Comprehensive Plans: Where Do You Want To Live?

Many of our suburban cities are updating comprehensive plans. These set the course for what our communities will look like over the next 20 to 30 years and are quite important. These impact safety, community desirability (and so home values, city tax revenue and ability to maintain infrastructure), quality of life, physical and mental health and many other things.

It’s important then to consider what we want our communities to look like for ourselves, what future home buyers will want, how this may affect home values and what other changes are coming that we need to plan for.

For Ourselves And Our Community

More parks? Less car congestion? Greater income and housing diversity? Recreational bike paths? Safe bikeways and walkways for going to schools, grocery and dinner? Do we want traffic to move faster or slower? More shopping? Less shopping? Different shopping? Less noise and light pollution?

More fitness centers? We have 8 times as many fitness places as the OECD average and spend 5-12 times as much on joining them as any developed country in the world. And yet we’re the most obese and least healthy of all developed countries. I don’t think that they are working.

Are our cities financially sustainable (More: Strongtowns Ponzi Scheme)? How about environmentally sustainable? Do we want to do better on these? Do we need to do better on these?

Have you ever been traveling somewhere and thought you’d like to live there? What about it did you like? I travel to Europe frequently and the comment I’ve heard most often from people returning is “I wish I could live there.” Several have made comments along the lines of “it seems so much more human”.

Future Homeowners – A Blue Zones Lifestyle

Over the past couple of decades we’ve seen an increasing migration of people from suburbs to urban cities in search of more human scale walkable and bikeable places with a stronger sense of community.

They want to be able to safely and comfortably walk or bike stress-free to the local grocery or café and see their neighbors there, not gobs of strangers. They want their children to be able to walk or ride to a local school and to local activities rather than relying on mom and dad taxi service. They don’t want the wasted time, costs and stress of having to drive long distances or battle stress-inducing traffic for anything and everything.

Intuitively they want a Blue Zones lifestyle; active transportation, less stress, healthier food options, local community, and neighbors who also want a healthier lifestyle.

Bicycles parked at café, shoreview, mn

Vibrant Community Appeal. People increasingly want to live around others who want a similar healthy lifestyle. It’s much easier to live  healthy when those around you are doing so and much more difficult when those around you are not. They want local eateries that do well serving a variety of quality, healthy, portion-appropriate food options rather than a token healthy option among huge servings of unhealthy heart killing gook and giant donuts (reasonably small sweets are quite welcomed though).

One realtor told me that “there’s nothing that sells Shoreview like a customer seeing lots of people walking and bicycling on Shoreview’s paths”. More recently another said “lots of bikes parked outside of a local café is turn-on for prospective residents while a place filled with overweight people eating large portions of unhealthy food is a turn-off”.

They want quality over quantity and experiences over things. Walking or bicycling to a local café for wine or beer with friends is more important than buying something.

They want a financially efficient lifestyle where they will waste less money on unnecessary transportation and healthcare costs. And they want to live in a community that likewise is financially sustainable.

2% Roads Deter 60% of House Buyers.

People increasingly know that the community we live in and how it is planned plays a much more important role in our health and well-being than we’ve previously realized. It is more difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle in a suburb like Vadnais Heights (above) where walking and bicycling are dangerous and unappealing than in Shoreview with an extensive network of paths. But even Shoreview, like every Twin Cities community, is still far behind average communities in Europe where people are much healthier because they are not prevented from active transportation.

This Ramsey County road through Vadnais Heights is a 2% road – one where only about 2% of the population feels safe and comfortable walking or riding a bicycle on a regular basis (and for good reason given our road fatality rates). Most people living in the adjacent neighborhoods cannot ride bicycles to local restaurants, grocery, pharmacy or schools because of roads like this. The result – many house shoppers will not be interested in these neighborhoods because roads like this isolate them and will not allow the low stress active transportation that people increasingly desire. Less demand = low house values = low tax revenue = poor maintenance = lower house values = suburban death spiral. Does it deter 60% of house buyers? Or 30%? It’s difficult to say. Many buyers will not even look in suburbs because they think that all suburbs are sprawling places with fast traffic and roads unfriendly to walking or bicycling.

Who are ‘they’? Largely millennials but increasingly also retired folk and people from every imaginable demographic who want a better quality of life than that offered by most of our cities.

“It’s easier for people in those towns to stay healthy because they live in a place that supports them rather than constantly undermines them.” – Dan Buettner, The Blue Zones Solution, discussing communities that embrace safe active transportation.

People will increasingly migrate to communities that embrace this lifestyle. They want communities that are working towards walkable/bikeable village centers of mixed residential, retail and healthcare rather than allow a local healthcare facility to be built 4 miles away so that driving or being driven to each and every appointment is required.

In cities outside of the U.S., elderly will ride their bicycle to their healthcare appointment. In the U.S. this is rarely an option so they must drive themselves or have someone drive them. This simple act of riding to their healthcare appointment (and morning coffee and…) keeps them healthier and so they require much less healthcare than people in the U.S.

This migration has caused significant increases in the values of core urban areas while surrounding suburbs have seen stagnating or declining values with many suburban homes worth not much more, or even less, today than ten years ago.

Communities that aren’t meeting these desires will find continued declining home values leading to declining property tax revenue, declining infrastructure and delayed maintenance, lather rinse, repeat. This is particularly acute for suburbs since their lower density and huge amount of untaxed parking lots requires much more tax revenue per resident.

Riding on path in shoreview mn

Cities that don’t provide walkways and bikeways for transportation or think recreational trails are good enough will be painfully surprised.

Any city that is not attracting a significant number of people who desire to live there so much that they will invest in existing housing stock to the extent that values keep up with inflation, will find themselves in a prolonged death spiral until they become a candidate for gentrification 50 years from now. That’s not good. And once the spiral begins it’s extremely difficult to reverse.

How will your city do in attracting people and investment in housing upkeep in the coming years? What cities are doing the best? Worst?

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN

14 thoughts on “Comprehensive Plans: Where Do You Want To Live?

  1. Fact post

    Shoreview is a great city, and I really appreciate all the trails, good schools, etc.

    But despite all the improvements they are making, that gas station at 96 & Hodgson ain’t going anywhere. 😉 😉

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author


      To the extent that their business requires petrol sales I don’t see them lasting too long. They, like all petrol stations, have benefited from the increase in SUV sales that helped to offset more efficient engines, people driving less and electric (PHEV & BEV). Sales of electric vehicles is increasing and will continue to increase more rapidly. Stations that are not along motorways or other major long distance travel corridors will not be able stay in business.

      For most petrol stations the revenue is in convenience sales which are driven by a captive audience of petrol customers. With the decline of that captive audience will come a decline in highly profitable retail sales. To the extent that they derive a large chunk of revenue from repair services they may stick around a year or two longer but that’s kind of doubtful.

      We’ll see.

  2. Trent

    I feel like there are good “Blue Zone” neighborhoods across Minneapolis. However the Minneapolis 2040 plan targets them for some serious increases in density. It’s a lot less likely you’ll know the people at the coffee shop If the city succeeds in landing a massive apartment buildIng at the corner of the block of primarily single family homes based purely on numbers of people around you.

    1. Rosa

      I don’t think that’s true. You’ll know the ones you ride the bus with or see at the park or see at the coffee shop. The number will be higher because there will be more overall people and the percentage might even be higher over time because people who live in smaller spaces are often out and about more.

      But what really makes for knowing neighbors is stability – you and they being there for a long time. The foreclosure crisis taught me that ownership does not make for stability – affordability does

  3. Daniel Hartigkingledion

    All increased density does is bring more people and businesses into your walkable radius. That in turn, means that you are more likely to find people like you around.

    Higher density means that in addition to a coffee shop, your neighborhood can support a bookstore. Or maybe a second coffee shop that specializes in exotic tea. If there are more people around, it is more likely your neighborhood can support whatever you are into; your preferred church, or a bowling alley or an ice hockey rink. Even in the case of Shoreview, how many nice local restaurants can you really walk to?

    1. Cobo R

      But increased density does bring additional noise, more traffic (foot and wheel), and other challenges.

      Its not all candy an roses.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Traffic is the result of insufficient density, where all trips require a car and the destinations are clustered together.

        Seriously. Neighborhoods dense with housing are not traffic nightmares. The traffic is people passing through.

        1. Cobo R

          More people = more people going to work, going to stores, going about etc = traffic.

          You need more traffic to support the more businesses and institutions as described in post I was responding too.

          I didn’t write “nightmare”, but I intended on stating that “an increase in activity of humans being humans, in a given amount of space has some negatives”.

          Density is not a panacea. I’ve been to Shanghai, Manhattan, London, Banglore, etc. Some of the most densely populated places in the planet. And I would probably have crippling anxiety issues if I had to live in any of them.

          To me the ideal population density to live in is ~ 2 to 5 thousand people per square mile, but tastes differ I guess.

          1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

            I agree with you generally. Manhattan and Shanghai are not necessarily places I would want to live. London, at least outside of The Mile and the tourist heavy areas is actually quite nice.

            Amsterdam and Utrecht are of course, favorites.

            There’s density and there’s density. There can be too much (Shanghai, Manhattan, Manila) and it can be poorly managed (Philadelphia, Atlanta, LA).

            The proper amount of density managed well is quite nice (Amsterdam, Utrecht, Copenhagen, maybe Paris, Frankfurt, Antwerp, Barcelona, Tokyo, Berlin, Hamburg, Helsinki, …). Most of these, London as well, are actually collections of a gob of neighborhoods. Some more dense than others but overall a fairly dense area that works well. Not too many people that it’s problematic but enough to support a variety of good places to shop and eat.

            It’s similar when you get out in to less populated suburban and rural areas where you have a semi dense core village (2 to 5 story mixed use buildings) with surrounding low density single family. Enough density to support a grocery or two, pharmacy, eateries, healthcare and stuff along with being compact enough that the majority of people can walk or bike for most of their local transportation.

            1. Cobo R

              Yeah, I like London and it is my favorite big city. It was fun to visit.

              When I was there I sublet-ted a flat for about two weeks well outside of the touristy areas. But despite being in a dense well populated neighborhood with a subway station there really wasn’t much you could walk to in under 20 min. There was maybe 2 restaurants, a park, and a small corner grocery. It was fine, but my current suburban Minnesota home is within walking distance of way more restaurants, stores, and parks, and institutions.

              Also since basically all the jobs in London are downtown the subway was packed in the mornings and evenings, and getting packed in a tube under ground is not my preferred way to spend an hour every day. I can’t comment on the roads, but I would wager they were busy too.

              But then again to each his own.

  4. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

    I think for Shoreview and many suburbs the issue isn’t density, but where the density is.

    Shoreview has a lot of apartments and condos – density. The problem is that these are mostly located a fairly long distance from pharmacies, groceries, eateries, healthcare, etc (map to come). So a gob of motor traffic is generated between dense residential areas and dense retail. This isn’t allowed in The Netherlands and most other developed nations where dense residential and dense retail are kept together so that the majority of traffic is foot/bike rather than motor.

  5. Monte Castleman

    I wouldn’t draw any conclusions on what Americans want as a whole from a subset of those privileged enough to be able to travel to the U.K. Only 1/3rd of Americans have valid passports and most of those probably just go to Mexico and Canada and just because you’re coming off the high of a hyper-expensive trip doesn’t mean that you’d tolerate living in those conditions (the crowding, expense, noise, congestion, etc) 24 / 7. With 4/5ths of people in the metro choosing to live in the suburbs and the number of types of cars we own this suggests to me, despite the counter-trend of some of the Millennials, that most Americans want to live like Americans, not like Europeans.

    That suburban houses haven’t increased in value only applies to certain types of suburban houses, and is because we’re building nothing but McMansions there’s an adequate supply of higher end single family houses so buying a existing high end house doesn’t make much sense. Any halfway affordable single family house, like those in Richfield or East Bloomington, traditionally thought of as the “declining areas” now, has shot up in value due to lack of supply. Real estate supply and demand affects prices more than if there happens to be a bike trail in front, and how much difference is there in the sale price of the exact same house in Shoreview vs Vadnais Heights?

    1. Tim

      As you note, the suburban housing market is very bifurcated right now. In my second-ring suburb, anything under $300K (including townhomes and condos) sells very fast, often within a week, while the more expensive houses (typically the trade-up houses) languish. It’s a lack of supply at the price point that’s the issue, not a lack of people wanting to live here.

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