Now Reading: Walking and walkable urban places will drive an economic as well as a health renaissance

Continuing on in this series in preparation for this week’s walking summit (now with hashtag! It’s #EBWPartners , which stands for “Every Body Walk Partners”), I am going from the medical, to the social, to the economic.

I have to say it’s kind of wonderful in the era of thinking of Total Health, that physicians and community partners look beyond the medical causes of good health, to explore the causes of the causes. That’s where the action is.

What this is

WalkUPs stands for “walkable urban places,” and this report presents an impressive body of work in the making by Christopher Leinberger at the Brookings Institution and now published by the George Washington University School of Business. 

Leinberger coincidentally began publishing his work right when I came to DC, and I latched on to it right away (see: “Footloose and Fancy Free: A Field Survey of Walkable Urban Places in the Top 30 U.S. Metropolitan Areas,” December 2007, and Now Reading: Economic Promise, Social Equity, and Health of Walkable Places in Washington, DC | Ted Eytan, MD). It lives in my own personal and professional sweet spots that include (a) walking and (b) Washington, DC. Need I say more:

What was perceived as a niche market is becoming the market. This research takes a deep look at Washington, D.C., a national pioneer in walkable urban places, to identify where development has and will take place—and the economic and social impact it will have.

Why DC is modeling it

He states that DC is approximately 40 years ahead of the rest of the nation in creating the most beneficial built environment, and his arguments, based on actual data, are convincing. What’s off-the-charts impressive about this is that it’s mostly happened since 1990. If you talk to anyone who lived or spent time in Washington, DC during this period, they’ll tell you it was a very different place.

Just look at it now, in this little collage I made.

photo credits, View on

The rationale for the 40-years-ahead statement is based on the trajectory of the education level of the population here (highest per-capita, in the United States). It is a parallel line with the next 5 most walkable areas and with the least walkable areas, with 20 years separating each, with the hypothesis that an educated population will drive demand for WalkUPs, that in turn attract more educated, creative people.

In terms of the walking itself, Washington, DC is the most walkable city in the United States, and the only metropolitan area that has an example of the 6 types of WalkUPs. What does that translate into?

  • WalkUPs have higher performing real estate, including office, hotel, and residential
  • New development is shifting toward WalkUPs, most notably 12 % of apartments were in walkable urban locations, this number has gone up to 42 % today
  • WalkUPs with the highest level of economic performance also tend to have the lowest housing/transportation costs, the most accessible jobs, and the highest ethnic diversity

The social equity is where this work is extremely interesting/leading edge. Leinberger looked at the economic performance and social equity levels of WalkUPs in Washington, DC, to start an important conversation about what “performance” is for a WalkUP neighborhood, and this work includes community values that are important in addition to real estate values. 

Walk score is estimated to account for 67 % of the increase in economic performance of WalkUPs. Adding job density and education levels of a workforce brings that number to 90 %.

The data assessed to produce this study is extensive, and what’s interesting to me is that the report doesn’t really touch on the health benefits of walking. It stands on its own. What a perfect Total Health connection then, between this work, the work championed by AmericaWalks in the policy space, and the work championed by the (a) health system in the health space.

And it’s all related to walking. With Washington, DC, as the example. What could be more perfect.

Ted Eytan, MD