Flickr/Willem van Bergen

On its 75th anniversary, the Urban Land Institute looks to the future

Earlier this fall, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) released a report that examines demographic, economic and environmental factors that are changing what will be built, where it will be built, and how it will be financed. What’s Next? Real Estate in the New Economy outlines how every aspect of living, working and connecting will reflect the values, preferences and work ethic of Generation Y and their baby boomer parents, both of whom represent the most influential age groups to ever affect the land use industry.

The report, aimed at informing urban planning, design and development, is a wake-up call for both industry professionals and cities trying to position themselves in the post-recession environment. It’s illustrative of the thought-provoking type of work ULI has produced for three-quarters of a century, anticipating trends, opportunities and challenges that affect the built environment and economic development.

This week marks the 75th anniversary of ULI. On December 14, 1936, ULI was chartered to research, analyze and encourage responsible patterns for long-term urban growth. The institute was founded to fill a void of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t in land use, starting a tradition of information sharing that now stretches around the world.

Ironically, some of the factors now shaping the future of our industry and our communities were influencing the nation’s built environment when ULI was established – uncertainty in financial markets, shifting economic growth drivers, changing demographics and household size and an influx of immigrants.

During the 1930s and 1940s, ULI’s founders, including J.C. Nichols, who built the still-vibrant Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo., sought to gain knowledge about operating in this new environment by learning from each other. They would meet up to discuss what they were building.

For Nichols and his colleagues, being part of ULI meant sharing what they knew to be best for the built environment. And this much they knew: the nation’s fortunes would depend, in large part, on the prosperity of its urban areas. The institute’s first publication, Decentralization – What Is It Doing to Our Cities?, published in 1940, explored the implications of inner-city neighborhoods in decay as well as new suburbs soon to be experiencing rapid growth.

ULI’s reputation for fostering development with longevity grew by word of mouth. In the 1940s, it attracted young professionals like Roy Drachman of Tucson, Arizona, who would eventually become a renowned developer and philanthropist. Drachman, active in ULI until his death in 2002, recalled advice he received from ULI Founder J.C. Nichols in 1949: “Remain in the ULI as long as you are in the real estate business. Whatever you learn as a result, however you benefit from it, don’t keep it to yourself. Pass it on.”

It is advice that has weathered the test of time. ULI’s unique knowledge network – and the expectation that as a ULI member, you are obligated to share your mistakes as well as your successes – remains unchanged 75 years later. From its start with about 200 developers in America, ULI now has nearly 30,000 members worldwide. Serving private investors, lenders, developers, owners, service providers and public sector officials, ULI still serves its original purpose as "the one place" for all market participants to engage in candid conversations, debates and analyses of market trends, best practices and future challenges facing urban markets.

As ULI begins its next 75 years, the real estate and land use industry has reached a pivotal point with both formidable challenges and promising opportunities. Ours is a rapidly urbanizing world, one in which the gross domestic product of each nation will be determined by what happens in urban areas. This urbanization, along with economic, societal and demographic changes and environmental concerns, compels us to rethink the impacts of how we grow, build and adapt.

In the midst of this change, ULI is staying true to its roots, anticipating how our urban areas will ultimately be experienced.

Certainly, we have much to celebrate with this milestone anniversary. We can take pride in the fact that ULI’s pursuit of excellent community design and building can be traced back to the organization’s earliest years. But, to borrow a quote from J.C. Nichols, “an intelligent city plan … does not forget the greater needs of tomorrow in the press of today. It is simply good, practical sense.”

Similarly, ULI is preparing now for the cities of tomorrow. In this regard, our members are leading innovative land use initiatives at the local level, with the end game being a better-informed approach to land use leadership for the 21st century. A few examples: 

  • In Phoenix, land use practitioners are bringing together seven entities within the metro area to form a public-private collaborative program to raise awareness among public officials about the impact of land use on community building, including a pool of higher education faculty experts responsive to the unique issues and characteristics of Arizona communities.
  • Boston is working with A Better City and Our Transportation Future to raise awareness among Massachusetts public officials about the limited capacity of the existing regional transportation system, and the need to fund solutions to relieve congestion.
  • In the United Kingdom, an effort is underway to provide opportunities for disadvantaged youth in the five "host boroughs" for the 2012 Olympics to learn about the legacy of the Olympic Park, and to provide input about the reuse of the Olympic Park following the games.
  • And, in Washington, D.C., land use experts are partnering with the U.S. General Services Administration to convene a workshop for federal managers and private sector experts about the future of office space design and construction, based on the impact of budget pressures, changing demographics, and advances in technology.

These are just a few of many initiatives in place to improve the living and working environments of our cities, and we’d welcome more "feet on the street" to make these successful. While the individual efforts are tailored to meet the specific needs of each community, all of ULI’s work – local on a global level – is  grounded in the institute’s tradition of sharing knowledge.

As our industry continues to evolve in the 21st century, ULI can stay at the forefront by drawing from the past, building on best practices, learning from mistakes, and, in the words of our founding member Nichols, continuing to “pass it on.”

Image courtesy of Willem Van Bergen via Flickr.

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