Walkable Places? Let’s Have some Caution about the Market

It’s slipped my mind and schedule to comment on this May 25 Times op-ed by Christopher Leinberger, which summarizes the results of his Brookings-supported study of the Washington D.C. metropolitan real estate market.

I’ve got little to quibble with in Leinberger’s description of the trend toward walkable neighborhoods fetching a premium in the housing market, and, having recently moved to a new place where a supermarket, veterinarian, post office, gym, Thai/Sushi fusion restaurant, pizza parlor, and liquor store are within a 500 foot radius of my front door, I’m not personally pleased to be paying a premium on my rent each month.

But I’ve got the premium to spend, which explains the problem I do have with the article. Here’s Leinberger’s closing:

Building walkable urban places is more complex and riskier than following decades-long patterns of suburban construction. But the market gets what it wants, and the market signals are flashing pretty brightly: build more walkable, and bikable, places.

I may be taking an uncharitable view of what is necessarily a distillation of a more complex project, but Leinberger writes as though the benefits that flow to people from walkable neighborhoods are important components of social provision only insofar as the market validates them.We’ve been here before, and though Leinberger is probably right that we can expect the market pendulum to swing back from the extremes of urban renewal, highway building, and the 1990s vogue for exurbia, we’re still left at the whim of big investors to get more walkable communities built, and in the meantime, we can expect the market to distribute other people to the places that are left over.

This problem is even reflected in some odd choices in subjects and verbs. Describing the correlation between neighborhood walkability and land values, he writes:

As a neighborhood moves up each step of the five-step walkability ladder, the average household income of those who live there increases some $10,000.

Maybe this is just a careless mistake, but in actually existing social space, neighborhoods don’t move up the scale of walkability, they pretty much stay the same, because the way they are is the way they were built. Small leaps, one rung upward, might be accounted for by the addition of bike lanes or altered traffic patterns or other modifications of a neighborhood’s infrastructure, or by new businesses moving in to meet basic needs. But even in this case, the driving factor certainly isn’t the neighborhood itself, it’s the influx of capital–financial, social, or cultural–that moves governments and developers to build more walkable infrastructure. We could make this statement more accurate by saying that wealthier people are moving to walkable neighborhoods. We could make it still more accurate by saying that wealthy people are moving to the limited supply of walkable neighborhoods that exist in the United States because of decades of heedless expansion and support for automobile-centered transportation, and often realizing a substantial financial gain through gentrification in the process.

If we assume the market will eventually get around to reorganizing the exurban sprawl of America after a long spell of sorting by income and purchasing power, then we will have the poor inhabiting what Atrios perceptively describes as decidedly disadvantaged places:

It’s as if instead of ruining cities by building urban highways, you’re starting with the cities being pre-ruined by the ribbons of roadways running through them

Indeed, this process is already visible, as a 2010 report from Brookings’s Metropolitan Policy Program shows (can we pause to ask if the right hand knows what the centrist hand is doing down at Brookings?). The suburbs are now home to the largest share of the nation’s poor and the highest concentrations of poverty in most metropolitan areas are now in older suburbs. People with more power in the marketplace are now choosing to live elsewhere, and the evidence doesn’t show that the process is leading where Leinberger thinks it’s leading.

To think about process in a serious way, addressing how metropolitan communities that exist today are shaped by past policy choices, cultural values, and financial incentives (e.g. the interconnections of highway  construction, federally subsidized mortgages, and redlining practices between the 1930s and the 1970s, or the explosion of exurbs driven by the 1990s and 2000s real estate bubble) would force us to focus on a less attractive side of the market–the banks, lenders, securitizers, speculators, and other guys in suits moving paper, plus the government bureaucrats, bank executives, and homeowners associations that actively or by indifference aided and abetted the production of a national landscape of economic and racial segregation–as opposed to the carpenters, plumbers, civil engineers, and other guys in hard hats building stuff and the honest hardworking Americans paying to live in places where they can walk to pick up a gallon of milk or see The Dark Knight Rises.

It’s worth noting as well that there has never been a “free market” in housing development in the modern United States, only various incarnations of state-supported subsidies for lenders, buyers, and (usually white) homeowners, but there we go with the history again.

5 comments on “Walkable Places? Let’s Have some Caution about the Market

  1. […] cities, rather than an innate, trans-historical human desire to live in a suburban environment (see here to the contrary). It also ignores the role of government policy in subsidizing this lifestyle and […]

  2. […] afford cars as economic necessities. It’s part of our metropolitan political economy that the benefits of past public investment are being taken back from the poor for the benefit of the […]

  3. […] taken some issue with Leinberger’s analysis here before; I don’t disagree with his general conclusions […]

  4. […] like to take this opportunity to announce that I’ve seen the light. My critiques of market-based development, political fragmentation, and historically institutionalized racism in metropolitan America are way […]

  5. […] areas. While there have been a spate of accounts touting The End of the Suburbs as a seeming market-based response–a back-to-the-city movement based on millennials’ distaste for buying and […]

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