Which Cities Are Adding Walkable Housing the Fastest?

Since 1970, most American metros have seen their share or walkable urban housing decline, according to this analysis by data guru Kasey Klimes.
Since 1970, most American metros have seen walkable housing decline as a share of total housing. Chart: Kasey Klimes

As more Americans look for walkable places to live, cities are struggling to deliver, and a lot of neighborhoods are becoming less affordable. A new analysis by Kasey Klimes of Copenhagen’s Gehl Studio illustrates how major metro areas have let their supply of walkable housing shrink over the years, contributing to today’s housing crunch.

In this chart, Klimes shows how much walkable neighborhoods, which he defines as places with 10 or more housing units per acre, have grown or declined as a share of total housing in the nation’s 51 largest regions, from 1970 through 2010.

In most places, Klimes writes, the trend since 1970 has left cities in bad shape to handle the increasing demand for walkable neighborhoods:

The percentage of housing in walkable neighborhoods has dropped from 19.4% to 12% since 1970. Overall, though the number of housing units in America has outpaced population at a ratio of 3:2 since 1970, the number of housing units in walkable neighborhoods has trailed behind population growth at a ratio of 3:1. Now that market preference has returned to dense housing, this mismatch has left us far behind in adequate supply.

The silver lining is an uptick in decade to decade construction of dense housing. The net gain of housing in walkable neighborhoods as a fraction of total net housing gain by decade has increased from just 0.3% in the 1970’s to 10.7% in the 2000’s.

Despite some recent progress, the mismatch between low supply and high demand is contributing to rising housing prices and burdening people with rents they can’t afford in many cities and neighborhoods. Zoning that outlaws walkable development and the disproportionate political power of development-averse property owners are two factors that have hindered housing development where it is most in demand.

Meanwhile, take a look at overall growth in attached housing units (apartments, condos, and the like) by metro area:

Graph: Kasey Klimes
Figure 1. Graph: Kasey Klimes

Klimes says this graph tells two stories — one about zoning and development restrictions and one about population and economic growth:

Virtually all major metros increased their absolute supply of attached housing between 1970 and 2010 (Figure 1). The largest absolute increases tended to be in larger housing markets in which housing is already dense, but when broken down by the point change in percentage of total housing (Figure 2) [at the top of this post], a very different set of cities rises to the top. The most dramatic shifts occurred in growing low-regulation markets in pleasant climates such as Miami, Orlando, and San Diego. Trailing just slightly behind are west coast cities like Portland, Seattle, San Jose and Los Angeles. At the bottom of the list are cities that have weathered difficult economic trajectories, like New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Buffalo.

Hat tip: Yonah Freemark

  • Ben Ross

    The 1970-2010 period combines three eras. (1) 1960-74 was the suburban apartment boom period, when new multifamily housing rarely added walkability (think suburban garden apartments), and could even subtract from it by replacing urban blocks with modernist superblocks, (2) 1975-95 era of sprawl, and (3) the rebirth of urbanism since 1995. Trends were very different in these 3 eras, so it’s much better to look at the decade-to-decade changes.

  • He actually does that. It’s not all that variable.

  • mfs

    really surprised that Miami came out on top, which suggests that they are also counting garden apartments in unwalkable neighborhoods as walkable.

  • ohnonononono

    You really think so? I’d think the creation of Brickell as a neighborhood of residential high rises aligns with this 1970 to 2010 time frame. Remember that the chart is looking at change. New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia obviously have a lot more walkable housing, but during this time frame the proportion of housing in the walkable neighborhoods has undoubtedly declined. Many old walkable cities are only on the cusp of turnaround from the declines of the 70s through 90s, and in cities like Chicago they’re nowhere close.

  • Bliss

    The map and his website appear broken. Any updated links? Thanks!

  • Vernon6

    Not surprised in the slighest. While there was a lot of sprawl built between 1970-2000, the development in past 16 years in Miami’s urban core has been nothing short of insane.

  • Randy Majors

    These statistics don’t seem to tell the whole story. For one, its better to look at decades rather than the whole 1970-2010 timeframe. The writer hints at this: “The net gain of housing in walkable neighborhoods as a fraction of total net housing gain by decade has increased from just 0.3% in the 1970’s to 10.7% in the 2000’s.”

    Second, housing being located in dense neighborhoods does not necessarily equate to walkable. Just look at some of the supposed top cities…some of them are among the most pedestrian un-friendly/un-safe, and driver-centric cities in the nation.

    I’d love to be able to see the data behind this to slice it different ways. (links are broken)

    Nevertheless, it is absolutely true that city planning needs to become much more pedestrian focused.

  • thielges

    “Second, housing being located in dense neighborhoods does not
    necessarily equate to walkable. Just look at some of the supposed top
    cities…some of them are among the most pedestrian un-friendly/un-safe,
    and driver-centric cities in the nation”

    This is a measure of *change* not the total walkability. Cities that are less dense have an opportunity to densify. Those that are already dense really have a hard time finding less dense pockets to densify.

    Consider two cities on this list. San Jose comes in 2nd place where as San Francisco actually went less walkable. There is no debate which of those two cities is most walkable. But San Jose is making more progress simply it is so far behind there is a lot of room to catch up.

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