Thanks to its mix of easily accessible employment, culture, retail, housing, and other amenities, the Washington, D.C., metro area has been hailed as the standard-bearer of pedestrian convenience in a recent Brookings Institution study on “urban walkability.” The cities covered in Christopher Leinberger's “Footloose and Fancy Free: A Field Survey of Walkable Urban Places in the Top 30 U.S. Metropolitan Areas” are home to 138 million people, or 46 percent of the U.S. population. Of the 157 walkable places the study identifies—”regional-serving” spots, as opposed to bedroom communities—fully half (78) are in the suburbs. (The report's final rankings are based on the number of walkable places per million residents.)

What's notable, says Leinberger, a University of Michigan professor and visiting fellow at Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program, is that older cities like D.C. “have the bulk of [these] areas in or near downtown,” whereas those in nearby suburbs have clustered around transit hubs to create new town centers. The report, released on Dec. 4, 2007, quickly became Brookings' metro program's most-downloaded white paper of the year. Leinberger hopes more suburban towns start taking cues from historic downtown urban centers as part of a smart-building trend. “People knew how to do this 100 years ago, when they had no choice,” he says. “Now we have to relearn it.”

Shyam Kannan, research and development director at RCL Co., which conducted consumer research for the report, notes that modeling a project after a successful one elsewhere won't always work. “Walkable places have to be unique to the environments in which they're created, not formulaic,” he warns. “If they smack of repetition, then they will fail.”