Opinion: Cities have to walk the walk

Research has quantified the benefits of walkable urban places, but questions remain over who gains, says Tim Williams.

I’m a big walker. Sadly since I moved to Sydney five years ago the decisive word in that sentence has become ‘big’, not walker. I’ve been walking (and cycling) a lot less than when I was a Londoner and so put on (let’s be honest here) a bit of weight. I have also developed type 2 diabetes.

I have accordingly become very interested in urban design and health, and particularly how some areas or types of places can tend to be, what’s been called ‘obesogenic’. That means by inhibiting walking - to work, to school, to the playground or beach, to the shops and services - they cause ill health. I am also interested in how places that enable or encourage walkability are not just healthy, but also wealthy and indeed wise.

Western Sydney, like many low density, sprawling parts of any city poorly served by public transport, has become the diabetes and obesity centre of Sydney. By contrast, the ‘compact city’ part of Sydney – within 10 kilometres of the central business district (CBD) – is well served by mass transit, is higher density, provides ample opportunities for walkability and has a healthier population. That population is also wealthier and has a much higher proportion of graduates.

I learn from the excellent research of Christopher Leinberger and an outfit called Smart Growth America that these outcomes are all linked. I also learn from this work that there is an increasing market premium for walkable urban places, or ‘WalkUPs’.

Leinberger says that such places, in all 30 of the largest US metropolitan areas he has reviewed, are for the first time in 60 years, "gaining market share over their drivable sub-urban competition—and showing substantially higher rental premiums". The premium for walkable urban office space is 90 per cent, retail 71 per cent, and for rented apartment blocks 66 per cent over drivable sub-urban products.

He thinks that we are seeing a paradigm shift in the market that may be reversing the previously dominant trend towards what he calls, "drivable sub-urban approach dominated real estate development". This is characterised by low densities, segregated but standardised real estate product types and have cars as the predominant transportation mode. Viz, sprawl.

By contrast, walkable urban development includes: higher densities, mixed use real estate products, and multiple transportation options, such as bus, rail, bicycle, and pedestrian friendly sidewalks, as well as motor vehicles, that connect to the greater metropolitan area. Urbanists everywhere will be unsurprised that this form of development (and location) is the hottest in the market, but delighted that someone has done some serious and big research to prove the point.

A question of access

So far, so good. What about the ‘density’ and walkable cities discussion, which few mention but which matters a great deal to the inclusivity of our cities? That is what you might call inequitable access to the benefits of density. This is the Western Sydney dilemma on the one hand and the problem of gentrification on the other, where the less well off can be disadvantaged by where they live now – increasingly in the sprawl city – or through being displaced from the compact city by higher costs.

Leinberger has some positive findings to add to this crucial issue. He finds that while metropolitan areas with the highest levels of walkable urbanism are also the most educated and wealthy, they are also, "surprisingly, the most socially equitable".

How so? Leinberger says the reason for this is that, overall, low transportation costs and better access to employment in WalkUPs, "offset the higher costs of housing". I am sure there is something to this, especially where housing rent levels are suppressed through regulation, as epitomised in the significant social housing stock at the heart of London.

However, he adds, reflecting no doubt the fact that housing costs continue to rise in our increasingly in-demand WalkUPs and that governments in the UK in particular are less willing to subsidise social housing provision in high cost areas, that, "this finding underscores the need for continued, and aggressive, development of attainable housing solutions". I’d say.

I share the hope of many that the new London Mayor is able to make progress on this most crucial policy front; otherwise inequity of access to the benefits of density and walkability will persist or worsen, and the bonus of living in the compact city will increasingly go to those who need it least.

Tim Williams is chief executive officer of Australia-based independent think tank, The Committee for Sydney. He was previously special adviser to a number of cabinet ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government.

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