The benefits of mix-use communities

Walkable community

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

 

By Marilyn Skolnick

With the looming threat of global warming and ever-increasing gas prices, we need to educate ourselves, our communities, and our public officials about mix-use communities and their relationship to energy consumption.

Not surprising, urban areas with shops and businesses in close proximity are generally more walkable than suburban and rural areas. And although some suburbs have incorporated sidewalks into their planning, most have not.  However studies have shown that locating residential buildings within walking distance of offices, restaurants, retail, civic spaces, and public transportation significantly reduces a community’s dependence on cars, preserves green space and natural resources, and promotes economic development. That’s because when a community is walkable and services are close by and accessible, residents are less likely to drive. Instead, they often walk or use other modes of transportation, such as bicycles and public transit.

Unfortunately, because of traditional zoning laws, many communities do not currently permit a mix of this type. But those laws are likely to change as communities discover that dependence on automobiles declines when:

  • Commercial and public services are located within or adjacent to residential areas.
  • Population and employment density increase.
  • Street networks, particularly sidewalks and bike paths, are well connected and safely accommodate pedestrian and bicycle travel.
  • Buildings are connected to sidewalks rather than set back behind parking lots.
  • Larger and higher-density commercial centers are centrally located or near public transportation and offer amenities such as cafes and shops.
  • A strong, competitive transit system, is available.

In  addition to reducing our culture’s current overdependence on oil, mix-use land management lowers household  transportation costs and offers significant social benefits, including more opportunities for social interaction and improvements in a population’s physical fitness.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion showed that teenagers living in high-density neighborhoods in Atlanta were nearly five times more likely to walk half a mile or more a day than those living in low-density communities. The study used data collected from SMARTRAQ, a larger study of land use and travel patterns that showed a strong link between time spent driving and obesity.

It’s up to us, the informed, to educate the uninformed about the land use and its relationship to transportation.. For more information, see Land Use Impacts on Transport: How Land Use Factors Affect Travel Behavior by Todd Litman (www.vtpi.org).  

Marilyn Skolnick serves as co-chair of the Chapter's transportation and land use committe.