Path to Prosperity - how to implement walkability regardless of the economic times
Over the coming weeks, I'm going to use this space and regular time to share ideas and thoughts on a subject that is of great interest to me. And that subject is.... how the heck do we do all this great urban design and walkability when the economy stinks? That's a question we hear a lot of, and even more so depending on the part of the country we're in. But the truth is, the nature of the economy at that particular moment doesn't have that much to do with it - there are many things that can and should be done in any economy, and quite a few that are easy ways to get started. A foundational principle of this discussion is that most of our communities have very immature markets for urbanism and walkability. What I mean by that is that many places that used to be walkable have spent 70 years slowly destroying it, and a great deal of "new" places in that period didn't have much walkability to begin with. That's not universally true of course - there still are some wonderful walkable towns at all scales, but they are rare, and often surrounded by auto-oriented sprawl.
As such, the real estate opportunities to create walkable places often require subsidy, high levels of parking, and are comparatively expensive to build. The result - many projects, especially smaller ones, are very difficult to "pencil out" because they are going against the grain of current market conditions. So in many ways, we need to re-think our ambitions, and realize that we are simply starting over in creating urbanism. It's almost better to think of so many of our towns as frontier places right now, and these are our first-generation efforts to create an urban real estate market.
For example - those of you who know me and have heard me speak know that one of my pet issues is that we don't always need multi-story or true "mixed use" buildings to create walkability. In fact, if the street network and street designs are correct, one story buildings can work very well to seed the first generation of urbanism. There are clearly good and bad examples, and I'll use this space to show some of both. But some things I like in emerging markets about one-story buildings: they are easy to park; they are inexpensive to build; they are simple to lease; they fit well adjacent to the types of residential that are common in the US. So, the bottom line is, as you plan for your revitalization or greenfield developments, don't believe that everything must be multi-story, especially at the outset. And certainly be careful that your codes don't require (as too many form-based codes do) 2 story minimum buildings.
Today's good example comes from the Brookside neighborhood in Kansas City, MO. Brookside was the predecessor development by JC Nichols to the Country Club Plaza, and has been a successful prototype for nearly 100 years. This example, on 63rd Street supports a number of shops and restaurants, and is complemented by angled on-street parking. Again, this is not the urbanism of Paris or Rome, but it's a good example of walkability at a modest scale that has thrived for a number of generations. We'd do well to learn from examples such as this to create successful neighborhood centers.