Nearly 15 years ago, Mariela Alfonzo began her career as an academic, gathering evidence to show how the built environment influences physical, social, and community health. At the time, however, she found that the terms walkability and quality of life fell mostly on deaf ears within real estate circles. Determined to learn a more pertinent language, she joined ULI and adopted the lingo of ROI, cap rates, and mezzanine finance. She says she pursued her mission of saving people from the lackluster quality of life she experienced growing up in the Miami suburbs by serving as a bridge between academia and practice and demonstrating the value of urban design, tying dollar signs to walkability, measuring how the intangible qualities of place translate into capital—both fiscal and social.
Throughout her career, Alfonzo has observed and measured what makes places great, adopting an evidence-based approach to help improve what she calls “life between buildings.” She aligned theory—her “Hierarchy of Walking Needs”—with practice to develop a widely used built-environment audit tool that captures the urban design features that help get people on their feet and make for enticing places. She then tied the place-based data to economic value in a Brookings Institution study that helped change the conversation about walkability’s place in real estate. Consequently, she founded State of Place, a data analytics company that helps communities identify what is or is not working and choose optimal interventions and investments, tailored to their unique circumstances, to boost their social and economic bottom lines.