Author and land use strategist Christopher Leinberger said last night that although this was his first time in Raleigh, he was pleasantly surprised by the changes occurring in the city, and that Raleigh is well positioned to benefit from the ongoing shift to more urban and walkable neighborhoods.
Leinberger spoke at the Fletcher Opera Theater at the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Raleigh Planning Department’s “Designing a 21st Century City” lecture series.
Much of Leinberger’s talk focused on the history of city building going back 5,500 years. Leinberger said up until the middle of the 20th century cities were built to be dense and walkable. It was only after World War II that the United States embraced with gusto the drivable, suburban model. (Leinberger argued that the major tipping point was at the 1939-40 World’s Fair in New York, where General Motors sponsored an exhibit called “Futurama” that enthralled attendees with models of the vehicle-centric cities of the future.)
Leinberger said the migration to the suburbs was the largest social engineering effort in United States history, with massive subsidies given to build the infrastructure necessary to make suburbia a reality. A developer himself, Leinberger said the mixed-use projects he’s proposed in recent years have all been illegal under existing land-use rules that were designed to promote drivable, suburban developments.
Only in the mid-1990s, Leinberger said, did the pendulum begin to swing back towards more walkable and urban communities. Now there is a pent up demand for such communities, which is causing land and housing prices in those areas to rise significantly (think inside the Beltline here in Raleigh). Leinberger used Washington D.C. as the model 21st Century city, noting that it has a vibrant downtown and a growing number of urban centers on its outskirts that are accessible by public transit.
Among the most interesting aspects of Leinberger’s talk was the economic impact of the shift towards urban, walkable living. The average U.S. household spends 19 percent of its budget on transportation. If they live in a suburb that percentage rises to 25 percent, while in a walkable, urban community the figure is just 9 percent. “That’s a huge amount of money,” Leinberger noted. He argues that many--not all--suburban communities at the fringes of cities will become slums and that the current move to bail out homeowners is in some ways a bail out of sprawl.
So what can we here in Raleigh and the Triangle take away from all of Leinberger’s interesting insights? As he acknowledged, building urban, walkable communities is a lot harder and more complex than building suburbs. But there’s clearly a demand for such product, and getting more of it built will require changes in land-use rules so that they promote mixed-use development and allow for public transit. (Leinberger said he'd be surprised if 5 percent of Raleigh's housing stock was in walkable, urban areas.)
A lot will depend on how quickly Raleigh and the rest of the Triangle adjusts to the shifting pendulum. We are not Atlanta, but we are also not Washington D.C. or even Charlotte when it comes to embracing this shift.