Where We Want to Live—Now and in the Future

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By Hilary Reeves, Communications Director

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Editor’s Note: This piece by TLC’s Hilary Reeves originally ran in the Southwest Journal on May 28 as part of her regular “Spokes & Soles” column.

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What makes a good neighborhood? A recent survey shows walkability on the minds of many.

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Every couple of years the National Association of Realtors conducts a National Community Preference Survey. The most recent, in fall of last year, indicates that people most likely to be in the housing market want to live in communities where it’s possible to walk or drive to shopping, restaurants, the library, and school. For those who plan to move in the next three years, the walkable neighborhood was preferred by an 18 point margin (57 to 39 percent).

The number one feature that people said there was too little of in their neighborhoods was “safe routes for riding bikes to work and shopping.” The next biggest needs were for more “public transportation within an easy walk,” “housing for people with low incomes,” and “shops or restaurants within an easy walk” of home.

Many are willing to give up a large yard to gain walkability. Asked to pick between a house with a large yard where “you have to drive to get to schools, stores, and restaurants” and a small yard in a walkable neighborhood, the latter won out, 55 to 40 percent.

People still overwhelmingly want to live in detached, single-family homes (76 percent) and not in condos or apartments. But, the preference for a house drops to 57 percent when the apartment or condo brings more walkability and a shorter commute.

A March 2014 blog about the survey on Planners Web asks, “Do your development regulations and transportation plans allow for single-family homes on small lots, in a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere within walking distance of shops, restaurants, and community facilities?” The blog notes that this is what “consumers increasingly want, but in many communities this option is hard to find.”

It may be fair to ask, however, if building primarily for single-family homes is best for walkability and for the changing demographics of the Twin Cities.

According to Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City, communities where walking is most possible (and driving least necessary) come with densities of “ten to twenty units per acre,” which basically means a mix of “apartments, row houses, and yes, some free-standing single family homes.”

Planning and zoning for these densities would also foster some other things that the Realtors survey said people want: more bike routes and more affordable housing.

Speck (Walkable City) points out that in the 1950s (when the US started building interstate highways and people starting moving to suburbs), Vancouver began advocating for high rises, with requirements for transit and green space. Now, walking and bicycling are 30 percent of all trips in that city.

In Minneapolis, biking and walking together account for about 10 percent of all trips, according to the American Community Survey, part of the US Census. The percentage of people commuting by bicycle in Minneapolis increased from 1.9 percent to 4.1 percent in recent years, according to a report, Modes Less Traveled—Bicycling and Walking to Work in the United States: 2008–2012.

These are the same years that Minneapolis saw a big expansion of bike routes and programs (such as Nice Ride Minnesota bike-sharing and community bike centers, such as SPOKES in the Seward neighborhood) funded in part through the $28 million Bike Walk Twin Cities federal Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program. The pilot program was the inspiration of Jim Oberstar, a long-time Minnesota representative in the US Congress. Oberstar, who died recently, was a transportation visionary.

The same kind of match-up of spending, community priority, and political leadership could help prepare the Twin Cities for changing demographics. According to the Metropolitan Council, by 2040 the population of people over age 65 will rise by 58 percent or nearly half-a-million. A bunch of seniors likely will have less preference for yards and more openness to mixed use condos and apartments. This same kind of development also fosters more affordable options.

Development of this sort would also meet one of the other preferences in the Realtors survey, for more diverse communities. A majority (53 percent) now favor “living in a community with a mix of people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds” (up 11 points since 2011). More people want to live in communities with various income levels” (48 percent in 2013 versus 42 percent in 2011). And 66 percent (up from 60 percent) now want to live in a community with people at all stages of life.