Detroit climbing up rankings in new evaluation of walkable urban places

This week, the LOCUS coalition of real estate professionals released “Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros” at their Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. The report continues to track the sea change of residential market demand and economic activity away from “drive ‘til you qualify” single-use development to “walkable urban places” (“WalkUPs”).

The NoMa neighborhood of Washington DC shows off with wide sidewalks that include shady seating and landscaping for stormwater management, a broad selection of restaurants and food trucks, a new Metro stop--and lots and lots of people.

The NoMa neighborhood of Washington DC shows off with wide sidewalks that include shady seating and landscaping for stormwater management, a broad selection of restaurants and food trucks, a new Metro stop–and lots and lots of people.

It may come as no surprise that metro Detroit ranks in the lower third of metros for its current offerings of these economic hubs—but the report also looks at development trends, placing Detroit at 8th out of 30 in its prospects for future development.  (Just after Seattle and San Francisco, for those keeping score.)

“While Detroit experienced the most substantial and well-publicized economic decline over the past decade, its future for growth in walkable urban development seems promising . Recently, it experienced some of the fastest-growing GDP and job growth among metros, much of it in revived WalkUPs, particularly in downtown and Midtown”

In addition to the high-profile developments in Detroit’s Downtown and Midtown areas, the report names several smaller “town centers” among the metro’s current WalkUPs: West Dearborn, downtown Ypsilanti, and Main Street Ann Arbor; and the downtowns of Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Birmingham are all tagged as regional examples. It’s no accident that these regional centers are located along the planned Ann Arbor-Detroit Commuter Rail and Woodward Rapid Transit corridors, and the report should reinforce the importance of those transit lines in linking together the metro region.

Why do these places matter? The research team at George Washington University that produced the report notes that WalkUPs on average make up only 1% of metro land area—but account for nearly half of all development activity since 2007, demonstrating the relative resilience of these places in economic downturns, and their importance in economic recovery. WalkUPs command a 44% premium in office rents (excluding New York), and are correlated with higher average educational attainment and higher per capita income and GDP than the surrounding metros.

The authors remind that correlation is not causation, and that while WalkUPs may attract these businesses and residents, it may also be that when these businesses and residents concentrate in certain areas, they demand the creation of multimodal transportation options and mixed-use business districts.  In either case, though, the evidence is clear: these are places that are in high demand and short supply–cities and states should ensure that they have the infrastructure, financing options, and development regulations in place to expand these people-friendly areas.

The LOCUS / GWU analysis only looked at the nation’s 30 largest metro areas, but places like downtown Grand Rapids, Lansing, Jackson, and Kalamazoo most likely meet the criteria as well: an area-wide WalkScore over 70, and “regional significance” as defined by having at least 1.4 million square feet of office space or 340,000 square feet of retail space.