By Robert Fishman (Originally published with occasion of the J.C. Nichols Forum celebrated in Kansas City, Missouri, September 2016)
Somewhere on the short shelf of books that define postwar America, a place must be found for a slim volume whose first edition was published in 1947 by the Urban Land Institute, The Community Builders Handbook. The book’s readership of suburban developers and other real estate professionals was tiny compared with other defining volumes, such as Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care (1946), William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956), Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). Nevertheless, the book’s impact on American culture was enormous: it became nothing less than the instruction manual for the postwar suburbanization of the United States.
Like Spock’s Baby and Child Care for the parents of the baby boomers, the Handbook became essential reading for its target audience because it was concise, comprehensive, authoritative and reassuring. The tone of the Handbook was no-nonsense, detailed, professional advice on almost every aspect of suburban development. The Handbook was thus immensely influential in speeding the course of suburban development.
It was far less influential, as we shall see, in shaping postwar suburban design to its admittedly idealistic principles. For the Handbook called not only for well-built and affordable suburban homes, but also for whole neighbor- hoods planned to be true walkable communities with a range of income groups, convenient retail facilities, and schools, parks, and other public amenities that guaranteed lasting value.
And the Handbook was least effective in acknowledging the immense costs of suburbanization to older cities and especially to African Americans and other minorities who were not allowed to share in the benefits of suburban life. For example, the Handbook strongly recommends “protective covenants” and neighborhood associations in order to safeguard what it called “the permanence, character, and desirability in community development.” The Handbook then lists such typical restrictions as type and design of dwelling, setbacks, and minimum lot sizes. Omitted from this discussion—indeed, omit ted from the Handbook entirely—was any explicit mention of race. Yet the authors knew well that many covenants in 1947 prohibited the purchase of property by African Americans (and some- times Jews as well), and that neighborhood associations were often used to enforce these racial provisions. For example, sociologist Kevin Graham Fox has shown that by 1949 the Kansas City metropolitan area had more than 450 subdivisions with racial covenants covering more than 7,000 acres of suburbanizing land. Moreover, he shows that, for J.C. Nichols’s own firm, at least through 1949, “his property deeds always warned buyers that ‘none of the lots hereby restricted may be conveyed to, used, owned, nor occupied by negroes. . . .”(1) Racial and religious provisions in restrictive covenants were deemed unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark decision Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), but the spirit behind them continued to shape real estate practice, not least in the mort- gage policies of the Federal Housing Administration through the 1960s.
In defense of its long-term vision, the Handbook offered this observation: “American cities have been notorious for the vast losses which occur each decade in large segments of our urban areas through the building and tearing down process.” In fact, the suburban vision at the heart of the Handbook would result in a “building and tearing down process”—suburban sprawl and inner- city segregation and abandonment—whose destructive scope would be unprecedented in urban history.
Although 27 leading suburban developers were members of the Community Builders Council of the Urban Land Institute, the Community Builders Handbook finally expresses the strengths and weaknesses, as well as the theory and practice of the council’s chairman, J.C. Nichols.
Underlying the Handbook was Nichols’s own life experience going back to the early 20th century. Nichols was still in his 20s when in 1906 he began to buy up the unincorporated land south of Kansas City, Missouri, then filled with hog- feeding lots, waste dumps, and other nuisances to transform it into the famous 1,000-acre Country Club District that attracted the elite of the city and proved to be a design model for the best suburban development throughout the United States. As a businessman, Nichols understood the challenge of long-term development: incurring massive upfront debt for land acquisition, road- building, utilities and services, and design and landscape, while at the same time struggling to sell enough lots to stay solvent and to turn a profit during good times and bad.
Alongside his practical business experience, Nichols was also a forward-looking, indeed visionary, activist who strove throughout his life to define the role and responsibility of the real estate industry in the larger development of the American metropolis. A founder of the Urban Land Institute in 1939, he strove as chair of the Community Builders Council for a transformed suburban real estate industry, one that built for the long term rather than for immediate speculative profits.
If Nichols sadly ignored the long-term implications of white-only suburbs for the American metropolis, he did have a clear vision for lasting suburban design, as shown in the Handbook’s most important theme: the “neighborhood unit.” As Jason Brody has recently shown, the neighbor- hood unit is one of those unifying concepts that stretches back to the Garden City movement at the beginning of the 20th century and goes for- ward to new urbanism at its end. Clarence Perry’s landmark 1929 volume for the Regional Association of New York is usually considered the origin of the neighborhood unit idea. Perry argued that suburbs should be built as walkable, functional, and sociable communities that would provide a human-scale counterpoint to the inhuman scale of the metropolis.
Nichols and his colleagues were attracted to the neighborhood-unit concept because it operationalized their goals of long-term, profitable, and stable development. As they realized, when people bought lots or houses, their real aim was to buy into a neighborhood, a face-to-face community where they would feel at home, where their children would find a good school within walking distance, and where parents would find parks, shopping, and, above all, good neighbors. Through its detailed guidance, the Handbook sought to provide the design guidelines for developing true neighborhoods.
Although hundreds of attempts to define the neighborhood unit have been made, none is more clear or concise than figure 7 (including text) of The Community Builders Handbook.
Perhaps the most important element to emphasize in the Handbook’s analysis is that the “community” in the neighborhood-unit concept always includes a range of income groups and household types. So the community builder must include not only single-family detached houses of varying sizes, but also rowhouses and apartments.
Reflecting Perry’s 1929 plan, the community has a well-defined center and edge. The center is always the elementary school, whose minimum number of children also defines the minimum size of the neighborhood. The school is so placed not only to be walkable for children from every part of the neighborhood, but its grounds are integrated with a public park and other recreation space to be the true center of the neighborhood. The edges are defined by arterial highways that divert traffic from the local streets, which are relatively narrow, curved, looping, or culs-de-sac, all of which keeps through-traffic off local streets.
Although the street patterns clearly anticipate the familiar collector street/local street pattern of sub- division development, one should also note the contrasts with later conventional practice. The neighborhood-unit concept as it was presented in the Handbook clearly seeks to establish a true pedestrian realm within the boundaries of the unit. Not only the elementary school, but also parks, recreational facilities, and the shopping center would all be accessible along lightly traveled roads. This contrasts with so many later subdivisions where the local roads lead only to (very similar) houses, and even the nearest elementary school can be reached only by crossing a danger- ous and congested collector street.
As Nichols continually emphasized, even (perhaps especially) the most idealistic neighborhood design must be profitable to be stable in the long term. So the Handbook begins with the basic issues of market analysis, site selection, and land acquisition, and thus translates the general neighborhood-unit concept into its many components, with precise instructions ranging in scale from the overall site plan to such specific elements as street widths and curbing. There is excellent advice from Nichols and his colleagues about optimal block size; varying lot sizes to support a range of prices and dwelling types; the best locations for multifamily units and public institutions; and infrastructure such as sewers and lighting.
Perhaps the one surprising aspect of the Hand- book is the substantial attention given to the “planning and management of shopping centers.” This is, to be sure, a topic on which Nichols had unique expertise as the developer of Country Club Plaza in the 1920s, arguably the first major suburban shopping center. The neighborhood unit concept clearly required a “shopping center” to complete its ideal of a relatively self-contained community. And, as Nichols well understood, most developers knew how to subdivide and sell lots, but were inexperienced in the complicated tasks of establishing a viable equivalent of “Main Street” under a single management. Hence the long, detailed sections on such topics as the optimal mix of stores, the best locations for different kinds of retailing and services, the right formula for leases, and, of course, parking.
In 1947, shopping center design was in considerable flux and the Handbook’s design recommendations demonstrate well the uncertainties, especially with regard to the parking issue. Nichols and the other members of the council were reluctant to break the traditional pattern of stores fronting on sidewalks with display windows easily visible from the street, and to go to the “logical” solution of the parking problem: the shopping structures in the center of a vast expanse of parking lots where the easily visible ample parking itself was the “attraction” that drew consumers off the highway.
Hence the uncertainty in the Handbook’s design recommendations, which proved to be the most revised section in subsequent editions. There was also a deep uncertainty in the meaning of the suburban shopping center in the larger context of retailing in the region. The Handbook has the following to say about the regional implications of suburban shopping centers, already a topic of hot debate:
“. . . it should not be assumed that the Council is advocating the accelerated decentralization of business. Rather, it recognizes the importance of maintaining a strong and healthy central business district . . . with good transportation facilities leading to and from various parts of the city, and with a reasonable number of outlying community centers designed to best serve the needs of nearby residential developments.”
This is the ideal that Peter Calthorpe has taught us to call “transit-oriented development,” very different from the actual pattern of sprawl-type development that the Handbook would help unleash in postwar America. So what went wrong? Why were Nichols’s design ideals marginalized in practice?
One way to answer that question is to observe that the Handbook as a practical guide to the mechanics of suburban development was, if anything, too successful. Nichols and the other leaders of the Community Builders Council were still haunted by the Great Depression and hoped for no more than slow, steady growth in the postwar period. Looking back to 1880, “the date of birth of the Council’s Chairman [Nichols himself],” the Handbook asserts that 1880–1947 “was a period of rapid growth in the nation’s his- tory, which is not likely to be repeated. Population authorities look forward to a continued decline in the rate of growth, which is likely to reach a static state by 1980.”
In fact, the postwar “baby boom” was already well underway, which pushed the postwar housing shortage to crisis levels. Moreover, the rise in real wages during the 1940s, combined with the economies of scale that the Federal Housing Administration had successfully introduced into homebuilding and home finance, meant that not only the middle class but also a large section of the white working class could now afford a new suburban tract house. The boom made land acquisition on the scale required for a true neighborhood unit more difficult, and developers soon found they could sell lots and houses in rapidly built, small isolated subdivisions off a collector road, leading to the familiar leap-frog pattern of development. Retail development became increasingly detached from residential development, as strip malls, big and small boxes, malls, and office parks spread out along arterial high- ways with no coordination with the residential development in the area. The compact, walkable neighborhood unit exploded into sprawl. The Handbook in its three subsequent revised editions (1954, 1960, and 1968) acknowledged these changes without abandoning the neighborhood- unit ideal. With each new revision, however, the once human-scale neighborhood unit swelled in size to more than a square mile and became increasingly automobile-dependent and scattered.
Ironically, it is the earliest (1947) edition of the Handbook, published just three years before Nichols’s death, that seems most contemporary, indeed prophetic, in its advocacy of walkable, mixed-income, mixed-use suburban development (to use present-day terminology in place of the “neighborhood unit”). The 1947 Handbook is also prophetic in its conception of a region balanced between center and edge.
Nichols and his colleagues failed to foresee the traumatic impact of suburbanization on American central cities; they were indifferent or hostile to the ideals of diversity and inclusion that motivate the best American urbanism today. But in his ideal of the American suburb as a human-scaled community built to last, Nichols grasped an enduring element of American culture. The challenge the Handbook poses today is to reinvigorate and redefine the concept of “community” in its title, building on its strong design elements to achieve a deeper suburban diversity, while com- batting the legacy of the divided metropolis.
Robert Fishman is interim dean and professor of architecture and planning at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Planning of the University of Michigan. Fishman received his PhD in history from Harvard University and is a leading urban and architectural historian. His books include Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia and Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier.