Barriers to Pedestrian-Oriented Development: An Introduction

Many people prefer living in pedestrian-oriented communities over conventional sprawl. Across, North America however, you rarely see development projects completed that mix uses (think shops, office, residential, parks) and housing styles (think single family, apartments, duplexes etc.). Simply put, developers rarely build communities that give you the option of using your feet to get what you need in the course of a day when you step out your front door.

   Should a developer even want to build such a place, he (and yes, it’s almost always a “he”) would run into three distinct barriers to building pedestrian-oriented development.  In this article, we’ll describe these three barriers to give you a better idea why you generally cannot walk anywhere in this day and age.

Regulatory barriers are the first hurdle a developer faces. Almost all municipalities enforce what’s referred to a Euclidean zoning, which requires that shopping, offices, residential, and other uses all be in different physically locations.  The entire environment is designed with the expectation that every trip, regardless of distance, will be made using the automobile.   In other words, most planning offices require that places get built to maximize the use of limited oil resources.

Typical zoning map for auto-dependent

Typical zoning map for auto-dependent

A developer submitting a plan that conforms to local zoning regulations gets his project approved by planners with relatively little scrutiny.  Most developers have literally no interest in submitting plans for pedestrian oriented development.  They have little idea what it entails and if even if they did submit such plans, they could not easily get the legal right to pursue the development because it’s technically illegal to build.  For example, road widths in pedestrian-oriented development are narrower than conventional sprawl development.  Simply convincing road widths to be reduced is a non-starter in most places; a subject we’ll return to in a later article.  

Financial barriers are the second hurdle a developer faces. For reasons I’ll discuss in a future article, most everything you see in today’s suburban landscape falls into one of nineteen “real estate product types”.   Big box stores fall into one product category. Single family subdivisions fall into another. Strip malls fall into another, and so on.

Big box stores fall into a real estate product category called a "Power Center"

Big box stores fall into a real estate product category called a "Power Center"

Lending institutions charge lower interest rates to developers who pursue projects that confirm to one of these real estate product types relative to a developer who wants to design and build a walkable community.  Translated, this means that developers makes more profit when they pursue sprawl development relative to pedestrian-oriented development.
As you might imagine, the process of financing development is formulaic. If the project falls into a known category of development risk is easily quantified based on thousands of similar projects across the U.S. and Canada.  Less risk translates into a lower interest rate. Building something that is unique is believed to entail more risk and lending institutions penalize a developer attempting to be creative (i.e., pursuing mixed-use) with a higher interest rate. As a rule, developers follow the money and sprawl remains the law of the land.

Citizen opposition to higher density is the third and final barrier. Regardless of the many benefits pedestrian-oriented development offers (e.g., improved housing/jobs relationships, increased opportunities for public transportation, affordable housing etc.) pedestrian-oriented development faces an uphill battle in most locales.

Citizens in opposition to a development proposal.

Citizens in opposition to a development proposal.

A certain sense of ironic accompanies this aversion to compact development.  As a municipal councilor said long ago, “There are two land use patterns that the public does not like—sprawl and density.

There’s much more to say about the public’s reaction to density, for the purposes of this article, just realize that citizen opposition is a major barrier and that many poorly conceived, auto-dependent projects have increased density without offering any of the benefits that pedestrian-oriented development provides.

Now you know that they exist. The question is what is your municipal planning department doing to address these barriers? The answer in most cases is “not much”, which is also the subject of future articles.