75_logoThe Urban Land Institute may be celebrating 75 years of history in the United States, but as a global organization, these are still its formative years. With offices in London and Hong Kong, ULI has brought its priorities and educational outreach to land use professionals, academicians and government officials throughout Europe and Asia.

“You have to look globally because the world has been globalizing over the last 20 years,” says Richard M. Rosan, president of the ULI Foundation, which supports ULI through philanthropy. He also served as ULI’s chief executive for 17 years, during which he led the expansion abroad.

“There has been this remarkable change,” Rosan says. “Everything is global. There’s the huge rise of Asian countries, especially India and China, as economic powers. There’s just so much there to be done. There’s a lot for us to learn, but there’s a lot for them to learn from the rest of the world, too.”

It was not a top-down decision to go global, he notes. “In a nutshell, we followed our members,” Rosan says. In the early 1990s, many major companies and executives belonging to ULI were expanding into Europe, he explains. The expansion to Europe also had roots in an extremely successful ULI meeting held annually in Paris since the early 1990s.

Rosan notes that ULI in Europe is supported by a dedicated core group of senior executives in land use and development businesses. “In many ways the environment is the same as it was in the United States 50 years ago,” he says.

However different cultural expectations and business models pose a challenge. Outside the United States, there is not the same tradition of building nongovernment enterprises to serve a particular industry or profession. “ULI is a philanthropic organization, and that is hard for Europeans (with the exception of the British) to understand,” Rosan says. “For example, outside the U.S. there is no tax deduction for contributions to philanthropy. And ULI has always been an organization which members support not only with their dues, but also with philanthropy.”

The unfolding financial crisis in Europe is, of course, a major concern of ULI’s European members now, says Joe Montgomery, chief executive of ULI London, the office that coordinates 13 national councils in 13 European states. In late September, for example, ULI coordinated a program in Greece focusing on ways that development can be financed in the current economic climate. “ULI helped attract people to the platform who might not ordinarily come out,” Montgomery says.

“Prevailing models of urban development are profoundly challenged in the downturn, and we need to collectively discover new interventions.”

In its global operations, ULI does not seek to export American land use models, but to grow a network that allows local professionals to learn from each other’s experiences and identify best practices for land use in their cities. ULI’s principles, such as intelligent densification, transit-oriented development, sustainability, and walkability remain the same, but solutions must be developed locally and attuned to the each city’s customs and environment.

John Fitzgerald, vice president and executive director of ULI Asia, notes that ULI’s goal of promoting sustainable, thriving communities has particular resonance in Asia, which is undergoing extremely rapid urban development. “The growth story in this part of the world is real. Cities are literally being built as we speak, and people are moving to them. There is significant opportunity for real input,” he says.

However, Fitzgerald notes that ULI is still developing its own business models for operating in Asia. “The goal is to get it where it is its own sustainable operation.”

In Europe, Montgomery also highlights the issues posed by the economy. “Companies think very carefully about which professional organizations they belong to,” Montgomery says. “The world just got more competitive for professional, knowledge-based organizations, just as it has for real estate organizations.”

Rosan says the financial challenges for professional organizations extend beyond borders. “It’s a trickier business to be operating globally now than it had been,” Rosan says. “The challenge is how to make the international effort sustainable without subsidizing it. We are all in an environment where resources are much more scarce than they were.”