Good, Thoughtful Hosts #108: Land Use with Keith Walzak, Part 3: How We Do It Right

In the third and final installment of our three-part series on land use and urban sprawl, we’re once again chatting with Keith Walzak, Cushing Terrell’s Director of Planning and Landscape Architecture. We’ll start by talking about what the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act means for climate change and the built environment, as well as the benefits of developing for density — particularly mixed-use development. We’ll also cover the importance of accessibility in land use, particularly how a 15-minute walkable city can benefit ourselves and our environment.

Check out the first two episodes of the series on public perception and financial incentives.

About Our Guest

An urban planner and landscape architect, Keith engages community members and leaders, non-profit organizations, public agencies, and private developers to promote healthy and creative placemaking opportunities for communities of all sizes. He is passionate about addressing complex issues such as resiliency and climate change, equity, housing affordability, homelessness, neighborhood gentrification and community revitalization, and delivery systems affecting sustainable urban infrastructure. Keith has been affiliated with the Urban Land Institute (ULI), Congress For New Urbanism, Habitat For Humanity, and many other agencies.

Episode #108 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer 00:06
In the third and final installment of our three-part series on land use and urban sprawl, we’re looking at the bright side by discussing some recent good news, specifically the passage of the inflation Reduction Act. And we’ll also talk about some of the benefits of developing for density, particularly mixed-use development. I’m Sarah Steimer and on this episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, I really cannot overstate why it may be worth being optimistic about how we can make changes and improve our climate outlook. We’re discussing the role of accessibility and land use, particularly how when we make where we work, live and play easier to reach, it can benefit ourselves and our environment. It may not seem like a big deal to be able to walk to your favorite cafe, but saving yourself a trip in the car saves a whole lot more.

Producer 01:17
Today’s special guest.

Keith Walzak 01:20
Hi, I’m Keith Walzak and I’m the Director of Planning and Landscape Architecture with Cushing Terrell, and I’m based out of our Denver office.

Sarah Steimer 01:30
Okay, so the last few times that you and I talked, Keith, we kind of discussed more of, I don’t want to say the negative aspects of this, but you know, we talked about a lot of the barriers, I would say, to getting people to think more inwardly instead of sprawling when it comes to development. And another thing that has happened since you and I both spoke last: the Inflation Reduction Act was passed. And there was actually some good news in there for people who are concerned about this topic of urban sprawl. So let’s start there. Let’s talk about what some of the good news out of that act has been.

Keith Walzak 02:09
Well, thank you again, Sarah, for your time. This has really been fun talking with you about the subject matter. Yes, you’re right, the Inflation Reduction Act, what a great initiative at the federal level. And it’s really going to hopefully, we’re very optimistic, right to make sure that this really has an impact on local communities, urbanized areas, not only helping to incentivize people to think about electric vehicle purchases, new appliances, upgrading their homes, and just making their quality of life standards better. But there’s also a lot of component parts that are talking about environmental justice programs, really focusing on reinvesting in those areas that are made up of disadvantaged individuals, and which is a really great thing. Because any strategy that we can kind of develop that starts to point inward and inward development, redeveloping areas that maybe have fallen to the wayside a little bit, is a good thing. And it’ll help deter some of that urban sprawl that we’ve been talking about over the last few weeks. So this is a really great thing. It has a lot of different component parts. I’m not the expert in it by any means. But you know, the notion of reducing pollution, providing opportunities for people to invest in electric vehicles as a improving clean transit, the quality of life issue in urbanized areas, getting into funding incentives for affordable housing, improving homes that are affordable to live in, where people want to live in mixed-use developments, neighborhoods, inner cities, in suburban green roads, that’s the concentration area that we want to think about rather than green field development and sprawling outwards. So this is really great news for everybody in the United States, I think.

Sarah Steimer 03:51
Okay, so you said the magic words there that are going to sort of lead us into one of the topics I want to talk about today, which is a mixed-use development. So tell me first very basically A, what mixed-use development is, and B, why this is a good solution to sprawl to building in those green areas like you talked about?

Keith Walzak 04:11
Yeah, mixed-use development is really, at its simplest level, this notion of taking land uses whether it’s jobs or housing, housing types, and integrating those uses together. So creating what’s often called the 15-minute walkable city, so that you can go from your home and to your job and you could literally commute by walking, transit, bike like 15 minutes and literally be able to access everything you need to sustain your lifestyle, whether it’s dropping the kids off school, going to the grocery store, getting to your job, you know, the beauty salon or whatever it is. This idea of mixing those uses together and rather than going single use, one to two stories flat type development going upward and developing in a more intense level. Now what we’re talking about is density to some degree, right? And a lot of people are opposed to density. That’s a whole other discussion item. But mixed-use is really just trying to create an environment that people can afford to live and work and enjoy and recreate all within a walkable area. That’s the idea. And there’s a lot of component parts that make up mixed-use developments, you know, things like streets, street types, short blocks, the block length and making sure it’s, it’s a walkable distance, right, making sure the ground plane level is active. And it’s got storefronts, and it’s got a lot of vibrancy to it. And then it’s stacked with apartments or condos on top. These are examples of mixed-use development.

Sarah Steimer 05:44
So when we’re thinking about actually creating those environments, I think there are, of course, a lot of places like that that already exist, certainly within cities, you know, I think of my own neighborhood. And basically, everything that you just listed, I can get to probably within 15 minutes, and granted, working from home certainly helps with that. But when we’re talking about trying to develop those areas, what does that look like, you know, even if it is maybe in a suburb trying to make a suburb even a more, you know, 15 minutes walkable, a more mixed-use sort of region? How does that look? And you know, what can a developer start to think about? What can a community start to think about to develop those areas with that density in mind and with that usefulness in mind as well?

Keith Walzak 06:26
Yeah, the usefulness is the key there. I’ll just give you an example. I live in a community of 90,000, 100,000, about 30 miles north of the Denver metropolitan area. I live in a community described as a new urbanist community. It’s called the new prospect neighborhood. And it is not a heavily urbanized area. But it’s in an area that’s made up of a smaller community like I say, around 90,000, and it’s surrounded by agricultural fields. Now the developer that developed this project, and there’s probably 350 homes, 400 homes, and there’s commercial businesses, there’s a wonderful little pizzeria down the road, my barber’s down the road, that post office is here, it’s just a small little enclave. And it’s made up of different kinds of architectural typologies. You’ve got flats, condominiums, you got single-family homes that have accessory dwelling units, granny flats, it’s designed specifically so that it’s very walkable and front porches and back alleys. These kinds of developments were oftentimes developed during World War I, and World War II. And after World War II, we moved away from this sort of urbanism, if you will, that I’m describing into more suburban-type developments. There are a number of developers across the United States that are really interested in not just new urbanism, but this notion of mixing uses together and creating opportunities for people to jump on their bike and go to that grocery store right down the road, or that they get place or you know, the barber shop rather than having to get into your car and drive five miles to go to the big box that also provides those kinds of opportunities as well. So these things, these new urbanist type projects or hybrid new urbanist projects are emerging. They have been emerging for the last 20, 30 years. But they’re not prolific, they’re not the norm. When you drive out outside your community, and you go outside the Chicago area, and you’re hitting the suburbs and beyond, you know, you see suburban sprawl, hundreds of acres of single-family homes, and then literally you have to drive from that home to your school to drop off the kids and go to the grocery store. This new urbanist concept is really trying to push the envelope and create more walkable, scalable type enclaves within various conditions. Again, just outside Denver, 30 miles in a community of 90,000. I mean, these things, these types of projects are out there. And there’s a lot to learn from them to really understand this idea of mixed-use development.

Sarah Steimer 08:52
You know, kind of reminds me of it feels like at least in America, we almost like start and end by living in these sorts of communities, you think of maybe like living in the dorms on a college campus where everything is walkable or bikeable and accessible. And then if someone chooses to move into a senior living community at the end of their life, everything once again becomes walkable, accessible. So it seems like those two bookmarks have that ideal. Yeah, it’s so so what can something like — Because we also talked about how this really does, you know, there are certainly individual choices that you can make to move to an area like your own or maybe like the one that I’m living in. But you know, it also matters from a policy standpoint and matters from a financial standpoint. Just many, many things kind of play into moving the needle on focusing away from that sprawl mindset. What is it about something like this Inflation Reduction Act, for example, is going to help to move that needle, is going to help encourage the type of development or reinvestment, even in the types of communities that we’re talking about?

Keith Walzak 10:06
Well, a couple different ways when I was referring to this notion of reinvesting in our urbanized areas. And I think that the Inflation Reduction Act is directly trying to do that through some of the programs that are in the environmental justice programs, right, looking at affordable housing, improving that affordable housing stock, making sure that transit services are operating clean on electric and non-renewable resources. So I think that definitely, it’s pointing to that direction. I also think that it’s helping to raise the awareness. And this is something that you and I have been talking about for last few weeks, this idea of the connection between climate impacts and land use development and the sprawl development, right? So when I think about this, you know, there’s a couple of things that come to my mind. And again, the Inflation Reduction Act is sort of addressing this, if you think about all the electric vehicles in the United States, generally, right now, there’s just over 2 million or more EVs today, then it’s less than 2% of the total vehicular population, right? It’s not a big number. So, this act is going to help impact that and so help make people become aware to see if they can actually afford moving from combustible engines to electric, that’s a great thing. But we also have to plan for the infrastructure to support that as well. So it’s a lot of things going on at the same time. But back to the climate and the land use development. You know, even if we saw more people investing in EVs, the populations that I think about are the service sector populations who are living in a particular area, and they’re driving many, many miles to their job either to go work in hospitality, to, you know, take care of the rooms and service-oriented jobs, you know, they have to tend to go a long way, and they add vehicle miles. And so while the EV shift is going to be good, I’m not sure that everybody’s going to be able to still afford to go to electric vehicles, number one. But number two, it doesn’t necessarily reduce the vehicle miles traveled, those folks are still going to have to travel a number of miles to get to their jobs, and back and forth. And so back to this notion of mixed-use development, if we were creating, you know, hospitality uses and service sector uses closer to where individuals live, individuals of all demographics, right, all socio-economic impacts, then we can start to see a balancing act of the impacts that this development, the sprawl development is having on our climate in general. So, yes, we’re all about electric vehicles, we want everybody to be able to afford that. But the number of vehicles and the vehicle miles traveled, to me that’s more of an impact on climate. And that has to do again, with this notion of sprawl development and developing jobs that are farther away 20, 30 miles away from where certain people have to live, because that’s what they can afford, where they can afford to live. So it’s all interrelated. In that respect,

Sarah Steimer 13:01
I am glad that you’re bringing up electric vehicles, because that was something that, you know, when when the Act was first passed, I was looking at the breakdown of the write-off or the rebate that you would get if you bought a brand new electric vehicle, versus the one that you would get if you bought a used electric vehicle. And all things considered, yes, it’s a great discount, and I’m sure it’s going to maybe be that, you know, the final thing that convinces some people to buy electric. But these still aren’t cheap vehicles, even with those discounts, you know, these still aren’t. You’re not buying a Toyota Corolla, I guess is what I’m saying. But you know, it’s I think what you’re bringing up that’s so important is this idea that accessibility has so many layers in this conversation that winds up being better for everyone. You know, if you make it more accessible on a financial level, if you make it more accessible, on even just a matter of being able to get to things to actually access things. Accessibility really kind of seems like it’s the name of the game here to help make things greener, to help make this really great impact on the environment as it relates to sprawl as it relates to moving about the world more or less.

Keith Walzak 14:14
Yeah, I think boils down to three big strategies in my mind. One is this idea of reducing trips, how many times you get in a car and make one trip after another and that’s back to this mixed-use development. Clearly mixed-use development in urbanized areas, you see significant reduction in vehicular trips, you know, if you can make transit safe and accessible and affordable, more and more people will choose that option. And so you have to give people mobility choices. I remember when I moved up to Seattle, my wife and I, we had two vehicles and we moved to Seattle, we lived a mile outside of downtown and all of a sudden, I lived with transit and I walked and so we had two vehicles that basically sat in a carport for seven years and we hardly ever use them because we immediately had opportunities in front of us. But we could make choices. And the third thing is just sort of changing behaviors. So instantly after moving to Seattle, and realizing it’s so much easier and more affordable for me to take transit or to walk to the office, I instantly changed my behavior. And we didn’t put any miles on our vehicles. So I think those three things are really important. And it’s again, tied back to this conversation of mixed-use development, walkable places, you know, staying within a scalability of our urban context where people are getting all the benefits they need and the rewards and getting to good schools and great food sources, but not having to have the car as a single occupant requirement.

Sarah Steimer 15:39
All right, and you know, you’re you’re bringing up such a good point here, where it’s if the opportunity is there, if the opportunity to hop on a bus or use your bike, or whatever it may be, if that is there, people will use it. I do believe that that’s very true. I’m really glad that we’re ending this series on what I would call a high note what I think is an optimistic beat. Was there anything else though, that, you know, just to kind of round out our conversation about urban sprawl and land use that you wanted to mention? You know, we talked first about everyone’s perspective, so the public perspective of land use, you know, we talked about sort of the policy angle, the financial angle, and then, of course, today, maybe what some of those solutions are going to start to look like. But was there anything that you wanted to touch on or any way that you wanted to finish up this conversation, even though it is a massive one?

Keith Walzak 16:33
Yeah, it’s big. And it’s been really fun talking with you about this. If I could just add one thing, it’s circling back to where we started. You know, the fact of the matter is different households, individuals have different preferences, right? I remember telling you this story that my sister lives in a suburban neighborhood. And that’s her, that’s what she wants to do. But I bet I’ll bet you, my sister would make a choice to live in a place that actually, where she could walk to this awesome bagel shop, or the hair salon right down the street and get a cup of coffee without having to drive, I bet she’d make that choice in a heartbeat. So we have to realize that people have preferences. And we have to accommodate different preferences. I think it’s a matter of educating and letting people know that we’re really serious about this climate issue. And we absolutely have to be, then we have to change the way we think about development, how our lifestyles are, but still make sure we’re able to accommodate all the conveniences that we think we have. You know, I was struck this week there with the press on the Colorado River Basin. And I always, always amazed by the importance of the Colorado River Basin as a water resource. But then I was realizing that there isn’t enough water in those lakes and those reservoirs to support the turbines to produce electricity for Las Vegas and Phoenix to survive, there’s going to be a shift in the way we see our cities or large cities over the next 20, 50, 100 years unless we do something about climate. So that’s my parting word. I’m really optimistic about what where we’re heading. And I’m really excited about the Inflation Reduction Act initiative. And let’s keep our fingers crossed to make sure everybody’s on board.

Sarah Steimer 18:07
I agree. I have to ask. So are you going to let your sister listen to these episodes? Does she know she’s [been discussed]?

Keith Walzak 18:14
Yeah, let’s cut that part out.

Sarah Steimer 18:17
You kept her, you kept her name out of it. So that’s, I think it’ll be — I’ll let you guys, I’ll let you guys have that conversation. Well, Keith, again, thank you so much. This has been really a pleasure to chat with you. And I love this conversation. And I really do. I do think this is feeling much more optimistic definitely than when we first started talking about it. And hopefully, we can all you know, live in a situation where we can walk or bike to get that bagel or that coffee or salon. So hopefully things will only get better from here. But once again, Keith, thank you so much for your time.

Keith Walzak 18:51
Thanks so much, Sarah, and we have no other choice. Glass is half full.

Producer 19:03
Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced, and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold, and a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening.

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