Living in a walkable community has become a privilege afforded to very few people — mostly the wealthy. This reality is unfortunate; as someone who has lived in such a neighborhood in Northwest Washington for the last 15 years, I can attest that the benefits of such communities can be enormous — both personally and professionally.
For starters, doctors have come to realize that there are significant health benefits from living in a place that forces a person to walk in order to conduct most daily transactions. While regular exercise at a gym certainly improves a person’s health, regular low-impact exercise such as walking 30-60 minutes a day also confers important improvements in health and wellbeing. Given that only 20 percent of Americans regularly exercise, incidental exercise becomes even more important for most people.
Lawrence Frank, a professor at the University of British Columbia, found that men who live in cities where it was logistically impossible to go anywhere by walking outweigh men living in more urbanized environments by 10 pounds.
Another benefit from living in a walkable neighborhood is that it makes it more difficult for a person to become socially isolated. While those of us with aged parents rightly worry about their physical health, the increasing isolation that naturally develops among infirm people who live in communities where driving is the only way to travel can lead to a deterioration in mental health as well. And of course, it’s not just the aged and infirm that receive benefits from copious social connections: social intercourse can improve the mental and physical health of everyone.
But while it may be true that my daily walks to work improve my health and mood, I value my walkable world because of the economic benefits it bestows.
What I never grasped while living in smaller communities is that so much commerce transacts via personal relationships. This is especially true when it comes to employment decisions.
When a friend is looking to hire a new worker the first thing he invariably does —even before posting an ad — is to let his friends and colleagues know he is looking for someone and what sorts of skills this person should have. Sometimes this is done via an email, sometimes with a phone call, and — more times than I can recall — I’ve been asked for a recommendation when I happened to bump into a friend or acquaintance looking for a new employee.
Besides allowing me to help my friends get jobs, such serendipity has helped me professionally as well. More than one parent I’ve interacted with on the playground as our children played together has inquired about the services my company provides and later hired me. They weren’t all that familiar with my work at the time, but because I happened to be there and I struck them as a semi-responsible human being I got the gig.
While a diligent search by them would have likely turned up a more talented or renowned economist, or at least have been judged as a fairer way to proceed, that’s not how people reflexively do business, I have observed.
The close, continual interaction that people in walkable communities have with those who work in similar fields not only create more opportunities but can also serve to make people more productive, an observation that goes back to Adam Smith. Being in an environment that pushes people together who have similar occupations can cross-fertilize their skills by introducing them to new ways of operating that haven’t yet become common in their discipline.
As a former academic economist whose neighborhood is lousy with journalists, I have learned a lot from chatting with my friends and neighbors who write much better than I do and who are preoccupied with producing stories that are easy to digest and comprehend — a trait for which economists are not known.
I spent almost 40 years living in small towns before arriving in D.C., and my wife and I decided to forgo a larger home in the suburbs to live in the middle of the city. It was a choice that has paid off both personally and professionally, and those professional benefits are the reason we have been able to afford to remain in our neighborhood after having children.
In his book “Dream Hoarders,” Brookings economist (and my neighbor) Richard Reeves declares that what’s most objectionable about the current status of income inequality is that the rich not only earn more but they are able to create more opportunities both for themselves and their progeny.
The dense urban neighborhoods being affordable only to the well-off is not something he mentions but it is a prime example of this phenomenon. Not only is it difficult for middle-class families to live in neighborhoods such as ours but the local self-styled community activists go to great lengths to deter new development, improve mass transit, or take any steps that would make where we live more affordable.
More and more suburbs are taking steps to create a walkable core, but more often than not that is also only affordable to the relatively well-off, and it bears only a faint facsimile to what we have in D.C., New York, or Boston. It is wonderful that Americans have a wide variety of locales and neighborhoods to live in, but the benefits to living in dense urban neighborhoods are vastly understated, and unattainable to most.
Sensible urban policy should ameliorate both of these.
Ike Brannon is a senior fellow at the Jack Kemp Foundation and a former senior economist for the U.S. Treasury and the Senate Finance Committee. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.