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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Economic benefits of walkable and bikeable Columbia

   With Columbia actively engaged in a plan to redo our downtown area it might be useful to look at how this process is playing out across the US.  I recently finished read the book "The End of the Suburbs" by Leigh Gallagher.   In this book Ms. Gallagher lays out how the suburbs planned in the 1950's and 1960's are now being reexamined as a lifestyle as we move farther into the 21st Century.  The idea of a tract home in the suburbs with a long commute to a job in the city is no longer the lifestyle of Millennials and Generation Xers. While singles and childless couples have always been common as city residents we now see that these couples are opting to stay in the city to raise their children.   Baby Boomers are also following a movement back to urban areas.  This reality can be seen in Baltimore.  As some offices are relocating to Harbor East in Baltimore the former offices are being renovated to provide housing for people moving into center city Baltimore.
      What is causing this readjustment in living choices?  Some of it is tied to the changing family structures.  The old norm of marrying in your early 20's and beginning to raise 3 or 4 children that promoted suburban living is now no longer the norm.  Today's young person is more likely to attend college and graduate school, begin a career, marry in their late 20's or early 30's and then have children later in life.  For these individuals the idea of living on a cul-de-sac in suburbia is less common than in it once was. They are accustomed to the activity of an urban environment and the possibility of a short commute to work.  A commute that may even involve a short walk or bike.
      The first part of this story resonates with me as a member of the Baby Boomer generation.  I remember loving living in a number of locations around DC in the the 1970's.  Walking to restaurants and other city activities was common.  A short ride on a bus (this was before most of the subway system existed) could get you most places you wanted to go.  Attending concerts at the Capitol and watching the sunset over the Capitol is something I still remember.  I frequently attended Congressional hearings or floor debates (as boring as they were) on controversial legislation.  The only difference was when we started to raise a family we opted for a suburban community with a twist---Columbia.  After visiting the suburban communities in the Maryland and Virginia (couldn't see myself living in such a conservative state) we fell for the utopian vision of the Columbia story when we visited the Visitor Center.
      So now that we have a "doughnut" hole in our population of young families there is a movement to attract the younger generation with a redeveloped downtown.  Connecting parts of our downtown in a way that develops a more walkable area seems to be in line with what younger people want.  And maybe some Baby Boomers too.  The present Town Center area was designed for the car and is not inviting to anyone foolish enough to try and walk or bike in the area now. Walkable urban places are becoming the new norm among more homebuilders.  Examples in our area are The Villages at Leesburg, Kentland in Gaithersburg, and of course Maple Lawn here in Howard County.  The only problem with these new models is affordability.  You can see this most dramatically by looking at the retailers that are locating in these communities.  Not much chance of a WalMart in any one of these locations.
      One of the important points of the Gallagher book is that walkable communities make economic sense. This reality is rarely mentioned in a discussion of economic development.  Good schools, proximity to BWI and cultural activities in Baltimore and DC are probably most of our County's economic development pitch. Attracting a younger generation of residents may have to promote the walkability that is associated with an urban environment.  While this maybe the direction of the new development in downtown Columbia we have our model of 1960's retailing in the middle of our downtown--the Columbia Mall. While the Mall is moving slowing and incrementally in the new direction of a less enclosed retail model with the new development, it is still taking up a large amount of land in the central core of our town.

        The parking area of the Mall is probably the biggest hinderance to revitalizing our downtown.  Reston Virginia has a model for what our downtown retail area could look like without the Mall.

Some other sites for the economic benefits of walkability are listed here:

I have blogged once before on the dying of suburbs.

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