Niche names Naperville 2nd best place to live

This is not an uncommon accolade for Naperville: Niche recently named the suburb the second best place to live in the country.

Niche looked at 228 cities and more than 15,000 towns and based rankings on crime rate, public schools, cost of living, job opportunities and local amenities…

Niche also took into account reviews from residents in the various cities and towns. Out of the 397 reviews, 111 people gave Naperville an “excellent” rating, 187 said it is “very good,” 91 called the city “average,” six said it is a “poor” place to live and two said it is “terrible.”

Naperville got an A+ for both its public schools and being a good city for families, an A in diversity, an A- in housing and a B+ in both nightlife and crime and safety.

Niche ranked Ann Arbor, Mich., the best city to live in America. Rounding out the top five cities to live in America are Arlington, Va.; Columbia, Md. and Berkeley, Calif.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. In Money‘s 2016 rankings of the best places to live, Naperville was #10.
  2. Including reviews from local residents is an interesting twist. Why did a few respondents give Naperville a poor rating? Weather and a few other issues. And the two terrible ratings are both related to the state of Illinois.
  3. Where doesn’t Naperville do well? A C+ for cost of living as well as for weather.
  4. The top five cities are all within major metropolitan areas where they are sizable communities but nowhere near the biggest community. This may be notable until you look at Niche’s list of the “best places to live” and there you find smaller suburbs.

Bringing food waste recycling to the suburbs

The next step in recycling may be coming to a suburb near you:

So far, food scrap collection programs have been voluntary. But starting in May 2017, it will be mandatory in Highwood, a first in Illinois. Several towns in Lake County and other suburbs have or will have some option to recycle food scraps this year.

“We’re going to be trend setters, I like to think,” said Adrian Marquez, assistant to the Highwood city manager. “We know this is going to be big test.”…

U.S. residents throw away up to 40 percent of their food, which amounted to more than 35 million tons in 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported…

With an overall recycling rate of 48 percent but a goal of diverting 60 percent of waste from landfills by 2020, Lake County has emerged as a regional leader in residential food scrap collection. That diversion rate is priming Lake County’s effort, but DuPage, Will, Cook, and Kane counties also are promoting food composting as municipal hauling contracts go to bid or are renegotiated, Allen said.

This article leaves me with a number of questions:

  1. When the program is mandatory as opposed to voluntary, what does that mean? Residents have to participate as opposed to not participate?
  2. I assume this is more effective in the long run in encouraging participation and disposing of more food waste but are there numbers to back this up? As noted, some people have composted for years; is that a viable alternative to promote in suburbs or are very few people willing to go to that trouble?
  3. Is being the first to this a marker of a particular quality of life in some suburbs? In other words, do communities want to participate partly because it signals something important about what their community values?

It will be interesting to see if this does become the new normal within a few years.

More Chicago suburbs hiring staff

Perhaps this is another sign of a more positive economy (and more tax dollars): some suburban governments are hiring again.

According to a Daily Herald analysis of 61 suburbs, 31 of them added the equivalent of 139 full-time jobs during the fiscal year that ended April 30, 2015, for most suburbs and Dec. 31, 2014, for others.

But 16 suburbs eliminated the equivalent of 46 full-time jobs and 14 towns held the line on the head count from the previous year, the analysis of the suburbs’ most recent audits show…

Still, the vast majority of towns are operating with much smaller staffs than just a few years ago. At its peak seven years ago, employment by the 61 towns was nearly 10 percent higher with the equivalent of 13,251 full-time jobs, compared to a low point of 11,977 full-time equivalent positions two years ago, according to the analysis…

According to the analysis of the audits, the 61 towns in suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties first saw significant job reductions in 2010, when they reduced their workforces by 3.8 percent.

While this analysis is interesting, more background might be helpful. Suburban governments today have to balance efficiency (meaning keeping tax increases small or cutting the budget) and quality of life (the suburban life that many of the residents who moved to the community want to continue and enhance). This is not easy to do; residents tend to want more for their money and many might be convinced that government can always cut waste (or at least cut the money they don’t personally care about or benefit from). But, at some point, employees are needed.

This article suggests that a number of the new hires in suburban communities are part-time employees to limit the benefits costs. I’d be interested to see data on whether having more part-time employees in local government leads to better service and community outcomes.

Why are Chicago families fleeing for cheaper homes in the suburbs?

The Chicago Tribune leads with the story of a Chicago family who left the city for a townhouse in River Forest:

Megan Keskitalo and her husband, Glenn Eckstein, were enthusiastic city dwellers until the suburbs began calling. First it was Chicago’s crime, then it was worry about school districts, and in the end, it was money that pushed them past the city’s edge.

After a long search, the parents of two young daughters packed up their $1,300-a-month three-bedroom Lincoln Square apartment and in September paid $286,000 for a three-bedroom town house in River Forest.

“We were looking (in the city), but we couldn’t find anything in our price range, which was under $350,000,” Keskitalo said.

But, just how many Chicago families are doing this? The story sticks to general trends without any numbers:

They aren’t the only ones. While experts say Chicago’s housing market is sizzling — home sales were up about 8.1 percent in Chicago through November of this year, says the Illinois Association of Realtors — not everyone can afford to buy in the city. That’s because home prices are up too…

It’s not unusual for millennials and Generation Xers with children to flee to what real estate experts call “surbans” — walkable, amenity-rich suburbs — once they get married, have kids and are looking for less party and more quiet.

The implication of this article is that families like this are being priced out of Chicago: they might stay if they could find housing in their price range in attractive neighborhoods. Yet, there is a lot more going on here:

  1. The article also says real estate prices are on the rise in Chicago. This is generally seen as a good thing – unless it pushes desirable people, like young white families (or recent college graduates or older long-time city residents) out.
  2. There are real issues of affordable housing in Chicago and the whole region. However, there is often disagreement about who such housing should serve. Should it help keep wealthier residents in a community or serve those with much lower levels of income? Chicago is building plenty of high-end condos but there is not much action on the lower end of the market with affordable units in decent neighborhoods.
  3. This family had particular conditions for where they were willing to live: less crime, good schools, cheaper housing. Overall, they wanted a particular quality of life. They could have found cheaper housing in Chicago but without being willing to compromise on these particular issues, they left for the suburbs.
  4. How much of this is tied to the ongoing process of white flight? This family left a trendy Chicago neighborhood for an established wealthy and white suburb: River Forest is roughly 85% white and the median household income is over $113,000. Again, they could have found cheaper housing in the city (#3 above) if they were willing to live in more places that might not have been as white.

What if car-free central Paris catches on?

It is a day for pedestrians in Paris:

“Parisians will be able to take back their daily living space and experience the city in a different way,” said Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who would have liked to make the entire city off-limits to vehicles on Sunday.The closure is unprecedented for the French capital and opens the entire city center to pedestrians only for one day, expanding on popular areas already off-limits to Sunday traffic like the fashionable Marais, the cobblestoned Montmartre and the hip neighborhood along Canal Saint-Martin.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic that normally clogs the city’s boulevards will be replaced by street parties, yoga classes, markets with fresh produce and — this being Paris — food tastings with top chefs…

Paris’ motor-free day is by no means a world’s first. Brussels, the traffic congestion capital of Europe, launched its first car-free Sunday 15 years ago, an example followed by Montreal, Jakarta and other cities.

The rest of the article emphasizes the pollution cars regularly bring to Paris and an upcoming climate change conference. These are important matters to address but there are also quality of life issues at well. Like many older cities, Paris has been retrofitted to accommodate cars and vehicles but what can be done is limited. Central Paris is a place for pedestrians, even after Haussmann’s changes, for both locals and tourists. The congestion tax in central London is an adaptation to a similar setting.

All together, I’m interested in what happens after this car-free day happens: do people find that they like this more than they thought? Why not regular car-free Sundays and then perhaps additional days as well? Yes, this could help bring down pollution levels but it could also make the central city a more pleasant place. Given the spread of such days in major cities throughout the world, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more such days in Paris.

Another downside: McMansions threaten trees

McMansion critics may have another argument at their disposal: constructing McMansions may often require removing trees.

About 2,000 street trees, or trees near Los Angeles roadways, are removed annually, according to Los Angeles City Hall leaders.

The trees are removed in some cases because of disease or death, but in other instances, they’re taken down because of the construction of so-called McMansions.

Concerned about the loss of trees at the hands of developers, a City Council committee called for a report back on new policies for the removal of street trees…

With some tear-downs, a “double driveway is needed where one used to be sufficient,” she said, resulting in the loss of a tree.

This doesn’t seem like that many trees, particularly since there could be multiple reasons behind the removal of street trees. Yet, losing trees could be another blow dealt by teardown McMansions to neighbors: not only will the new home fill up the lot and look out of place with nearby homes, it will require losing some of the greenery that residents tend to like. This is probably less about nature and more about appearances and quality of life where mature trees on residential properties lend gravitas and pleasant barriers between the street and sidewalks, lawns, and homes.

If the problem is the larger driveways for the new large homes, it would be interesting to see how Los Angeles regulates their width. Is there a ratio or size that could be invoked to fit all kinds of situations?

How about this crazy idea: builders of McMansions, teardowns or otherwise, should spend a little bit more money and cover their properties with decent-sized trees. Neighbors and others may still not like the house but who can argue with a number of new trees?

Insight into the highest status western suburbs of Chicagoland

An Internet journey led me to West Suburban Living‘s 2015 Best of the West which included this question to readers:

TOWN YOU’D WANT TO LIVE IN (OTHER THAN YOUR OWN)

Best: Geneva
2nd: Naperville
3rd: TIE: Glen Ellyn and Hinsdale
Other Favorites: Downers Grove, Elmhurst, Geneva, St. Charles and Western Springs

I’m sure there are all sorts of sampling issues here: who exactly reads this magazine and who votes? Yet, this may just provide a hint into how suburbanites in the western suburbs view their communities. All of these suburbs mentioned are majority white and pretty wealthy. They all have downtowns and fairly long histories (they were all founded before post-World War II suburbanization). Generally, they have high scores in quality of life: good schools, parks, good local services, low crime, nice houses, relatively competent local governments.

Sampling issues aside, this may get at the social status ranking of western suburbs. Or, at least, it hints at the geographic and lifestyle aspirations of the voters.