Is City Council About to Trade Away Philadelphia’s Walkability Advantage?

Dense, walkable neighborhoods helped the city endure the housing crash. Amendments to the zoning code could change the equation.

When my wife and I decided to move to Philadelphia from Kansas four years ago, one of the first decisions we made was to ditch our car. The city ranked fifth among American cities in the walkability rankings at, and we quickly figured that by moving to a (relatively) cheap apartment near Fitler Square, we’d settle ourselves right in the middle of a “walker’s paradise”—just a couple of pedestrian minutes away from groceries, parks, coffee shops, and schools.

Turns out we—and other young couples like us—might’ve helped Philadelphia survive the recession.

No really. A new report by Penn’s Kevin C. Gillen demonstrates that the dense, walkable parts of Center City Philadelphia saw housing prices decline during the post-2007 housing crash—but that those price declines, around 20 percent, were much smaller than the steep 33 percent decline found in the suburbs or other less walkable, less transit-accessible part of the city.

“The Philadelphia story thus seems to demonstrate that communities with center city locations, mixtures of usage, and suburban rail-served centers outperform sprawl,” Gillen wrote.

In other words: Being able to step out your front door and quickly get a coffee or a meal within a couple of blocks helped homes retain their value. Surrounding your home with other homes, and driving miles to get a coffee or a meal, did not.

So that’s good news for Philadelphians who love city life. And even more good news: The city just two months ago passed a new zoning code—decades overdue—that enshrines “New Urbanist” principles emphasizing density, walkability, and transit access, into the city’s development codes.

The bad news? As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Inga Saffron pointed out last week: City Council is already tinkering with that new code, before it’s even had a chance to be tested.

What does all this have to do with walkability? Well, one of the major revisions already under consideration would reduce the ability of property owners to subdivide rowhomes into smaller apartments—while requiring that they provide at least one parking space for every two tenants. Which means the code would brush aside dense, walkable neighborhoods in favor of less-populated, more car-centric development.

And that’s clearly the intent: “I don’t agree with the notion that we should increase density,” Council President Darrell Clarke told Saffron. “We have 60,000 acres of vacant land in this city and we should be spreading people around.”

Maybe. And certainly, not everybody in the world loves cheek-by-jowl pedestrian-oriented city life: Developers should be able to create a variety housing styles to serve residents with different needs and desires—even if those needs and desires include more car use. But City Council is also in the business of passing budgets—budgets that include property taxes as a hefty dose of City Hall’s revenue, money collected based on the values of those properties. Keeping libraries and swimming pools open hasn’t been easy during the recent downturn. Imagine how much worse it gets during the next downturn, if property values decline more because they’re not in the kind of dense, walkable neighborhoods that endured this recession relatively well?

You think the Council would want to think about that.

Of course, times change, and maybe walkability will go out of fashion. Maybe gas prices will go back down to those we enjoyed in the Clinton Years, and young professionals will give up on hipness and cafés and bodegas to flee back to the suburbs. But walkability is serving Philadelphia right now; city leaders shouldn’t be too cavalier about altering that ecosystem.