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Tony Castrilli,
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When it Comes to Economic Growth, Walkable Urbanism Outpaces Suburban Development

News Highlights

  • Walkable, urban development produces outsized economic and social benefits, including higher GDP and lower transportation costs for families.
  • Fairfax County's strategic plan to boost the economy calls for encouraging the development of more of these places.


Walkable urbanism. This is the future for real estate development and economic growth, says a new study from George Washington University’s business school.

It finds that walkable, mixed use development produces large economic and social benefits compared to drivable suburban development.

Fairfax County officials say the study highlights why the county is encouraging walkable, urban development as part of its strategic plan to boost the economy. They point to recent efforts to redevelop Reston, Seven Corners and Tysons, as examples.



The research, which focused on the 30 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., examined the economic and social benefits of these walkable places. They are characterized as dense, mixed use areas that are accessible by foot, bike, bus, rail and cars. The D.C. region, including Fairfax County, ranked as the second most walkable in the nation, and in Fairfax, these walkable places included Annandale, Bailey’s Crossroads, Reston, Seven Corners and Tysons.

Importantly, the study finds that both walkable urban and suburban development can coexist.

“The image of Fairfax is drivable suburban heaven, and that’s going to stay that way,” said study author and national urban planning expert Christopher Leinberger. “That’s not going away. About five percent of your land mass will be converting to walkable urban.”

Walkable urban places only make up a small portion of a metropolitan area's land mass. They make up about one percent of the land of the approximately 4.1 billion acres of real estate in the DC region, according to Leinberger's previous research. This amounts to about 17,500 acres in total.

For example, Fairfax’s land use plan envisions that 90 percent of the county will remain as suburban neighborhoods. Future growth, however, is concentrated into walkable, mixed used areas. In fact, the county's plan calls for putting 99 percent of possible, future office, retail, hotel and industrial development into these mixed use areas, along with 83 percent of new housing.

In the region as a whole, most walkable places are also located outside the District: 58 percent of these places were in suburbs, like Fairfax, compared to 42 percent in D.C. based on 2012 findings.


Economic Benefits

While small in terms of the amount of land, walkable places generate outsized economic benefits, including:

  • Higher Rents: On average for the 30 metros studied, the rents per square foot for offices, retail and apartments are 74 percent higher compared to drivable suburbs. In the DC region, this figure is 66 percent, and this premium has grown by 10 percent between 2010 and the fourth quarter of 2015.
  • Higher Economic Output: The most walkable urban metro areas have a higher GDP per capita than less walkable ones, as well as a substantially higher percentage of highly educated workers who produce this higher economic output. In the D.C. region, for example, 51% of residents over 25 have college degrees, the highest rate in country.

These walkable places also help Fairfax as it strives to become an innovation hub. These hubs, which attract startups and new technology companies, are city-like, transit-accessible places.

“They’re dense cores where there’s an unusual amount of activity, both residential, real estate, commercial activity, but then also research occurring inside transit-accessible areas that are connected with broadband and other amenities,”  says Scott Andes, a senior policy analyst at Brookings Institution that is studying the phenomenon.


Social Equity Benefits

“The most walkable places are counterintuitively the most socially equitable,” Leinberger said.

While housing costs are higher in these areas, people with moderate incomes pay less for transportation and have more access to jobs. The study found that these households have:

  • 14 percent lower transportation costs
  • Two to three times more access to jobs


Increasing Market Demand

Walkable, mixed use development are increasingly in demand by everyone from millennials to baby boomers. For example, 45 percent of Americans want to live where they can easily walk to shops and restaurants, according to a national poll by the National Association of Realtors. This figure is even higher among millennials at 51 percent, making this approach to future growth and development all the more important for Fairfax County.

The market demonstrates the demand for this kind of development. In the D.C region, 91 percent of new office and apartment development occurred in walkable, mixed used areas between 2010-2015.

The demand for this kind of development has been growing since the 90s.  Only 12 percent of the region’s new apartments were built in walkable places in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, this figure rose to 19 percent, and it climbed to 42 percent by 2012.




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