The relative concept of “the big city”

The United States has big cities of various sizes. For example, the Wikipedia list of the largest cities in the United States ranges from New York City to #326 on the list, Roanoke, Virginia, at just over 100,000 residents. By important measures, whether population size, density, or land size, some places are definitely bigger than others.

Photo by Cameron Casey on

But, a trip this week to Springfield, Illinois reminded me that these absolute measures obscure how different big cities function within their own regions or geographic areas. Take Illinois. The biggest city by far is Chicago and the majority of Illinois residents live within that metropolitan region. Yet, within Illinois there are numerous smaller big cities that anchor sizable areas as well as the big city of St. Louis just over the Mississippi River. If you are in Quincy, Illinois, with roughly 40,000 residents, Springfield at over 114,000 residents might be the big city over an hour away. Chicago is even further away both geographically, five hours by car or train, and culturally. Regional political, economic, cultural, infrastructure, and health systems revolve around these smaller big cities which then have links to the less common truly big cities.

This even happens within the Chicago area. Yes, the truly big city is close and can even be seen from different high points 25-30 miles away. But, in daily activity, many suburbanites do not travel to the big city. They may travel to a different suburb for work as jobs can be concentrated in suburban job centers,e they attend religious services or lessons for their kids in yet other suburbs, and they look for restaurants in entertainment in even more suburbs. The suburban lifestyle is dominant, even thought a world-leading global city is nearby.

Put these different experiences together and “the big city” can mean different things in different contexts. Is it the regional center an hour away, the truly large city with a major international airport several hours away, the sizable suburb nearby that offers some different options, the tourist magnet that many people visit, or the big city as it is depicted on television and movie screens?

Suburbs wooing the Chicago Cubs highlights the regional nature of sports teams and stadiums

The Chicago Cubs moving out of the city seems unlikely. But, that hasn’t stopped several Chicago suburbs from suggesting they would be willing to work out a deal with the Cubs to build a new stadium:

What the soliciting suburbs believe — and sources close to the Cubs confirm — is that the siblings of Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts are souring on Chicago and growing increasingly concerned the deal will be modified in a way that denies the team the revenue it needs to renovate Wrigley without a public subsidy…

“If this deal looks like it’s going down in flames or not getting done in a reasonable time, Tom will invest in ‘Plan B’ locations. He’d still work with the mayor on a city site. But, maybe not in Wrigleyville. I know people don’t believe it. But, it’s true,” the Cubs source said…

Aides to Mayor Rahm Emanuel privately dismissed this week’s public solicitation from DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin as a Cubs-orchestrated negotiating ploy.

“This is all manufactured to gain leverage,” said a top mayoral aide, who asked to remain anonymous.

Last month, Ricketts threatened to move his team out of Wrigley and Chicago if he doesn’t get the outfield signs he needs to bankroll a $300 million stadium renovation without a public subsidy.

This comes after the announcement this week that DuPage County has two potential sites for the Cubs. But, little extra information about these plans were provided.

But, I think a more interesting take is the regional nature of sports teams and stadiums. Sports teams these days are really regional entities, particularly considering that more people live in the suburbs than central cities. It is unusual to have a team like the Cubs so closely tied to a specific neighborhood. Additionally, cities often see sports stadiums as economic engines, even though research suggests spending lots of taxpayer dollars on stadiums doesn’t pay off for communities. On one hand, it is not all that different than fighting over big box stores or corporate headquarters because of the supposed economic benefits. Yet, on the other hand it is a constant status symbol. Could the city of Chicago really afford in terms of prestige to lose the Cubs? I don’t think so. Would a suburb get a big status boost from hosting the Cubs? Possibly. If a suburb was able to woo the Cubs, I imagine they would trumpet this fact and try to build around it for decades.

This has happened before in Chicago. When the Chicago Bears were looking for a new stadium from the 1970s to the early 1990s, several suburbs were involved. The Bears ended up getting a decent enough deal from the city to stay. (Maybe they should have pushed harder. They have the smallest NFL stadium in terms of seats and with it also being an open-air facility, this limits its Super Bowl possibilities in the future. Also, the facility is still owned by the Chicago Park District and this has led to issues over the years.) Again, it is hard to imagine the Chicago Bears, a historic NFL franchise, playing out in the suburbs next to a major highway. What would have been a boon for a suburb would have been a big perceived loss for Chicago.

In the end, these sorts of negotiations can pit cities against suburbs in similar ways to fighting over business opportunities. But, rather than arguing about just money, sports teams are viewed as public goods that belong to a region. Perhaps the worst possible outcome is for the region to lose a team to another region altogether. The second worst outcome might be for the big city to lose the stadium to an upstart suburb.

“Five reasons to expand Chicago transit now”

The “vice president of policy at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago and vice chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority” gives five reasons for why mass transit needs to be expanded in the Chicago area:

Why expand transit? Why now? Five reasons: increased efficiency, improved individual and regional economies, and jobs, jobs, jobs.

Cook County’s current transit system allows hundreds of thousands of residents to get to and from their destinations in a safe, efficient and affordable way every day. Unfortunately, four out of five of the region’s biggest job centers outside of downtown Chicago are underserved by transit. People traveling to work or school in these suburbs have no choice but to drive. The resulting traffic leads to wasted time and wasted money. Expanding and improving the region’s transit system will increase commuter choice, decrease congestion, connect businesses to transit locations and reduce the number of individuals without vehicles who are, in effect, excluded from the job pool.

But it can be more than that. Transit expansion, from my perspective — which includes decades of experience in transportation and community development issues, as well as service to the Chicago Transit Authority board — must be part of a wider strategy around transit-oriented development. That is, transit expansion should be accompanied by development that integrates residential, office, retail and other amenities into walkable neighborhoods within a half-mile of quality public transportation.

This type of development tends to be more economically resilient than others, as evidenced by the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s study for the American Public Transit Association and the National Association of Realtors. Between 2006 and 2011, the report found, average sales prices for residential properties within walking distance of a transit station outperformed the region by an average of 42 percent. In Chicago, home values in transit-served areas performed 30 percent better than the region. That’s real money for local tax bases, not to mention homeowners’ wallets.

Add to this a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution that makes a clear case for transportation infrastructure investment as an economic development strategy. It’s a popular, and smart, play these days. Other countries, both developing and developed, are doubling down on investments to build and upgrade their transportation infrastructure. They see it as the path to long-term sustainable growth. We need to see, and do, the same.

One big problem the Chicago area faces in this regard is the general orientation of transit toward Chicago. If you are out in the suburbs, transit lines tend to run into Chicago. This is good for accessing jobs and other amenities in Chicago but with more jobs and residents in the suburbs, it is quite difficult to travel by transit from suburb to suburb. If the population growth is in places like Aurora, Plainfield, McHenry County, and Kendall County, how are those residents to use mass transit to get to suburban job centers like Naperville, Schaumburg, Hoffman Estates, Northbrook, etc.? Local bus service tends to run between train stations and local amenities and despite several decades worth of experimentation, there is not high sustained levels of transit between suburbs. Some things could probably be done fairly quickly, like finding the substantial funding to implement the STAR Line that would connect Joliet to O’Hare through the western suburbs on the EJ&E tracks, but on the whole, this probably requires long-term money and planning.

The money question is just that: where is the money for this going to come from? Lots of people agree with investing in infrastructure, particularly for improving quality of life issues like traffic and congestion, but are they willing to pay for it or give up other priorities?

Plans in the Chicago region to help mitigate future flooding

With the flooding that took place in the Chicago region in recent days, it is reasonable to ask what is being done to limit flooding in the future. Here is one answer from a regional expert:

Asked if costly and disruptive transportation chaos is inevitable, Josh Ellis, a stormwater expert with the Metropolitan Planning Council, offered some rays of hope.

“We can definitely do better. I’m not sure we’re willing to invest the amount of money needed to have an infrastructure that truly withstands a 100-year storm. When we built most of our infrastructure it was for a five- to 20-year storm standard.”

What’s slightly depressing is that current Metropolitan Water Reclamation District infrastructure and projects under way, including tunnels and reservoirs, will provide about 17 billion gallons of storage, Ellis calculates. Compare that to the 70 billion gallons or so that roiled Cook County alone in storms Wednesday and Thursday.

“Even when the Deep Tunnel is complete, the numbers don’t add up in our favor,” Ellis said. “We can do better, but I’m not sure we can ever solve this and have zero problems.”

So what can we do?

As individuals, it can come down to reducing the impermeable pavement on your property or cultivating a rain garden that holds stormwater temporarily.

On a wider level, it’s going to take expanding municipal stormwater systems, creating stream-side ponds to store rainfall and investing in green infrastructure, Ellis thinks.

“It’s about finding other places to put the water other than in big pipes … that’s what green infrastructure is,” he said. “It’s about finding ways for natural vegetation to prevent water from entering the storm system.”

Likely candidates for ad hoc stormwater storage include public entities with a lot of land — from schools with athletic fields to park districts.

The causes and consequences of flooding like this can be traced to human development. Critics of sprawl have noted for decades that flooding is one pernicious side effect: cover land with houses and asphalt and there is less place for water to go. Cover up natural wetlands and build close to waterways and this is going to happen every so often. Think of the concept of a retention pond; it is an admission that we have altered the natural landscape in such a way that we need to create a space for excess water to go.

I know some critics of sprawl would say the answer is to have less sprawl. Since this cat is out of the bag in many places in the United States, Ellis’ answers above are interesting: a combination of large-scale, regional projects would help as would more individual and municipal actions. Large projects like Deep Tunnel are impressive but they aren’t silver bullets. I’ve noticed more nearby communities have moved toward combining park land and floodplains. Thus, if flooding occurs, not many buildings are hurt and fewer people need to be evacuated.

This could also lead to broader questions: who is responsible for the flooding and its effects? Should individual homeowners bear the burden of protecting themselves and cleaning up? Should local communities? How about regional entities – how much power should they have to tackle such issues? This sort of problem requires coordination across many governmental bodies, calling for metropolitan approaches. It still strikes me as strange in the United States that individual homeowners may not know much at all about the flooding or water problems their property might have.

For a longer look at flooding and water issues in suburban sprawl, I highly recommend Adam Rome’s 2001 book The Bulldozer in the Countryside.

The widespread (yet sometimes controversial) use of tax rebates for development in Illinois

It is common practice in Illinois for communities to give tax rebates to firms and companies to locate within their community. The primary reason: it ends up bringing in more sales tax revenue.

Communities throughout the region and the state share sales tax revenues to woo retailers — and they are within their rights to do so under Illinois law. In fact, rebate researcher Geoffrey Propheter found the rebate programs to be more heavily used in Illinois than elsewhere around the country.

For the most part, these programs have flown under the radar until this summer, when the Regional Transportation Authority, the city of Chicago and Cook County legally challenged a variation on their use. In lawsuits, they alleged Channahon and Kankakee used sales tax rebate agreements to divert sales tax collections unfairly from metro Chicago to small “sham offices” in their lower-tax towns — allegations denied by both communities.

With a spotlight now directed at sales-tax rebate programs, some observers are quick to say they stand behind the more common use of rebate programs to attract big-box stores and auto dealers…

But other observers say the programs can skew economic development efforts toward retail. This can be effective in filling city coffers but may not produce as much regional economic growth as office or manufacturing developments, which tend to have higher-paying jobs and an ability to sell products over a much wider geographic range.

The rebate programs also tend to foster bidding wars between towns, with taxpayers picking up the tab. Propheter, a research assistant at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, found the rebate offers have been used in border skirmishes around the state, from Belleville, outside St. Louis, to southwest suburban Joliet.

This is not a new story: states and communities across the United States have been engaging in such battles for years. In most places, governments are looking out for themselves and have little incentive to participate in regional planning or cooperation. Particularly today, in an era when many municipalities are desperate to find some extra money, providing incentives for developments likely looks attractive.

It would be interesting to know why this has become such a popular tool in Illinois.

Critics of sprawl argue that this helps feed sprawl. Communities look for ways to bring in easy money and big box stores and strip malls are relatively cheap to build. It is also interesting to see what happens when sprawl moves past these communities and the big box stores become less attractive and the new ones are even further out from the city. Shopping malls and big box stores tend not to age well.

Several examples of this come to mind:

1. Some of the verbal back-and-forth between Illinois and several other states, including Wisconsin, Indiana, and New Jersey, over the increasing tax rate in Illinois and casino revenues.

2. The story of how the Fox Valley Mall came to be in Aurora. The story is that the developer played Aurora and Naperville off each other in order to get a better deal for developing land on either the east or west side of Illinois Route 59. Naperville was not as willing to negotiate – and things were looking relatively good for them with the relocation of Bell Labs and a Amoco research facility along I-88 in the 1960s – and the developer picked Aurora. Naperville knew that it had lost a significant source of revenue. To compensate, city leaders turned quickly to drawing up plans to revitalize their downtown, putting into action a plan that suggested building a park along the river (put together a few years later as the Riverwalk), grouping municipal buildings in the downtown (new City Hall, new downtown library), and beautifying some of the streets (see Jefferson Avenue and Jackson Avenue between Main Street and Washington Street). I wonder how the story would be told today in Naperville if their downtown hadn’t become a destination.

A proposal to unite the Great Lakes region

The idea of the megapolis describes uniting metropolitan regions. But what about bringing together an entire region? A Chicago architecture firm has made a proposal to bring together both the American and Canadian sides of the Great Lakes:

The bi-national blueprint from Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings and Merrill is still in its infancy, but the concept has garnered support from several mayors in Canada and the United States. The proposal calls on the two nations to re-imagine the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River region as a shared space, where Canadians and Americans work together to protect waterways, ease traffic congestion, promote tourism and develop new economic ventures…

The bi-national vision, presented this week at a global green-building conference in Toronto, isn’t so far-fetched. The Brookings Institution in Washington and Mowat Centre in Toronto have been studying the idea, consulting 250 business, government and community leaders. The public-policy think tanks will present their regional blueprint at an international Great Lakes water-quality meeting in Detroit next week…

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River region is massive, encompassing Ontario, Quebec and eight U.S. states. It contains about 84 per cent of North America’s fresh water and almost 18,000 kilometres of lake frontage. Nearly a third of Canadians and about a tenth of Americans live here, in more than 15,000 towns and cities…

But with the manufacturing sector waning in many parts of the Great Lakes and glum forecasts of a deepening economic downturn, Mr. Hjartarson says the region should forge closer ties to capitalize on its assets. Those would include top-notch educational institutions, a wealth of corporate head offices and a population of 105 million people. New industries could be created through stronger co-operation. Mr. Enquist, the urban designer, points to renewable energy and green technology as possible opportunities for the region.

This article seems to suggest that environmental concerns, such as clean water and air, would provide the backbone for this partnership with later opportunities for joint infrastructure and economic initiatives.

My biggest question: how in the world could all of the government bodies agree so that things could get done within this partnership? Take the Chicago region as an example: there are many separate taxing bodies so putting together regional plans is very difficult. This proposal would up the ante, putting together many metropolitan regions, Chicago, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Toronto, Cleveland, Toledo, Buffalo, Hamilton, Montreal, Quebec, and more. And this doesn’t even account for two different nations that would need to make concessions for the region rather than national interests.

On the other hand, this sort of proposal  should be applauded for pushing a new way of thinking about things even if they may be difficult to implement. It could lead to some interesting questions. Again taking Chicago as an example: is Chicago more tied to other Midwestern cities like St. Louis, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Omaha or more to Great Lakes cities?

It is also intriguing that this proposal comes from an architecture firm. Have urban planners or government types not thought of something like this?

Two more thoughts on Daley’s speech on campus: lack of partisanship and regional cooperation

I’ve already written two posts about Mayor Daley’s visit to campus (see here and here). But a few days later, two themes, a lack of partisanship and an emphasis on regional cooperation, continue to stand out for me as I have thought about how this talk fits with my research on suburbs. Here is why these two themes matter:

1. To start, many people might look at Daley’s visit to the suburbs as strange, particularly since he came to Wheaton, a community known both for its political and religious conservatism. Daley is quite well-known for being a Democrat and one who sits atop a broad Democratic machine in Chicago. And yet, Daley stressed that many issues facing cities and municipalities are not partisan issues. Rather, they are issues of serving the people and having a balanced budget.

On one hand, we could view this as Daley simply knowing his audience: with a more conservative crowd, Daley might have been unwilling to sell a Democratic agenda. But on the other hand, this idea of a lack of partisanship is quite common in suburban government. While certain communities are known to be more Democratic or Republican (roughly, further out suburbs are more Republicans, inner-ring suburbs are more Democratic), local mayors and councilman (or alderman) rarely run on party platforms. Rather, their “parties” tend to be called things like “Citizens to Improve Wheaton.”

When a problem arises, such as dealing with police or firefighter unions, Democratic or Republican communities might approach the issue in different ways. But at the same time, it is not as if Republicans can dismiss or ban the unions while Democrats can’t simply give in to every union concession. With a more limited budget in many suburbs, city governments have to maintain good levels of service (indeed, good suburbs tend to be marked by a lack of crime and good fire coverage) while still meeting a budget.

Additionally, Daley mentioned the need for businesses in a community multiple times. Whether Democrat or Republicans, communities need businesses to provide jobs for citizens but also to maintain and grow the tax base. This issue of a tax base is not just an abstract matter: it is directly linked to the size of the municipal budget. Therefore, mayors and leaders on both sides have to be pro-business (though their approach might differ somewhat) in order to provide services.

2. A second theme was the need for regional cooperation. Daley was introduced by former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert who said, “what is good for Chicago is good for northern Illinois, and what is good for northern Illinois is good for Chicago.” Daley said something similar that what is good for the suburbs is good for Chicago and vice versa.

Again, Daley might have been playing for the crowd but I don’t think this is a full explanation. One, regional cooperation is needed on certain issues. Daley mentioned O’Hare expansion several times. Although the land is in the City of Chicago, the slow process has involved several suburban communities who have opposed Daley’s plan. Unlike a situation like Meigs Field where Daley could do what he pleased, he has had to work with others on this project. (Whether he wants to work with others on O’Hare is another matter.) Another transportation issue that drew regional emphasis was the fight over whether Canadian National should be allowed to purchase the Elgin, Joliet, & Eastern railroad line. Similarly to the O’Hare issue, this purchase harmed certain suburbs by increasing train traffic while reducing traffic on other lines in other communities. (See the largest regional group opposed to this purchase.)

Two, Daley mentioned regularly meeting with suburban mayors (as well as with big city mayors in the US and around the world). Outside of particular large issues, regional mayors and city managers get together to discuss “best practices.” While there were county groups that did this (like the DuPage Mayors & Managers Conference), Daley brought together mayors from 272 communities across the region in the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus which began in 1997.

At the same time, we could ask why groups like these don’t push harder for tackling larger regional issues like planning or crime. The Chicago region is notorious for having a large number of independent, taxing bodies. The whole region would benefit from a regional planning approach that could start to tackle issues like affordable housing across the region (and not sticking it only in certain less wealthy communities) and containing sprawl (which impacts issues like traffic congestion and pollution levels).

We know historically that the split between cities and suburbs really became clear in the early 1900s when suburban communities no longer wanted to be annexed into the nearby big city. Communities want to work together: just recently, a number of suburban leaders said they were looking for help from new Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (though I also wondered whether these suburban mayors would help Emanuel in kind). Today, these regional groups are better than having no groups but primarily focusing on practical or technical municipal matters leaves a whole range of regional issues left to be tackled. Granted, these regional groups have no binding legislative authority but they could also be leveraged to do big things in a region.

Ultimately, a mayor or city leader has to respond to the needs of one’s citizens. However, many of the issues that mayors face are similar across communities and the challenges are often beyond the scope of just one municipality. All suburban and city leaders need to deal with the tax base, balancing the budget, and thinking about regional issues such as transportation and how to manage growth.

Conference on colleges and universities as critical part of regional development

A recent conference suggested that colleges and communities could cooperate more closely in order to foster economic development:

Colleges must play a greater, and more deliberate, role in helping regions innovate and thrive in an increasingly competitive and globalized economy, speakers urged this week at a conference on higher education and economic development.

Economic development is “no longer about attracting businesses,” said Sam M. Cordes, co-director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development. “It’s about attracting people, about attracting talent.”

Participants in the two-day conference, “Providing a Uniquely American Solution to Global Innovation Challenges: Unleashing Universities in Regions,” delved into the various ways colleges can help build stronger local economies, including acting as conveners for conversations about regional development, aligning their curricula with local elementary and secondary schools, and producing and retaining well-educated workers.

This is a popular topic these days, particularly in difficult economic times. People like Richard Florida have linked the presence of research universities and their graduates with cities that have a larger concentration of the “creative class,” which then leads to more development. There are a lot of cities and communities that hope they can tap the local college in order to boost the local economy. It looks easy: the local university has a bunch of PhDs and eager students.

But how exactly this is supposed to happen is less clear.  I remember the battle that took place in South Bend in the last five years. The University of Notre Dame wanted to expand and partner with the community to construct an “innovation center” that would blend the university and businesses. However, this became controversial as it involved bulldozing a number of houses, bringing up some of the old issues between the wealthy school and less wealthy city.

It sounds like this conference offered more specific ideas of how the university can partner with local communities and businesses in order to prompt growth. Since each school and community offers unique advantages (and disadvantages), such partnerships are likely to take a good amount of work. Both the school and community need to feel that they will benefit from the time and hard work that is necessary to put something together.