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Walk This Way

He develops new strategies for American cities

Christopher Leinberger ’72’s love affair with cities started when he was a young boy, taking the train with his mother from their Drexel Hill, Pa., home to visit his father working in Philadelphia. 

He was enthralled by the people, buildings, and hubbub. 

In some ways, not much has changed for Leinberger, whose career has included work as a land-use strategist, real estate developer, professor, researcher, and author. His interest, however, goes beyond how and where we build homes. 

“My entire career has been about understanding metropolitan development trends, how we’ve been building our cities and metro areas,” says Leinberger. 

“Real estate caused two of the last three recessions prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, ” he says, “and has led to tremendous environmental and social inequity.”

He stepped down this spring as the Charles Bendit Distinguished Scholar and Research Professor and Chair of the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University’s School of Business, to focus on his newest initiative, Places Platform LLC.

The platform is “an artificial intelligence, machine-learning data set that will include 100% of all buildings, what’s in them, and streets, sewer, water lines, trains, buses, and all infrastructure, eventually throughout the world,” says Leinberger, who is also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Already, New York and several other major cities have been mapped.

The database provides government officials, planners, and financial institutions with deeply detailed information to guide critical decision-making for planning, development, sustainability, and use of resources. 

This initiative caps a career in which Leinberger has sought to reclaim 

cities; advocate for sustainability and economic and social equity; and build walkable urban communities. He notes that these are both highly desirable today and an important way to combat climate change.

The good news is that Swarthmore students, along with their Gen Z and millennial counterparts, are more likely to live in walkable urban communities than the suburban sprawl that developed after World War II. 

And, assuming a vaccine, Leinberger doesn’t expect COVID-19 to impact this trend long term, with walkable urban housing values holding up in May and June during the pandemic. Not only is this “new urbanism” more exciting and social — with restaurants, theaters, and shops in walking distance — but it also allows people to reduce expenses, and their carbon footprints, by doing without cars.

At Swarthmore, Leinberger majored in political science and sociology, and he credits then-Dean Gil Stott with guiding him after graduation to the Coro Foundation Fellowship Program, where he focused on urban issues. 

After earning an MBA from Harvard, he co-founded Arcadia Land Co., a new-urbanism, transit-oriented development firm. In 2017, the urban-planning site Planetizen named Leinberger among the 100 most influential urbanists of all time.

Swarthmore provided the foundation that has enabled him to pivot and grow throughout his career, says Leinberger.

“That’s the great thing about a liberal arts college: It teaches you how to think and process new information,” he says. “That’s critical given the speed of change in the world, and I’m a bit of a change junkie.”