Why drive when you can walk? That’s the question many community developers are asking when laying out neighborhoods today. The growing trend toward walkability is being driven across generational lines, and it’s impacting the kinds of features developers include in new communities and how they market them.
In a 2015 survey by the National Association of Realtors, roughly eight in 10 respondents nationwide said that being in walking distance to community features like shops and parks was very or somewhat important to them. Sidewalks and nearby public transportation were cited as desirable means to that end.
Adam Ducker, managing director at real estate advisory firm RCLCO, says the demand for walkability continues to grow and is spreading beyond major cities. “People want to engage with other people outside of their cars,” he says. “Master planned communities (MPCs) are really focusing on providing walking opportunities and they’re getting good results.”
Subdivisions built from the 1950s to the 1970s typically lacked dedicated walking paths, they sometimes had no sidewalks at all, and the roads weren’t always walker-friendly, Ducker says. However, the last decade has seen developers get more creative in providing walking trails, including opening communities’ golf course paths to residents to walk on after the players have moved through.
A multigenerational trend
Who is doing all the walking? Millennials are front-and-center in the discussion of walkability in community planning today, but Ducker says they’re not the only ones interested in getting out of their cars. Baby boomers are also attracted to living where they can walk more than they drive because it affords exercise and the opportunity to engage with others, and because long car commutes can be a drag. “[Walkability] definitely isn’t a trend,” Ducker says. “This is now a permanent part of development.”
Jake Wagner, co-CEO and partner at real estate developer Republic Property Group agrees. Designing around the land to preserve and utilize its natural characteristics was top priority for the 7,200-acre Walsh MPC, in Fort Wort, TX. Open spaces, parks and trails connect throughout the property, putting residents in its first neighborhood, already underway, within five minutes of a park or open space.
“Walking pathways are the backbone of the community because they connect homes and amenities,” Wagner says. “Amenities typically have a specific use but the appeal of a walkable and connected neighborhood is that it can be used by everyone.”
Walking’s benefits are well-known. According to WalkScore, such communities offer improved health and wellness for both its residents and the environment, and they show greater involvement in community activities.
It can also impact property values. A 2009 study from the nonprofit CEOs for Cities found that for-sale houses in areas with above-average opportunities for walking could bring in $4,000 to $34,000 more than a comparable house in an area with average walkability.
Walking the walk
Developers must work with a municipality to provide useable open space, sidewalks or trails. And many developers are taking it upon themselves to do so as a way to attract new residents. Municipalities, too, have a stake in whether their neighborhoods encourage a pedestrian-friendly experience.
“Our street design standards strongly emphasize walkability,” says Sophie Stimson, senior planner for the city of Olympia, WA. Olympia requires sidewalks and planter strips on every street and allows on-street parking as a barrier between pedestrians and moving traffic.
“Walking is a priority here,” Stimson says. Locals backed up that sentiment by voting in 2004 for an increase to the utility tax to pay for parks and sidewalks.
More residents traversing a community on foot presents new safety concerns as well. That's especially true in areas where that volume is high or where the streets are particularly large. The question then becomes how to get pedestrians safely across the road, Stimson says.
"We want to create a sense of place that’s relevant not just today but years from now."
Co-CEO and partner, Republic Property Group
Pedestrian connections like an underpass or traffic signals that prioritize safety are key. And although natural features can be aesthetically pleasing and offer a positive environmental contribution, they can add to the challenge of connecting everything within the road network.
Demand from residents will continue to spur developers to prioritize finding ways to provide interesting and usable walking trails. “Creating a community that connects those that live there with natural features and amenities is important,” Wagner says. “We want to create a sense of place that’s relevant not just today but years from now.”
Developers have chased trends in the past — today's hiking paths and jogging trails are in many ways replacing the golf courses of decades past. For the latter, however, issue was that only a small percentage of residents who lived in the community played golf. “That’s not true with trails and pathways," Wagner says. "Everyone can use and enjoy them, regardless of age. Walking has a wide appeal.”