States. It’s certainly cheaper than building new or wider roads. Given the high cost of real estate in London and the narrow street setbacks, the cost of expanding roads would be astronomical.

Transportation systems are always a work in progress, and London is no exception. Personally, I like living in Richmond, Va., where I can load four of five bags of groceries into my car — try lugging four bags of groceries with you on the Underground. Car ownership offers convenience and privacy in travel that no mass transit system can replicate. But I can definitely see the allure of the London way of life.

No Wegmans for Tysons… Too Bad for Wegmans

wegmans_bakeryCan Tysons have its cake and eat it, too? Perhaps not, at least if the cake is baked in a Wegmans Food Market bakery. Discussions to bring the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocery chain to a transit-oriented development around the McLean Metro station have ended in frustration, reports the Washington Post.

CityLine Partners, developer of Scotts Run Station South, won rezoning approval last year to transform a typical suburban office park into 6.7 million square feet of mixed-use commercial and housing towers with ground-floor retail. The development plans includes contributing to a Tysons-wide grid street network, creating more walkable streets and reducing the parking footprint.

It would be a real coup to bring a Wegmans to the development. The upscale store appeals to exactly the kind of higher-income demographic that CityLine wants to attract to its project. But Wegmans’ business model meshes best with suburban development.  The company normally builds stores of more than 100,000 square feet surrounded by large surface parking lots. In Tysons, Wegmans was considering a new “urban” format of 80,000 square feet, similar to one it opened in Boston this spring, the Post reports. The idea was to place the store on the ground floor of a building with apartments upstairs.

Too bad Wegmans couldn’t make it happen. Some other grocery chain will. A tremendous share of future development in the United States will take place in walkable, denser, mixed-use communities like Scotts Run. Vast surface parking lots do not figure into the plan — the land is simply too valuable to squander on such a marginal use. In contrast to Wegmans, Wal-Mart, once the epitome of land-intensive suburban development and the object of scorn among urbanists across the country, has re-tooled its stores to fit in smaller urban footprints. In fact, a new complex developing around the Tysons West station will be anchored by a Wal-Mart.

For decades, retailers were a driving force behind sprawl. They built their business models around big stores, big parking lots and easy automobile access. They provided amenities in the suburbs that few center cities could match. But the market dynamics have shifted. People are moving to walkable urbanism whether Wal-Mart and Wegmans like it or not. Retailers need to invent new formats to serve the new markets. Inevitably, someone will. And when enough retailers make the switch, they will make walkable urbanism all the more alluring and its rise all the more inevitable.

– JAB

The Market Speaks, and It Likes Reston Town Center

reston_town_center
Reston Town Center got a half-century head start in creating the kind of community where enterprises want to do business in the 21st-century knowledge economy. The original developers were planning for and building walkable, mixed-use development before walkable, mixed-use development was cool. And today property owners are reaping the benefits.

According to Cushman/Wakefield, offices in Reston Town Center are near full occupancy and command among the highest rents in Northern Virginia. The business district’s big competitive advantage? A strong amenity base. Summarizes Virginia Business:

The report notes that in addition to 2.8 million square feet of office space, Reston Town Center is home to 50 retail shops, 30 restaurants and three residential high-rise projects. Even with a suburban location 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C., and a lack of Metro accessibility until at least 2018, the center’s density, mixed-uses and walkability give the center an urban feel that attracts tenants and residents.

Reston achieves high occupancy despite the fact that tenants pay a 30% rent premium to be there. The situation in Reston stands in marked contrast to the other major business centers, Tysons and the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor. Spurred by the arrival of the Metro Silver Line, Tysons is desperately trying to reinvent itself from a case study in suburban sprawl into a paragon of Transit Oriented Development. But the transition to a coherent, walkable place will take place over years, if not decades. Property owners in Arlington’s Ballston-Rosslyn corridor have Reston-style amenities and have been demanding Reston-style rents but have been afflicted by the departure of large government tenants.

Bacon’s bottom line: Could the marketplace be speaking any more clearly? People are demanding walkable urbanism. It doesn’t have to be located in the core of the metropolitan area. It doesn’t even have to have Metro service. People like compact, walkable, mixed-use development. Developers who deliver that product will make money. Localities that foster its development will see their tax base grow.

– JAB

Loudoun’s Broken Development Model

If housing stock like this Loudoun County beauty can't cover its costs in infrastructure and services,  the local governance model is badly broken.

If housing stock like this Loudoun County beauty can’t cover its costs in infrastructure and services, the local governance model is badly broken.

by James A. Bacon

Office workers need less space than they once did. Over the years businesses’ space needs per office employee have shrunk from approximately 250 square feet to less than 190 square feet, says Ben Keddie, vice president of Coldwell Banker Commercial Elite, as quoted in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. Office space is expensive, and businesses have learned how to function with less of it. With the rise of the mobile workforce, open work spaces and office hoteling, it is easier than ever to conserve space and rein in lease and rental costs.

That trend has dramatic, if unappreciated, consequences for local governments’ real estate tax base and the management of growth and development. If businesses need less office space per employee, they need less office space overall. Which means the cost of office space drops. Which means developers build fewer new office buildings. Which means local governments are finding it harder and harder to grow their tax base.

Loudoun County in Northern Virginia, it appears, is facing that very problem. “A softening commercial office market has made it difficult for developers to make money on their commercial land, because there are fewer companies interested in large parcels,” reports the Loudoun Times. Indeed, it might be said that outlying counties in the Washington metropolitan region are facing a trifecta of troubles regarding commercial real estate: (1) business enterprises are shrinking their office footprints everywhere; (2) sequestration-related budget cuts have dampened demand even more in the Washington region; and (3) when Washington-area businesses do seek new digs, they show strong preferences for walkable urbanism, a higher-density, mixed use pattern of development that accommodates walking, biking and mass transit. Walkable urbanism is found mainly in the region’s urban core and along Metro lines, not in low-density burbs like Loudoun.

Not surprisingly, Loudoun’s supervisors appear to be adrift in dealing with these trends. According to the Loudoun Times, the Board of Supervisors has been striking down applications by developers to rezone excess commercial land to residential on the grounds that residential incurs high costs for roads, schools and other infrastructure.

Loudoun County estimates that for every $1 spent on housing, the county pays $1.62. Developers dispute the latter number, suggesting that it is closer to $1.20. Either way, says Supervisor Shawn Williams, R-Broad Run, new residential development has a negative impact on the county’s operational budget.

Think about it: There is something severely wrong with a system that incentivizes local governments to limit residential development. If Loudoun County, which has the highest per capita income of any locality in the entire country and presumably has a building stock to match, can’t justify new residential development, then something is severely out of whack! It is precisely this attitude, and the resulting restrictions placed on the building of new residences, that creates housing scarcities and makes housing more expensive up and down the income scale.

In the old old tax model, a 60/40 balance between residential and commercial real estate property tax revenue was considered healthy. If you could get more commercial development, then great. If not, you had a problem. Well, almost every locality in the United States has, or will have, a problem as offices continue to downsize and retailing shifts from malls and shopping centers to online commerce. Local government generally, not just Loudoun County, will face a tax crisis. And if county boards and city councils all try to address it the same way as Loudoun — by restricting new housing construction — they will compound the tax crisis with a housing crisis.

What, then, is the answer? Local governments need to advance the emerging discipline of fiscal analytics. The core premise of fiscal analytics is that different human settlement patterns have different cost and revenue profiles. Some patterns generate more tax revenue per acre than other patterns. Some patterns have lower embedded costs for transportation, utilities and public services than others. Some human settlement patterns provide a much better balance between revenue and cost than others.

As a general rule, walkable urbanism (mixed use, medium density, complete streets, access to mass transit) comes closer to fiscal balance (revenues matching expenditures) than the scattered, low-density, auto-centric pattern commonly referred to as suburban sprawl. Continue reading

BRT to Nowhere?

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

by James A. Bacon

There’s a whole lot of fuzzy thinking going on. People in the Richmond area are so enamored with the prospect of building a Bus Rapid Transit route through the city that they are saying the most astonishing things.

Bus Rapid Transit can be a great idea if done correctly. But it must be done correctly, or it will create a long-term drain on public resources in the City of Richmond and, to a lesser extent, in Henrico County that neither locality can afford.

In the company of Governor Terry McAuliffe, Mayor Dwight Jones and other local luminaries, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Saturday that Uncle Sam will provide a $24.9 million grant toward the cost of the $54 million project, which would run along Broad Street from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn. (See the Times-Dispatch story here.) Virginia, flush with transportation tax revenue from former Governor Bob McDonnell’s tax increase, will kick in $16.8 million toward the project, while Richmond and Henrico will contribute a total of $8 million. (If that adds up to $49.7 million on your calculator like it does on mine, that leaves more than $4 million unaccounted for.)

Local officials touted BRT as a jobs project. “We’re going to make jobs available to people,” said Jones. The bus would shave a quarter hour travel time along the 7.6-mile route, said Foxx. For a person in poverty or without a car, that could mean “the difference between getting a job or not.” Then came this from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd: “BRT will allow thousands of people in the East End of Richmond to apply for jobs in the West End they wouldn’t even think about applying for before.”

Really? At the eastern terminus, the BRT system will be anchored in Rocketts Landing, an upscale, New Urbanist development along the James River — across the railroad tracks from Fulton Hill, home to thousands of poor and working-class African-Americans. Is this some kind of cruel joke? The lawyers, investment bankers and advertising executives living in Rocketts Landing are not the ones who need access to minimum-wage retail jobs in the Broad Street corridor west of town. For the people who need the jobs, it will be a long, long walk to the BRT station.

Moving west along the proposed route, there aren’t many poor people living in Shockoe Bottom, a commercial area lined by the upscale Tobacco Row condos and apartments on the one side and yuppified apartments for the creative class on the other. As the bus route proceeds through downtown, it does pass through the traditional African-American Jackson Ward neighborhood, but that is rapidly gentrifying as more affluent Richmonders seek proximity to the jobs and amenities of downtown. Further west, the route passes through VCU, but college students hardly constitute a downtrodden class (until they have to start paying back their student loans).

West of downtown, the BRT route skirts past the Carver neighborhood with a couple thousand African-Americans. BRT could provide them better access. But the route then passes Scott’s Addition, an old industrial park that traditionally has had little residential, although it is gentrifying now with the addition of apartments and condos designed for middle-class tastes. Near the western terminus at Willow Lawn, the neighborhoods are middle-class.

For the most part, the only working poor of Richmond’s East End whom the BRT will benefit are those who take a local bus downtown and then change routes. That shaving 15 minutes off their travel time makes the difference between those people having jobs and not having jobs, however, is not a proposition that BRT backers have proved.

The other question that no one seems willing to address — at least not in public speeches — is what happens when the poor East Enders get off the bus on the West side of town. On the plus side, they can walk to their destination on sidewalks — yes, there are sidewalks on this part of Broad Street, unlike farther west. On the downside, the sidewalks are not the kind that actually invite people to walk on them, as can be see in the Google Street View atop this post. The Broad Street stroad is designed for cars, not walking. The sidewalks abut right up to streets with cars traveling 35 miles per hour or faster. Crossing the street can be challenging. Visually, the landscape is barren and inhospitable.

Even more grievous is the fact that Richmond and Henrico need to zone for higher-density, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development along the corridor. Zoning for greater density is the easy part. The hard part is coaxing property owners not to build a new generation of the same old low-rise schlock that aligns the corridor. Another issue that neither jurisdiction has answered — not in public statements, at least — how much it will cost to build “complete street” streetscapes that accommodate people and bicycles as well as cars and BRT buses.

I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t escape the feeling that the state, the feds and the localities have gotten ahead of themselves. They’ve got the money, so they’re going to build the project, regardless of whether they have put other elements of a corridor-revitalization plan in place. Current estimates say the BRT will cost $2.7 million a year in ongoing subsidies to operate. That could be a modest price to pay if the project stimulates a transformation of the Broad Street Corridor along the lines of Cleveland’s Healthline Bus Rapid Transit system, which has been cited as an example of what Richmond can accomplish. But that transformation will not occur in a vacuum. The job does not end with construction of the BRT line. It will take decades of follow-up to the community that arises along it.

The Simple, Lovable Sidewalk

sidewalk By Peter Galuszka

Forever humble, the simple sidewalk is becoming an issue in land planning and transportation.

In densely-populated populated urban areas, sidewalks have been a staple of living since the time of the Ancient Greeks. They were classics in the familiar grid plans that marked most American towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It all changed after World War II when thousands of veterans came home with access to cars and cheap mortgages and builders started constructing car-centric neighborhoods. The cookie-cutter plan included big subdivisions with only one or two access points, lots of cul de sacs and long streets and wound around until they emptied into the few access roads.

You couldn’t walk anywhere. The feeling was, with the complicity of such car-centric bodies as the Virginia Department of Transportation, that you didn’t need sidewalks because the kids could play in the cul de sacs and anyone could drive.

This started to change a decade or so ago as pe0ple wanted to walk more to the library, the store or to visit a neighbor. Suburban planners are taking this into consideration and are “encouraging” developers to put in sidewalks.

A couple problems here:

First, although the Tim Kaine administration changed VDOT policy to advocate more intersecting streets in new developments along with sidewalks, the policy has been watered down under pressure from the development industry.

The other problem is that while it is a simple matter to put sidewalks in new projects, retrofitting them in older ones is tough. It is expensive, there are rights of way issues and sometimes the terrain doesn’t lend itself to them. And, when sidewalks are put in, they merely connect with gigantic feeder roads where one might have to walk a half a mile to a stoplight just cross safely, as is the case in one instance in Chesterfield County.

For more, read my recent pieces in the Chesterfield Monthly and Henrico Monthly.

The Rise of Walkable Urbanism and “the End of Sprawl”

foot_traffic_aheadby James A. Bacon

The Washington metropolitan region is the national model for “walkable urbanism” in the United States — more so even than metropolitan New York, according to the findings of “Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros,” a report released this morning by LOCUS, an organization of smart-growth real estate developers, and Smart Growth America.

The study identified 558 WalkUPs — regionally significant activity centers characterized by a high level of walkability — in the nation’s 30 largest metros. Forty-five of them are located in the Washington region, about half in the District of Columbia and half in surrounding Virginia and Maryland jurisdictions. The overall walkability exceeds even that of New York. While Manhattan is the single-most walkable place in the United States, it accounts for only 0.3% of the New York metro region’s land mass, and outer jurisdictions dilute its overall walkability, explained Christopher B. Leinberger, LOCUS president  and co-author of the report, during the LOCUS annual conference.

Washington’s lead in developing “walkable urbanism,” in contrast to the “drivable suburbanism” that dominated U.S. growth and development between World War II and the Great Recession of 2007-2008, should stand the region in good stead as it faces an economic future made insecure by the retrenchment of its main growth industry, the federal government. Walkable urbanism is closely correlated with the presence of a highly educated workforce, and a highly educated workforce is closely correlated with faster economic growth. While correlation does not necessarily mean causality, an argument can be made the the desirable attributes of walkable urbanism make it easier to attract and retain educated workers who, in turn, contribute to economic growth.

The report findings suggest that there will be future demand for hundreds of millions of square feet of walkable development over the next generation, said Leinberger. “This is likely the end of sprawl.”

A clear sign of shifting market preference is the 74% premium the market is willing to pay for office space in WalkUPs compared to space in Drivable Urbanism.  That’s the reverse of 30 years ago when suburban office parks enjoyed a marked advantage, Leinberger said. Even excluding the New York market, which skews the results, WalkUps enjoy a 44% edge, he said.

While Washington was the star metro, some surprising regions have been coming on strong thanks to dramatic shifts in development patterns in the post-2008 development cycle. Metropolitan Atlanta, which only 20 years ago was the poster child of sprawl, has concentrated 50% of its development in WalkUP districts comprising only 1% of the region’s land mass. Perhaps even more surprisingly, Detroit has seen similarly focused re-development in downtown, midtown and a handful of urbanizing suburbs.

Leinberger attributed Washington region’s success to five main factors. First, the region has the highest overall education level of any metro in the country, Second, the region has been aggressively expanded its Metro rail system; 80% of the WalkUPs in the region are, or soon will be, served by Metro. Third, for the most part local governments put in the right kind of zoning around their Metro stations, encouraging walkable, mixed-use development. Fourth, the region’s real estate industry has mastered the discipline of developing WalkUPs, which are inherently more complex and expensive than green-field development. And fifth, the public sector has done an exceptionally good job of “place management” — creating quality walkable places.

While rail transit gives a big boost to walkable urbanism, said Leinberger, it is not essential. One out of five WalkUPs in the Washington region are not connected to the Metro. Also, many small cities and towns have walkable places. “It sure does help but it is not required.”

Emerick Corsi, president of Forest City Enterprises Real Estate, agreed. “Walkable can be built anywhere,” he said. He cited the example of a town miles outside of Los Angeles where his firm is converting an old shopping center into 2 million square feet of new buildings with the capability to expand a lot more by going “totally vertical.” There is no transit but the development will be highly walkable, he said.

Leinberger predicted that real estate development in the foreseeable future will be driven by the desire to meet the demand for walkable urbanism. The process won’t necessarily be smooth. Some metros — San Antonio, Kansas City, San Diego — have continued to sprawl. Providing affordable housing in the most desirable areas will be a challenge. But if Leinberger is right and the most walkable regions prove to be the most economically dynamic regions, the success of metros like Washington, Boston, New York and even Atlanta and Detroit will be clear for all to see.

Want to Combat Noise Pollution? Measure It

I’m a big fan of city life but I’m the first to acknowledge that there are drawbacks to crowding and congestion. The foremost of those is noise. Cities are noisier than the burbs and the countryside. The older I get (I’m 61 now), the larger the noise factor looms in my consideration of things. Even in suburbs, it doesn’t take much commotion to jangle my nerves. In the early morning birds can drive me crazy with all their chirping and cawing and twittering. As for children, don’t get me started. The noise-oblivious little monsters can be worse than freight trains. If it sounds like I’m turning into a cranky old man… yes, I believe that’s exactly what’s happening.

As a rule, cities are even noisier than the burbs. People are more densely packed in urban areas, so there are more people — more drunks, more wife beaters, more backyard dogs, more buses, more sirens, more jackhammers, more big, honking HVACs — generating sound waves within hearing distance. Cities also have more concrete and masonry that reflect sound and less in the way of trees, bushes and vegetative mass to dampen it. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), problems resulting from too much noise include poor work and school performance and even cardiovascular problems. Clearly, in the battle for livability, the noise factor favors suburbs, small towns and rural areas.

How does a city combat that disadvantage? Ordinances can limit excessive noise from construction, honking horns or barking dogs. Transportation officials can build sound walls along highways. Aside from such obvious measures, one useful place to start is to measure decibel levels to visualize where noise is the worst. Thanks to the increasing ubiquity of smart phones, the practice of noise mapping is spreading around the world.

In 2010 the Sony Computer Science Lab in Paris released an app, NoiseTube, that anyone can download and use to record decibel levels wherever they go. Users can tag particularly obnoxious noise sources and display them on Google Maps. The data can be aggregated to create noise maps accessible to researchers and city officials.

Sony appears to have neglected its website. NoiseTube.com claims to have data from 509 cities worldwide (including Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Richmond, Scottsville and Lynchburg) but the data doesn’t upload to my PC. Regardless, the code is open source, and anyone is free to improve upon it. Creating regional noise maps sounds like a cool community project to undertake. I’d volunteer to participate.  If there are any civic hackers in Virginia looking for a project, let me know.

– JAB