Inside Foot Traffic Ahead: sub-urban places and the future of walkability  

Belmar-festivalFestival Italiano in Belmar, a Walkable Urban Place in Denver, CO. Photo via Flickr.

Walkable real estate is in high demand in America’s large metros, and tomorrow’s most successful cities will be the ones that capture that market—but the walkable places they build may not look like today’s downtowns.

In Foot Traffic Ahead, our June report co-released by our LOCUS coalition and the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at the George Washington University School of Business, we ranked America’s largest metropolitan areas based on their projected future growth in the development of Walkable Urban Places (WalkUPs). That list of future walkable hot spots included surprise contenders like Atlanta, Denver, and Los Angeles—far from the usual suspects for such rankings. Meanwhile, some famously walkable cities like Portland, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore were projected to fall behind.

The difference owes to walkable sub-urban places, an unconventional category that includes both historic town-center type suburbs and modern transit-oriented developments. In our highest-projected metro areas—from Washington, DC to Atlanta, GA—a large percent of new growth is expected to take the walkable sub-urban form.

The raw materials for walkable sub-urban places are the areas of a metro region without a strong history of walkable growth: subdivisions, regional malls, suburban town centers. Often connected to downtown via rail, these developments can be “rehabilitated” from their original car-centric design to include a walkable mix of residential, commercial, and recreational land-uses.

In Washington, DC, Foot Traffic Ahead’s most walkable American metro area, the rise of walkable sub-urban growth is already well underway. Almost half of new office and retail development in Washington (49 percent) exists in urbanizing suburbs like Arlington, VA or Bethesda, MD—far greater than any other metro area in the United States. Those sub-urban WalkUPs—some of them historic, others converted from traditional car-centric landscapes—will continue to absorb even more of the city’s new energy in the future as growth in downtowns hits a plateau.

Meanwhile, in cities like Denver, the shift to walkable sub-urbanism is already finding crucial footholds. The success of Belmar, a suburban regional shopping mall converted to a mixed-use WalkUP, demonstrates the potential for walkable sub-urbanism to thrive in the Denver region. The famously car-dominated city has also invested strongly in rail transit, creating a network of connections between its employment centers and suburban areas. More Belmar-style shopping mall and town center conversions at points along that network are likely to follow.

Even the city of Los Angeles, one of America’s most spread-out major cities, shows much of the same promise for walkable sub-urban growth. Oriented around rail transit in the early 20th century, the city is rife with natural candidates for conversion to WalkUPs. As a region, Los Angeles decided to become a national leader for investment in rail transit, creating a strong foundation for an interconnected network of mixed-use employment, commerce and housing centers. WalkUps will flourish in LA.

As Foot Traffic Ahead reports, the cities with higher concentrations of Walkable Urban Places tend to support more robust economies and attract more highly educated talent. In the past, achieving those results often meant relying on growth or resurgence in already-existing downtown neighborhoods, with little upside to be found in the suburbs. But the American demand for Walkable Urban Places is growing, and tomorrow’s WalkUPs will likely include just as many rehabilitated suburbs as historic downtowns. The metro areas that find ways to best harness this new wave of development will reap the benefits for years to come.