It was recently reported that DFW may soon be getting its first walkability census. Called “The WalkUP Wake-Up Call,” George Washington University’s School of Business has completed studies like these in places like D.C., Boston, and Atlanta over the last few years.
The report does a good job at tallying the ingredients that make for a walkable area and the economic implications. Unfortunately, this academic exercise pretty much stops there. For each city above, the report highlighted 45 to nearly 60 walkable areas and divided them between locations like “Downtown” and “Downtown-Adjacent.” I get those descriptions. But, when locations like “Suburban Town Center,” “Strip Commercial,” and “Greenfield” are explained, there seems to be a forced approach to categorize the built environment. In the D.C. study, for example, neighboring pockets often overlap and, having lived there for many years, it could be hotly debated if some of the more suburban ones are truly “walkable.”
Studies like this often lose their way. Good initial ideas morph as a variety of compromises dilute the message. From the D.C. example, most of the developed urban and suburban areas were identified as walkable. This had more to do with the long development history of the individual areas than a concentrated effort to create walkable urban places. Although that is not necessarily a bad thing, I’m not sure how this approach becomes actionable for a community. And, at a price tag of upwards of $300,000, “actionable” should be paramount.
In looking at the rating criteria, many DFW areas will score high. Obviously, our central business district and Uptown will rank at the top. Coming in strong will also be CityPlace and West Village, as well as Preston Center, Las Colinas’ Urban Center, and urban Fort Worth—and let’s not forget Legacy. Then we have all the other locations that fit their suburban or strip model, like Grapevine and Richardson or the new Cityline project, to name a few more.
So, knowing this, how does this help us? I believe the WalkUP report needs a wake-up call of its own. The focus here should not be to tabulate a “census,” but rather to be more pragmatic and find how best to shape our built environment in the years ahead. First and foremost, communities are different and their development histories dictate how they will grow in the future. Older cities are, by nature, walkable—mostly due to their compactness, resulting in higher densities. Newer communities, like Dallas, are often less compact because they have had different drivers, which will continue to influence them into the future.
Because walkable implies “value” creation, the report needs to look at real development patterns and where walkable environments can grow organically with proper nurturing, such as new development guidelines, public education, etc. For DFW, the report must “inform” development and not simply yell “smart growth” from the rooftops.
Deeper insight into how walkable areas have been successful both locally and nationally, as well as an emphasis on how mass transit will continue to shape our community, is paramount to understanding community impact. Ultimately, these walkable environments do not occur overnight, but take years. The study should recognize that today we sow the seeds for tomorrow’s communities.
Walter Bialas is director of research for JLL in Dallas. Contact him [email protected]