Walkability in real estate development

Ryan Darmanie
Ryan Darmanie


Analysts have suggested that the real estate mantra “location, location, location” should now be “walkability, walkability, walkability.” Neighbourhoods designed for pedestrian mobility, as a form of transportation and not simply recreation, are in high demand globally.

Anecdotally, I was recently watching a reality show called Million Dollar Listing: Los Angeles, and smiled as one of the real estate agents referred to the walkability of the West Hollywood area as a strong selling point. Urban planning jargon has gone mainstream!

Are you tired of having to get into your car every time you need to buy lunch, or pick up a couple things at the grocery? I certainly am, and I’m not alone.

How valued are walkability, proximity to amenities, and a shorter commute to work? The National Association of Realtors in the United States has been asking these questions for almost a decade. In its 2011 Community Preference Survey, it asked respondents to choose between two communities:

In Community A, you could own or rent an apartment or townhouse, and have an easy walk to shops and restaurants and have a shorter commute to work.

In Community B, you could own or rent a detached single-family house, but have to drive to shops and restaurants and have a longer commute.

Waterfront promenade at Camana Bay, Cayman Islands.

Roughly 60 per cent of respondents chose Community B, with 40 per cent choosing Community A. However, according to estimates by Christopher Leinberger, from George Washington University, and Robert Steuteville, anywhere from 80 to more than 90 per cent of all of the land in US metropolitan areas resembles Community B.

There is a massive imbalance between what people want and what currently exists. The demand doesn’t seem to be abating, since the latest (2017) survey showed that 51 per cent of respondents chose Community A.

While one cannot assume that the same preferences hold true for locals, it is certainly a fact that there are people who would choose Community A, if only for the easier commute to work.

To test this theory, I sparked up a conversation with two neighbours in my apartment building. One, a lawyer, declared that she’d prefer to live in her “shoebox” apartment than spend hours every day in traffic. The other, a doctor, admitted that the ten-minute commute to work from his apartment justified the small space he shares with his wife and young daughter.

Is the local real estate development sector, much like the planning system, running on outdated assumptions, when driving was a novelty and not the soul-crushing burden as it is now?

In the Cayman Islands, they certainly haven’t missed the memo. The Camana Bay Development is a charming, walkable seaside community, where residents and visitors can ditch their cars and stroll along waterfront promenades, or indulge in public street-side dining. One can easily walk from the world-famous Seven Mile Beach straight to its town centre.

Public outdoor dining in a pedestrian-oriented environment at Camana Bay, Cayman islands.

How many pedestrians care or dare to brave the roads in and around Crown Point in Tobago?

Walkability can be an asset to tourism. No one wants to be forced to drive while on vacation.

As I have been told, our best gauge of community preferences relates only to housing, and takes the form of the HDC housing application questionnaire. The survey asks applicants for home-ownership to rank their preferences from first to third, choosing from among a single-family house, a duplex, or a townhouse.

The results likely skew disproportionately towards the larger single-family home, which typically means less-walkable neighbourhoods far from job centres. Without having to consider these other implications, respondents will answer based on fantasies, and not reason.

In any case, the way in which we build apartments and townhouses locally leaves much to be desired. We aren’t building them in downtown areas and pedestrian-oriented environments close to jobs and amenities.

No, we’re building them, almost exclusively, in car-oriented suburban locations anyway. We’re building smaller homes for people, but not giving them any of the benefits of pedestrian-accessibility and locational convenience that should come from the decision to downsize.

We need a community preference survey to be done locally, as a tool for guiding planning and real estate development — a task that I have been advocating for over the past five years. If this endeavour interests you, then let’s chat.

If you’re a developer interested in capitalising on the walkability movement that is destined to catch on, then let’s get to work on planning, designing, and creating an alternative to the cookie-cutter, gated residential development where we don’t recognise the faces of our neighbours, but know their cars all too well.

Ryan Darmanie is an urban planning and design consultant with a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers University, New Jersey, and a keen interest in urban revitalisation. You can connect with him at darmanieplanningdesign.com or email him at ryan@darmanieplanningdesign.com


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