Good schools and walkability are two of the biggest themes in neighborhood videos that real-estate agent Sue Adler of Short Hills, N.J., uses on her website to sell homes in her area. The videos of these commuter towns show quaint main streets and residents talking about taking a quick stroll over to parks, bars, shops and theaters in their free time.

"With millennials entering the marketplace, volatile gas prices and fringe suburban home prices in decline, the demand for walkable neighborhoods has outstripped supply in most of the U.S.," says Christopher B. Leinberger, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in a survey (PDF) that ranked the walkability of America's cities and neighborhoods.

What makes people want to pull over and walk in a neighborhood?
Reid Ewing, director of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah, says a whole host of elements serve as magnets to draw people out of their cars. Items near the top of the list are:
  • Short blocks with relatively narrow streets and wide sidewalks.
  • Ample windows at eye level that let you see activity or displays inside as well as entryways, courtyards and arcades.
  • Human-scale lighting, benches and signs.
  • Tree-lined streets that provide a sense of buffer from street traffic and a comfortable canopy overhead.
  • Landmarks such as fountains, historic theaters, gazebos or clock towers.
  • A complexity of architecture, building materials and color — at least on the first couple of building levels — as well as a mix of building uses.
In other words, cookie-cutter big-box stores and row after row of parking lots aren't found in many of America's great neighborhoods.

"A neighborhood will draw people if it's providing the opportunity for interaction with a backdrop of design that is enjoyable to look at," says Lauri Moffet-Fehlberg, principal with Dahlin Group Architecture Planning in Pleasanton, Calif. 

And interaction is key to people's satisfaction with their communities. If people are happy and engaged with their community, they are more involved with its activities and work harder to protect it, Moffet-Fehlberg says.

Schiller remembers visiting a friend in Jupiter, Fla., who lived in a beautiful Cape Cod-style planned development. While it looked beautiful, he said, his friends who lived there felt isolated and unhappy because it was such a long drive from employment and other social and cultural amenities.
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"The streets were empty," he says.

Can you engineer a great community?

While Kent and many other planners say that a great neighborhood usually evolves organically with its residents, Ewing says that even master-planned developments can become big draws, such as the Kentlands planned community in Gaithersburg, Md., or the Grove, a mixed retail and residential development in Los Angeles.

In these areas, complementary design, rich amenities and public spaces encourage engagement among residents and visitors with places to stroll, eat and play.
Some of the best developments, Moffet-Fehlberg says, incorporate an area's history or topography to make them feel more real, such as the Grove's location around L.A.'s Original Farmers Market, a historic landmark.

And it helps if the mix of amenities and activities is attractive to younger and older generations alike, Schiller says.

The next generation of great neighborhoods
Many of the best neighborhoods are yet to come, Ewing says, as cities encourage more creative development in urban areas.

"We expect that two-thirds of the development on the ground in 2050 will be built between now and then," Ewing says. "There is a tremendous potential to redevelop certain areas differently."

Indeed, some of tomorrow's popular neighborhoods will likely spring from former blight.
"Communities can go from being the hero to the goat to the hero all over again," Moffet-Fehlberg says.