75_logoWalter S. Schmidt conceived of an organization where the ingredients were businessmen with knowledge, experience, and a philosophy about the problems of the urban growth and decay of the American City.

Walter S. Schmidt, the founder and first president of ULI, was born in Cincinnati in 1885 and died there in 1957 at age 72. His grandfather came from Germany in the 1890s. Schmidt’s father was in real estate, so Walter already knew about property values, good locations, the proper kinds of houses to build and how to finance them, the advantages of well-laid-out streets and building locations, and the need for space to breathe and live comfortably. When Schmidt was 26, his father died and he became head of the family real estate business—the Frederick A. Schmidt Company, one of the great real estate enterprises of the American midlands. He also became editor of the Round Table, a magazine of civic betterment.

Schmidt conceived of an organization where the ingredients were businessmen with knowledge, experience, and a philosophy about the problems of the urban growth and decay of the American City.

Pooling this knowledge, experience, and philosophy would assist in bringing about a better urban environment within which the capacity and energy of America’s democratic system and urban economy could best function.

Through rapid expansion of the United States, planned cities, towns, and villages were the exception rather than the rule. The cities had grown to proportions far beyond anything conceived in whatever plans were made for their growth. Crowding, even intolerable overcrowding, marked many of the nation’s cities. As a place in which to live and work, America’s cities lost more of their earlier charm and appearance. Yet planned residential communities that pro­vided amenities could be made into profitable business ventures.

Schmidt was grappling with what to do about the manifold problems posed by the steady decline of the central business districts of the nation’s cities. Urban blight seemed to outrun the best programs as fast as they were accomplished. He believed that what was needed was an organization that would devote itself to research and education in the field of real estate, urban blight, and the rebuilding of America’s central city districts so that people might enjoy the surroundings in which they worked, lived, and shopped.

His efforts resulted in the formation in 1936 of the National Real Estate Foundation for Practical Research and Education, predecessor of the Urban Land Institute. Schmidt believed there was a need for greater knowledge of urban planning and redevelopment, and the need to share more of that information.

Post–World War II flight to the suburbs was running down one city neighborhood after another. Schmidt saw the need for the following:

  • a federal planning and research agency for real estate as a recognized authority whose recommendations would be accepted as embodying the best available in the field;
  • a federal mortgage bank to make interest rates on loans lower;
  • a school of real estate practice and principles;
  • a large body of trained experts in several broad fields of real estate activity;
  • a body that can speak without the implication that it is serving a personal business object; and
  • an understanding of real estate economics and financing as cities become more complex.

ULI would have a twofold purpose: to collect information concerning trends and developments in U.S. cities and prepare recommendations for voluntary and legislative action to conserve that which should be conserved; and to offer an advisory service to cities desiring it through its board of consultants.

Walter S. Schmidt, founder and first
president of ULI 

One of ULI’s first reports, Decentralization—What Is It Doing to Our Cities?, dealt with 16 causes of decentralization derived from written reports from real estate appraisers and brokers in 221 cities. Other reports dealt with such concerns as land planning, the impact of the automobile, orderly growth in urban and suburban areas, city replanning, designing and planning city neighborhoods, a method for land assembly, taxation, lower building costs, and zoning for industry.

ULI’s first council was the Community Builders’ ­Council, established in 1944, followed by the ­Central Business District Council in 1945, and the Industrial Council in 1951. ULI’s first panel study, of Louisville, was conducted in 1947. The J.C. Nichols ­Foundation for community improvement was authorized in 1950 to make annual grants to ­university students for research in the field of community improvement.

From talking about city planning, ULI moved to concerning itself with metropolitan planning, then regional and national planning. ULI, as a research organization, had taken the unique position of combining technical skills with the practical experience of men and women of achievement in all phases of land use.

Adapted from Of Land and Men: The Birth and Growth of an Idea. Garnett L. Eskew and John R. MacDonald, Washington, D.C., Urban Land Institute, 1959.