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MarySue's Midweek Links

If you’re following the race as closely as I am, you won’t want to miss MPC’s 2010 Annual Luncheon, which will feature llinois’ U.S. Senate candidates Alexi Giannoulias and Mark Kirk as keynote speakers. In a non-debate format, the candidates will have the opportunity to share their plans and priorities for achieving livable communities, improving coordination among federal agencies, maximizing the next federal surface transportation bill, and implementing the region’s 2040 growth and development plan. Thanks to PNC Bank for serving as the Luncheon’s presenting sponsor for the third year in a row. Register today!

Now that you’ve indulged my MPC commercial, on to my link of the week: The Atlantic’s June issue features a special report, “The Future of the City,” sponsored by IBM. Through articles, blog posts, video and a deep dive into the magazine’s archives, the report examines America’s changing urban landscape. There’s lots of good stuff here – a thought-provoking essay on shifting neighborhood demographics, numerical snapshots of major U.S. cities including Chicago, even an interview from The Atlantic archives with Robert Moses – but the article that really caught my attention was “Here Comes the Neighborhood.”

ULI colleague, consultant, and author Christopher B. Leinberger offers an insightful analysis of today’s changing housing market and borrows a page from history to explain how a new network of privately funded rail lines can help reinvigorate housing and the economy. His premise – that more Americans will want to purchase homes in walkable neighborhoods near transit – is based on reams of sound research (one study he doesn’t cite is Walking the Walk from CEOs for Cities). For instance, he quotes Stan Humphries, chief economist of the online housing-research firm Zillow, who notes that a map of home values in a typical metro region “looks like an archery target, with the outlying areas having experienced substantially higher total declines in home values’ than areas closer to the central city.”

So conveniently located urban homes, on the whole, are retaining greater value than homes on the suburban fringe. That idea is not new. What makes the article memorable is when Leinberger takes the argument one step further, writing:

“Rail, biking, and walking infrastructure is the backbone of urban development, and as a country we’ve for the most part neglected to build it in recent decades, in favor of new roads for new suburbs farther and farther away from metropolitan hubs. To support growth in the next decade, we need to change that dynamic—and nourish our walkable urban spaces and neighborhoods. Complicating matters, in these cash-strapped times we need to find a way to do so on the cheap.”

A-ha. Here’s where it gets good: Leinberger documents that while metropolitan voters in recent years have approved roughly two-thirds of all ballot measures calling for tax increases to pay for new or expanded transit, the reality is that cities and suburban towns are in dire fiscal straits. They alone cannot finance transit investment.

So he proposes a solution, one he borrowed from U.S. history: “What if developers and property owners build the transportation infrastructure themselves?”

As Leinberger points out, studies show investments in transit pay off: A recent Brookings Institution analysis of a proposed $140 million D.C. streetcar line showed that the line would create $3 in land appreciation for nearby private-property owners for every $1 it would cost to build.

Of course, it’s not as simple as all that, and Leinberger delves further into some of the complications, including the need for a more flexible federal transportation funding policy. That is a topic MPC is deeply engaged in with our partners at Transportation for America.

What do you think? Is this a viable solution to building the infrastructure we need to support truly sustainable communities?

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