Required Reading (Because Deep Down You Love Being Told What To Do)

The Option of Urbanism by Christopher B. Leinberger.  (Yep, I’m late to the party, but life has its distractions…)  This is the same Leinberger who made a splash last year with his Atlantic article entitled “The Next Slum?” wherein he predicted that “drivable suburbanism” will not hold it’s value over time.

Unlike some who would preach the virtues of “walkable urbanism” from the supposed moral high ground (who you lookin’ at?), Leinberger makes the case staying within acceptable utilitarian boundaries, invoking raw economics, demographics, and supply and demand.  It’s a very smart and necessary tactic for a culture in which faith in the invisible hand of the free market has so largely displaced the role of morals in decision making.

Leinberger saves any moralizing for one page at the very end of the book, but even there the language is softened with copious qualifying mays and potentiallys. And that non-preachy attitude is par for the book — it’s no coincidence that the word “option” is part of the title.  Like most savvy policy makers, Leinberger understands that Americans abhor being scolded about limits, and so for example reducing car use is more constructively reframed as increasing transportation choices.

The only trouble with that approach is that it tends to push us further into a state of moral relativism where it’s verboten to make moral judgements about anything.  We shouldn’t sell ourselves so short.


This book has focused on a variety of market, fiscal, economic, foreign policy, and social equity reasons for allowing walkable urbanism to compete and even thrive.  There may come to be a moral imperative to build walkable urban places.  Development of mixed-use walkable places may be a significant, if not the most important, element in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  In addition, walkable urbanism will certainly lessen dependence on foreign oil, potentially reducing dependence on foreign suppliers.  Walkable urbanism will build wealth for the residents and property owners, revive or continue the economic growth by providing increased densities in existing communities, and take pressure off the fringe of metropolitan areas.  Walkable urbanism can potentially provide affordable housing from the wealth created, if local governments and citizens choose to make it a priority.

8 Responses to “Required Reading (Because Deep Down You Love Being Told What To Do)”

  1. Sabina Pade

    Leinberger talks good sense.

    Only a small minority of people perceive global warming as an immediate existential threat, and are willing to significantly re-structure their lives with the aim of diminishing this threat.

    A comparatively vast number of people, on the other hand, understand the monetary and logistical burden of maintaining large households situated distant from work and shopping.

    Too, the extravagant public cost of health care for people who obstinately lead unhealthy lifestyles is likely to become a more openly discussed issue. Bluntly : life as a suburban couch potato might have less appeal to prospective potatoes if knew they would be obliged to pay for the medical treatment their car-bound, sedentary existence makes necessary.

  2. Sivalinga

    “Reframing”… doubleplus good!

  3. Alex

    I’m reading a book right now called Edge City, about the development of edge cities, written in about 1990. I completely disagree with all of his commentary (basically saying that suburbanism is good and no one wants to live in dense cities) but it’s still very well written and very interesting.

  4. Beal

    Sometimes I have this weird feeling like this blog is speaking to me. I’ve experienced some similar themes today, albeit applied to family and interpersonal relations. The sugarcoating that is requisite to denial is a pretty powerful drug. Who the hell wants to accept that we are all fucked (sorry, should I say “f*cked”?) by peak oil and global warming, when a little spin on the highway is so convenient, so easy, so effortless? But in the end it doesnt change the fact that we are FUCKED. Sorry, I mean, F*CKED. End of story.
    As with that TOD bill that you were tracking so diligently, you can sugarcoat the message all you want to the public, to the neighborhoods, just as the burdened density advocates were forced to do…but time doesn’t slow down, and it doesn’t change the fact that inaction now will lead to irreversible consequences later.
    So, yes, Leinberger, cheers for denial and sugarcoating. Sometimes I think we are all screwed, so let’s just enjoy the ride.

  5. dan bertolet

    All true, my dear Beal. We are all hypocrites, more or less. How easy it was yesterday to get in my car and zip over to Alki beach so I could take a photo of the airplane banner in the next post and then rant about how evil cars are.

    It is pretty much impossible to participate in our culture without being part of the problem — such an ingenious way to set up a society, no?

  6. Dan Staley

    What did The Elephant Man say? “I’m only human!”.

    Oh, wait: I was going to write something positive. Never mind.

  7. dan cortland


    Bluntly : life as a suburban couch potato might have less appeal to prospective potatoes if knew they would be obliged to pay for the medical treatment their car-bound, sedentary existence makes necessary.

    Hey, I play my share of golf.

  8. PB

    “Reframing”… doubleplus good!

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