The Option of Urbanism: How Cities Can Become More Walkable

By Melissa Dittmann Tracey

It’s time for cities to get walking, not sprawling, writes Christopher B. Leinberger in his new book The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream (Island Press, 2008). Not only are buyers demanding it, but cities need it to thrive. Walkable urbanism is when everyday needs—such as parks, shopping, work, and schools—all fall within walking distance (a quarter to a half mile) or are easily accessible by transit from your home. Properties in walkable communities tend to command the highest prices, anywhere from 40-200 percent more than drivable single-family housing. His book makes a solid case for why and how cities can make themselves more walkable. BUY THE BOOK


Walkable cities tend to have easy public transport and lots of shops, making for a highly desirable place to live. However, demand for housing in these places often outweighs the supply. Here’s what cities need to do to encourage more “walkable urbanism” developments.

1. Change zoning. True walkable urbanism requires high popular density, which often runs counter to zoning codes. Zoning laws also traditionally have set out to keep industrial and retail away from housing, which must coexist in a mixed-use development. Communities can adopt a new planning process that involves property owners, neighbors, retailers, developers, and planning and elected officials working together in bringing these often-complex developments to reality. Some cities are developing form-based codes that are not based on use (which is often the case with traditional zoning), but on the form of the building. These form-based codes are then implemented through an overlay district, which is placed on top of traditional zoning maps.

2. Invest in transit. The best way to encourage walkable urbanism is through transportation investment. “Transportation drives development,” Leinberger says. Often times, the transportation or rail station comes first, and then the development. Leinberger points to Washington, D.C., with its commuter Metro rail line, as a good example of how transit can foster the development of close-knit communities around it. Transit connections and bus and trolley circulator systems are ideal for walkable urban development.

3. Educate the financial community. Multi-use projects tend to be more costly due to multiple-story construction and top-notch finishes, Leinberger writes. Construction budgets must be 20-40 percent higher than for standard suburban projects. Therefore, more equity needs to be invested but it will not be recovered as quickly as traditionally financed projects, which can pose problems. As such, financial institutions need to embrace the need to invest patient equity, which runs counter to traditional development financing structures by not having a defined paypack period.

4. Revive old developments. Walkable urbanism developments can bring abandoned or declining retail centers back to life, particularly using the overlay zoning mentioned above. Obsolete commercial strips that are declining in value or abandoned may be prime spots for redevelopments. But cities must demonstrate to the private development community that there’s a market for these types of developments. Use market research to determine what is feasible and what’s in demand in your community.

5. Manage and maintain walkable urban places. This type of construction can be difficult and complex to build. Therefore, the complexity in developing these communities has led to the creation of a group to help manage it—nonprofit business improvement districts. Leinberger says the BID is like the “mayor of the walkable urban place” and its main obligation is to the property owners of the development. BIDs raise operating revenues by having property owners voluntarily raise their property taxes by 5-10 percent. In return, BIDs can help maintain properties, keep them clean, safe, and help prevent noise, parking overflow, cut-through traffic, or other common problems that often plague these types of developments.


“The ultimate irony is that Manhattanites, who live at 800 times the average U.S. density, have the smallest ‘ecological footprint’ per person in the nation and have the most expensive real estate prices (by the absolute dollar as well as on a price-per-square-foot basis) of any place in the country. These issues are connected.

“Many Washingtonians, Santa Feans, Portlanders, and a growing number of people throughout the country want to enjoy the pleasures and opportunities of walkable urbanism; Luckily, this is environmentally responsible and people are willing to pay a significant premium to do so.

“Walkable urban development is already a growing part of the American built environment, in spite of the legal, financial, and other obstacles. It will even become part of the next American Dream over the next generation. The only question is whether the market will just take its course over many decades or whether walkable urbanism will be part of new American domestic policy to speed up the process. Either way it is coming – all eyes to the future.”


Christopher B. Leinberger is a developer and professor who focuses on strategies to making progressive development profitable. He is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a founding partner of Arcadia Land Company, a real estate development firm.

Melissa Tracey

Melissa Dittmann Tracey is a contributing editor for REALTOR® Magazine, writing about home & design trends, technology, and sales and marketing. She manages the magazine's award-winning Styled, Staged & Sold blog.

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