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Walkable communities a pedestrian dream
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"The whole concept of walkability has to do with scale," says Dan Burden, executive director of Walkable Communities Inc., which provides guidance and training on "what walkability really is" in neighborhoods, cities, counties and states. Burden is also a senior urban designer with Gladding Jackson, a planning firm in Orlando, Fla.

"With conventional light density and poor connectivity, it's impossible to visit friends or get to a store other than by car," he says. "It makes us highly car-dependent and forces higher car ownership.

"People often move into a neotraditional neighborhood with the idea that it will cut down on their travel expenses. If you're careful to pick a project that offers the kind of services you need, you can cut those expenses back by 40 percent," he says.

There might be environmental benefits in the bargain, too.

"If I can get to 40 percent of my locations by walking or biking," York says, "there's that much fewer emissions going into the atmosphere."

While that sounds good on paper, says Alex Marshall, author of "How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl and the Roads Not Taken," the merits of small-town living aren't so easily transferred to the suburbs.

"What do people like about small towns? Walkability, some history and a nice mix of stores downtown," say Marshall, who is a senior fellow at the Regional Planning Association in New York City. "What they often don't like is that there's no place to park. You have to provide spaces for the cars somewhere, and that often ends up undermining attempts to make it function more like a traditional town."

Also, Marshall points out that a downtown-shopping district requires a very high density of residents to support it.

Property values an issue
New urbanists say they create density by supporting a diversity of housing choices, from apartments built over shops on Main Street and atop garages to town houses, single-family homes and mansions, says Burden -- all in the same neighborhood.

"A mix of uses and housing types intensifies the density in a very significant way to support a higher frequency of public transit, more stores, better parks and better streets," he says.

Property values in many neotraditional communities often tell a different story, Marshall says.

"Diversity tends to be a mirage," he says. "Many of these places are mostly for the wealthy and a very small number of middle-class people.

"The biggest liability is that you're paying a lot more per square foot for these homes and apartments than you would in the subdivision across the street."

York agrees that neotraditional neighborhoods often don't provide enough midrange housing, but says rising prices are a result of normal market forces.

"The problem is that prices get bid upward as a function of supply and demand," she says. "There's a common joke among planners that if you want to retain affordable housing, don't build it well."

Next: "More and more people are clamoring for community living."
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