Several weeks after I wrote what could be described as emotion-driven defenses of California's approach to smart growth (in response to separate commentaries by Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin), I was heartened to read a different, but complementary, perspective from Christopher B. Leinberger in this weekend's New York Times. It would appear that, when you run the numbers, smart growth might make sense after all.
Leinberger led a Brookings Institution study with the delightfully rock-n'-roll title "Walk This Way: The Economic Promise of Walkable Places in Metropolitan Washington, D.C." which compared changes in housing prices in walkable neighborhoods as compared to suburban neighborhoods. Setting aside the subjective nature of "walkable" and "suburban," Leinberger found "real estate values increase as neighborhoods became more walkable, where everyday needs, including working, can be met by walking, transit or biking."
Leinberger cites places like Columbus, Ohio's, Short North neighobrhood and Washington, DC's, West End, where real estate prices have risen 163% and 205%, respectively, since 1996. In the same time period, prices comparable suburban areas have risen only 69% in the DC study area and negative 13% in the Columbus study area.
Lest these trends reflect residents' native incomes more than their lifestyle preferences, Leinberger notes that "People who live in more walkable places tend to earn more, but they also tend to pay a higher percentage of their income for housing." This means that the walkable areas are more dear--and, by extrapolation, more desirable--on both an absolute and relative scale.
As we all know, real estate economics is an inexact science. The consumer trends are invisible swells that rise from the abyssal plains of culture, demographics, and economics. We can't just go to the house store and see which ones are flying off the shelves. Instead, we have to look at the prices of existing stock and infer that increases in prices correlate with increases in aggregate demand, and we need lots of data. Leinberger thinks that the data is reaching a critical mass.
"Walk this Way" offers the following conclusion, signaling nothing short of the biggest shift in urbanism since, arguably, the late 1940s:
"While U.S. home values dropped steadily between 2008 and 2011, distant suburbs experienced the starkest price decreases while more close-in neighborhoods either held steady or in some cases saw price increases. This distinction in housing proximity is particularly important since it appears that the United States may be at the beginning of a structural real estate market shift. Emerging evidence points to a preference for mixed-use, compact, amenity-rich, transit-accessible neighborhoods or walkable places."
In other words, we have entered a new era.
Though the bulk of the Brookings study focused on the Washington, DC, metro area, Leinberger writes that "these findings appear to apply to much of the rest of the country." Could that mean California, too? I don't see why not.
This analysis means that, whatever your aesthetic objections to smart growth may be, it might actually turn out to be a good investment for California. If the Brookings results are right, then California's Sustainable Communities Strategies are directing growth towards the very places were demand is likely to be higher.
My visceral take on smart growth is that it's good for everybody. If you like dense urban living, then now you get more of it. If you enjoy the wide-open suburban lifestyle, then you're in luck too: growth is going to happen in the places were you aren't.
In defending SCS's against some recent criticism (here and here), I noted some contradictions and some leaps in logic, and I corrected some inaccuracies and what I considered to be willful disregard for facts. From all the articles I've written on the subject, I know firsthand that countless people have been working very hard on California's Sustainable Communities Strategies, from which tens of millions of us will--hopefully--benefit.
Critics can, and should, say what they want. But, while California's planners should take pride in being ahead of the curve, they should bear in mind one caveat, though: we can't let nonsensical critiques drown out those that might be legitimate.
Of course the SCS's aren't perfect. No less an authority than the state attorney general has said so -- and CP&DR has reported accordingly. Critiques such as Harris' should set up sensible discussions about how to implement SCS's and address nuances. It's hard not be frustrated, however, by "us vs. them" rivalries based on what appeared to be visceral, aesthetic objections that do not advance the public discourse or make California a better place.
As California grows more dense, the Brookings study should remind planners and developers to pay attention not just to the difference between walkabilty and mere density. You have have dense slums and dense hotspots, and you can have friendly single-family home neighborhoods and indifferent multifamily neighborhoods. It's all in how you design them and in what mix of uses you include.
If we can all get behind smart growth and clamor for it to be done well--which isn't going away now that it's the law of the land--then we can make sure that the less convincing critiques become self-defeating prophecies.