Walkable Community Resources

Walkable communities are becoming the latest trend in real estate and REALTORS® need to be aware of how the demand for walkable communities impacts real estate and their business.

Homebuyers rely on REALTORS®’ knowledge of local markets and conditions to help them find a home in a neighborhood of choice.  As the walkability trend continues, homebuyers will expect REALTORS® to know how walkable a community is and what are the most walkable communities in an area.

Walkable Communities in a Nutshell

A walkable community is where residents can walk, bike or take public transit (light rail, trolleys and/or buses) to grocery stores, shops, schools, work, cafes, markets, playgrounds and parks.  Walkable communities have a mix of housing types as well as mixed-use buildings that combine residential, office, and retail.  They can be high-rise urban neighborhoods, traditional downtowns and main streets, or suburban town centers.

What makes a community walkable?

  • A center and public spaces: a main place for everyone to meet whether that be a main street or plaza as well as plenty of other public spaces for the community to gather.
  • Mixed income, mixed use: a choice of all types of housing; retail on the ground level and residential on upper levels; a variety of buildings.
  • Parks, trails and paths: plenty of open spaces to gather and play.
  • Pedestrian design: buildings close to the street; parking lots to the back; safe lighting
  • Shops, schools and workplaces: close enough that most residents can walk from their homes or transit.
  • Complete streets: streets designed for all including bicyclists, pedestrians, cars and public transit; bike lanes; crosswalks.
  • People: enough people for businesses to succeed and for public transit to run frequently.

Benefits to Communities

Walkable communities attract tourists, reduce commuting costs and emissions and facilitate good health bringing more value to a neighborhood. Cities that focus on walkability are experiencing new growth, development and revitalization. They are seeing an increase in retail, restaurant and office investment.

Residential walkable communities generate four times the tax revenue compared to regional and business malls, bringing more value to the area, according to a panel organized by the REALTOR® University Richard J. Rosenthal Center for Real Estate Studies during the REALTORS® Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo.

As the demand for walkable communities rise, retailers are drawn into these communities because of the growing sense of dynamism and potential to develop a new customer base.

Walkable Communities, Inc. also suggests that walkable communities lead to more social interaction, physical fitness, diminished crime, and increased wellness, addressing many social and economic problems.

Walkable areas provide financial benefits not only to the community but also to the individuals living there. Despite the rising prices commonly seen in walkable areas, those communities are inherently more affordable since individuals living in walkable areas usually spend about 43 percent of their income on housing and transportation, as opposed to those living in non-walkable areas, who spend about 48 percent.

Why Not More Walkable Communities

Creating more walkable communities does present challenges, from lending practices that favor conventional suburban development to outdated zoning and regulations that prohibit things like stores mixed with residences; a diversity of housing types in the same development; and pedestrian-first design that places building entrances closer to sidewalks.

“The Unintended Consequences of Housing Finance”, a recent report by the Regional Plan Association, shows that while growing numbers of Americans want to live in walkable communities, outdated federal restrictions make it harder to build the types of buildings that make these communities work.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac all place regulatory limits on the amount of non-residential space that a development can have and still qualify for federally guaranteed loans and loan insurance.

A major issue for developers is outdated federal, state and local transportation, tax, zoning and other policies.

But there are ways to address some of these challenges.

LEED for Neighborhood Development, or LEED-ND, offers a set of standards for updating zoning and regulatory barriers to creating more walkable neighborhoods by establishing criteria for development that prioritizes things like access to shops and services, streets and sidewalks, transit access, efficient use of land, affordable housing, and environmentally sensitive building practices.

Form-based codes are also another tool where the idea is to create, rather than inhibit, a walk-friendly environment.   Form-based codes de-emphasize the regulation of building uses and instead focus on the size and positioning of buildings and their physical relationship to each other and to public spaces such as streets and sidewalks.