Chris Leinberger Opens 2012 McCall Society Speaker Series

Walkable Urbanism is Subject of Engaging Discussion in Portland

Summary by Dave Garlock, Communications Intern, Video by Peter Ovington, Volunteer Videographer

The Option of Urbanism | Prof. Christopher Leinberger from Peter Ovington on Vimeo.

On Wednesday, February 15, 1000 Friends of Oregon welcomed Professor Chris Leinberger to kick off the 2012 McCall Society Speaker Series with a talk about walkable urbanism. A nationally renowned expert on development and real estate, Leinberger is Professor and founding Director of the Graduate Real Estate Development Program at the University of Michigan, a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institute, the Founding Partner of Arcadia Land Company, and President of LOCUS, a coalition of responsible real estate developers and investors.

Following an afternoon tour with Executive Director Jason Miner around some of Portland’s more notable recent housing and transit projects, Leinberger sat down for an informal hourlong chat with our Land Use Leadership Initiative participants in our Portland office. See Kevin Pozzi’s summary of that talk here.

That evening, before a packed audience at the elegant Augen Gallery in Northwest Portland, Leinberger’s dug deep into the concept of walkable urbanism, and why it is increasingly in demand for both consumers and developers. He started his talk discussing Portland, in fact, joking that land use planning and progressive walkable urbanism were invented in the city, and telling a few stories about his past visits to the city.

The rest of the country, Professor Leinberger said, looks enviously to Portland for its land use laws and walkability. However, even in the Portland area and Oregon more broadly, there is still work to be done, he said. In particular, Leinberger pointed to Portland’s suburban areas as targets for new planning and investments in walkable communities. This, he said, is where demand for walkable communities is growing most quickly, and where it is currently most lacking.

According to Professor Leinberger, the built environment and the infrastructure that support it make up roughly one-third of the United States’ wealth, and roughly 73% of overall energy consumption.  Thus, reducing energy consumption in the built environment is an important way to address both the health of the economy and the challenge of climate change.

Rather than talk about cities, suburbs and small towns as distinct categories, however, Leinberger focuses on the contrast between “walkable urban” communities were and “drivable suburban” ones. The benefits of the former are numerous, Leinberger explained. For example, a home in a walkable urban neighborhood uses 80% percent less energy than one in a drivable suburban area.  So, giving people more walkable urban places to live will greatly reduce American energy usage.

However, encouraging walkable urban places doesn’t just make environmental sense, Leinberger said. It also makes economic sense.  It’s what many Americans want, especially young people and retiring boomers, who together make up more than half the population. Moreover, due to over sixty years of focusing on building drivable suburban neighborhoods, there is much more demand for homes in walkable urban communities than there is supply.

Living in drivable suburbs also puts a strain on families’ budgets.  Transportation costs make up 25% of the average income for residents in those places, while in walkable urban places, residents spend only 9% of their income on average. This translates to an ability to afford a more expensive home for many people. And as the supply of walkable urban neighborhoods grows and improves, overall prices in these places will decline. Drivable suburban developments also stretch the budgets of local and state governments, as the infrastructure needed to support these neighborhoods—from roads and water to broadband Internet—is much more expensive.

But places that are drivable today can make the transition to being more walkable and livable, Leinberger said. As an example, he described Arlington County, Virginia, just across the Potomac from Washington DC. The nation’s smallest county in area, it has long been a middle-class, commuting suburb. But when the Metro subway was extended to the county, leaders made the wise choice to route it underground beneath a major arterial, and to direct higher-density, walkable developments around each of several Metro stops. The transformation that followed was breathtaking: what was a classic American strip became a hotbed of activity and attractive residential living. Today, these seven station areas make up the majority of the county’s property tax revenue, and yet are much cheaper to service than the more drivable suburban areas that still make up the rest of the county.

Other examples Leinberger shared were “dead malls” that have been resurrected as mixed-use centers, with homes, offices and retail sharing the same space. Cities from Pasadena, California, to Columbia, Maryland have created projects that attract both residents and officials from neighboring communities to learn how they can do similar things for their current and future residents. Another focus of future investment should be the historic town centers of older suburbs that dot many metropolitan areas, which often have many of the components of walkable urbanism already in place: gridded streets, higher density, and transit connections.

Every urban area has this potential, Leinberger concluded, and with the right vision, planning and targeted investments, communities can meet the growing demand for walkable urban communities and reap the rewards in livability, economy and environmental health.

For more information about Chris Leinberger's work, visit his home page.

For more information about other events in our 2012 McCall Society Speaker Series, click here.

Oregon Stories | March 2012

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