Walk Tall!

The Economics of walkability


Mariela Alfonzo remembers when she really got the message about what’s important to real estate developers. She was discussing big-box stores with an investor in Orange County, California, who had put a lot of dollars into strip malls and megastores.

Alfonzo, an urban design researcher, adjunct professor at NYU-Poly, and consultant who has done extensive research on what makes places truly walkable, explained to him all the ills of this type of development. Big-box malls are bad for the environment, she said, and destructive to communities. They have horrible aesthetics, discourage physical activity, and are damaging to public health.

“Do you even look at what you’re buying?” she asked.

His reply was the equivalent of a shrug. “But they make money.”

If she could convince him that walkable communities would be more profitable, would he invest in that type of development instead, she wanted to know? In the end, he told her, the answer is in the bottom line.

That’s when Alfonzo realized that all the quality-of-life arguments she could muster about walkable communities, all the academic research she could conduct, all the idealism she felt about changing the way cities and towns are constructed, wouldn’t make a difference unless she could make an economic case.

“There’s always a drive to understand the economic value of walkability,” she says. “For people in a decision-making capacity, especially now, after the recession. If you explain the economic piece, people get it right away.”

That “economic piece” has to be based on data, not vague notions of what is “good for the community.” Alfonzo wrote her dissertation on failed malls that were being redeveloped, “ostensibly to develop a sense of community,” she says. As she researched the cases more closely, though, she discovered that the nebulous “community benefit” wasn’t the driving factor. “A sense of community was important, but it was really about the economic bottom line.”

Since then, Alfonzo has worked on creating and refining hard-data tools to quantify just what makes a place appeal to pedestrians. She began by working as part of the team that created theIrvine Minnesota Inventory, a comprehensive index defining and measuring 160 factors that contribute to the pedestrian experience: metrics like accessibility, pleasurability, perceived safety from traffic, and perceived safety from crime. She’s currently adapting that tool for use in a walkability study she’ll be conducting in China.

She went on to incorporate the IMI into an algorithm she calls the State of Place index, which was used in that recent Brookings Institution study she worked on with Christopher Leinberger that linked walkability to economic performance.

Now she’s using that algorithm in her business, Urban Imprint, aiming to help developers and governments to create better places that will also produce economic results. Alfonzo’s State of Place tool is much more fine-grained than Walk Score, which has become a standard for people seeking to evaluate real estate choices such as home-buying or renting on the basis of walkability. It uses the IMI to measure things like outdoor dining, benches, street trees, sidewalks, number of vehicle lanes, and the like. Then State of Place takes it to the next step, generating 10 “sub-scores” that rate connectivity, density, safety from crime, safety from traffic, public space/parks, proximity to commercial destinations, physical activity facilities, aesthetics, pedestrian amenities, and form.

“State of Place is not only measuring walkability and quality of place, it also acts as an economic indicator, not unlike an S&P-type rating,” says Alfonzo. “In that regard, it can be used by investors, lenders, retailers, developers, etc., to make investment and siting decisions.”

Not only that, Alfonzo thinks her system could help cities and towns to fix places that are broken.

“Stakeholders can customize their interventions and investments based on their urban design profile and, because each of those ten dimensions matters differently to the economic bottom line, users of the index can identify those changes that will be the most effective and generate the most bang for their likely limited buck,” she says. “In other words, it’s an economic development tool.”

That’s exactly how Alfonzo’s first client, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, is using State of Place.

Having a start-up business is a big challenge, says Alfonzo, much different from doing academic research or consulting. But she’s come to understand that if she’s going to get decision-makers to pay attention to making better, more humane places, appealing to them from a business perspective is the only way to go. She points out how these days, “walkability” is a buzzword that comes up all the time, whereas just a few years ago, no one was talking about it except academics and advocates.

“Part of the reason that walkability is being pushed forward is that it’s economically viable,” she says. “You’re dealing with people for whom design is not on the table. I want to show it as a way to generate value.”

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