Smart Growth Stories: LOCUS President Chris Leinberger on the power of walkable development

Over-building of drivable suburban development was a major part of the U.S.’s economic slowdown, and changing development strategies to meet shifting market demand will play an equally important role in repairing the national economy, says Chris Leinberger, President of Smart Growth America’s LOCUS.

As a vocal advocate for transit-oriented development (TOD) and walkable urban places, Leinberger sees how new demand for real estate is fundamentally changing the country – and its potential to revitalize economies across the nation.

“We’re in the middle of a structural shift in how we build the built environment in this country. The structural shift that we last had that was of this magnitude was back in the fifties where we shifted from investing in our cities to building the drivable suburban nature of our country,” he says. But now, “the pendulum is coming back to building walkable urban places.”

Leinberger detailed the rise of walkable urban places in the Washington, D.C. metro area in a recent report called “The WalkUP Wake Up Call,” which emphasized the economic potential of these places. “What you see created throughout the country as these walkable urban places get created is an upward spiral of value creation,” he says, whereby walkable development sets into motion a chain of events that ultimately enables neighborhoods to thrive.

“We’re seeing rental apartments going up, retail going up. It puts more people on the street; all the existing businesses do more because there’s more foot traffic. Property values go up. Tax revenues go up. It starts an upward spiral of value creation and it’s pretty powerful.”

Leinberger goes on to explain that urban, walkable development is not just good for local economies; it’s what home buyers and new renters are clamoring for. “The market is flashing very large and very loud signals: ‘Build more walkable urban places,’” says Leinberger. “How do you know that? It’s because people are willing to pay 80%, 100%, 200% greater on a price per square foot basis for the housing, for the offices, for the retail because that’s where the market is and there’s not enough product.”

While new walkable development can help stimulate local economies by generating new real estate activity, it also has the potential to benefit the national economy as well by re-engaging the recently stagnant real estate sector to meet this burgeoning demand.

“The built environment – our real estate and the infrastructure that supports our real estate – is 35% of the asset base of our country. That’s 35% of our wealth and right now that wealth is sitting on the sidelines pretty dormant and unless we can activate that, we’re not going to get this economy moving,” Leinberger says.

A big part of freeing up these assets for investment lies in changing policy, one of LOCUS’ key areas of work. In the past, Leinberger says, the government promoted and subsidized drivable suburban growth, which helped create the model of suburban sprawl that characterized American life for so long. Now that the markets are shifting, Leinberger believes it’s time for policy to change too.

To that end, LOCUS has been working to make sure that legislation and regulation, both at the federal and regional levels, encourages the type of development that the market is demanding. This ranges from promoting more funding for mass transit (and thus transit-oriented development) in the most recent federal transportation bill, to ensuring that the TIFIA loan program is open to developers engaged in transit-oriented development. Most recently, LOCUS has been working to reform the tax code so that it will incentivize urban, walkable development, not just the suburban drivable model.

It’s not just the economic benefits of walkable urban development that make it worthwhile for Leinberger. The health and environmental benefits of smarter development cannot be underestimated, he notes, with the decrease in fossil fuel usage and increase in activity that would accompany walkable development, perhaps providing an even more important return on investment. In addition, Leinberger believes that the increased value created by walkable urban development would allow cities to more adequately address issues like affordable housing.

So with the benefits clearly lined up, it’s all just a matter of putting the pieces together. “It’s a matter of giving the market what it wants and we’re going to get these health and environmental benefits that are just tremendous.”

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