July 9, 2014

After decades of tremendous growth in suburbia, we are now seeing a population shift back towards urban cores. A recent study from The George Washington University School of Business found that in Atlanta more than 60% of income-producing property in the region was developed in Established or Emerging Walkable Urban Places (WalkUPs), which account represent less than 1% of the region’s land mass. WalkUPs are more densely developed, provide a range of transportation options and building uses.

Here at SK Collaborative we’re seeing this shift everyday. Although we consult on and certify green projects in nearly every type of environment from remote island communities to urban cores, and even suburban sprawl, the majority are within urban areas. Our projects range from market rate apartments and homes to affordable senior facilities. The interesting question is, what is fueling this population shift to intown neighborhoods?

For many generations, married couples with children drove the majority of America’s housing industry, but now they only account for about 20% of households, and that number is dropping. In 1970, 45% of households contained children. This is projected to drop to 27% by 2030. Today, people are delaying having kids and purchasing homes. The number of childless couples is growing while family size is shrinking. The elderly are also living longer, fueling demand for senior housing and assisted living facilities.

Elan Westside Apartments are seeking National Green Building Standard Certification through SK Collaborative

Elan Westside Apartments (visible in the distance) is is adjacent to Atlanta's Westside Provisions District. The project is seeking National Green Building Standard certification through SK Collaborative. 

In many ways retiring Baby Boomers and the Generation Y are seeking similar housing. Both populations want walkable communities with easy access to a wide range of amenities. The young want access to restaurants, bars, art, and cultural experiences. As Baby Boomers age, they want to avoid becoming isolated in car dependant locations. In addition to resurging urban areas, there is some evidence that expanding telecommuting is fueling a resurgence of small towns. As more people are able to work from home, many opt to live in small towns with both a lower cost of living and the benefits of a walkable community with many local resources.

Previously I wrote about how true sustainability may be best achieved not through technological advancements, but rather by stripping away unnecessary complexity and focusing instead on established best practices. Here we see that a return to walkable communities – whether small towns or urban cores – is both good for sustainability and our innate desire for community. The suburbs won’t disappear any time soon, but many signs point to their slowing growth and more emphasis on, and growth in, mixed-use, walkable communities.

1. Douglas (Doug) Bibby, president of the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC), talk at Georgia Institute of Technology on June 4th, 2013.