Did the F5 Plainfield tornado contribute to suburban growth?

Some Plainfield residents feel like the destructive 1990 tornado contributed to the suburb’s later growth:

In the years after the tornado, Plainfield grew from a town of just over 4,000 to more than 41,000 residents today. Some say the tornado and subsequent attention helped put the tiny village “on the map.”

“I think a lot of people saw the community spirit and what a wonderful place this was, and I think that really prompted some of the growth,” said Kathy O’Connell, a lifelong resident who served on the village board.

She and others shared stories of how Plainfield residents pulled together to help one another. In the case of the Kinley family, one resident came forward to take in Don, his wife, Sharon, their son and his family while they rebuilt their homes.

This hints at a feature of suburban communities that many residents and leaders will discuss: their suburb has a lot of community spirit. I am skeptical of such claims for two main reasons:

  1. The people making the argument are often closely connected to civic organizations (local government, charities, business groups, etc.) where there are active community members. This is what they regularly see but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the broader population.
  2. A lot of community spirit compared to what? Would other suburban communities not respond and help if a major tornado hit their community? There is little baseline for levels of community spirit outside of personal experiences and anecdotes.

The case of Plainfield may be different: the response of people to a major natural disaster is likely more forceful than responding to daily suburban life.

Yet, I would argue the tornado just happened to occur right before Plainfield would have grown anyway. The growth was impressive: 186% growth between 1990 and 2000 (4,557 to 13,038 residents) and 204% growth between 2000 and 2010 (13,038 to 39,581 residents). But, Plainfield was not alone. This southwest sector of the Chicago region saw tremendous growth across communities. Naperville was a “boomburb” between 1980 and 2000. Aurora recently became the second-largest city in Illinois. Joliet, losing population through the 1980s, had nearly 40% growth in each of the next two decades. A bit further east, I-355 was extended south from I-55 to I-80. In other words, the open land and easy access to Chicago and other nearby locations (major train lines, major highways) prompted the growth.

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