Creating Walkable Mixed-Use Neighborhoods

Comfortable pedestrian access to stores, restaurants and other businesses, co-mingled with neighborhoods, reduces the need to own cars and encourages social connections.

Throughout North America, cities large and small are marketing their walkability as a sign of an energetic and attractive community. Walkable mixed-use neighborhoods (WMUNs) provide residents with access to services and other businesses without requiring residents to use a car as their main mode of transportation, or even own one. “Walkable” does not mean cars are eliminated from a district; rather, WMUNs seek to find a balance between pedestrians, bicyclists, transit and other motorized vehicles used for business or pleasure. For WMUN residents, benefits range from strong neighborhood identity and greater access to services to health improvements and greater social capital and connectedness.

WMUNs give residents the opportunity to live, work, shop and dine in a walkable area, and city governments see this increased livability as an opportunity to create new jobs, maintain or increase property values, enhance a community while using existing infrastructure, and impose less burden on school systems by lowering the need to provide bussing for students. Slower-paced streets, enhanced pedestrian safety, and transportation and parking demand management, with parking located underground or above ground parking designed to blend in with other building facades, are key components of a WMUNs’ built environment. While access to transit is a key component of WMUNs, they are not synonymous with Transit Oriented Development, which implies only that transit is readily accessible but not necessarily that other services are available at the pedestrian scale.

Walkable communities

Value Proposition for Sustainable Consumption

  • Walkable mixed-use neighborhoods allow residents to access goods and services they need without being required to own or use a car, which results in lowered greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs);
  • Walkable mixed-use neighborhoods facilitate more interactions among neighbors and offer the potential of creating and maintaining higher social capital.
  • The compact nature of these neighborhoods leads to a wider variety of housing types, which include smaller homes that may provide a cost savings to residents and result in lowered lifecycle GHG emissions of individual dwelling units; and
  • Smaller housing units also means less space to accumulate material goods, which lowers GHG emissions from the production, use, and end of life management of material goods.

Potential City Roles

  • Educate—Provide information and technical assistance to private developers and the public about the concept of walkable mixed-use neighborhoods.
  • Develop Plans—Integrate walkable mixed-use neighborhoods into comprehensive plans, transportation plans and other documents that guide the development of the built environment.
  • Inventory—Identify areas appropriate for compact, mixed-use development on the community’s official future land use map.
  • Make Policy and Code Adjustments—Use zoning overlays and form-based codes to designate areas as walkable mixed-use neighborhoods.
  • Demonstrate—Upgrade City properties, as appropriate, to integrate into the walkable mixed-use neighborhoods concept.
  • Improve Facilities/Infrastructure—Provide pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and convenient transit options.
  • Regulate and Incentivize—Adopt regulatory strategies that permit or incentivize increased residential and employment densities and diverse uses in transit-served areas and areas identified for compact, mixed-use development.

Implementation Challenges and Potential Solutions

The Sonoran Institute’s RESTORE Report identifies the following challenges and potential solutions for implementing walkable mixed-use neighborhoods.


  • Federal policies sometimes restrict the amount of commercial space in mixed-use residential projects.  
  • Higher development costs for certain types of mixed-use development.
  • Many commercial developers continue to only build what is familiar.
  • Most communities have large amounts of land available for development, and therefore a smaller market for higher-density commercial development.
  • In much of the [American West], lease rates are similar for mixed-use and single-use commercial spaces.
  • Anchor tenants, especially widely recognized national names, may be skeptical of mixed-use developments due to a lack of familiarity.
  • Zoning issues in some communities can cause delays and added costs.
  • Some communities simply do not have sufficient population density for some types of mixed-use development.


  • Perform a detailed market analysis and feasibility assessment to understand development potential in a given community. Positioning development to meet market conditions and demand is essential. In some cases, communities or economic development organizations may underwrite this type of analysis to facilitate the private sector.
  • Adopt the necessary zoning and policies to enable mixed-use development in appropriate locations.
  • Pursue public/private partnerships (P3s). These partnerships balance risk, costs and benefits among all invested stakeholders, helping projects get underway. P3s can offer tax breaks and assistance in creating necessary public works infrastructure that can be too costly for a single investor or developer. Likewise, pursuing joint ventures with other developers who bring needed expertise in the various land use types that will be part of the development.
  • Engage the community throughout the planning and design of the project to build interest and support.
  • Create a development phasing timeline to ensure various parts of the project are constructed when market demand is present. Keep the project flexible and adaptable as market conditions change.
  • Educate both public and private sectors on the viability of mixed-use developments to build familiarity within the financial and real estate sectors and the broader community.

Further Resources