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Ditch the car? Dying suburbs revived by walking

Street scene in the Belmar section of Lakewood, Colo.
Craig F. Walker | The Denver Post | Getty Images
Street scene in the Belmar section of Lakewood, Colo.

A decade ago, the small town of Woodstock, Ga., began taking action against an ugly force threatening its very core: suburban sprawl, whose serpentine streets and isolating cookie-cutter homes were squeezing the edges of its historic—but outdated and quiet—downtown district.

"We didn't want that type of development," said Brian Stockton, director of Woodstock's office of economic development.

Roughly 30 miles northwest of Atlanta with a population of about 25,000, Woodstock won a planning grant in 2002 to redesign its city center, with which it eventually designated more than 30 acres of surrounding land to the building of 300 housing units, 80,000 square feet of commercial space and a series of open parks. Additional development followed a few years later.

Woodstock's friendliness to walkers, which the city says has contributed to a 17 percent growth in downtown property values over the past five years, may not be the most exciting bit of its renovation—a rooftop bar and open-air concert series lure tourists and college students from miles away.

But it does represent what a growing number of city planners, architects and futurists tout as a big piece of what can help revitalize America's dying towns in an age where the country's two largest living generations are abandoning the suburbs for urbanized city centers. It's the New Urbanism, a sustainable design movement promoting communities with a range of housing and jobs.

(Read more: 'End of suburbia' may nearly be upon us: Sam Zell)

At the heart of Woodstock's plan: a focus on making things safer and comfortable for pedestrians, which included the easing of car congestion on Main Street with two new parallel streets, the narrowing of travel lanes, and the creation of more parking, landscaping and "bulb outs"—which cut the distance needed to cross streets on foot by 20 feet.

"We've spent the past 60 years building the post-World War II suburbs. I think the big design and development project for the next 50 to 60 years will be retrofitting them." -Ellen Dunham-Jones, Pofessor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Tech

"Walkability plays a big part in an area's economic vibrancy," said Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks, a national nonprofit that fosters walkable communities. "The most valuable real estate around the world is in walkable places, places where people are living and working in closer proximity."

Flush with a high density of mixed-use space—a blend of commercial workspaces, retail, housing and parks—crowded, popular neighborhoods in cities like Boston, Chicago, New York and San Francisco serve as the best examples of how economic prosperity and walkability intersect. These places have high Walk Scores, an algorithm popular with real estate agents that calculates the number and proximity of amenities—including stores, restaurants, schools and offices—to any address.

(Read more: The American invention India really craves—suburbs)

Researchers have found that areas with high Walk Scores fare better environmentally (less use of cars), socially (better chances of connecting with someone face to face) and economically. A recent study published in Real Estate Economics found that in neighborhoods with greater walkability, the resale value of both residential and commercial properties is higher. And according to a 2009 report commissioned by CEOs for Cities, "a one-point increase in Walk Score was associated with an increase in value ranging from $700 to $3,000 depending on the market."

"There's a strong preference for being in a neighborhood where people can walk to shops, restaurants, parks," said Joe Molinaro, managing director of community and public affairs at the National Association of Realtors, which found that two-thirds of respondents in its 2011 Consumer Preference Survey said that walkability was an important factor when deciding where to live. "We asked people for tradeoffs—comparing different things they might have to give up to get that—and more and more are willing to make a sacrifice to be in a walkable neighborhood."

That's bad news for struggling small towns and the car-dependent swaths of cul-de-sacs and McMansions. A huge percentage of Americans, the baby boomers and their children, don't want to live there anymore. Studies say some 77 percent of millennials want to live in urban areas. And for baby boomers, "isolation is finally hitting home," said Todd Zimmerman, a managing director at Zimmerman/Volk Associates, a market analysis firm in Clinton, N.J., that helps clients gauge the feasibility of sustainable development plans.

(Read more: How ugly polluting buses can help future cities)

But given that demand for walkable communities far outpaces supply, advocates say that by deploying pedestrian-friendly elements, suburban towns can reinvent themselves after being decimated by the housing crash and recession.

"We've spent the past 60 years building the post-World War II suburbs," said Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Tech and author of "Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs." "I think the big design and development project for the next 50 to 60 years will be retrofitting them."

"Twenty years from now, sprawl won't have paid for itself." -Galina Tachieva, Partner, Duany Plater-Zyberk

For Lakewood, Colo., an auto-oriented bedroom community six miles west of Denver's downtown, retrofitting meant tearing down its ailing, 35-year old mall in 2002 and building the main street and town square it never had.

In place of the 1.4-million-square-foot Villa Italia Mall, the Belmar Project has added 22 walkable blocks of urbanized amenities: more than 80 stores and 888,000 square feet of retail space, 248,250 square feet of offices, 833 housing units and even two schools—the Ohio Center for Broadcasting and the Paul Mitchell School.

"The residential prices in Belmar are higher than the Lakewood average and have certainly benefited the surrounding area in terms of home values," said Travis Parker, Lakewood's planning director.

The city says that there is 14 percent more economic activity annually in Belmar compared to the peak of Villa Italia in the mid-1990s. Gross retail sales activity in the mall was $175 million at its peak vs. $200 million for Belmar so far this year. "It's a neighborhood similar to what you'd find in a city, and that's the point. People want to live downtown; this created one," Parker said.

(Watch: Sam Zell on the death of suburbs)

For most towns, building a walkable core requires at least two elements, starting with some sort of mix of businesses and housing located not too far apart: "You need that clustering to get the synergies that lead to economic growth," said Geoff Anderson, president of Smart Growth America, a coalition that, among other things, works with communities to fight sprawl.

The second: partnerships with private developers. Experts say that usually the upfront infrastructure costs of a retrofit are greater than what it costs to build a typical house-heavy suburban development. But a retrofit, with its commercial appeal intended to widen an area's tax base, can be planned so that it pays for itself within a few years.

"Twenty years from now, sprawl won't have paid for itself," said Galina Tachieva, author of "Sprawl Repair Manual" and a partner with architecture and urban design firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company.

Many towns are finding entrepreneurial ways of adding walkability on shoestring municipal budgets. Some have reduced speed limits, added more on-street parking and planted trees between sidewalks and avenues to improve the perception of safety. A brewery owner in Oakridge, Ore., placed 10 tables over two parking spots to not only generate more sales per square foot, but to add to the sense of community on the street.

While the walkability movement has taken hold of hundreds of communities across the U.S., advocates say it's still in its infancy.

During the suburb building boom of the past 60 years, "everyone got so good at what they did—from the traffic engineer who could only think to solve how to keep traffic moving to the planner who had to separate every land use—that now we have to change the culture of the professions," said Dan Burden, co-founder of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute. "We have to break down the walls and get these people to talk … and ask 'what do we want our community to look and feel like in 20 years?'"

By Maggie Overfelt, Special to CNBC.com

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