In “Center points: Urban lifestyle gains foothold in growing list of suburbs,” a Chicago Tribune journalist describes the beginnings of a new phenomenon that could have a bigger impact than better CAFE standards, carbon taxes, or cap-and-trade of emissions, in my humble opinion: walkable town centers.

If people could actually walk from their residence to a store, train station, or even work, perhaps the constant rise in miles driven in automobiles would start to come down:

At opposite ends of the generational spectrum, Baby Boomers and buyers in their 20s are getting credit for supporting the emergence of suburban centers where people live close to restaurants, stores, theaters and even boutique hotels and spas. The key is to find housing that is an integral part of a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.

If you’ve read James Howard Kunstler’s books on suburbia, Geography of Nowhere or Home from Nowhere, written in the 1990s, you will know that attempting any kind of mixed-use zoning — that is, having residences mixed in with stores and commercial space — is almost always prohibited by the zoning laws. Now, perhaps, the tide is turning:

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Many of the home buyers tend to be empty-nesters seeking no-maintenance homes or young people buying their first homes.

“The idea of mixed-use and in-town living is tremendously liked by downsizers” said Steve Hovany, president of Strategy Planning Associates, a Schaumburg-based firm that studies housing and real estate trends. “Younger buyers are focused on similar types of development,” he added. “They want social interaction and they’re willing to accept density.” And they want to be able to walk to a restaurant or a movie and to be part of a vital neighborhood. “Young buyers grew up on cul-de-sacs. They want something different from that,” Hovany said.

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Some of these developments are dubbed lifestyle centers by real estate experts; others are being labeled by village officials and developers as town centers.

The name is not what really matters, however. The important thing is to create centers where people want to live or recreate; places that are walkable and draw enough patrons to support local businesses and generate sales taxes.

Now all we need to do is create a federal- and state-financed infrastructure bank that would be a source of funds for any town that wants to have a town center … I mean “lifestyle” center … and then fund light rail systems nationwide to hook up all the, er, lifestyle centers.

Says a mayor of one of the Chicago-area towns:

Residents are telling me they’re looking forward to going down to the village center for a cup of coffee and running into neighbors and chitchatting … It’s important for the vibrancy of the village that we have people living in the village center. They’re there in the morning. They are there at night. There will be lights on and life there.”

Here’s to life!