In addition to his 9-5 office job, my husband also bartends on Saturday nights at a local steakhouse (#millenials #collegedebt). One thing that makes this restaurant particularly successful is its location: in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin and specifically, directly beneath a luxury condo building. In addition to being in a walkable neighborhood, close to hotels and other businesses, it’s literally steps (or an elevator ride) from hundreds of wealthy built-in customers — the residents of the condo.

Over the years that my husband has bartended at this restaurant, he’s gotten to know a number of regulars, most of whom live in the condo building. They’ll slip downstairs for a quick drink on a Sunday afternoon or grab dinner at the restaurant if they don’t feel like cooking. It’s as if the restaurant is an extension of their home.

Business-wise, putting a steakhouse underneath a condo was a very smart move because the proximity practically guarantees a reliable customer base. Recently, the steakhouse’s other branch in Chicago converted from being a standalone building to constructing dozens of condo units in its upper floors because this model worked so well in Milwaukee.

 You don't have to live among skyscrapers in Manhattan to feel the impacts of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. The above image shows the tax value per acre of land in Des Moines, Iowa, with taller plots indicating higher value. Downtown Des Moines can easily be recognized by the cluster of tall purple peaks on this map, yet it has little more than a dozen buildings over 15 stories tall. (Source: Urban3).

You don't have to live among skyscrapers in Manhattan to feel the impacts of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. The above image shows the tax value per acre of land in Des Moines, Iowa, with taller plots indicating higher value. Downtown Des Moines can easily be recognized by the cluster of tall purple peaks on this map, yet it has little more than a dozen buildings over 15 stories tall. (Source: Urban3).

Walkable neighborhoods put this same principle into practice. They create an environment where residents win because lots of goods and services (whether steakhouses or supermarkets) are close by, and the purveyors of those goods and services win because lots of customers are nearby. You don’t need a multi-story condo building for this arrangement to work (see the image on the right). Simply building homes and businesses close together, without wide roads separating them, will achieve the same basic goal. This is how cities and towns have been built for centuries.

How often have you heard from someone who just came back from a vacation in a city like London or Paris who can’t stop raving about the fact that they could just walk everywhere they wanted to go? They’re thrilled about the café across the street from their hotel where they had breakfast each morning. They can’t believe it was possible to stroll to the convenience store for a toothbrush or deodorant in the evening. This shouldn’t be something we only experience on vacation in historic cities.

Unfortunately, by building modern American suburbs and cities around the automobile, we have stretched this whole picture out, making it much more expensive to get to the store — because now a road and a car and gas and stoplights and so on are required for travel —  and much more expensive for stores to get customers — because they must now advertise with huge signage that's visible from the road and provide large parking lots for their guests’ cars.

We have built the steakhouse 10 miles away from the prime steakhouse customers instead of right beneath their feet. Why?

Who is benefiting from this rearrangement of a basic city design principle?

We’ve been fed the lie that we are benefitting, because we get to live in bigger homes with bigger yards on quieter streets. But this whole arrangement is just a ticking time bomb to the moment when our taxes can no longer pay for the upkeep on our pristine cul-de-sacs. In many places, it’s already happening.

What’s more, when that moment does come for our cities, we won’t have many other options for getting around, because this system of development relies so heavily on the car; once any of the pieces in the car equation become too expensive or damaged (roads, gas, cars themselves, you name it) the whole arrangement falls apart.

We can’t go back in time and undo the suburban development pattern, but we can make choices today that will change the outcome for our communities in the future.

That starts with truly doing the math on any new developments proposed in our cities, taking into account, not just the upfront costs, but the long-term maintenance (i.e. paving roads, fixing stoplights, etc.). When we do that math, we’ll find that the traditional, walkable development pattern massively outperforms the auto-oriented development model.

Next steps will likely include:

  1. Adopting a policy of no new roads and instead focusing on transportation investments like biking and walking that we know will create value and make our communities easier to get around. Read more about the need to stop building pointless roads.
  2. Focusing on slowing the cars instead of designing our neighborhoods to move cars quickly through them. Read more about why slower streets will make your community more prosperous.
  3. Ending the pipeline of subsidies and giveaways that incentivize auto-oriented big box stores to move into our communities. Read more about the problem with big box stores.
  4. Removing parking requirements that have filled our cities with unproductive surface parking lots and allowing those spaces to fill with homes and businesses. Read more about ending parking minimums.
  5. Relaxing our local zoning and building codes to encourage mixed-use developments like condos above restaurants and other arrangements that create more walkable neighborhoods. Read more about the need for flexible development and small scale developers.

Each of these steps helps decrease our reliance on cars and return us to a place where getting to the grocery store can be a simple matter of walking a couple blocks, and buying a delicious steak might only involve a trip downstairs.

(Top photo source: Hotel du Vin & Bistro)