Comic strip about development, architecture, and urban life

Check out this overview of Ben Katchor’s comic strips about urban design and life:

In a comic strip he’s authored for Metropolis magazine since the late 1990s and in several compilation books, Katchor looks at design and at the development of homes and neighborhoods. His strips are usually one page long and place characters at the helm of strange or unsettling experiences.

During a recent phone interview, Katchor, a winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant and professor at Parsons, described his work as a part of the “American, Yiddish, socialist” tradition and “a form of social activism. You could blow things up too,” he said, referring to the radical arms of environmental groups, “but I don’t really relish the thought of being in prison. I’d rather make comic strips.”…

Katchor leads his readers from simple to complex ideas in the space of one page. For example, in “A River View,” two contractors try to profit on a large set of glass windows that have been recently replaced in a high-rise: the removed windows have the imprint of the skyline that has been baked into the glass over time. By the time they find the recycling yard where the windows have been taken, they’re told that, “a European art dealer took the whole lot sight unseen.” The final frame of the strip shows a group of people overseas looking at one pane when it is displayed like a work of fine art. Everyone involved is looking to profit.

From Katchor’s perspective, profit motivates much of recent development. Though he doesn’t believe new design is worse compared to earlier periods, mentioning that there were dull buildings in the past, he thinks today’s wealth replicates itself, with a push to “maximize profits” in many fields. Like the panes in “A River View,” Katchor sees replication: “Rather than spinning off the money into other things, giving it to other people,” design suffers from the “failure of imagination of corporate interests.”

The sample strips here are pretty interesting. A few thoughts:

1. Providing commentary through comic strips has a good history. Yet, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it applied to urban development. Perhaps it is too abstract an idea (beyond the immediate experiences of characters) for most strips to address?

2. The argument that profits drive developments sounds like the political economy view in urban sociology which emphasizes the actions of powerful people, politicians or business leaders, to make money.

3. I wonder if such humor really has a market these days. These comic strips are relatively long, have lots of text, and address complex topics that go beyond one-liners.

Summarizing the sides for and against the Illiana Expressway

The Daily Herald does a nice job laying out the opposing positions regarding the Illiana Expressway. There seems to be a little bit of everything needed for a really contentious development debate:

1. Lots of money is at stake for building the highway.

2. Thousands of jobs for construction and in projected economic development. Perhaps more importantly, who gets to take credit for the jobs? Next, would these jobs take away from potential jobs elsewhere?

3. Questions about whether the highway is really needed to ease truck traffic.

4. Whether the highway will serve an area ripe for suburban development (southern Will County) or whether this is primarily about shipping freight.

5. Politicians from elsewhere in the Chicago region differ on whether the road is good for the region. Additionally, some argue the highway projects they support are more important and deserve the money.

6. Is there enough money behind this public-private partnership so that state taxpayers aren’t left on the hook?

All of this reminds me that building highways was probably a lot simpler fifty years ago. For those who want more highways today, it is too bad they didn’t have the foresight to construct them back in earlier eras of the interstate system.

Transforming Rosemont from a small suburb to a entertainment and commercial center

The suburb of Rosemont, Illinois has changed quite a bit in recent decades with a strong push from local leaders:

“Now Rosemont pretty much has everything people need,” Stephens said. “There is no need to go to downtown Chicago.”

That’s essentially been the philosophy of Rosemont since its incorporation in 1956. The village covers only 2.5 square miles. But it’s blessed with being at the center of a transportation hub. It’s in the shadows of O’Hare International Airport. It stands at the convergence of I-90 and I-294. And it has a stop on the CTA’s Blue Line el.

Donald Stephens’ ambition was to convince travelers to O’Hare that they didn’t need to go to Chicago. So he built hotels and restaurants, the Donald A. Stephens Convention Center, Rosemont Horizon (now Allstate Arena), Rosemont Theatre, Rosemont Stadium for softball, Muvico 18, a movie multiplex, and MB Financial Park, a de-facto town square filled with restaurants and entertainment venues, including a bowling alley and ice skating rink…

Beyond a great location, Rosemont made the decision early on that it wanted to attract commercial development, said Steve Hovany, president of Strategy Planning Association, a Schaumburg-based real estate consulting firm.

This sounds like a classic case of the political economy model for urban growth. One key family, now spanning two separate mayors, made decisions alongside business and local leaders to pursue economic growth. They made use of an existing advantage in the community, being located near transportation options, and attracted new opportunities. The only piece missing from the article is some explanation from the leaders themselves why they did all of this. Just to put Rosemont on the map? Or, to make money for leaders as well as the community who then benefits quite a bit from property and sales taxes (items many suburbs wish they had).

Tying subways to the concentric rings of the Chicago School

Joel recently noted an academic study that suggests subway systems converge on a similar form. Whet Moser of Chicago argues that understanding subway patterns requires considering how cities grow and the concentric rings model of the Chicago School of urban sociology.

This is where I get skeptical that subways converging towards a “common mathematical space may hint at universal principles of human self-organization.” The subway systems the authors study were built within a relatively narrow band: 1863 (London) to 1995 (Shanghai). But they’re all also very old cities. Shanghai has a dense central business district, dating back to its long history as a port town; Moscow’s rings radiate out from the Kremlin and Red Square, following old fortifications; Beijing grew out from a model of urbanism that way predates Burgess and Park:

Many researchers reached consensus on urban morphology of the Old Beijing from physical composition. It is agreed that the Old Beijing was laid out exactly according to the concept of the Chinese utopia capital city in the book Kao Gong Ji, Notes on Works, written more than 2,000 years ago. The ideal city form is ‘a walled square city of nine by nine li (4.5 kilometers) with nine north/south main streets and east/west main avenues, three gates on each side, the ancestral temple on the left and an altar on the right of the palace, municipal administration buildings in front of the palace and a marketplace behind it’ (Fu, 1998; Liu, 1986).

So: who cares? If it’s just a neat little mathematical model, what’s its relevance? It’s relevant when the model becomes prescriptive, as the authors of “World Subway Networks” write:

In the case of Beijing, Seoul and Shanghai, it seems that their relative ‘youth’ is why they have not yet reached their long time limit.

Translation: since the subways were started after 1971, they haven’t fully converged on that ideal “core and branch” shape and ratio…

In short, Beijing is stuck in Park and Burgess’s concentric zones, and wants to move towards Harris and Ullman’s multiple-nuclei model. At the very least, it’s neat to see these comparatively dated theories of urbanization at the forefront of 21st century development. But the Beijing subway system may be following a multiple-nuclei model…

In other words, urban sociologists started to figure out that the concentric rings model doesn’t seem to fit all cities (though it still seems to overlay nicely on Chicago, it doesn’t fit other places like Beijing or newer Sunbelt cities in the United States). First came the multiple nuclei model in the 1940s and then a whole new paradigm, the political economy approach, started to emerge in the 1960s. The political economy prescriptive relies less on prescriptive models and instead focus on a different mechanism: whereas the Chicago School emphasizes competition for land and cities growing as people seek out cheaper land, the political economy model focuses on the profit motives of developers, politicians, and business leaders.

So if we looked at subway growth and locations in the political economy perspective, we could examine why lines and stops were built in certain places. Using two other forms of mass transportation as examples, we know that a good number of railroad and streetcar owners in the mid to late 1800s built lines to their new real estate developments. In other words, these lines were not built to service existing residents but rather to spur new development. I bet you could find some scholars who would argue that subways may sometimes be built to wealthier neighborhoods rather than poorer neighborhoods because there is more money to be made in these connections.

When Chicago’s highways were new

In a flashback, the Chicago Tribune takes a look at the effects of the major highways that first opened in the region in the late 1950s and early 1960s:

Expressway construction changed the cityscape more than anything since the Great Fire of 1871. The fire gave builders a clean canvas. But the expressways had to be threaded through labyrinths of factories and bungalows. Those in the way were sacrificed: While expressways were still on the drawing board, they were expected to cost 9,000 families their homes, probably an underestimate…

Those concrete and asphalt ribbons provided a one-way ticket out of town. Even before the Congress (now Eisenhower) Expressway reached there, a developer was chopping up west suburban farmland for a development named in its honor. The Tribune noted Arthur McIntosh deliberately put Congress Highlands’ southern boundary on “a Du Page County feeder to the expressway.”…

Local movers and shakers had long envisioned freeing traffic from congested city streets. Yet some ordinary residents couldn’t believe it even when the bulldozers began to roll. “One man forced us to get an eviction order from the court because he said he had been reading about superhighways for years and thought the whole thing was a dream,” said Chicago’s housing co-coordinator in 1949…

Only the Southwest Expressway (today’s Stevenson) didn’t displace Chicagoans, being built atop an abandoned waterway, the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The Dan Ryan not only dramatically reduced the population in its route, but by paralleling a line of public housing, it reinforced segregated neighborhoods on the South Side. The Kennedy was rerouted around the backside of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, when Chicago’s Polish community complained the original plan would have placed it at the church’s front door.

This article illustrates the major changes that happened in many major American cities when highways that linked downtown areas to the future suburbs. But, the article hints that this wasn’t necessarily easy to do: people were displaced, neighborhoods were changed, political corruption occurred, and people battled about exactly where the highways should go. Today, they seem natural. In the 1950s, they were a big change.

This piece also seems to support the political economy view of urban growth and development. Highways didn’t just happen because people were clamoring to get to the suburbs for the cheaper land and houses. Rather, the fate of these highways were decided by wealthy businessmen and developers as well as politicians who saw opportunities. If people needed to be displaced, so be it. If highways could be used to separate the Black Belt from Bridgeport, so be it. If the jobs building the highways could be peddled into votes and connections, so be it. The example here of the DuPage developer is classic: now suburban land close to the highway was valuable.

Perhaps stories like these resonate more in Chicago since transportation plays such a big part in the city’s history and current makeup. Between being a railroad hub, having two busy airports, a port that connects the Great Lakes to the Mississippi (still a fairly large port though no longer as important), and a number of major interstates that run through or near the city, the effects of transportation changes matter.

Chicago couple moves into trendy West Loop area, mad when it attracts new developments and changes

This could be the cynical alternative headline one might apply to the front-page story of Friday’s Chicago Tribune Business section. Here is a quick overview of this story titled “West Loop project building discontent“:

In recent years, the West Loop has become a magnet for young professionals like Dore who like a balance between urban convenience and peaceful suburbs. But as Dore reached an empty parking lot on the southeast corner of Madison and Green streets, he glared at what he and his neighbors fear will be the end of their peaceful lifestyle — a parking lot that soon could be the site of a 22-story hotel.

“I’m just disappointed,” said Dore, who earlier this year became the reluctant leader of a group of neighbors who fought a losing battle against the high-rise. The first phase of the project, a three-story retail building anchored by a Mariano’s Fresh Market grocery store, is expected to break ground next month.

Their arguments that the project will block views, increase traffic and change the neighborhood’s dynamic have been made by residents in up-and-coming locations for years. As neighborhoods like the West Loop, the South Loop or the Near North Side grow, residents can be at odds with business owners, developers and city officials over the kind of development they want in their communities…

Dore and his wife, who moved to their three-bedroom condo in May 2009, say they are disappointed. Two years ago, they thought they had found a neighborhood close to the Loop that was also an ideal place to raise a family. Five weeks ago, their daughter, Anna, was born. But they are not sure they will stay in the West Loop.

The general argument here is not unusual: residents move into a neighborhood, whether in the city or suburb, the neighborhood starts changing, and residents are unhappy and start making NIMBY arguments. But several things struck me about this article:

1. I’m always somewhat surprised when residents act like the neighborhood can’t change. Particularly in this case, they moved into a trendy West Loop area. They like what this gentrified area has become. But other people and businesses want to move there as well. City neighborhoods often change rapidly and not only is this one trendy, it is relatively close to the Loop. Proponents of the new development suggest that the retail stores are needed and could be profitable. Did the residents really think that the neighborhood was going to be frozen in time?

1a. The site in question was formerly a parking lot. This unattractive use is preferable in a neighborhood? In many cities, parking lots are simply holding spaces until the owners can find a more profitable use. The money in parking lots is not the daily parking but rather waiting for the land to become really valuable and then selling the lot for big money.

2. The residents followed a typical path: form a community group, show up at public hearings, and let your local politicians know about your opinions. Just because their opinions were not followed doesn’t mean the system is broken.

3. At the same time, the article sounds like a classic example of the political economy model of growth. The neighborhood has succeeded to the point where bigger businesses now want to make money in the neighborhood. Politicians like these projects because they bring in more money in terms of jobs and property and sales tax revenues. I don’t know that there is much that the residents could have done to slow this down.

4. This really is written more as a human interest story rather than an overview of the development process. The perspective the newspaper readers get is that these residents have a legitimate grievance. Only later in the story do we hear the reasons why some want the new development to happen. Are we supposed to think that these city residents should be pitied because their West Loop paradise has been lost? The story could have been told in a completely different way that wouldn’t have made this one couple out to be victims. I’m kind of surprised this leads off the Business section because it really is a negative story when it could have highlighted how this neighborhood continues to thrive and attract development.

“Zoning bigots” holding Americans back from how they really want to live?

It is not too often that one sees opinion pieces about the current state of zoning in America. But here is some provocative commentary (“zoning bigots”?) based on zoning in the Los Angeles area:

You could make a decent case that the campaign to harass and remove property owners is no less bigoted than Mayor Mahool’s quarantine proposal. Although blacks, whites, and Latinos have all been targeted for nuisance abatement raids, these folks share one characteristic: They don’t meet the standards of respectability set by the political class and large urban landowners. In some cases the county’s lifestyle demands shade into bias on religious grounds. Oscar Castaneda, a mechanic and Seventh Day Adventist minister who was ordered to tear down his entire property, lives in the high desert because his faith impels him to a rural, self-sufficient life.

Los Angeles zoning practice is bigoted in other ways that are often overt. A city (not county) ordinance preventing residents from keeping more than one rooster on a property is clearly aimed at Latino homeowners. A maze of restrictions on convenience stores and fast food joints applies in South L.A. but not in tonier areas. During the jihad against “McMansions” a few years ago, the popular term for large properties was “Persian Palaces”—a swipe at L.A.’s Iranian-American community.

“There’s definitely an attempt to squeeze out of Angelenos the very things that make them Angelenos and not New Yorkers or Bostonians,” says Chapman University urban theorist Joel Kotkin. “There are two forces at work: One is the effort to re-engineer people into wards of the state. The other is urban land interests who want to force people to live in ways they don’t want to live.”

Or to live somewhere else. Many of the Antelope Valley homeowners we spoke with for a recent report have given up the struggle and are planning to leave California. What Antonovich (who refused requests for an interview) has in mind for their vacated properties is not clear. Educated guesses include a plan for massive wind-power generation and a scheme to turn the half-horse town of Palmdale into a high-density, smart-growth hub for the California high-speed rail project. If you know Palmdale you know that the notion of turning it into a hipster paradise would be funny—except that this pipe dream is destroying the lives of real people. They’re just not the right sort of people.

A few thoughts while trying to sort out this argument:

1. Good point: zoning can be a tool used by the powerful (politicians, those with money, etc.) to control development. The political economy model in urban sociology is based on this idea: the elite are able to push development that helps make them money.

2. Odd point: this argument about “bigoted zoning” is somewhat different from a more common argument about “exclusionary zoning.” This argument is predicated on the idea that zoning takes away the rights of all individuals, regardless of race/ethnicity or social class. It is simply a tool of the upper classes, interestingly, a Marxist type argument. Exclusionary zoning, the subject of a number of court cases, argues that zoning takes place to exclude certain groups of people, typically minorities and the lower class from suburbs. So all individuals who are not the upper class are being discriminated against in this Marxist/populist argument?

3. Somewhat intriguing argument: these zoning guidelines limit people from doing what they really want to do, like buy McMansions and raise chickens. In this line of thinking, Americans all want the suburban lifestyle where their home is their castle and they have a little bit of land to play around with. The government is a bogeyman, trying to force people into denser developments (like nice New Urbanist developments or high-rises downtown?) and generally trying to squelch suburban life.

This argument misses some of why the suburbs even exist in the United States today. On one hand, there is some cultural impetus to this all: from the beginning, Americans have had debates about urban vs. rural life, the Thomas Jefferson’s who wanted “gentlemen farmers” versus the Alexander Hamilton’s who wanted to live in thriving cities. Americans like open space and retained the British emphasis on property rights. This cultural spirit is still with us today: we love cars and our big homes.

However, this was all made possible and encouraged by some other factors. To start, developing technologies, from the railroad to the electric streetcar to the automobile, opened up areas for development. More importantly, developers and businessmen saw these transportation lines and the adjacent land as opportunities so they sold homes and land to make money. Then, particularly between the 1930s and 1960s, the government made a concerted push to promote the suburban lifestyle, privileging highway construction and longer-term mortgages that helped make the suburban dream possible. Without this profit seeking and government support, would the suburbs have still happened? Perhaps. But not likely to the scale we know now.

To argue now that generally government is opposed to the suburban life is silly. Most of the policies, even during this time of economic crisis, have been about maintaining the suburban middle-class lifestyle: limiting their tax burden, helping them keep their homes, ensuring a quality education and a college degree, etc. Yes, this current administration has suggested some new ideas like high-speed rail but this isn’t a total assault on the suburbs. Indeed, it would be tough for any party right now to assault the suburbs too strongly: they probably can’t win without suburban voters, particularly independents.

4. Flip this around: what might happen if there is no zoning? Does this really empower individual land owners? Zoning helps ensure that certain uses are not next to other uses. For example, zoning for a suburban subdivision typically means that a single-family home will not end up next to a coal power plant. Or a school next to a sewage treatment plant. Yes, zoning can be draconian and it can be used by people in power but it can also be used well.

There are cities that have less or no zoning. Houston is a classic example in urban sociology and as one might suspect, its development patterns look a bit different than other major cities.

Is no zoning really the answer? While homeowners might not like some of the plans in the Los Angeles region, doesn’t it also protect them at other times? In a world with no zoning, wouldn’t the more powerful actors almost always win out over the average homeowner? How would homeowners protect themselves from other homeowners?

One way to retain zoning but turn it toward different ends would be for citizens to get themselves on zoning boards and then starting voting how they like. Zoning boards may not be flashy and it can be difficult to get on them, particularly in places where it is about political connections, but this would be the place to start fighting back if one was inclined to do so.