Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a university professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and a distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate and visiting fellow at Florida International University.
A new study finds that even considering other factors, the walkability of a child’s neighborhood has a direct correlation to increased adult earnings.
The benefits of walkable neighborhoods are many and varied. People who live in walkable neighborhoods are more active, healthier, have more time to spend with family and friends, and report higher levels of happiness and subjective well-being.
Now, add another big benefit to the list: Children who live in walkable neighborhoods have higher levels of upward economic mobility.
That’s the key finding from a new study published in the American Psychologist. The study, “The Socioecological Psychology of Upward Social Mobility,” by psychologists at Columbia University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, looks at the effect of growing up in a walkable community on the economic mobility of children. The walkability measure comes from Walk Score. The economic mobility measure is based on the detailed data developed by economist Raj Chetty and his research team. Their data cover more than 9 million Americans born between 1980 and 1982 and gauges the probability that children from households in the bottom fifth of the income distribution will reach the top fifth by age 30.
The new study looks at walkability across more than 380 commuting zones, the basic unit used by Chetty’s team, which are similar to metro areas. It examines the effect of walkability in light of five key factors—school quality, income inequality, race, social capital (measured through community and civic participation), and the share of families with single parents—that Chetty and others have found to be associated with economic mobility.
Walkability has a sizable effect on upward economic mobility, according to the study. Indeed, walkability accounted for 11 percent of the additional variance in economic mobility above and beyond these five key factors. (Statistically speaking, the size of the R2 for their model increased from .41 without walkability to .52 with walkability added to the five factors).
The study considers the possibility that this result may reflect the effects not of walkability per se but of other features of walkability like density or urbanity. Research by Chetty’s team and others using their data has found economic mobility to be higher in communities that are denser (or less sprawling) and less segregated. To control for this, the study ran a series of additional models with variables for density, historic buildings, and other factors associated with urban neighborhoods. In all of these models, walkability remained closely associated with upward mobility.
The effect of walkability might also be picking up other factors that are associated with walkable neighborhoods like higher incomes, better health and longevity, more knowledge-based industries, more liberal social attitudes and less violent crime. So, the researchers conducted additional analyses to accounted for such factors. Here again, walkability remained closely connected to upward economic mobility.
As they write: “The more walkable an area is (as indexed by Walkscore.com), the more likely Americans whose parents were in the lowest income quintile are to have reached the highest income quintile by their 30s. This relationship holds above and beyond factors previously used to explain upward mobility, factors such as income inequality and social capital, and is robust to various political, economic, and demographic controls; to alternate specifications of upward mobility; and to potentially unspecified third variables.”
Or simply put, children who grow up in walkable communities fare better economically, controlling for a wide range of economic factors as well as the related characteristics of those neighborhoods.
There are several reasons, according to the study, why growing up in a walkable community leads to greater upward economic mobility. For one, families and kids growing up in walkable neighborhoods are less dependent on cars. This saves them a major expense. And being in walkable neighborhood also likely brings residents into closer proximity to a wider range of jobs and economic opportunities. To get at this, the study uses data from the American Community Survey on more than 3.5 million Americans to look at the connection between walkability, car ownership, and economic opportunity. “By reducing the need for a car,” the authors write, “a more walkable city opens its employment possibilities up to a far wider range of prospective employees than in a less walkable city.”
Walkable neighborhoods are also healthier, and this may be another factor which helps explain why they are better for economic mobility. Healthier people with higher levels of happiness and well-being tend to achieve more academically and are likely to find better jobs and are more productive at work. Walking also stimulates thinking and creativity—factors which are associated with both higher levels of well-being and employment in higher-paying knowledge jobs.
Walkable communities benefit from greater interaction and connectivity and help to create a greater sense of community and belonging. In contrast to suburbanites who live in large houses and commute alone in their cars, residents of walkable neighborhoods see and interact with many more people each and every day.
The study also makes two additional analyses—one based on a survey of Americans and the other based on a survey of South Koreans—to conclude that it is the sense of community connection or belonging that comes from living in a walkable community that is associated with greater upward mobility. “[I]t appears that walking was a more proximal predictor of upward social mobility than was walkability of the neighborhood per se,” the authors write. “The more an individual walks, the greater the sense of belonging one feels toward the city.”
In other words, heightened economic mobility is not a direct result of walkability, but rather the connectedness, the day-to-day interactions, the diversity of people and experiences, the exposure to others, and sense of belonging that comes from living in a walkable community.