End of the ‘burbs: Study finds wealth concentrating in walkable urban places

A study in the US has concluded that the old car-based suburban model of residential development made famous in 1950s America is now under threat from models that allow higher-density, mixed-use development and "walkable urban places".

For the first time in possibly 60 years, people are moving back downtown and office, retail and multi-family occupied rental space has a greater market share than drivable suburbs, the study finds.

It predicts future demand for tens of millions square feet of walkable urban development and suggests that wealth and job opportunities are concentrating there to such an extent that it could provide a new foundation for economic development in the US.

Walkable urban takes place both in the centre city and in the suburbs. The old distinction between city and suburbs, we find obsolete– Christopher Leinberger, George Washington University School of Business

But rather than consign suburbs to the dustbin of history, the research suggests that the ‘burbs could catch the trend and fill themselves in, to expand walkability and meet the growing demand.

"This is a sea change in how we invest 35% of our wealth," said report author Christopher Leinberger, a professor at the George Washington University School of Business in Washington DC. Leinberger published the research in association with Smart Growth America.

Something’s afoot

According to Leinberger the six metro areas with the most walkable urban space now are New York City, Washington DC, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle.

The Washington DC metro area is a model example, with 47% percent of walkable urban square footage in the suburbs compared to 53% in the city centre.

"Walkable urban takes place both in the centre city and in the suburbs," Leinberger told the university’s press office. "The old distinction between city and suburbs, we find obsolete."

Walkable urban places are preferred by an age group referred to as Millennials, those born in the early 1980s.

Located in the 30 metro areas studied are 46% of the US population, and, in 2014, 54% of US gross domestic product (GDP) was generated there.

In high-ranked regions like New York City and Washington DC, the GDP per capita was higher than those determined to be less walkable, such as Orlando and Phoenix, and residents were more likely to have a bachelor’s degree.

If you want to be hip and in the knowledge economy, you want to be in a walkable, urban place– Christopher Leinberger, George Washington University School of Business

People living in these walkable areas tend to pay a higher percentage of their income in rent, but they tend to spend less on transportation.

In New York City, residents are spending 47% of their income on housing and 17% on transportation. However, in Orlando, which ranked at the bottom for what the study author termed "social equity", residents spend 45% of their income on housing, but 31% on transportation.

The study claimed that residents of walkable areas have access to two to three times more employment opportunities.

Filling in the ‘burbs

Leinberger argued that suburbs could provide a new value offering to residents by becoming denser and more walkable.

"We still have a responsibility to address affordable housing," Leinberger said. "Let’s address the issue but also recognise walkable urban places help people."

Younger people move into walkable places, pay local taxes and seek out public transit.

"There is a great concern that density is going to destroy community quality," Leinberger said, "which we now know is just the opposite."

Companies are taking note and are moving operations from office parks to walkable urban places. General Electric Co.announced earlier this year it would move from suburban Connecticut to Boston, and Motorola announced a similar move from suburban Illinois to downtown Chicago in September.

"If you want to be hip and in the knowledge economy, you want to be in a walkable, urban place," Leinberger said.

  • The report, Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros, is available as a PDF here.

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  1. This is news? I have been reading this perspective the entire time I’ve been interested in planning and living in cities – a very long time. The process of renewal of decrepit downtowns by creatives who are then priced out by the yuppies is decades old. ‘Hip and knowledge economy’ is just ‘yuppy’ rebranded.

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