Why hasn’t the area south of Chicago developed into suburbia?

Two points of data hit me recently about the asymmetrical suburban development of the Chicago region:

1. I recently made a trip down I-355 from I-88 down to I-80. Once you are south of I-55, there is limited development. There are some signs of subdivisions and warehouses but still plenty of open land available.

2. I discussed the boundaries of the Chicago suburbs in a recent post and noticed on the map from the expert that the northern, western, and southeastern suburbs of Chicago extend far into the country but the southern suburbs do not go far. Indeed, suburbia goes further into Indiana or Wisconsin than straight south into Illinois beyond I-80.

Why is it that this area has not developed? In a region that expanded tremendously after World War II and that currently has need for affordable housing, why is this land relatively empty? A few quick hypotheses:

1. The area to the south and southeast of Chicago may have been more industrial earlier on. This would discourage residents from locating nearby. (On the other hand, residential locations close to work could be very valuable in such a large region where jobs and residents do not always line up.)

2. Given the history of race and ethnicity in Chicago and the region, these areas are associated with more black residents and whites wanted to live elsewhere (north suburbs, west suburbs, Indiana).

3. A cultural and economic mismatch between the area south of the city and the region. While Chicago expanded with its reach into the agrarian upper Midwest, the areas south of the city may have had stronger affinities with central Illinois and less urban areas.

4. These suburbs to the south are hesitant about approving development. In a region with little open land left for development (that has not been taken for green space by Forest Preserves or private landowners), this more rural feel gives these suburbs a unique feel. Adding hundreds of mass-produced homes may not be what these particular suburbs desire.

2 thoughts on “Why hasn’t the area south of Chicago developed into suburbia?

  1. You didn’t mention transportation. I-55 & I-80 were not always there, and southwestward, at least, there was only the Rock Island railroad as a passenger alternative. If you lived in Plainfield, for example, a trip to Joliet or even Aurora was far more practical. Chicago was more of a day trip than a reasonable commute. I recall the village as having a population of 1,200 in 1950; according to Wikipedia, it’s estimated as 42,183 in 2015. This isn’t too different than many closer in western and northern suburbs.

    Be grateful for the open lands, though; it’s primo agricultural. Once you pave it over, it’s pretty much gone for a long long time. If you want to see industry, get off the express-way and take old U.S. 6 instead of I-80. The Illinois River is Illinois’ chemical coast.

    I think much the same might be said for southward, except that some of the southern suburbs were pretty well-to-do which may have put an additional brake on suburbanization.

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    • Some good points. At the same time, there were some railroads headed south early in Chicago’s history (1850s) to help connect the growing area to the already settled areas of southern Illinois. I-80 has been around for decades now. It still is conspicuous that the suburban expansion has not proceeded south in the same way as it has to the SW/W/NW/N.

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