The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream

By Christopher B. Leinberger

Island Press, 2007, 224 pp., $25.95 hardcover.

In this 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.”
For the past 60 years, drivable sub-urbanism has had the upper hand; much of the nation’s population has dispersed into low-density settlements, connected at great expense by thousands of highways and millions of motor vehicles. But now, walkable urbanism — a form of development that has served human purposes for centuries — is gaining renewed strength in the US. Leinberger’s aim is to show how these two kinds of development function and to explain why it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure that walkable urbanism becomes more commonplace.

The phrase “drivable sub-urbanism” is jargon, but useful nonetheless — it’s less opinion-laden and more precise than the usual word, “sprawl.” Leinberger, who directs the Graduate Real Estate Development Program at the University of Michigan, helped develop downtown Albuquerque, and is a visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution, is adept at explaining real estate economics. He gives a sobering analysis of why commercial structures are no longer built to last, and he makes it clear that Wall Street has been slow to put money in mixed-use projects.

Despite the obstacles, he sees bright prospects for walkable urbanism — compact development that mixes uses, allowing people to reach shops, services, and usually mass transit on foot. “The Washington, DC, metropolitan area is an early example of the sea change,” Leinberger says, noting a proliferation of walkable urban places that draw people from a wide region. “There were two [regionally significant] walkable urban places in the DC region in the 1980s (Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria, both eighteenth-century colonial towns with strong tourist support),” Leinberger points out. “In 2007, there are seventeen walkable places, with at least five more emerging.”

Across the nation, a dramatic shift in value has occurred in the past 10 to 20 years, reflecting the burgeoning popularity of pedestrian-scale urbanism. In Westchester County, New York, condominium units in walkable downtown White Plains now sell for $750 a square foot, twice as much as people are willing to pay for detached houses in some automobile-dependent sections of that largely suburban county. Manhattan housing commands prices averaging $1,064 per square foot, Leinberger reports.
In metropolitan Detroit, an area not renowned for urbanism, consumers are now willing to pay 40 percent more per square foot for housing in walkable urban settings than in low-density automobile-oriented locations. In Kirkland, Washington, near Seattle, “drivable sub-urban housing costs $358 per square foot, while walkable urban condominiums are priced at $540 per square foot“ — a 51 percent premium, Leinberger points out.

In tracing the resurgence of urbanism, Leinberger notes that the first places to benefit have tended to be large, region-serving locales, such as traditional downtowns. By his calculations, two-thirds of the downtowns of metro areas of more than one million inhabitants are reviving or have revived over the past 15 years. Now an extensive rebirth is under way in “local-serving” walkable urban places — neighborhoods whose drawing power doesn’t extend so far.

Metro areas need to offer urbanism
The trend toward walkable urbanism is going to affect many metro areas in a big way in coming years, Leinberger says. Any large metro area that fails to offer “the option of urbanism” can expect to suffer, as creative individuals and businesses go elsewhere. If you’re in government, Leinberger suggests you encourage some parts of your region to achieve floor-area ratios (FARs) of at least 0.8 — meaning 80 square feet of occupied building space per 100 square feet of land. Any density less than that will simply not support a thriving urban life. “Walkable urbanism’s FAR tends to range between 0.8 and 40.0,” he observes.

Fifty to 70 percent of the pent-up demand for walkable urbanism will find its outlet in the suburbs, Leinberger thinks. Much of it will gravitate to three forms of development: suburban town centers, greenfield towns, and redevelopment of existing strip centers and malls. The “favored quarter” of inner suburbs — places such as Ardmore, outside Philadelphia, and Westwood, in Los Angeles — should be a natural choice for intensified development. But in some of these places there are neighborhood groups accustomed to resisting development, so there may be a good deal of conflict.

America, he says, will continue to have plenty of drivable suburbia — territory where the FAR is 0.3 or less, thanks to homeowners’ desire for their own piece of land; a perception that space between buildings provides more privacy and prestige; and an expectation that parking for private vehicles should be easy to find, at ground level.

One of the big questions is what will happen to the areas that now are neither walkable and urban nor truly low-density. This in-between terrain, where the FAR ranges from 0.3 to 0.8, tends to have higher-density housing but little street life; the inhabitants rely on their cars for most trips from home. Leinberger calls these areas “neverlands,” because they offer neither the seclusion and quiet of large-lot suburbia nor the satisfactions associated with genuinely urban places.

The neverlands are inherently unstable, according to Leinberger. “Transitional neverlands will either stay drivable density, thereby drifting downward in relevance and financial value, or will be retrofitted as walkable urban places,” he predicts.

The Option of Urbanism reviews some history that doesn’t need to be explained again, such as the impact of the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair on Americans’ dreams of postwar life. Leinberger’s litany of problems stemming from rampant outward development repeats much that experienced urbanists already know. Even in those slow-moving pages, however, the author dispenses some new or surprising facts.

I have trouble accepting Leinberger’s contention that the extent of walkable urban development is limited by the distances that people can walk. I think it would be physically possible to keep extending the dense walkable areas. In Manhattan, heavily populated, mixed-use, transit-accessible areas continue for mile after mile. My hunch is that in cities and suburbs alike, neighborhood opposition, not comfortable walking distances, will be the biggest impediment to the emerging urbanism.

All in all, this is a serious, well-researched, and instructive book — a useful guide to the future. “The United States,” Leinberger declares, “is on the verge of a new phase in constructing its built environment.” 

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