The Attraction of Walkability


There was a great article posted recently in the Huffington Post by noted urbanist Kaid Benfield.

The article talked about the increasing desire of home buyers and renters who want to live in walkable neighborhoods near urban amenities.

But Benfield, who interviewed several real estate brokers lamented that in many communities, there simply wasn’t enough product to meet the demand and more worrisome is that many cities fight policies that would promote more walkable neighborhoods. They really shouldn’t.

If you think that a desire to live where you can walk to stores, offices, services, restaurants and cultural amenities is going away—guess again.

Millennials prefer urban amenities more than their predecessors: 50 percent consider it “very important” to be within an easy walk of places “such as shops, cafes and restaurants,” according to the results of a nationwide survey released earlier this year by the National Association of Realtors and Portland State University. Among baby boomers, the portion considering walkability to be very important is 38 percent.

According to Benfield: “Earlier survey research has found that 31 percent of millennials want to live in a core city, as opposed to only 15 percent of baby boomers and 18 percent of generation X. (Forty-two percent of millennials prefer living in a suburb, and 25 percent prefer living in a small town or rural setting.) But, even if they want to live in a suburb, most millennials still want walkability; 71 percent of all millennials reportedly want their home neighborhood to be walkable. Moreover, seventy-eight percent are looking for diversity; this is a generation that grew up with more diversity than its predecessors and has come to expect it where they live, in housing types and in the incomes and ethnicity of their neighbors.

It’s not just millennials who are driving demand for walkable neighborhoods, of course. In addition, a large number of baby boomers – the second largest generation in American history – are seeking new places to live as they downsize, and many of them, too, want to be able to walk to shops and amenities.”

Writing in the Washington Post reporter Ylan Q. Mui put it this way: “Roughly 10,000 baby boomers are retiring each day, and recent data show that half of those who plan to move will downsize when they do. Many are seeking the type of urban living that typically has been associated with young college graduates — so much so that boomers are renting apartments and buying condos at more than twice the rate of their millennial children.”

So what is a walkable neighborhood? Benfield says it has three characteristics:


  • Well-connected streets: The smaller the block size, and the more intersections, the better. This makes potential travel routes shorter, more direct, and frequently safer, since well-connected neighborhood streets can provide quieter alternatives to walking along high-speed arterial roads
  • Things to walk to: Simply put, people walk more when they have places they want to go within walking distance. Research has also shown that people who live in neighborhoods where homes are accessible to shopping walk more and actually weigh less, on average, than residents of automobile-dependent neighborhoods, even when other potentially relevant factors such as age, income, and ethnicity are discounted in the analysis.
  • Good infrastructure for safe walking: Sidewalks are important, as well as safe street crossings and nearby motor vehicle traffic moving at nonthreatening speeds.

Sadly, Benfield says these types of neighborhoods are scarce, mostly found in inner cities and there are not enough of them being built to meet demand.

Benfield recommends using form based codes and LEED for Neighborhood Development to foster walkable neighborhoods.

Form based codes de-emphasize the regulation of building uses and focus instead on the size and positioning of buildings and their physical relationship to each other and to public spaces such as streets and sidewalks. As the Form-Based Codes Institute puts it, building form standards regulate things such as “how far buildings are from sidewalks, how much window area at minimum a building must have, how tall it is in relation to the width of the street, how accessible and welcoming front entrances are, and where a building’s parking goes.”

The idea is to create rather than inhibit a walk-friendly environment. A Form Based Code is less concerned with separating uses and shies away from prescriptive rules in favor of a how a neighborhood should look and feel. Delray Beach’s Downtown Master Plan came close to this ideal, but the most recent effort to update the downtown land development regulations—while originally sold as a form based effort—actually took a step back by becoming more prescriptive. Its failings were painfully evident when a new Aloft Hotel on US 1 proposed a 600 foot wall (two football fields) and it fell within the new code. A form based code would have prevented that scenario; unless of course you hoped to design a canyon.

LEED ND establishes criteria for development that prioritizes things like access to shops and services, streets and sidewalks that interface with buildings to create a comfortable walking environment, transit access, efficient use of land, affordable housing, and environmentally sensitive building practices. Planned or built development meeting the system’s set of prerequisites and optional credits are “rated” and, if they qualify, rewarded with certification at the certified, silver, gold, or platinum level.

While scores of cities are using form based codes and LEED ND, there are many, many others that are not despite the market demand for walkable neighborhoods.

According to the Land Use Law Center, there are about 40,000 local governments and most have at least a few polices that serve as barriers to walkability.

Clearly, there is a lot of work to do, but an amazing market opportunity for cities and developers to identify neighborhoods where walkable communities can be created.

So where do we stand? Well, downtown Delray Beach is a “walker’s paradise” with a Walk Score of 91 on a scale of 1-100.

Overall, the city as a whole rates a 36, which means that if you live outside the downtown you are car dependent.

Boca Raton also scores a 36 overall, according to Walk Boca’s most walkable neighborhood is the Villa Rica apartments, which scores a 64 meaning residents of this eastern neighborhoods can access four restaurants within five minutes on foot.

We can do better.