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Are the Suburbs Bad for Businesses?

In the following interview, we speak with Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. Speck is an architect and city planner in Washington, D.C., oversaw the Mayor's Institute on City Design, and served on the Sustainability Task Force of the Department of Homeland Security.

We look at the example of Grand Rapids, Mich., where several companies that were located in the suburbs and having trouble retaining employees were able to solve their problem through the creation of an urban innovation hub.

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Isaac Pino: Continuing on the groundwork that you just laid, your three main arguments are around health and wealth and sustainability. Here at The Motley Fool, we just care about wealth, really. We're a greedy bunch.

Jeff Speck: Sustainable wealth.

Isaac: No, I'm just kidding. We'll get to the other ones.

Sustainable, exactly, long term. Let's start with wealth and the importance of walkability in creating strong economies -- and strong companies, for that matter. One of the things that you point out is a company called Wolverine Worldwide  (NYSE: WWW  ) , I think based in Grand Rapids, Mich.?

Jeff Speck: Outside of Grand Rapids.

Isaac: Outside of Grand Rapids. They supply all kinds of brand-name shoes: Saucony to Sperry Top-Siders, Patagonia, all kinds of names. You made the point that walkability really affected exactly how they looked at their business and who they recruited and where they looked for talent. Can you explain a little bit more about that?

Jeff Speck: I was out at their headquarters, maybe three years ago. When you're a planner, you listen for stories like this. It's like a gold mine when you hear a story like this.

They were having no trouble attracting talent to come and move there -- this was in the suburbs outside of Grand Rapids -- but they were having trouble keeping the talent, because the perception among the spouses of the talent was that they couldn't break into the social scene in their hometowns.

The social scene, those who are a little more astute in terms of understanding why they make choices and what their environment offers them were saying, "Everything that I have to go to is by car, and therefore by invitation, and I'm not having those chance encounters, bump into a person in the street."

You form a lot of friendships, often, in cities. I know it happens to me, at my Blind Dog Coffee Shop, just around the bumping into people.

They weren't able to keep talent, and what the CEO did with, I think, five other companies in the Grand Rapids area that were actually stuck in the suburbs, was to create an urban innovation hub in the heart of Grand Rapids.

Now, Grand Rapids isn't New York City. It's not exactly Friends or Seinfeld, but it's a pretty neat little city, and you can have a really urban experience there, and even an urban life there. You can live in downtown Grand Rapids. It's also an Enterprise Zone, so you don't pay any state tax if you live in downtown Grand Rapids.

They managed to attract and retain talent, but also now all these different businesses are bouncing ideas off each other much more fully than they would have if they were each isolated in their office parks in the auto zone outside of the city.

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Isaac Pino

Isaac covers the companies that constantly push the world forward, from the engines of innovation like GE and Google to the rule breakers like Chipotle and Whole Foods. He admires the leaders that embody the philosophy of Conscious Capitalism.

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