The New American Dream: Walkable Urban Neighborhoods
By 2020 you’ll be living in a more sustainable community, even if you don’t know it. Market forces more powerful than eco-ethics or energy policies will drive the makeover of our towns and cities into pockets of walkable neighborhoods with varied retail and residential uses in close proximity, transforming both urban and suburban landscapes.
In short, suburban dormitory neighborhoods have become less desirable and downtown neighborhoods are the new American dream.
To compete with resurgent inner cities, the suburbs are developing their own versions of downtown where park-and-shop malls once stood. By 2020 this urban retrofit will be under construction throughout the U.S., even rural towns in regions as unlikely as the Bible Belt have started moving in this direction. By 2030, most of us will live in places that look a lot like Europe, with discernible local character and a defined center of commerce that serves as the nexus for community life.
Sure, the notion of walkable communities has become a political issue pitting rural conservatives against urban progressives. But by and large, the argument has been won through the economic success of walkable urban centers, which has motivated cash-strapped cities everywhere to support the creation of new, so-called lifestyle centers that recreate the urban experience.
The first towns to turn toward urban retrofit for tax revenue include neighborhoods in what Christopher Leinberger, Vision 2020 research chair for Sustainable Communities, would describe as the primary concentric ring of suburban development. Areas immediately adjacent to a competing metropolis, such as Wheat Ridge, just outside of Denver, which has recently undertaken the transformation of a major traffic artery lined with vacant storefronts and narrow sidewalks into a revived Main Street that draws commuters to--rather than through--the heart of town.
They began with a vision, “In the year 2030, people of all ages and abilities live, work, learn, shop, and play along 38th Avenue,” asserted the city’s planning document for the 38th Avenue Corridor Plan, adopted in October 2011. Then, using a low-cost approach, the City put the corridor on a “road diet” in the summer of 2012 by reducing the number of thru-traffic lanes from four to two. The diet created several benefits to the corridor, including a more attractive, pedestrian-friendly environment, reduced traffic speeds, increased safety, and the sought-for economic benefits, including the attraction of new businesses. The project has become the catalyst for a wider revitalization strategy strongly focused on creating multiple, community-focused hubs--or mini downtowns within what was once a sprawling Denver suburb.
Along the same lines, a recent USA Today article profiled several small cities that are becoming more cosmopolitan through similar redevelopment efforts. The article’s flagship was Carmel, a Midwestern suburb 20 miles north of Indianapolis. The town’s self-described European-style redevelopment effort has paid off handsomely: This year Money magazine ranked Carmel the No. 1 best place to live, with low unemployment, excellent schools, arts and culture, nature trails, and a huge community recreation complex. Other urban redevelopment efforts highlighted in the front-page feature included towns in Texas, Utah, and Colorado.
I have personally seen the transformation in the most unlikely place, rural Nebraska, where I lived and worked for nearly 20 years. The town of Ashland, between Lincoln and Omaha, revived its main street with cobblestone crosswalks and lured New York artists with promises of cheap studio space to create an attractive art district that now lures tourists off Interstate 80, and attracts a growing population of retired farmers wanting an urban, but not-so-big city experience. Meanwhile, following the lead of Omaha, which has become a national example of successful redevelopment, Lincoln recently doubled its efforts with a 2020 Vision of its own, in short order creating a vital downtown with ample residential, restaurant, retail, and office development. The result is palpable in the new vitality of downtown Lincoln, and the fact more college graduates now remain as permanent residents after graduation, in fact, Lincoln made the list at the Daily Beast among Richard Florida’s 25 best towns for college graduates, ranked above places like San Diego and Seattle.
The potency of this national shift toward walkable, non- automobile-centered life is both dramatic and historic. Car and single-family home sales have plummeted among people in the 21-to-34 year age group, a demographic that predicts trends likely to survive the next two decades. Auto makers have had to adjust sales to accommodate fleets of car-sharing services, instead of new car dealerships, and single-family home builders are becoming multifamily developers because this cohort of would-be first-time home buyers seems to prefer a small apartment in the high-rent district to a discounted mortgage in the suburbs, according to a recent Federal Reserve study.
I confess to a quiet skepticism about the power of the sustainable community movement at the outset of EcoHome’s Vision 2020 venture. But witnessing the quick conversion of places as far from urban fads as rural Nebraska in the light of all we have discussed during this first year of Vision 2020 has convinced me that Leinberger’s theory of demand-side transformation is indeed the most powerful force working to reduce our nation’s dependence on carbon-based energy. It is perhaps the only force potent enough to make a difference because it is based on human preferences, on what we want to do, vs. what we ought to do. The market, or demand-side strategy works despite political swings and has the self-determining economic muscle that makes things happen. There’s no need to set milestones and struggle to achieve them when social trends take over, as proven dramatically in the state of Florida, where Republican Governor Rick Scott turned down $2.4 billion in federal stimulus funding for a high-speed-rail line, only for private investors to step up and build the line themselves. Why? Because the market demands it.
I would not be surprised to see a similar result in Nebraska, with high-speed rail connecting Lincoln to Ashland and Omaha by 2030. Communities throughout the U.S. will become sustainable precisely because the elements that make them so coincide with the key ingredients of desirable living: a close-knit community, ready access to social engagement, and public amenities that provide recreational opportunities for all. The reduction in carbon will be a by-product of Americans pursuing their American dream.