Walkability and the Culture Wars

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Walkable Urbanism Has More Unifying Appeal Than You’ve Been Told

Even if you do take this study’s results at face value, it’s a stretch to interpret its major takeaway as, “Most Americans don’t want walkable places.”

Most Americans, as I said, have only ever lived in a time in which the suburban development pattern was the subsidized, heavily incentivized, all but mandated default. More Americans than not grew up in single-use residential communities, where trips to work, school, shopping or dining out were almost always made by car.

Despite that, a whopping 39% of respondents to this survey across the board said they would rather live in a walkable neighborhood, even if their home and yard were smaller.

Think about that. What percent of Americans actually live in places where schools, stores, and restaurants are in comfortable walking distance? It is far, far less than 39%. Simply achieving 39% would be a dramatic transformation of this continent. 

We could stop building single-family detached homes on large lots tomorrow, and we’d still have enough to meet years of demand from the people who strongly prefer them. We could only build walkable infill, and it might still take decades to satisfy the 39% that say they want it.

And by the time we did, I suspect that 39% would have risen, because a lot more Americans would have experienced the option of living in a place where you’re not tethered to a car. Maybe it’s arrogant or too affirming of my own biases to say so. But I don’t think so. 

I’m basing that belief not just on the financial and regulatory deck stacked in favor of auto-centricity, but also on the fact that the actual walkable places that Americans today are most likely to experience have a remarkably unifying appeal. Liberals and conservatives alike have a great time living on college campuses; visiting not just Paris and Rome but also New Orleans and Savannah; hanging out at state fairs and in theme parks literally modeled on traditional Midwestern main streets.

The popularity (and high price tag) of New Urbanist communities that emulate traditional forms and attempt to resurrect the principles of traditional neighborhood development also transcends party or region. Many of these are in fact built in deep red areas, from the Florida Panhandle to Alabama to Oklahoma.

And, of course, the real deal traditional pattern of development that New Urbanism is copying can be found both on thousands of small-town main streets and in neighborhood commercial districts in big urban areas. It has an appeal that transcends political and other cultural divides. Those two kinds of places, I should add, have far more in common with each other than either has with a suburban subdivision or power center.

These may not be the places many of us think are being pushed on us when we hear people talk about urbanism or sustainability or, god forbid, “density” in a culture-war sense. (Many rural conservatives hear “Everywhere should be Manhattan;” too many liberal urbanists are eager to confirm the stereotype.)

But that’s just the thing. Where Americans have experience with traditional development, they tend to respond positively. Where they don’t, they fall back on cultural signifiers and familiar reference points.

The bottom line is if you want people to like a certain style of development or neighborhood, build it. Make it awesome. Show them that they love it. That’s the only way you’re going to change minds.

And if you’re a local policy maker, please just work to make it legal to do so.

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