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A Wake-up Call for WalkUPs

June 25, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

There's good news and bad for the Twin Cities in "Foot Traffic Ahead,"  Smart Growth America's latest comparison and analysis of metropolitan sprawl-induced car dependence and its emerging alternative, walkable urban places, or WalkUPs.

The good news: Minneapolis-St. Paul currently ranks No. 12 out of the 30 biggest U.S. metros for walkable urbanism, in the study's "moderate" second tier.

The bad news: We're expected to sink to No. 23 in coming years, with a "low potential for future walkable urbanism." That's far behind projections for sprawl icon Atlanta (No. 5), hollowed-out Motor City Detroit (No. 8), car-crazy Los Angeles (No. 11) and oil-drenched Houston (No. 13). Three of them are predicted to blow past the Twin Cities in the rankings.

This shouldn't be a worry just to hipster aesthetes and environmentalists. As noted in my review of Smart Growth's previous sprawl study, there's a steep fiscal price to be paid for continued reliance on what the new report calls "drivable sub-urbanism." And that price gets harder to bear without the higher education levels, personal incomes and creative-class magnetism associated with WalkUPs.

"Cities with more WalkUPs are positioned for success, now and in the future," said report coauthor Christopher Leinberger. "As economic engines, as talent attractors and as highly productive real estate, these WalkUPs are a crucial component in building and sustaining a thriving urban economy."

So what's the beef about the Twin Towns? you might be wondering. Isn't the metro economy humming? Doesn't Minneapolis top the nation in bicycle-friendliness? Don't plenty of our city neighborhoods boast high Walk Scores

All true. The problem, however, can be summarized as a Tale of Two Twin Cities. Beyond the borders of Minneapolis and St. Paul, most of the sprawling suburbs remain stuck in the freeway boom of the last century. Our 99 percent share of walkable office and retail space concentrated in the central cities is among the nation's highest.

Only Cincinnati, Las Vegas and San Antonio are worse at 100 percent, but Washington, D.C., and Miami (51 percent each), Los Angeles (65 percent), Boston (67 percent) and Phoenix (69 percent) score much better. Even the Atlanta metro has one-quarter of its walkable commercial real estate outside the city proper, with 27 separate WalkUPs compared with our 10 (measured by Walk Scores of 70 or better) and the No. 8 current ranking for walkable urbanism.

This analysis counters most of our current assumptions about cities and suburbs, particularly around here, where the differences in the built environment are so stark. But suburbs can't help being where they are; it's "six decades of bad urban planning," to quote the U of M's David Levinson, that has made them what they are.

Spread-out, function-segregated, drivable-only suburban design, however, clearly hasn't consumed all U.S. metropolitan growth. Some older cities developed compact suburban "villages" clustered around commuter rail. My grandfather, Henry Hamm, walked to the Long Island Rail Road station in Floral Park, N.Y., to get to his accounting office in Manhattan. Freeway congestion in newer places such as Atlanta and Phoenix may have spurred the rise of more recent walkable suburban nodes. The Washington area's smarter growth, No. 1 in the nation, was smoothed by the presence of relatively few feuding local government units, even though spread over two states and the District of Columbia, according to the report authors.

With our fragmented local governance and whatever other reasons, the Twin Cities metro bears a heavier burden of suburban sprawl as its legacy. Despite scattered efforts to urbanize the fringe in places such as Edina, Excelsior, Osseo and Wayzata,  much of the seven-county area will remain car-dependent as far as the eye can see.

In Smart Growth's judgment, Minneapolis-St. Paul is among the "low-potential" metros that "still favor driveable sub-urban over walkable urban development trends." This is based largely on our region's negative trend in walkable office space absorption over the past four years and a relatively weak rent premium for such space of 10 percent. In Denver, it's 44 percent, in L.A. 42 percent. 

To be sure, the report offers a couple of silver linings for the Twin Cities. One is "substantial housing development in WalkUPs, particularly downtown and downtown adjacent areas." The other is our "noteworthy" expansion of light rail and "the potential of suburban urbanism."

A big chunk of that potential rides on the Southwest Green Line extension, currently mired in controversy and the target of much urban progressive criticism for daring to reach distant suburbs eager to build their own WalkUPs. When the suburbs were booming and the cities shriveling, the latter argued that we were all in this together.

Maybe the tables have turned now, but the wisdom of that argument hasn't changed. For the Twin Cities to succeed in the 21st century, we need to find ways for more of the region to reverse the mistakes of the 20th.

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  • David S. says:

    June 28, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    Walkable Urban Places in Minnesota faces 1 distinct challenge [relative to Atlanta or LA] which is winter. That 2 mile lovely Sunday afternoon walk at 80 and sunny turns into a very long walk indeed in January with ice and cold and maybe wind. What is passable in July could be dangerous for people who are elderly or for whom walking is a challenge come winter. What WalkableUPS assumes is zoning mixed neighborhoods and mixed commercial/residential areas. Sidewalks and stoplights are readily added or improved. Bus stops are a dime a dozen, however, few people can realistically walk more than about 3 miles from home and perhaps bicycle more than about 5 miles from home. Ergo for many suburbs this will require zoning changes and enough businesses to believe there is economic viability to open in an otherwise residential neighborhood.

    My point is this would require a substantial social shift [city/county/metro council imposed changes do not a social shift make]. Cities can manipulate zoning on a whim [subject to the unelected whims of the Metro Council], however, that doesn’t mean business will be willing to open stores and offices in the new mixed residential/business neighborhoods or that residents will demand the businesses or that people will want to buy into the neighborhood. Thus, this has to be a social change rather than a compulsory top down approach.