Walkable Cities – Better Infrastructure

Only a couple of weeks into the new Trump presidency, it is tempting already for liberals and progressives to despair. The Paris Climate Accord, the Affordable Care Act, Mexico, seemingly anyone of Muslim descent, and the entire U.S. news media are under siege by the new administration. Perversely, the stock market is up on the expectation of increased business profits due to the easing of regulation, without regard to the inevitable societal cost of those policies to the environment, labor, and human rights.

One of the few nods to something hopeful Trump made during the election campaign were his statements about building up the nation’s infrastructure. Most knowledgeable commentators, despite their politics, agree the country badly needs a facelift in the form of a major modernization of our bridges, urban public transportation, inner cities, public schools, and hospitals. Undertaken properly and with commitment, modernizing our public infrastructure would provide major economic stimulus, many new jobs, and increased productivity and efficiency. 

Yet, as Paul Krugman of the Times asserted recently in his column (New York Times, Infrastructure Delusions, January 14, 2017) – “there will be no significant public investment program, for two reasons.” Congressional Republicans have set their priorities on eliminating health care for millions and cutting taxes for the rich. They have no demonstrated interest in any serious public investment program. And President Trump, despite his campaign rhetoric, has no serious policy or plan for infrastructure investment, just as he has no serious replacement for the Affordable Care Act.

The infrastructure discussion raises an associated and equally important issue - what type of infrastructure investment do we most need? Do we have a vision that would allow us to target infrastructure investment in the most optimal and beneficial way?

One vision gaining social traction is the concept of the walkable city.** More and more people in both the baby boom and millennial generations are attracted to an urban lifestyle in which community amenities like shopping, entertainment, and social activities are within walking distance from where most people live. Compact geographical areas with these “walkable” characteristics are popping up all over the country, in big cities like New York and Boston, as well as newer suburban areas being developed with walkability in focus (see www.walkscore.com).

Together, the baby-boom and millennial generations number about 160 million people, about half the U.S. population. Boomers are working longer, but as they grow older are increasingly concerned about being stranded in car-dependent suburbs and having to care for homes that are too large. Many millennials grew up in the suburbs and have had enough. Increasingly, they are looking for the social energy, job opportunities, and creativity found in more urban environments and are often happy to walk or bike to get around in these areas. In all, the market for walkable communities today is estimated at three times the demand for the suburban development fueled by the soldiers who returned from World War II and their families.

Aside from their increasing popularity, making communities more walkable will help the country address some very challenging issues:

Carbon footprint: Communities that require less driving use less energy and produce fewer greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Simply put, they are more sustainable.
Economic development: Construction and other industries that help create walkability hire low- and medium-skilled workers. Badly needed jobs are created.
Financial returns: Investment in walkable urban areas will likely yield healthy medium and long term returns.***
Upward mobility: Walkable communities can make the American dream accessible again for working and middle class Americans.
Social fabric: Walkability strengthens local communities, civic participation, and social resilience.
Health and wellness: Walkable communities improve people’s physical and psychological well-being by encouraging more exercise and time outdoors.

Contrary to the vision of walkability, Federal government investment has encouraged suburban sprawl for decades. As the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S. took hold after World War II, financing the growth of the suburbs, the shopping mall, interstate roads and the automobile were purposeful strategic economic policies for competing with and out-producing Soviet central planning. Today, although those original strategic concerns haven’t been valid for decades, Federal subsidies (think Fannie Mae) perversely continue to encourage new single-family suburban home building further and further away from the cities, so that buyers will be able to afford them. Yet many of these same buyers work in the cities, and their driving requirements increase apace, as does the expense of the roads needed to transport them.    

In sum, today there are nowhere near enough walkable communities to meet the emerging demand, and this presents a tremendous business opportunity for local businesses, citizens, city and suburban planners to partner together to create them. And as SRI continues to grow and flourish in the U.S. there will be more and more investors seeking the impact and community investment vehicles that will finance them.

Infrastructure development? Forget Trump. Buy, build, and invest local – in walkable communities.

** Much of this discussion of walkable cities is taken with appreciation from The New Grand Strategy, Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security, and Sustainability in the 21st Century, by Mark Mykleby, Patrick Doherty, and Joel Makower (St. Martin’s Press; New York, NY; 2016).
***Investing involves risk, including the loss of principal.  Past performance does not guarantee future results.

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