Illustration of people walking over buildings, symbolizing mobility through an urban environment Victoria Borges illustration

Could physical mobility be a key to economic mobility? Recent research at UVA, published as “The Socioecological Psychology of Upward Social Mobility,” found a strong relationship between living in a “walkable” city and “the opportunity for children from poorer households to pull themselves up the economic ladder in adulthood.” 

“The effect was way bigger than we thought it would be,” says Nicholas Buttrick (Grad ’16, ’21), a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Psychology, who is part of the research project. When the researchers probed their data further, they found that likely reasons for the relationship weren’t entirely economic factors such as accessibility of job opportunities. Instead, walkable cities seem to confer a psychological benefit, affecting how people who live in them see the world. “They tend to feel they belong more to the community,” Buttrick says. “They are more optimistic.”

Nicholas Buttrick Dan Addison

What makes a city walkable includes not only how easy it is to conduct daily life without a car, but also “literally how easy is it for you to walk around,” including factors such as good street lighting and sidewalks, he says. Both large cities (like New York) and smaller ones (Buttrick cites Providence, Rhode Island) can be walkable, and some cities, such as Atlanta, are a mix of both walkable and not. 

Buttrick acknowledges that the increasing unaffordability of some major cities may negate these benefits. “It does worry us that the cities that are the most walkable are becoming the ones that are the most expensive,” he says. For now, however, the researchers are trying to determine whether walkable cities actually create upward mobility or instead draw people more likely to be upwardly mobile. “We think the relationship between walkability and upward mobility is robust,” Buttrick says, “and we are trying to understand why.”