Community leaders nationwide need to recognize that “place” is their most valuable asset. The most effective way to maintain or build economic prosperity is to protect the character, uniqueness, and history of our towns.
This was the message from Parris Glendenning – a board member of Smart Growth America and former Maryland governor – this week when he spoke at an Urban Land Institute conference in Washington DC for real-estate developers.
Market values have dramatically shifted in the past few years, with the car-and-highway-heavy suburbs that many of us grew up with losing value and being replaced in demand and market by walkable communities in urban, suburban, and rural areas.
Glendenning quoted a realtors’ survey that found 77 percent of Americans want pedestrian-friendly features and 88 percent place more value on the quality of their neighborhoods than the size of their homes.
But community leaders are having a difficult time educating themselves and adapting to the trend. Old building codes deliberately required the separation of businesses and residential properties and often have wildly outdated parking requirements.
Luckily, some jurisdictions are making dramatic code changes, removing parking requirements altogether or developing around transit, as was done over the past 30 years in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor of Arlington, Virginia, where flourishing urban activity centers were constructed based on subway stops.
Glendenning said economic life is starting to filter away from places that “don’t get it.” He added that citizens are flat out willing to vote for tax increases for transit, usually through sales tax increases, and that more than 70 percent of referenda throughout the nation have been approved by voters.
“Citizens seem to get it even more than elected officials, and lots more than Congress, which is not funding transit well,” Glendenning said.
That said, he did credit federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Housing Administration, and the Department of Transportation for working together to create grants that promote and support walkable communities.
“This is not a matter about zoning and planning decisions. It is about energy efficiency and helping our economy,” he added.
Google is just one of many companies that “gets it.” Ann Arbor, Michigan was recently selected as a place where the tech giant would employee 300 workers, with plans to further expand. Ann Arbor was selected above other competitors in Michigan because Google said it is a “livable place” that will provide a competitive advantage where it will be easy to recruit future employees.
Glendenning said local leaders should focus on transit and walkability. These elements are attractive to businesses because their employees won’t need to demand higher wages to offset the costs of getting to work.
Removing the hurdle of commuting costs also removes a major hurdle to the economic growth that is so badly needed across the country.
Photo by Michigan Municipal League