The Walkability Paradox

North Hills (via

In November 2008, I was considering moving into the neighborhood in Raleigh I’d been working and playing in, North Hills (Midtown) Raleigh. North Hills is one of the many examples of successful classical new urbanism in North Carolina. It took a shopping mall that was emptying due to competition from nearby Crabtree Valley Mall and flipped it into something short of paradise, at least for me. All but one of my favorite stores, my office at the time, the best hairstylist I’d ever had and practically all my favorite restaurants were within walking distance. I only needed to spend gas money on getting back and forth from my apartment 25 minutes away. Even better if I could negate that 25 minutes and move closer. I was interviewing for a different job outside of the complex, but only five minutes away. I would have a nice entry-level professional salary. However, $900 in rent to live in something that was smaller than my $750 place out in the burbs just to say I was green and walkable wasn’t going to cut it for my pocketbook or common sense.

And here we have part one of what I call the walkability paradox. Part two was highlighted by Kristen Carney on Plannovation. She pulls Census and Walk Score data together to determine that first most Blacks and Hispanics don’t live in what are now considered “walkable” communities (i.e. clones of North Hills). Yet, I drive through my old majority-minority neighborhood and see lots of walking, albeit to the suburban style strip center on the corner, but still, walking none the less. Along with another study she was able to do showing higher vacancies in 18 of 20 cities’ “walkable” communities than the city as a whole, there’s evidence that there are issues with selling our classical new urbanist(and some old urbanist) communities not just to Blacks and Hispanics, but maybe the population as a whole.
Not only do these numbers provide evidence of the paradox, there are other things I think make “walkable” communities undesirable still for many:

Price Points Too High

As stated before, we are expected to pay a premium to stay in some walkable neighborhoods. I was hoping to save the money I was not spending at the gas tank, not turn it over into my rent check. With my Honda Accord, I was spending about $40 a week in gas. With those high  prices back now, there’s no real cost savings, only a green living benefit. For people with gas guzzlers, they may see about a $20-$40 discount, but certainly not the $150-$200 I expected to see. At the end of the day, people are going for the cheapest items. Some people do it for bragging rights, others do for survival. Plus, it’s way cheaper in some cases to put in sidewalks in areas that have grids, but missing one side of the street. People are walking, but infrastructure in all but the new urbanist areas is not reflective of actual travel patterns.

Poor Floor Plans
Unfortunately, many of these neighborhoods are built to maximize profits instead of provide adequate space and appealing layouts. The proximity to the Chic-fil-A and the Target doesn’t make up for the fact that I can barely turn around in the bathroom, my dining room table is thisclose to my stove, and in a case I saw here in Greensboro, there’s no need to have a bathtub, just a shower. Apparently, this is both what builders and designers think young professionals will settle for or they are just making something up to try and sell. Also, I’ve never understood the three-story townhome either. I like the idea of exercise, but some of those staircases look steeper than DC Metro escalators. Granted, it’s a waste of time I’m sure to get feedback from people who may only live in a place three months. Still, I’m not one hundred percent  sure that people are renting because they love the interior or the exterior outweighs all. If I’m going to pay a premium, at least let there be enough space and reasonable features to justify the expense.

Lack of Grass and Separate Walls
There are people who will always want a separate wall and a bit of grass. Count my mom as one of them. These people also  include DJ’s, musicians and dog owners who don’t want to always have to take Fluffy outside themselves or get yelled at by the neighbors for noise.  Thankfully, some of the new urbanist developments have began to incorporate a bit more privacy and a bit more green space, in the style of the bungalow neighborhoods of the early 20th Century. This allows sidewalks, bike lanes, and the location of neighborhood scale retail, all while allowing some room to breathe. In my childhood neighborhood, the homes are close by, but I still had ample room to run and proximity to the corner store.

Buildings are Too Tall
Research and practice are beginning to rally around mid-rise development. Many other sites and studies have shown just small amounts of density can improve walkability and repair sprawl. As much as I like dense areas, I also like to see the sun rise and set and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Plus, so many of these glass box condos were built, yet no one is living in them. So much for developer profits. One local developer ended up buying back his whole building and looking into other options to fill up the condos.

Amenities are Too Upscale
North Hills does has a good balance of amenities. There’s a Target and JCPenney, along with upscale boutiques. I can eat at Chick-fil-A one day and Ruth’s Chris if I really had the means to eat a nice meal. The stylist I mentioned was at the JCPenney, but there were more expensive places for that too. Harris Teeter does have a decent private label brand. Yet, some new urbanist communities fail to have anything besides pricey bars and spas to entice people to come downstairs. You still have to drive to Wal-Mart or even the green grocer co-op. What about working and professional class folks who need more than a liquor store or a fancy steakhouse downstairs? As much as people hate them, I like the urban big-boxes. People are going to these stores anyway, let’s make them bow down to our design sensibilities.

Some Places Make it Unbelievably Hard to Not Have a Car

With the advent of the suburban office park, the 3-5 year job placement, poor bus infrastructure and lack of bike lanes, car dependent areas are almost avoidable. As we continue to advocate and see results reversing these trends, we still need to understand that many people will not come over the bridge until there are bike lanes.

The biggest solution for the paradox? Ask people what they really want.  Don’t settle for who comes to the design charette or model home. Don’t stick to the marketing research you bought from the PR firm. Second solution, flip all these problems over. Lower prices and price points in your residential and retail offerings. Complete the streets. Provide more privacy barriers. Help ease people into a more ambulatory lifestyle.

So folks, what else should we do to get people walking again?

  • Rob Steuteville

    There needs to be more smart growth choices than just one or two. Part of the problem with a shortage in smart growth options is that they tend to get expensive. North Hills, while a step in the right direction, can’t fulfill the needs of everybody who wants a walkable neighborhood. There usually are old urban neighborhoods that fill this need, in addition to new urban places. In doing the math, I would add one thing. Gasoline is only a small portion of the cost of owning a car. The main cost is the ownership itself and wear and tear on the vehicle. If you are only driving it 5,000 miles a year versus 10,000, the car should last twice as long. If you are a family, and can do without one of your cars entirely, that’s an even bigger savings. One of the problems is that it is hard to calculate these savings. The monthly rent, especially, and the gasoline are fairly easy to keep track of. Buying a new car for $20,000 two years earlier is an expense that is easy to ignore until the time comes.

    • Anonymous

      You’re right. Still, in Raleigh, dropping your car is almost impossible with job centers spread out so far. I was interning in the North Hills office and i knew I’d need to find something somewhere else, as there were companies on the floor that were merging and closing even. Also, there is talk of bringing PRT to the North Hills complex extending over to the nearby Wake Forest Rd area. There’s a mock-up that has a retrofit plan between the two beltway exits (Six Forks Rd and Wake Forest Rd.), but still, it’s PRT. A glorified monorail, but something that can add more options to the car-friendly needs.

  • The #walkability paradox or y are new walkable neighborhoods not as attractive as they should: #newurbanism

  • The more I read about urbanism in Us, the more it seems to me that planners focus on one aspect  -space , mobility, walkability – instead of integrating several features .Now, crowded floor plans and taller buildings are typical for high density urban areas. Other features such as limited access to several shopping alternatives or the lack of green spaces are design shortfalls which one should really focus on (I wonder if the fact that there is no close-by Walmart has anything to do with the targeted population).
    Talking about smaller living  spaces – I haven’t seen the ones in Charlotte, but I believe that in other cultures people are quite able to adjust to (and happy with) small living spaces.

    • Anonymous

      It’s not necessary the small space that’s bothersome, but the mark-up of it and the fact that the features don’t make sense. I could get a smaller table, but I can’t turn a shower into a bathtub. I do see a target population in the mix of stores. North Hills is fortunate that Target’s business model is as it is. However, Target and Wal-Mart both have questionable business practices and if I’m going for price point, I’ll probably go to Wal-Mart first.  Still, with the federal government, nonprofit CDC’s and other organizations besides large scale developers and designers getting into the new urbanism debate, as well as the benefits of complete streets, urban agriculture and other models, new urbanism is set to evolve and has to evolve to survive.

  • Philip Freeman

    Great piece. Very thought provoking and fun to read (I appreciated the cleverness of “my dining room table is thisclose to my stove”)! 

    What I find most frustrating about many new urbanism projects is what you classify as “Amenities are Too Upscale.” The Village at North Elm in Greensboro is one example that comes to mind–I have a friend who plays music at Graffiti’s Bistro regularly, and every time I head that way I am reminded of how expensive those shops and restaurants are. I’ve also eaten at Bonefish Grill at North Hills; although I loved walking around the development, I definitely noticed the lack of cheaper/affordable eateries.

    In regards to your final claim, I agree that most places in the South are near impossible to live without a car. Fortunately, this issue is on the radar of leadership in the Triangle.  Check out Durham County Manager Mike Ruffin’s foresight and commitment to public transportation on pgs. 9-10 of his FY 2011-12 Budget Letter:

    Keep the posts coming!

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, Phil, it was really going to be like that. But Arbor House(the tubless place) was the most appalling. Glad to see you on here and hope you’re doing well in Winston. Also glad to see your home county taking the lead on not just new transit, but fixing DATA and Triangle Transit.

  • RT @anabellebee: #walkability paradox or y r new walkable neighborhoods not as attractive as they should: #newurbanism

  • The #Walkability / #Liveability Paradox | @KristenEJ –