New York City is arguably one of the most walkable places on the planet. Despite this, on a quick venture outside of Manhattan, you will quickly discover that the rest of the NY metro area is not so “on foot” friendly. A report entitled The WalkUP Wake-Up Call: New York from the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University measured “walkable urban spaces” or WalkUPs in the metro area around NYC, encompassing parts of Connecticut, NY and NJ. A revelation from the report showed that the majority of NY metro area is actually not very walkable, even in comparison to other U.S. cities such as Boston, Washington D.C. and even newer cities like Atlanta, which came as a big surprise to researchers.
Outside of Manhattan, New York can be a tough place to walk
The urban core of NYC is one of the most pedestrian friendly places in the U.S. As a civilian walking half a mile almost anywhere through Manhattan, you will pass an impressive amount of shops, restaurants and transport options. Outside of the urban core, there are significantly fewer places where it makes sense to try and get around on foot, in actual fact it is just 2.4 percent of the land in the New York metro area. These walkable, urban places (walkUPs) were identified by researchers by studying “walk score” data collected by WalkScore.com. The wider metro area is difficult to travel by foot, although it does have some clusters of walkability such as a small, suburban downtown based on a commuter railroad station. A total of 149 “walkUPs” were counted by the study in the metro area.
Walkability – how valuable is it?
As stated above, the total volume of New York’s pedestrian friendly urban real estate accounts for just 2.4 percent of the land in the outer metro area. These locations are home to almost half of the population (42 percent), 31 percent of regional real estate square footage, and are responsible for 56 percent of the area’s gross regional product.
Pedestrian friendly areas like these are extremely valuable. It is no secret that land in the NYC metro area is extremely expensive. It can be said that the high value of the land depicts the valued demand for walkable, urban real estate. The actual constructed real estate in the tri-state area is worth a total of $6 trillion. Ironically, more than half of the $6 trillion value (53 percent) is squeezed onto the land that the report states as “walkable urban.”
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In response to the high value of walkable urban space, property developers have started to implement plans for creating new developments nationwide that are significantly more pedestrian friendly, something they may not have prioritized before. Taking a location that is not currently pedestrian friendly and making it more walkable instantly increases that land’s value.
A catch with land in New York is that sometimes the high land values can create difficult situations for property developers to build these new walkable spaces which would meet the demand.
In contrast to this, there are other newer cities where land is relatively inexpensive making it a playground for investors and developers interested in redevelopments. In cities like Atlanta, redevelopments have resulted in new mixed-use developments in areas like Buckhead and Lenox, where you can walk from a new apartment to restaurants, grocery stores, or buses and light rail at complete ease. Along with the looming challenge of land prices, large sections of the New York area were built out during the 20th century, when the real estate market at that time placed high-value on places that are easily served by automobiles. The external wealth of the NY metro area supplies resources to create huge infrastructure projects such as highways that cut through the metro area. New York was also home to several outsized personalities such as Robert Moses who included his anti-urban thinking into the landscape.
In further contrast to New York, significantly more of the land in metro areas like Boston or Atlanta is walkable. The assembling of land parcels necessary to build new walkable, urban neighborhoods is not as complex or expensive in smaller cities like these. An additional factor as to why NYC might be slow to create new walkable, urban spaces is because during the era of urban decline a lot of the wider metro area marked itself as opposed to the urban core.
The report further identified potential locations for new walkable, urban spaces in the New York metro area providing builders are able to construct sites there and overcome resistance from locals.
How demand for walkability is impacting the way communities are designed
As consumers become increasingly health conscious, the latest question being put forward by community developers is “why drive, when you can walk?” The increasing demand for walkability / pedestrian friendly spaces is being pushed across generational lines and is both impacting the types of features developers are including in new areas, and how they are marketing them. For example, the emergence of the “surban” area – a cross between urban and suburban as a result of growing needs from two different generational groups. The National Association of Realtors conducted a survey which showed that almost 8 in 10 respondents nationwide reported walking distance to amenities like shops and parks was very or somewhat important to them. The demand for walkability is spreading way beyond major cities and master planned communities (MPCs) are prioritizing walking opportunities as a factor and unique selling point.
Communities and projects constructed between 1950s and 1970s on average lacked dedicated sidewalks, sometimes with none at all. The last decade, however, has witnessed developers put their creative hats on in offering walking trails, such as opening communities’ golf course paths to residents to walk on after the players have moved through.
A multigenerational trend
As it stands, millennials are on the front lines of the conversation around walkability in community and urban space planning today. They are not the only ones looking to get out of their cars more often though as Baby Boomers are also attracted to living where they can walk more because it encourages exercise and the opportunity to engage with other members of the community. Walkability isn’t a trend that will leave as quickly as it came, it is now a necessary, permanent element of development.
A recent 7,200 acre project in Fort Worth, Texas further demonstrates the importance of this emerging feature. Jake Wagner, co-CEO and partner at Republic Property Group is behind this project. Creating plans to enable him to factor in the landscape and preserve and utilize its natural characteristics was his priority. Open, walkable spaces, parks and trails conjoin throughout the property, placing residents in its first neighborhood within minutes of a park or open space area. The benefits associated with walking are well – known. According to WalkScore, pedestrian friendly communities and spaces provide increased health and wellness for both the environment and its inhabitants along with acting as the backbone of the community due to them connecting homes and amenities together in a network structure.
Walking the Walk
A collaborative relationship between property developers and municipalities is required to effectively leverage community space and provide functioning, open space, sidewalks or path trails. Sometimes this is not as easy as it sounds and there can be significant cost / time implications involved. As such a lot of developers have taken it upon themselves to include walkable features in an effort to make their development as attractive as possible.
Although developers have taken this trend into their own hands where possible, it is a two-way relationship so municipalities also hold a responsibility in whether their areas promote a pedestrian-friendly experience. For example, Olympia, Washington has a requirement in place for sidewalks and planter strips to be present on every street, along with allowing on-street parking which acts as a barrier between pedestrians and moving traffic. The importance placed on walking here by local residents was further backed up by voting for an increase in utility taxes to pay for these parks and sidewalks.
Another angle to look at it is how increased residents traveling on foot through a community presents new safety concerns. This is particularly relevant in areas of high footfall or where the streets are particularly large. Infrastructure questions arise from this, such as how to get pedestrians safely across the street. Pedestrian connections such as an underpass or traffic signals that prioritize safety are crucial. Despite natural features offering positive aesthetic and environmental contribution, they can also add to the challenge of connecting everything within the road network. Residents’ demand will continue to prompt developers to prioritize seeking methods to provide interesting and functioning pathways. Creating communities that aren’t just relevant today but will continue to shine and serve the area in the future is a high priority.