Saturday, January 17, 2009

Chicago - Wrap-up

Chicago is a huge place and it's not easily described. Despite the daunting nature of this task, I'll give it a try here. The image below is from Wikimedia Commons.Chicago is a vibrant and thriving city--not without its problems--that offers many lessons about cities to even the casual observer.

The massiveness of Chicago is somewhat awkwardly connected by buses operated by CTA and PACE, city operated elevated trains (the 'L'), regionally operated commuter trains (Metra) and a highway system that I would consider comparatively un-obtrusive. While the 'L' is incredibly effective at whisking urban residents to and from downtown, it is a terribly time consuming way to go anywhere else. The 'L' allows many urban residents to have a sufficient, but not satisfactory, level of mobility without an automobile. The bus system is simply too slow and unreliable to totally eliminate the usefulness of automobiles.The layout of the city was greatly influenced by the illustrious planner Daniel Burnham whose work, The Plan of Chicago, laid out a vision of vast parks and wide boulevards. The City Beautiful movement, which Burnham lead, envisioned the break-up of active commerce in a city and a "return" to more leisurely endeavors like walks in a park. Chicago adopted three main elements of the plan, boulevards, enormous parks, and concentrated public expenditures. The boulevards--some well over 200 feet wide--are a greatly respected Chicago tradition. The realities of modern-day traffic patterns however, turn them into small highways instead of the leisurely drive through the park they were intended to be.

The older part of Chicago is ringed with some of the biggest urban parks in the world. They were created to provide respite to a population suffering from the horrific conditions of the stockyards and other unregulated industries of the late 19th century. Chicago has maintained the tradition of these enormous parks by adding Millennium Park--built above an old rail yard--to the already expansive block of parks downtown.I don't have any qualms with parks in general but scale is critical. Parks of the magnitude dictated by Burnham are so large that they can only be filled by expensive city programming that often falls away during difficult economic times. Parks like these are never full and often totally unoccupied. The lack of watchful eyes leads to parks that fall into lawlessness. Humboldt Park, shown above is one such example. For years it was considered an incredibly dangerous place visited primarily by criminals and malcontents. It
has only recently begun to emerge as a place devoid of crime after twenty years of sustained economic growth and city attention.

Parks must fit the scale and context in which they are built. For example, a park in a more homogonized neighborhood must be larger in order to accomondate the rush of an entire population on the same schedule. In a thuroughly mixed neighborhood, on the other hand, parks, function just fine at a fraction of the size since differing schedules allow for continued use. These sorts of parks manage to fill themselves and don't require expensive city programs to draw crowds or police officers to keep an eye on them.

Thanks to Burnham, Chicago has an overabundance of enormous parks. The city would be much better served by smaller and more frequent restorative spaces that residents could enjoy on a regular basis. Fortunatley, private citizens have realized the many benefits of smaller parks. Through the urban gardening movement, many vacant lots have been converted into cozy restorative spaces.Much of Chicago is single family or duplex housing like in the image shown above. These tracts of housing are greatly supplemented by elevator apartments and walk-ups. Housing is finely divided by long stretches of commercial areas, shown below, that are characterized by greater density, more traffic and an active street presence.The following maps were produced by UrbanLab and more can be found at on the maps for a higher resolution. They show the clear separation of commercial and residential areas but the scale of this granulation is much finer than in the megablocks of Detroit. These frequent commercial areas grant residents access to retail and office space at close proximity, often within walking distance. That the separation exists at all is as much a historical artifact of egotistic planning dogma than any logical or empirical demonstration.

Corridors along the various 'L' lines develop much more than areas distant from rapid transit access. Where even marginal transit access falls away, the automobile takes over, carving out vast swaths for driving and parking. Even worse than the overdependance on the automobile is the creation of underserved communities. Transportation justice is a serious issue facing most cities and Chicago is no exception.

Chicago is fortunate enough to have a sizable population dedicated to making the city a better and more sustainable place. These people, scattered throughout the city, work largely without government support. The city administration talks a lot about green building, but their excessive emphasis on new condo construction and little else is likely to lead the city into a great unbalance of local use. They like to fancy themselves on the forefront of the green movement but those that are serious about sustainability are very much aware that such a claim would be totally baseless.

They are willing to spend over $3 billion on deep tunnel projects to prevent combined sewer overflows but unwilling to provide any sewer rate reductions to properties with green roofs, rain barrels or rain gardens. The City is expanding a curb-side recycling program but most residents are very much unsure that all of the collected recyclables are actually reused in any way.

All in all, the city is becoming a better place. With the economic downtown and slowdown of condo construction, city government will have a perfect excuse to start dealing with other issues in the city. Some more rational thinking on their part will greatly aid the already herculean efforts of ordinary citizens in their goal to make Chicago a better place.


  1. I was interested in using the BauerPower coupon to assess our house for solar panels, but the coupon is expired. Are they still honoring it?

    BTW, thanks for your ongoing informative city tour!!

  2. Not sure if you're coupon is still good, never hurts to try.

    Glad you like the tour, more to come!

  3. The way parks are used is at least as important as their size. Parks are not just a respite from the city, they are also a place to take a walk, read, play sports, etc. A small park may not even be sufficient as a respite. I'm also not sure how helpful the time schedule of residents would be in park planning. Park planning is a very interesting topic but I think the analysis needs to be a lot more detailed.