Good Community Design Has Real Economic Value

“We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive physical framework.”

-Jonathan Barnett, Charter for the New Urbanism

Good, thoughtful design is paramount to successful places. And, if pitched right, it should be an ace-in-the-hole for business and residential opportunities alike.

Much of the focus of the Economics of Place is to explore the correlations between great places and the corresponding economic activity that occurs in them. The vast majority of research shows that it’s the PLACE that matters in an economy where jobs, talent, and industries are increasingly mobile. So while we don’t often consider good community design when touting economic development opportunities in cities, it is becoming a bit more obvious that we should.

Case in point: Port Townsend, WA.  Often cited by EoP favorite and contributing author Dan Burden as America’s most walkable city, I searched their city website to see for myself how they portrayed themselves to prospective businesses seeking to locate there. Although the website outlines much of the historic charm in the community, the town’s excellent design goes largely ignored. The fact that it’s walkability rating is off the charts (89 citywide according to WalkScore), isn’t mentioned anywhere. Contrast that with other sections of the website that deal with planning and business opportunities that provide detailed information on ordinances, plans, licensing, and taxes- not a terribly inspirational message to those in search of a great place to go.

I don’t write this as a critique of the Port Townsend website- overall it is quite good by municipal standards. Rather I use the site as an example for how many communities miss opportunities to effectively insert PLACE into the conversation about creating jobs and improving quality of life. If a place like Port Townsend doesn’t easily make the connection, then imagine how difficult it is for rustbelt towns or aging commercial areas.


Just about every economic developer continues to sell tax rates and regulations as the primary reasons for locating in an area. I know this too well, having witnessed communities and development agencies in Michigan raise these outdated and incomplete  strategies to a perverse art form. As a result, it makes it hard to distinguish between a town like Port Townsend and one that seeks to attract new users for their overbuilt infrastructure, eight-lane roads, and the indistinguishable corporate food kingdoms dotting the landscape.

Communities with good design that properly incorporate this strategic element will have a leg up on the competition for attracting and retaining entrepreneurs and talented workers in the future.

Or This?

So… don’t forget design. If you have it in your community, or are moving in that direction, then you should sing it from the mountaintops. Good design is marketable. Good design is business and citizen friendly. Good design, as Jonathan Barnett rightfully points out, is a big piece of the economic puzzle.