Thursday, November 19, 2009

Is there room for more than one Chicago?

Last weekend, for the first time since leaving the Midwest in 2002, I spent time enjoying Chicago. The best part was visiting my daughter, but the second best part was seeing Millennium Park, the New Modern Wing of the Art Institute, and just plain walking around and eating in Chicago.

Within one-half mile of Lake Michigan, from Cermak Road on the South to the Evanston city limit on the North, Chicago is an Urbanist's dream. It is walkable, it has more impressive urban landscapes than any other city I know, transit is good, there is well-tended and contiguous green space, and, of course, the magnificent lakefront.

So why don't we have more Chicagos? Part of the reason is that countries have systems of cities, whose size seems to kind-of-sort-of follow Zipf's law, and so there is room for a limited number of cities of Chicago's size. But one could ask why we don't see Chicago in miniature more often. To the extent that it is preferences--that there are only a limited number of us who like the features of places like Chicago--the fact that there are few Chicagos is nothing to worry about.

But I suspect that it has to do more with policies--zoning that requires separation of uses, low densities, large setbacks, etc. Particularly problematic is the hostility many communities show toward multi-family housing, and the silliness of greenspace requirements that encourages many little playgrounds but fails to develop large parks. The again, policies are put into place by elected officials, so maybe the absence of Chicagos does reflect preferences (or prejudices). And that's too bad.

16 comments:

Austin Kelly said...

I know this is rank heresy for social scientists, but could it be personality based exceptionalism? Maybe the city is so amazingly cool because of Danny Burnham and the Daleys?

Them and a well timed fire that gave Burnham an agglomeration of skilled architects and some empty space with which to work.

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Gold prices said...

I have never been to Chicago, but after reading your article, i wish to visit Chicago once. The way you are impressed with the region is enough to make a visit there.

Rich said...

You've got most of it, Richard. Most middle and upper income Americans don't like multi-family housing. Or density. They do like Chicago. But try rezoning an R-1 lot to R-3 or higher within a quarter-mile of their home and Americans go nuts (traffic! parking! poor people! property values!).

Strong personalities and political organizations (the Daleys, Big Bill Thompson, Anton Cermak & the machine, etc), civic unity and optimism, and a very diverse economy have helped Chicago, too.

Chicago is the exception of desirable and functional moderate-to-high density urban development in the US. Other metros like Houston and Phoenix are the contemporary norm - low-density and car-oriented. Cleveland could have been like Chicago, then it wasn't. Then there's Chicago's former peer, Detroit, which went quite bad for a number of reasons.

Seattle and Portland are two cities that are successfully striving for well-rounded livable urbanism, albeit at smaller scales. They seem to do a lot of things right, and the general population seems to understand and support urban-friendly goals and strategies, such as density, upzoning, transit, and civic architecture (let's tax ourselves more for light rail!). I wonder - is it possible to predict the density of a person's neighborhood by their willingness to live near poor people, use transit, or pay taxes?

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NFP said...

Chicago is THE All-American city. Its history represents the growth of commerce from the mid-19th century on due to the extensive rail links. Basically if America needed it, somehow, sometime it came thru Chicago, with all the ramifications that had for the development of the town's essential character. It's an agribusiness center and a financial business center. It's blue collar and white collar, ethniclly and racially diverse. Wonder town to visit.

trphilip said...

I happen to be better looking than all of NY and LA combined, and unlike NY, I wont mug you, and unlike LA, I wont smoke a joint with you. I have all my teeth but I maybe lacking some hair. I also can articulate a dinner order without saying dem, da or doz. Chicago is by far, better than both those cities because the people here are not plastic nor metal!

Capital J said...

im not sure about this. chicago may be the windy city, but erie really blows.

Laurie said...

Toy forgot to mention apoll taken not too long ago how chicago ranked number one in the top forty of most stressful citys to live in the united states. Is it because of our crooked ploiticians, our highly taxed rsidents, our great (haha) parking in and about the city, and the list of terrible things about crook county goes on and on and on..

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Matt said...

Living in Chicago I don't like New Year's Eve

Well, south side, there's always idiots shooting guns off. We are usually sitting on the floor of the dining room at midnight praying.

One New Years eve Jim worked that night, and on his way home...........a bullet hit the hood of his mom's Lincoln Town car. The hole is still there.

shaun said...

We hear the gun fire like a small war around us. All we can do is try to be safe. Times have really changed in the last few years. How do we protect ourselves from a stray bullet?

curveball said...

Like we do, on the floor away from windows. People here have been doing this for years. It's just a bit more scary now days because we hear so much about people being killed all through out the year now.....

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