More evidence that walkability is marketable

Michael Lewyn's picture
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A few days ago, I was in a Chicago neighborhood called Lincoln Square, on Lincoln Avenue just south of Lawrence Avenue.  Lincoln Avenue looks like many posh urban neighborhoods- narrow, walkable streets inhabited by gelato-eating, prosperous-looking people.  Even on a weeknight, the shops and streets of Lincoln Square betrayed no evidence of a recession.*

Lincoln intersects with Lawrence Avenue just a block from the core of Lincoln Square.  Lawrence Avenue resembles a suburb more than it resembles Lincoln Square; it is six lanes wide (though unlike in most suburbs, two of them are used for parking), and some shops are behind parking lots.  But Lawrence's retail is far less prosperous than that of Lincoln; a good number of Lawrence's storefronts seemed to be vacant, and others were occupied by dollar stores and other non-carriage trade businesses.**

Both Lincoln Avenue and Lawrence Avenue have the same housing stock and thus the same neighbors, the same city government (and thus the same tax rates and school districts) and the same distance from downtown (about seven miles).  Thus, these two intersecting streets constitute the perfect controlled experiment on the popularity of walkable urbanism.  If people basically liked shopping on car-oriented speedways, Lawrence would have fewer vacant storefronts than Lincoln.  Yet the opposite is true.  It follows that where everything else is equal, shoppers prefer walkable urbanism to car-oriented suburbanism.

At this point, readers may be asking themselves: why, then, do some suburbs continue to prosper?  Because not everything else is equal: an unwalkable suburb may be further away from troubled neighborhoods (usually leading to more prestigous schools and less crime), in a less poverty-packed jurisdiction (thus leading to lower taxes), or have a newer housing stock.  Thus, not every suburb will look as scruffy as Lincoln Square.  

But the tale of these two adjacent streets nevertheless tells us something: that city life with walkability is appealing to American consumers, while city life with less walkability is anything but.

 

*For a few pictures of Lincoln Square, see

http://atlantaphotos.fotopic.net/p66205703.html

http://atlantaphotos.fotopic.net/p66205709.html

http://atlantaphotos.fotopic.net/p66205702.html

**Although I took no pictures of Lawrence, you can see the street by going to the 2200-2600 blocks of West Lawrence Avenue on Google Street View.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.

Comments

Comments

Switzerland

Michael,

You're always doing useful research to satisfy your curiosity. Here's a project for you. How come Switzerland has such an incredibly high proportion of people who "walk" for transport?

Switzerland has the most localised, bottom-up democracy in the world. Is there some connection between this, and their retention of old, walkable urban structure, and highly mixed land uses? I have no concrete analysis to go by, I am only hypothesising.

Astute observation

It's not particularly scientific of course, but this is a nicely formed mini summary that will give most visitors to this website a little lift as they go about their day. This recent article about revitalizing town centres is also relevant. People like the experience of shopping in a more pedestrian scaled, pleasant environment.

But how many big box stores will you find located here? They're still mainly out in the suburban strip malls, where people buy larger, more expensive items than the coffee and cake they'll buy on the pedestrian friendly street. i.e. where is the money being spent? I'm not sure of the answer. Is it practical or desirable to try to persuade the big box guys back into the High Street/ Main Street? Look at Cambie Street and 7th Avenue in Vancouver BC. You have Canadian Tire on top of Best Buy and then on the next block, Save on Foods has a Home Depot on top of it which in turn has condos on top of that. From an urban design perspective this seems to work. They don't look like 'big boxes'. But there isn't much pedestrian activity either (based on my unscientific observations). They still have parking round the back and a lot of people use it. At the other end of the scale, another Vancouver neighbourhood, Kerrisdale (centered on 41st Avenue and West Boulevard) has a vibrant High Street with a good variety of different stores. A friend of ours who lives in this neighbourhood loves it, but did comment that there isn't a large grocery store/ supermarket. Should there be one to 'complete it', so people get get all there weekly shopping done in the one place? What would happen to the corner grocery store, the bakers, the cheese shop etc?

These are the debates and issues we're faced with. If there was an easy answer that satisfied everyone, it would have happened by now.

Sorry, that was perhaps slightly off topic. Somewhere in there I agreed that 'walkability' is marketable, but argued that there are still plenty of bigger stores where 'walkability' isn't so practical and I'm still not sure how to square that circle.

Tim Barton
www.planningpicture.com

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