The Bottom-Line Case for a Walkable Retail Future

 A recent Washington Post article by Jonathan O’Connell poses the question, “Can city life be exported to the suburbs?” In it, the author examines the contemporary design phenomenon manifested by the proliferation of “town centers” (or “lifestyle centers”) nationwide, and particularly in the Washington, DC region. He observes:

"In the past two decades builders increasingly have been bringing city life to the suburbs and exurbs. Street grids are plotted around central plazas surrounded by condos, apartments and shopping. Public transportation is arranged, parking garages are hidden from view, and all the things that people love about D.C. and cities like it are layered on: public art, sidewalk performers, outdoor movies, street festivals, block parties and food carts."

Much of the discussion in the article centers on notions of desirability such as “culture,” “convenience,” “energy,” “character” and “feeling.” The environment is described as “urban,” but it could just as easily – and perhaps more accurately – be described as “walkable.”* And while the foregoing intangible qualities are certainly important determinants in the ultimate success of a venture, retail or otherwise, one expects that profit-driven developers and their sought-after retail partners must be driven by something more concrete than “a context…where [people] can experience life as fully as possible.”

In fact, not only does there appear to be a demonstrable connection between urban amenities and a successful bottom line, but advocates for walkability have begun trumpeting the ever-expanding body of literature showing a significant connection between increased revenue and environments that prioritize the pedestrian over the automobile.

On Thursday, September 27, WalkBoston, a Boston-based pedestrian advocacy group (of which Goulston & Storrs is a corporate member), hosted a presentation entitled, “Good Walking is Good Business,” at which Executive Director Wendy Landman made the case that “an investment in walking is a good business investment.” The program, which was attended by representatives from the government, business, consulting and advocacy communities, focused not only on statistics and studies to demonstrate why good walking is good business, but also on what makes a walkable community and how to go about creating (or transforming) one. In support of the business case for walkability, Ms. Landman noted that walkability helps businesses attract and retain employees. She also presented evidence that a walkable environment may contribute to substantial savings on employer health care costs. In its literature, WalkBoston specifically focuses on the retail sector as a contributor to, and a beneficiary of, walkable environments:

"Retail spending is often higher in walkable areas. A welcoming walking environment attracts strolling visitors and local customers running daily errands. People on foot are more likely to see window displays, to go into stores, and to stay longer, all of which offers the potential of increased sales."

Among the compelling evidence marshaled to support these claims:

  • Patrons of retail businesses who arrive by foot and bicycle in a neighborhood shopping area visit the most often and spend the most money per month. [Toronto Clean Air Partnership, 2009]
  • Walkable retail areas with unique visual, cultural, social and environmental qualities provide competitive advantages. Their “place-making dividend” attracts people to visit more often, stay longer and spend more money. [Urban Land Institute, 2010]
  • In Los Angeles, walkable, densely-built shopping districts saw retail activity up to 4 times greater than strip shopping areas. [Boarnet, Retrofitting the Suburbs to Increase Walking, 2010]

With such statistics, it should come as no surprise, then, that enterprising developers are incorporating walkable, urban characteristics into retail projects, even when they are located miles from the nearest downtown. And while there is room for debate as to the wisdom of isolated “town centers” reachable themselves only by automobile, advocates like Wendy Landman might suggest, as she did the other night, that we should not “let the perfect be the enemy of better” – a bit of wisdom that the current generation of retail developers seems to be embracing all the way to the bank.

* The Federal Highway Administration defines a “walkable community” as “one where it is easy and safe to walk to goods and services (i.e., grocery stores, post offices, health clinics, etc.). Walkable communities encourage pedestrian activity, expand transportation options, and have safe and inviting streets that serve people with different ranges of mobility.”

Related topics: Development, Retail, Retail Sales