The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates once said that "walking is man's best medicine." Some 1,400 years later, it looks like the same prescription may be just what the doctor ordered for the housing industry as well.
According to "The 2011 Community Preference Survey," a poll of 2,071 American adults conducted on behalf of the National Association of Realtors (NAR), 77% of those polled considered having sidewalks and places to take a walk one of their top priorities when deciding where they’d like to live. Six in 10 adults said they would rather live in a neighborhood that featured a mix of houses, stores, and businesses within an easy walk, than a community of only houses that required driving to get to businesses.
"What we see overall in the consumer preference surveys … is that households are overwhelmingly looking for places to live where they can walk to stuff. It’s as simple as that," says Ilana Preuss, chief of staff at Washington, D.C.-based Smart Growth America. Pointing to the NAR’s survey she adds, "People made a tradeoff on a large house on a large lot with lots of parking where you have a 30 minute commute and have to drive to stores, or a small house on a small lot where they don’t have ample parking but they had a commute of 20 minutes or less. Fifty-nine percent said they would pick the smaller house on the smaller lot. When they looked at households that were interested in moving in the next couple of years, it was 54%. That’s a huge proportion of the market. So we see this enormous demand and a very low supply."
In another study released last year, conducted by Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, researchers questioned nearly 43,000 people across 26 communities between 2008 and 2011 to find what was most important in connecting people with a community. The study, titled "Soul of the Community," found three main qualities that connected people to the place they lived: how welcoming a place is to different kinds of people; access to social venues and places to meet with friends; and having a beautiful appearance and green spaces. Walkable streetscapes—which encourage neighborhood interaction, allow convenient access to cafes and other venues, and improve aesthetics—contribute to all three areas.
The three drivers remained consistent across demographics of age, ethnicity, and work status, and across geographic areas throughout the country. "It’s about having downtown areas with businesses in them and having homes near schools," Preuss says. "It’s things as simple as having sidewalks. … It’s about creating those great places."
Old North, a recently revitalized historic neighborhood in St. Louis, has witnessed the benefits of improving walkability firsthand. For decades after World War II, the downtown neighborhood had seen a continual outmigration, leaving residential buildings and storefronts vacant.
Then, in 2004, developers began taking advantage of the plethora of empty lots, left vacant from decades of neglect. A group of concerned citizens also began taking action and formed the Old North Restoration Group (ONSL), which looked at the needs of the neighborhood.
"According to the 2000 Census, 41% of the households here lacked access to a car," says Sean Thomas, executive director at ONSL. "If we wanted this community to be viable for those individuals, we had to make sure it was walkable."
The community has since opened a local farmer’s market and a food co-op, so residents have the opportunity to buy groceries without the use of a car or bus. In some parts of the neighborhood, sidewalks were replaced and streetlights were installed to make pedestrian avenues more pleasant. A street that had been closed off was reopened as a pedestrian mall, and the community established a river-front trail.
As a result, the population shift has changed course. "The 2010 Census was the first in more than a half century that showed a population gain [for Old North]," Thomas says, and that shift took place even as the city of St. Louis as a whole lost population.
While the real estate downturn has slowed the pace of sales, Thomas reports that the area is still getting a lot of attention even from prospects well outside the city limits. And it all started, he says, with home builders. "The revitalization that has happened was stimulated by the new homes. Because the neighborhood has suffered so many years of disinvestment, we had a lot of vacant lots. The new construction helped to fill in those gaps. The new construction happened prior to most of the historic rehab work. It ended up becoming a really good combination of new and old, but the catalyst was the new construction."
Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.