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(Photo: Kichigin/Shutterstock)

Walkability Boondoggle

• January 23, 2014 • 4:05 PM

(Photo: Kichigin/Shutterstock)

Making your city walkable isn’t enough to attract and retain talent. People follow jobs, not sidewalks.

Urban planning trends are conclusions in search of justification. Thanks to Richard Florida, the end-as-starting-point is usually Jane Jacobs’ New York City. Laudable goals such as greater diversity become causes instead of effects. Greater diversity will catalyze more innovation. Jobs follow creative people. More walkable neighborhoods promote economic development. Heck, walkability makes residents smarter:

Want to walk to work? You might consider living in a college town. They dominate a new list of the places where commuters walk to work most.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to Harvard, MIT, and other universities, tops the list. About a quarter of residents walk to work, according to an analysis by Governing magazine using census data. Columbia, South Carolina (home to USC) is next, with more than a fifth of people walking. After that comes Berkeley, California (18.1% walkers), and Ann Arbor, Michigan (15.5%), where the University of Michigan is located.

Stop the presses. University students and employees walk to campus. Well, perhaps smart people like to walk. That might explain college towns dominating the list. Make the next generation of real estate development projects will be more walkable and attract the Creative Class, as easy as that.

At the International Economic Development Council annual conference in Philadelphia, I listened to a lot of real estate development pitches promising to attract/retain talent. They won’t work. The premise is flawed. “Homes a Short Walk From Princeton Prove a Tough Sell“:

The development was intended to tap into a desire among some Americans to trade in the car-dependent suburbs for more accessible urban centers. In a recent study by the National Association of Realtors, more than half of respondents preferred a neighborhood with a mix of stores, other businesses and housing. About three-fourths said a neighborhood was more important than the size of a home. Generally, the lifestyle appeals to two distinct groups: young professionals without children and retiring baby boomers.

“People are buying more than just a house,” said Christopher B. Leinberger, a professor and director of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. “They’re buying a neighborhood.”

Americans are willing to pay more to live within walking distance from town, according to research by Mr. Leinberger. But while living in downtown Princeton would give a buyer access to an excellent public school system and a pleasant neighborhood with wine and cheese shops, there is no direct train to New York City, a deterrent for commuters. Instead, riders must take a shuttle ride to the nearby Princeton Junction train station.

Emphasis added. People follow jobs. Sidewalk ballet be damned. The Creative Class wants a direct train to work.

There are other problems with the project. It’s too dense and doesn’t fit in well with the rest of downtown. More walkable and greater density, what could go wrong? Everything.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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