Winning communities of tomorrow are “15-minute livable communities”



February 14, 2017

For the last century human beings have been on the move from rural areas to urban areas. The United Nations predicts that 66 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050 (up from 30 percent in 1950). Already, 82 percent of the population of North America lives in urban areas.

Let’s be clear, though. “Urban areas” doesn’t mean “downtown.” It means the entire metropolitan area surrounding the urban core.

The trend we’re seeing in all the data, and in preferences by consumers, is to live where everything about their lives – home, work, play, retail, services, healthcare – is about 15 minutes in travel time. Travel can be walking, biking, driving, or using transit.

Americans, especially, apparently are tired of spending time in their cars just to commute to work, or run errands.

SIR recently conducted a national study for the office of the Secretary of Transportation for the Commonwealth of Virginia. We surveyed 600 people around the U.S. who moved, or were considering moving, more than 100 miles, and found that about 8 in 10 agree with the statement “Having access to stores, restaurants, and services close to my home (within about 15 minutes) is very important to me.” In fact, it was the most important attribute they consider when thinking about their ideal neighborhood. The second ranked attribute was living about 15 minutes away from work.

Source: 2016 Movers Study conducted for the Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, Commonwealth of Virginia.

Source: 2016 Movers Study conducted for the Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, Commonwealth of Virginia.

These so-called livable communities are everywhere in the United States. Also called “activity centers,” these are places where you can live, work, shop, play, eat, and access healthcare within an easy travel distance.

Activity centers are a shift away from the suburban sprawl of the last 50 years, which created thousands of look-alike tracts of cul-de-sac neighborhoods connected by sidewalk-free multi-lane boulevards, lined with big box retailers and acres of parking lots. Visit any metropolitan area in America, and you’ll experience the bland, car-dependent sameness mile after mile.

Builders, developers, urban planners, and government officials are now catching up to the changing preferences of consumers and looking for ways to in-fill activity centers across their metropolitan landscape. It’s not hard to find examples, typically in downtown cores, but also all around most regions.

What’s the Generational Dynamic?

 Some people report that it’s all about Millennials wanting to live “downtown” where it’s hip, cool, and there are coffee shops and micro-brews. The reality is that Millennials are a huge generation, about 84 million by last count, or one in four Americans. Yes, some want to live downtown. In a recent Urban Land Institute study, 37% of Millennials considers themselves to be a “City Person.” But 36% said there are “Suburbanites” and 26% self-describe as “Small Town/Country” people.

The 15-minute livable community isn’t just about living downtown. Such communities can be outside of major metros, even in small towns across America.

The more important point is that Millennials are hard-wired to be in community with each other. Thanks in part to having to do school projects in teams from their middle school years onward, Millennials like to collaborate and trust in decisions made by the wisdom of the crowd (which explains the importance of ratings and reviews at Yelp, Amazon, Airbnb, and Uber).

They want neighborhoods where they can walk, bike, and use transit to get around.

This community mindset is what will drive the growth of activity centers and 15-minute livable communities. And at the same time that Millennials crave this connected living, older Boomers are looking for places that deliver them from their dead-end isolation in suburbia.

The result will mean boom times in activity centers across metro regions.

Next week: Why Having a Purpose Matters for Organizations