The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream

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Overview

"Americans are voting with their feet to abandon strip malls and suburban sprawl, and embrace instead a new type of community where they can live, work, shop, and play within easy walking distance. In The Option of Urbanism visionary developer and strategist Christopher B. Leinberger explains how government has favored one form of development over the last sixty years: the drivable suburb. Rooted in the driving forces of the economy - car manufacturing and the oil industry - this development has fostered the decline of community, contributed to urban decay, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and contributed to the rise in obesity and asthma." Highlighting both the challenges and the opportunities for this type of development, The Option of Urbanism shows how the American Dream is shifting to include cities as well as suburbs and how the financial and real estate communities need to respond to build communities that are more environmentally, socially, and financially sustainable.

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Editorial Reviews

Goodspeed Update
"A readable synthesis of history, planning, and real estate, the book is not yet another polemic about How We Should Live, but an informed and realistic argument about future growth and what choices we face along the way. Leinberger's book offers the novice a readable introduction to some of the debate surrounding the American city, and the veteran a lively respite from the house of mirrors. With well-selected references that provide a good jumping-off point for further reading, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the book to my students or friends looking for a fresh take on the form and future of our cities."

— Rob Goodspeed

Planning magazine
"Developer and professor Christopher B. Leinberger...has written the book to give to colleagues, constituents, and public officials who don't quite get what's going on in American cities and suburbs. The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream is free of jargon and, more important, free of ideological resentments."

— Harold Henderson

Next American City
"In The Option of Urbanism, Christopher B. Leinberger aims to present a happy alternative to the usual apocalyptic accounts of urban sprawl and its consequences."
Re:place online magazine online magazine
The Option of Urbanism is a great read.

— John Calimente

New Urban News - Philip Langdon

In his new book, the latest of his significant contributions to New Urbanism, Christopher Leinberger says American development comes in two basic patterns: "drivable sub-urbanism" and "walkable urbanism." Leinberger's aim is to show how these two kinds of development function and to expalain why it's in everyone's interest to make sure that walkable urbansim becomes more commonplace.
FAIA, dean and professor of architecture and urban planning, University of Michigan - Douglas Kelbaugh

"In delightfully readable prose, Professor Leinberger overwhelms us with the advantages of development that is dense enough and mixed enough to make walking and transit worth it, while illuminating the unintended urban consequences of land use regulations, Wall Street finance, and the eleven o'clock news."
developer and founder of Seaside, Florida - Robert Davis

"Chris Leinberger has spent many years thinking about real estate economics and how our culture is affected by our built environment. This book offers a cogent argument for changing that environment to achieve more lasting values, both economic and cultural."
Governing Magazine - Alan Ehrenhalt

"Leinberger, a developer who teaches real estate at the University of Michigan, may be the boldest prophet of walkability anywhere."
Civil Engineering Journal - Ray Bert

"In this book, [Chris Leinberger] carefully explains the decisions that have made the 'drivable suburban' model the dominant one and highlights the obvious and unintended consequences that come from spending 35 percent of the nation's weatlh building in this way, to the virtual exclusion of other approaches."
Realtor magazine - Stacey Moncrieff

"Leinberger isn't just a theoretician. He's a former new urbanist land developer. As he shows, if we're serious about reducing our car dependency, we need to go beyond making the personal decision to walk; we need to advocate for chagnes that will make walking a viable option for more Americans."
Urban Land magazine - Howard Kozloff

"In The Option of Urbanism, Leinberger deftly shares his wealth of knowledge through the musings of a writer, the patience of an academic, and the technical abilities of an active developer. The book is straightforward and manages to be an enjoyable reading experience for just about anyone interested in where the developing landscape goes from here."
Re:place online magazine - John Calimente

"The Option of Urbanism is a great read."
The Next American City - Jeanne Haffner

"In The Option of Urbanism, Christopher B. Leinberger aims to present a happy alternative to the usual apocalyptic accounts of urban srpawl and its consequences."
co-chairman of the board of directors, Forest City Enterprises, Inc. - Albert B. Ratner

"Christopher B. Leinberger admirably chronicles the real estate industry's critical role in the evolving nature of the Americna Dream. Drawing equally from history, professional experience, research and pop culture, he makes a very readable case for the desirability and realization of the next American Dream—walkable urbanism. Reading his analysis reinvigorates my passion for the dynamic potential of our industry."
Washington Post Writers Group - Neal Peirce

“Could it possibly be that [metropolitan] Washington, for years bashed by politicians, its [city] population shrinking and, at one point, almost bankrupt, has become a model of how the entire nation might smartly develop in the 21st century? I never thought I'd see the day. But Christopher Leinberger… makes a startling case for it… in his book.”

Re:place Magazine

"The Option of Urbanismis a great read."
Urban Land

"In The Option of Urbanism, Leinberger deftly shares his wealth of knowledge through the musings of a writer, the patience of an academic, and the technical abilities of an active developer. The book is straightforward and manages to be an enjoyable reading experience for just about anyone interested in where the developing landscape goes from here."
The Washington Post Writers Group

"Could it possibly be that [metropolitan] Washington, for years bashed by politicians, its [city] population shrinking and, at one point, almost bankrupt, has become a model of how the entire nation might smartly develop in the 21st century? I never thought I'd see the day. But Christopher Leinberger… makes a startling case for it… in his book."
2008 Planetizen's Top 10 Books List

"The new American Dream presented in this quick and easy read is one similar to the American Dream of the past: a slower-paced and neighborhood-centric lifestyle."
Next American City

"In The Option of Urbanism, Christopher B. Leinberger aims to present a happy alternative to the usual apocalyptic accounts of urban srpawl and its consequences."
Washington Post Writers Group
“Could it possibly be that [metropolitan] Washington, for years bashed by politicians, its [city] population shrinking and, at one point, almost bankrupt, has become a model of how the entire nation might smartly develop in the 21st century? I never thought I'd see the day. But Christopher Leinberger… makes a startling case for it… in his book.”

 

— Neal Peirce

New Urban News

"In his new book, the latest of his significant contributions to New Urbanism, Christopher Leinberger says American development comes in two basic patterns: 'drivable sub-urbanism' and 'walkable urbanism.' Leinberger's aim is to show how these two kinds of development function and to expalain why it's in everyone's interest to make sure that walkable urbansim becomes more commonplace."
Governing magazine
Leinberger, a developer who teaches real estate at the University of Michigan, may be the boldest prophet of walkability anywhere. 'The United States,' he writes, 'is on the verge of a new phase in constructing its built environment.'

— Alan Ehrenhalt

Planetizen

From Planetizen's Top 10 Books List, 2008. "The new American Dream presented in this quick and easy read is one similar to the American Dream of the past: a slower-paced and neighborhood-centric lifestyle."
Planning

"The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream is free of jargon and, more important, free of ideological resentments."
Civil Engineering Journal

"In this book, [Chris Leinberger] carefully explains the decisions that have made the 'drivable suburban' model the dominant one and highlights the obvious and unintended consequences that come from spending 35 percent of the nation's wealth building in this way, to the virtual exclusion of other approaches."
Washington Business Journal

"Christopher Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution who has called for D.C. to revisit its building-height limits, tracks the politics that led to auto-based development and shows how developers and their financial backers can build more sustainable communities. He doesn't mince words."
Realtor magazine

"Leinberger isn't just a theoretician. He's a former new urbanist land developer. As he shows, if we're serious about reducing our car dependency, we need to go beyond making the personal decision to walk; we need to advocate for chagnes that will make walking a viable option for more Americans."
Urban Land magazine
In The Option of Urbanism, Leinberger deftly shares his wealth of knowledge through the musings of a writer, the patience of an academic, and the technical abilities of an active developer. The book is straightforward and manages to be an enjoyable reading experience for just about anyone interested in where the developing landscape goes from here.

— Howard Kozloff

Re:place online magazine
"The Option of Urbanism is a great read."
The Next American City
In The Option of Urbanism, Christopher B. Leinberger aims to present a happy alternative to the usual apocalyptic accounts of urban srpawl and its consequences.

— Jeanne Haffner

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781597261371
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 232
  • Sales rank: 611,586
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher B. Leinberger is a developer, professor, consultant, and author whose work has focused on making progressive development profitable. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution and is director of the Graduate Real Estate Program at the University of Michigan. He is a founding partner of Arcadia Land Company, a progressive real estate development firm, and has written award-winning articles for publications such as The Atlantic Monthly and The Wall Street Journal.

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Read an Excerpt

The Option of Urbanism

Investing in a New American Dream


By Christopher B. Leinberger

ISLAND PRESS

Copyright © 2008 Christopher B. Leinberger
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-776-2



CHAPTER 1

1 Futurama and the 20th-Century American Dream


Imagine yourself living a middle-class life in 1939 in one of America's cities, such as Philadelphia, Chicago, or Seattle. The Depression seems to be abating somewhat as the unemployment rate is down to only seventeen percent, compared to a staggering twenty-three percent of the workforce in the early part of the decade. (For comparison, unemployment was 4.5 percent in 2006). You probably live in a row house, apartment, or small single-family home, walking and taking the streetcar or subway most places because the family has only one car. The neighborhood is close in every sense of the term: you overhear much of what goes on next door and privacy is at a premium, but a sense of community is generally taken for granted. Daily shopping needs (figure 1.1) are satisfied by walking to the local A&P market, the Rexall drug store, and the Woolworth's five-and-dime, which are about five blocks away, as well as a variety of local merchants for candy, gifts, work or school clothes, and simple meals such as hamburgers. You know most of the merchants and they know you, even at the national chain stores. For important shopping, such as dress clothes and jewelry, or for banking, legal assistance, live theater, and white-tablecloth restaurants, you go downtown (figure 1.2), which is a trolley or subway ride away, costing a nickel. The family bread winner also commutes to work by the trolley or subway.

If your family is working class, your life is somewhat although not fundamentally different. You also have retailers who know you within walking distance and transit access to downtown, although you probably have fewer reasons to go there even if you can afford the legitimate and illicit pleasures it offers. Your residence is likely to be within walking distance or a trolley ride away from the family breadwinner's workplace. Working-class housing surrounding manufacturing districts is a typical pattern (figure 1.3), because fewer working-class families have cars. Although convenient, the proximity of heavy manufacturing means your neighborhood is noisy, polluted, and smelly. Housing is much more cramped than in a middle-class home, putting privacy at even more of a premium.

Overall, both the middle-class and working-class families probably feel like everyday life is confined—a little too close for comfort. Although the likelihood of war in Europe is great in 1939, the economic storm clouds of the Depression seem finally to be lifting and you have reason to hope for a better day for the country's economy and your own standard of living.


THE WORLD OF TOMORROW

If you were lucky enough to go to the New York City World's Fair in the summer of 1939 or 1940, you would have seen an entirely different way of living. According to the official guide book, the World's Fair would give a "graphic demonstration to the dream of a better 'World of Tomorrow,'" the theme of the fair. Battered by the Depression and living with anxiety about the brewing war, Americans were ready for a new vision of how to live, work, and play; in essence, they were ready for a new version of the American Dream. The fair attracted 45 million people, setting the all-time record for world's fair attendance.

The highlight of the fair was in the "The Highways and Horizons" exhibit, better known as Futurama (figure 1.4). You had to wait in line at least an hour and maybe even two. According to the authoritative commentator's voice booming out of the hidden speakers in the exhibit's 600 moving chairs, Futurama offered "a magic Aladdin-like flight through time and space ... of the many wonders that may develop in the not too distant future ... the wonderful world of 1960!" Finally, you were carried along an indoor ride looking at a toy-train-size model of the American countryside and cities. To twenty-first-century eyes, looking at a model—even a football-field-size model with tiny moving cars—does not inspire much excitement. But for our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents in the late 1930s, it was wondrous.

Futurama was the most popular exhibit of the fair, drawing more than 27 million visitors. About ten percent of the country's population may have seen the Futurama vision of the "world of tomorrow" (subtracting those who probably saw it multiple times and international visitors). As Brendan Nee wrote in The Planning Legacy of World's Fairs, "the exhibit that stole the show was the 'Futurama' exhibit." Most other Americans read about it in the many magazine articles that focused on the exhibit, such as the June 5, 1939, issue of Life magazine, which had the theme "America's Future" in keeping with the theme of the fair. Life had a five-page spread on Futurama. There is no way to accurately measure the impact of Futurama on public opinion, government policy, and the built environment. But as Corn and Horrigan commented in their book, Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future, "no futuristic film or exhibit [has] ever been so convincing" as Futurama.


THE NEW DREAM OF DRIVABLE SUB-URBANISM

The real focus of Futurama was roads: "superhighways" and the greatly expanded and fundamentally different metropolitan areas that would be built as a result of those roads. Futurama showed radio-controlled, automated fourteen-lane highways crisscrossing the country with three speed limits (depending on the lane) of fifty, seventy-five, and one hundred miles per hour.


In the world of Futurama, gone were the busy streets where cars, trolleys, and people competed for space and sidewalks were so crowded that pedestrians seemed to be pushed along by the crowd. Gone were the high-density apartments and townhouses built right up to the sidewalks.

In their place in the distant future of 1960, American suburbs offered homes with attached garages and spacious yards. Downtowns had new high-rise office buildings, hotels, and a few apartment buildings separated from one another by those wide roads as well as large structured parking decks next to each building. The Futurama-inspired downtown of 1960 would have pedestrian sidewalks elevated above the cars, which were on the ground level.

The designer of Futurama was Norman Bel Geddes, one of the leading industrial designers of the day. In the companion book to Futurama, Magic Motorways, he delighted in poking fun at the walkable urbanism of the day with a pixie sense of humor, for example, suggesting that Greenwich Village was laid out by meandering cows. His goal was "accelerating city traffic one hundred percent" by removing obstacles such as rotaries; his example was Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., where "danger lies where paths cross." His automatic, long distance "magic motorways," which would connect and ring metropolitan areas, would link to nonstop urban freeways.

As fair-goers emerged from the ride (figure 1.5), they found themselves in a life-size replica of an intersection they had just seen in the model. They were at the elevated pedestrian level of a real intersection with a six-lane one-way street crammed with automobiles below them at ground level. They had stepped from a dreamscape into reality, reinforcing that dreams of the future can come true. The last words they heard from the commentator was "all eyes to the future."

Futurama inspired a vision of postwar America that became the unchallenged assumption of how to construct the built environment. E.B. White, writing about Futurama for Harper's magazine, had a nearly spiritual reaction. "A ride on the Futurama ... induces approximately the same emotional response as a trip through the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I didn't want to wake up. I liked 1960 in purple lights, going a hundred miles an hour around impossible turns ever onwards toward the certified cities of the flawless future."

There was little debate about whether the future should be car-driven. The excitement for this vision drowned out the few critics such as great urbanist Lewis Mumford, who wrote in the July 1939 New Yorker that these roads would "cancel out the motorist's freedom of speed and movement ... [reducing] driving to a chore."

The company responsible for Futurama had good reason to promote a car-based future riding on a superhighway system, presumably paid for by taxpayer dollars. The sponsor was the largest car manufacturer on the planet, General Motors (GM).

The extremely influential Walter Lippmann said that "GM has spent a small fortune to convince the American public that if it wishes to enjoy the full benefit of private enterprise in motor manufacturing, it will have to rebuild its cities and highways by public enterprise." As Brendan Lee said in The Planning Legacy of World's Fairs, Futurama "no doubt helped to influence the public perception of a publicly funded superhighway system and a society of automobile ownership." In essence, GM and the rest of the auto-industrial complex, supported by the general public sentiment of the day, wanted the thirty-five percent of the assets of the American economy invested in a fundamentally different way than prior to the Depression.


IMPLEMENTING THE FUTURAMA VISION

Futurama seemed to plant a visual and emotional seed in the American consciousness that germinated during the war years (1941 to 1945). There was little anyone could do immediately about satisfying the hope of a different and better life because the war effort was all-consuming. More than forty percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) at the war's peak went to the war effort (compared to under four percent of GDP for defense spending in 2005). Car production stopped completely during the early 1940s, because the auto industry shifted to the production of military equipment. The building industry stalled, as construction dropped to the lowest level of development in the twentieth century. This continued the similarly low levels of housing and commercial real estate development from the 1930s, when most of the private real estate industry had been in hibernation due to the Depression. New housing starts were more than sixty percent lower during the Depression years and the Second World War than in the 1920s. By 1945, it had been half a generation since there was anything resembling normalcy in new housing and commercial growth.

This resulted in the build up of tremendous pent-up demand that exploded after the war ended in 1945 for all types of housing and commercial development—the consequence of marriages, divorces, births, deaths, new jobs, and every other demographic and economic change that continually occur in society. There was also plenty of spending power, because most consumer goods had been rationed during the war, driving up savings rates. Annual new housing production shot up and stayed up. Annual new housing starts were four times greater on average from 1946 to 1960 compared to 1930 to 1945, the years of the Depression and the Second World War. The pent-up demand and demographic changes, particularly the start of the Baby Boom, were compounded by the hunger for a different, better, and richly deserved life after the end of the twin traumas of the Depression and the war. The image effectively planted by Futurama and reinforced by magazines, news reels, movies, and other mass media promised a future unlike the recent past. It was an image of a new American Dream of one's family living in a detached house on one's own plot of land with increased privacy, a car to drive there, and superhighways to commute to work. This was entirely different than any society ever built in history.


THE PREINDUSTRIAL WALKING CITY

Cities first arose in Sumer, located in present-day Iraq, about 5,500 years ago. From Sumer until the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, all cities were driven by similar day-to-day transportation systems, which were walkable, horse-drawn, and sometimes waterborne. For example, most streets of Roman Pompeii were eighteen to twenty-four feet wide from building front to building front and allowed for narrow elevated sidewalks on both sides of a depressed cart path. This transportation system, which was both walkable and horse-drawn, dictated that the vast majority of dwellings and businesses were close together due to the limited range a pedestrian or even a horse could conveniently travel for everyday commuting. Only a few of the well-to-do were able to live outside the city walls in suburban villas, and these may have been second homes with primary homes in town.

Jump forward to preindustrial seventeenth century London of diarist Samuel Pepys's day and you would find a very similar layout, except that there was a navigable river, which added rowboats and sailboats as means to get around. The basic layout, street configuration, and density of Pompeii and Renaissance London were basically the same. Both are examples of walkable urbanism.

In Kenneth Jackson's magisterial work, Crabgrass Frontier, he stressed the walkability of preindustrial cities. "In 1815, even in the largest cities, only about one person in fifty traveled as much as a mile to his place of employment.... Because any distance has to be overcome by horse or foot, there was a significant advantage in living within easy walking distance of the city's stores and businesses."

In the nineteenth century with the beginnings of the industrial era, commuter and elevated trains, steam ferries, omnibuses, and cable cars began to tremendously expand the reach of cities; however, the compact form around the many new stations remained essentially the same as before. The new forms of transportation radiated out of the city center, allowing far more people to enjoy life in the suburbs or "uptown." Yet, once commuters got to their home station, they still only had their feet or a waiting horse to get them to their home. This transportation reality kept these new suburban places compact. For example, commuter railroad suburbs became the rage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the United States, the many stops along the Main Line outside Philadelphia, the North Shore of Chicago, and the Mid-Peninsula south of San Francisco were developed as small, walkable downtowns, each similar to 1955 downtown Hill Valley in the film Back to the Future.


THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE AMERICAN DREAM

The American Dream, defined by Cal Jillson in Pursuing the American Dream, is "a shimmering vision of a fruitful country open to all who come, learn, work, save, invest, and play by the rules." However, the American Dream has been played out on the ground in different ways at different times, based upon the economic underpinnings of the country at the time. The eighteenth and nineteenth century version of the American Dream could be summarized by the phrase "forty acres and a mule." It was inspired by the Jeffersonian image of the country being populated by "yeoman farmers," which was appropriate for the economy of the time. After all, eighty-three percent of all jobs were in agriculture in 1800, when Jefferson was elected president, and more than ninety percent of Americans lived in rural areas of the country, not in the "walking city," as described by Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier. Agricultural jobs still represented forty percent of all jobs 100 years later in 1900 and remained the largest category of jobs in the economy. More than sixty percent of Americans were still living on farms in 1900. This rural version of the American Dream dominated the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.


The Jeffersonian agricultural ideal has been a persistent part of how the American Dream plays out on the ground. Jefferson had a well-known dislike for cities and the manufacturers and financiers who populated their upper ranks. One of his famous quotes could not make his distain for cities more clear: "I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural.... When they get plied upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe."

Cities were (justifiably) viewed as dangerous, smelly, toxic places in the nineteenth century. There was also the fear of the constant waves of immigrants, whether from Europe, Asia, or blacks from the American South. Cities have generally been the port of entry for the influx of immigrants throughout American history; disdain for and racist sentiment toward each new immigrant group is as American as apple pie.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Option of Urbanism by Christopher B. Leinberger. Copyright © 2008 Christopher B. Leinberger. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Futurama and the 20th-Century American Dream 12

2 The Rise of Drivable Sub-urbia 31

3 The Standard Real Estate Product Types: Why Every Place Looks Like Every Place Else 45

4 Consequences of Drivable Sub-urban Growth 63

5 The Market Rediscovers Walkable Urbanism 86

6 Defining Walkable Urbanism: Why More is Better 113

7 Unintended Consequences of Walkable Urbanism 138

8 Achieving the Next American Dream: Leveling the Playing Field and Implementing Walkable Urbanism 150

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