Recently, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an article discussing the walkability of the Saint Louis area. The article focuses on a report from Smart Growth America, which insinuates that walkability drives wealth and development, and that the cities should create walkability with expensive rail projects and subsidies to developers in the urban core. But an examination of Saint Louis’ walkability scores and development patterns suggest just the opposite. Wealth and development drive walkability, and planners’ attempts to turn the process on its head are quixotic.
Smart Growth America promotes many common urban planning myths about demographic factors and magic millennials, with the main point being that people are abandoning cars and suburbs for cities and transit. But the facts are:
- Suburbs (and exurbs) are still growing faster than urban cores nationwide.
- Millennials are still driving and only using transit slightly more than past generations.
- Millennials are flocking to cities with high-performing economies regardless of their overall walkability or transit scores.
Like these myths, the idea that walkability drives wealth is likely a mirage, created by the metric for walkability itself. That’s because Smart Growth America gives higher walkability scores to areas where “…everyday destinations, such as home, work, school, stores, and restaurants, are within walking distance.”
That sounds reasonable, until one considers the type of areas that will not be considered walkable. One such type of area is suburbs like Ladue or Ballwin in Saint Louis County, with spread out single-family homes. But another is going to be poor inner city neighborhoods, such as areas in North Saint Louis. Despite the higher population densities, mixed housing stock, and narrow roads with ample sidewalks, the depressed economies and lack of safety in poorer areas mean fewer businesses, fewer restaurants, and fewer shops. Therefore, they have lower walkability scores. Use that definition of “walkable” nationally and one would erroneously conclude walkability means wealth because the definition of walkable precludes economically depressed areas.
North Saint Louis already has the infrastructure to allow residents to walk, bike, or take transit to nearby areas. It just does not have the wealth to attract enough shops, jobs, and restaurants into walking distance. The only way to fix that is to increase economic opportunity, or replace current residents with wealthier residents poached from the suburbs or other city neighborhoods. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which route the city has taken with Washington Ave., the Northside Development Project, and Cortex in midtown.