Walkable urban districts ≠ a city that’s safe and accessible for pedestrians
We’re used to thinking of metropolitan areas as an urban core, surrounded by suburbs and less populated exurbs at the outer reaches. But a new report argues for a different way of categorizing the built environment and its relationship to economic activity.
It divides metros into walkable urban areas vs. “drivable sub-urban” development — since large areas of many cities (Detroit definitely included) are really only drivable, and some suburbs have created dense, walkable districts (think Ferndale). The Foot Traffic Ahead 2019 report was released this week by the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at the George Washington University School of Business, Smart Growth America/LOCUS, Cushman & Wakefield and Yardi Matrix.
The report identifies walkable urbanism as a rising force in real estate development, with demand leading to high rent premiums for housing located in walkable areas… so yeah, that’s why it seems like every new construction these days is “mixed-use development.”
The Foot Traffic Ahead report ranks the Detroit area 23rd out of the 30 largest metros for most walkable urban real estate. The report identifies 32 “WalkUps,” their name for walkable urban areas, in the region.
Report authors tie Detroit’s low overall score in part to a lack of transit infrastructure, as well as “local consumer perceptions that walkable urbanism, especially railbased, transit-oriented development (TOD) is not compatible with their traditions, such as Metro Detroit as the ‘Motor City.’”
But we actually have a high portion of our population living in WalkUps, ranking fifth. We were also ranked third on the Future Growth Momentum index, which estimates metros’ future WalkUp performance. Real estate absorption in walkable areas has exploded in Detroit since 2010, and the study predicts Detroit will “accelerate [its] evolution in a walkable urban manner.”
Still, authors note that the city isn’t the main driver of development — suburban WalkUp areas command higher rent premiums than ones in Detroit proper.
All these stats paint an interesting picture of how Metro Detroit is developing, and what developers are building to meet resident and business demands. They validate Detroit’s efforts to create pedestrian-friendly spaces like the Dequindre Cut and the Riverwalk, the programming and amenities added to downtown parks and neighborhood strategic plans that prioritize walkable access to the streets.
They also speak to the need to prioritize equitable development — as cities seize on walkable urbanism and developers charge higher rents to live in those areas, they’re inevitably paving the way for displacement of lower-income residents, a trend we’ve seen taking place in Detroit’s greater downtown. In the report, Detroit ranks right in the middle on the Social Equity Index, which looks at housing affordability, transportation costs and the mix of rental and for-sale housing.
But for a report focused on urban planning, real estate and growing local economies, there was one glaring omission that stuck out to me: the walkers themselves. Downtown Detroit might be increasingly walkable for the people who live, work and seek out entertainment there, but there are large swathes of the city that don’t qualify as “walkable,” which pedestrians must navigate every day.
For the third of Detroiters who don’t own a car, myself included, walkability is a little different than the classic image of a walkable urban district. It’s less about a concentration of retail shops and dog parks — though those things are good too — than whether you can safely walk where you need to go; whether you’re close to bus routes; and if you get to work or school, the grocery store and other amenities without traveling for hours.
I’m reminded of two analyses of pedestrian accessibility from a few years back. In 2015, geographer Alex Hill and a student research team from Wayne State University’s Urban Studies school surveyed Detroit’s 71 pedestrian bridges, a less-than-great solution for crossing the city’s network of freeways. Half were inaccessible for people with disabilities, close to half had compromised structural integrity and 10% were closed altogether.
And in 2016, journalist Steve Neavling examined the city’s phenomenon of “sidewalks to nowhere.” Detroit spent millions adding wheelchair-accessible sidewalk ramps at intersections to comply with federal requirements under the American Disabilities Act, but 12% of the nearly 35,000 ramps were on impassible sidewalks. It’s a symbolic example of a problem Detroit’s got to avoid — slapping “walkable” infrastructure on areas that don’t serve the most critical demographic, people who don’t have alternate transportation.
Detroit has certainly made a bunch of improvements in the last few years. But I’m often traveling around town on foot, and I’ve seen that there’s still plenty of upgrades needed ASAP. While I love a good greenway, I’d rather have fewer overgrown sidewalks and dangerous overpasses, and more infrastructure improvements to make walking safe.
Detroit’s population-to-space ratio — with many wide, empty streets — means I rarely think twice about walking in the road to avoid a dangerous or nonexistent sidewalk… but that’s no recipe for an accessible, equitable city. –Kate Abbey-Lambertz