When it comes to discussing sprawl, Atlanta and Detroit have served as poster children for expansive geographic footprints that create driving-dependent lifestyles. However, new research predicts that these two metropolises may now be representative of the cities transitioning from sprawl-based development to walkable urbanism, signaling a major shift in development and lifestyle patterns. The report, "Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America's Largest Metros" predicts that if current development trends continue, cities such as Atlanta, Detroit, and Miami will bound from the bottom third of the list, where they currently reside, to the top 10 metropolises for walkable urban places (or WalkUPs).
Walkable urban places are characterized by high density and a diverse mix of real estate types and transportation options, with everyday destinations such as home, work, school, stores, and restaurants within walking distance.
Currently, a predictable list of cities tops the list of metropolises with the most WalkUPs: Washington, D.C.; New York; Boston; San Francisco; Chicago. These cities, according to the report, have the highest level of walkable urbansim, which comes of little surprise to those familiar with those cities' downtown cores. Of great interest, however, is the shift that researchers predict will happen if current building trends continue. In that list, which is not attached to a specific year, Atlanta moves up from its current 8th place to 5th place, and, more notable, Detroit leaps from 22nd place to 8th, and Miami jumps from 23rd place to 4th place.
"These places are witnessing the end of sprawl," says Christopher Leinberger, president of LOCUS: Responsible Real Estate Developer and Investors, and one of the study's authors. "It represents a pretty significant change in how we invest and build the country."
The report, which was produced by the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at the George Washington University School of Business in conjunction with LOCUS continues research presented by Leinberger in 2012 at the Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit. In that work, Leinberger argued that by 2020 we will place a premium on housing located within transit-oriented, walkable communities and that such a shift from drivable suburban communities to WalkUPs could reduce a household's energy use and greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 80 percent.
Those numbers alone are substantial, and if the predictions of "Foot Traffic Ahead" hold true, there could be additional significant benefits for cities such as Detroit and Miami. For example, according to the report's authors, most WalkUPs show a significantly higher gross domestic product (GDP) and house more college graduates than non-walkable areas, and the more WalkUPs a city has, the higher its GDP. In fact, the GDP per capita of the three highest-ranking walkable urban metros areas is 52 percent higher than that of the lowest three walkable urban metros, according to the report. The benefits break down a on a per-project scale, as well. WalkUP offices rent at a 74 percent premium over driveable suburban in the 30 largest metro areas, according to the report, and this premium has increased 19 percentage points since the fourth quarter of 2007. Atlanta, Denver, and Miami all currently have 25 percent rental premiums for walkable urban office space on a square foot basis over driveable suburban competitors. And WalkUPs aren't limited to downtown cores: Of the country's 558 WalkUPs studied in this report, 42 percent were in the suburbs.
The growing demand for WalkUPs is here to stay, Leinberger says, and indeed, his report comes on the heels of a separate recent report that found that millennials favor walkable communities with multiple transportation options. In that study, 86 percent of millennials surveyed by The Rockefeller Foundation and Smart Growth America in a separate phone poll across 10 cities last month, said that it is important that their city offer opportunities to live and work without relying on a car.. “This is not just a passing fad,” Leinberger says. “It’s going to take 20 to 30 years for cities to catch up with the demand for walkable spaces.”