Primary suburban voter turnout in Illinois under 20%

Experts suggest the turnout for Illinois’ primary earlier this week will be under 20% in the Chicago suburbs:

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When the votes are certified by the Illinois State Board of Elections late next month, officials believe fewer than 20% of the state’s registered voters will have cast ballots…

In the suburbs, only DuPage County reported more than 20% voter turnout, according to unofficial results on the county clerk’s website.

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough is still reporting one uncounted precinct late Wednesday, but just 19.1% of suburban Cook County voters cast ballots, according to her website.

Unofficial results show voter turnout in McHenry County at 19.4%, 18.2% in Kane County and 18.7% in Will County.

The suburbs are where the political action in the United States is today, yet Chicago suburbanites did not vote in large numbers for the primaries ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Given the congressional redistricting in Illinois and an impending gubernatorial race, where the stakes not high enough for suburban voters?

The article goes on to discuss reasons why voters may not have felt very motivated to vote in this primary. How many of these reasons – summer voting, lack of interesting races, limited midterm turnout – explicitly affect suburbanites? Summer vacations are a marker of middle-class and above suburban lives but how many of them overlap with the late June 28 voting day? Do suburbanites need more contested races than other voters? Do suburbanites not feel the pressure of midterms or only pay attention in the presidential cycles when there is more at stake amid their busy day-to-day suburban life?

Those candidates and actors that can inspire suburbanites to get to the polls and vote may just get the winning edge.

A shopping mall with protected wetlands

I recently shopped at a mall with protected wetlands:

The first thought I had upon seeing this was of “nature band-aids” that can often be found in suburbia as described by James Howard Kunstler. Shopping malls are known for many things but nature is not one of them.

Or, perhaps these are real wetlands that make contributions to the local ecosystem? This outlet mall has a location similar to many other malls: in the suburbs along a major roadway. I could imagine a need for land for animals and water amid development in the recent decades.

It would be interesting to know how these areas came about. Was part of the development of the land contingent on setting land aside for wetlands? Was a discovery made later about local nature? Is there some precedent among shopping malls for this?

Higher housing prices mean suburbs are less affordable, Houston edition

New data suggests residents in the Houston region have fewer cheaper housing options in the suburbs:

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The Kinder Institute and Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies released Tuesday morning their annual reports on the state of housing in the Houston area and the nation. Together, they painted a picture of a deepening divide between the prospects of current homeowners, whose equity has been buoyed by record-breaking home price appreciation, and renters, who have seen the monthly costs of buying a home rise far more quickly than wages.

The median-priced home in the suburbs of Clear Lake and Jersey Village, for example, were priced between $162,000 and $175,000 in 2011, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. They now go for $300,000 to $317,000.

“You have to go farther and farther out until you find a home that’s affordable,” explained Stephen Sherman, a researcher at the Kinder Institute. “The whole saying is drive until you qualify. We’re finding that people will have to drive even more” — a development which will have rippling implications on traffic and the way floodwaters drain…

“Suburban Houston — and new homes in suburban Houston — used to be extremely affordable,” said Lawrence Dean, the Houston regional director for Zonda, which does market research related to new home construction. Since then, the costs of land, materials and labor have all shot up. These days, it’s near impossible to build a home for less than $200,000, he explained.

This gets at three long-standing questions about suburban life:

  1. How far will people be willing to drive from the big city or other population centers in order to get a cheaper, bigger home? In some metro areas, this extends past 40 miles and multiple ring highways. If more people can work from home, more suburbanites might be willing to be further out.
  2. Even as suburbanites protect and celebrate rising housing prices, this also limits what others can purchase. Suburbanites have a long history of moving in and pulling up the gates behind them. But, even as suburban homeowners watch their personal wealth grow, others will not necessarily get the same opportunities.
  3. Is the primary plan for affordable housing in American metro regions to just keep the sprawl going? At some point, this may not be possible due to conditions – see the price jumps in construction cited above – or changing ideologies about where to live.

It would be interesting to compare this to other metropolitan areas across regions and price points.

“The late-twentieth-century United States doesn’t make sense without the mall”

A new book looks more positively on the future of the American shopping mall:

Meet Me by the Fountain challenges the dominant narrative. Lange wants us to consider how in prematurely writing off the mall as dead, or in thinking of it as “a little bit embarrassing as the object of serious study, ” we neglect the important role these buildings have played in our lives. At their best, malls have always been more than just sites of conspicuous consumption and leisure, but places for communities to gather, to see and be seen, fulfilling a “basic human need.” Lange’s book reminds us that the mall has helped shape American society, and has evolved with our country since the 1950s. And she posits that there’s still a place for malls in our society, as long as they adapt to better serve their communities.

Malls grew alongside—and because of—the federally subsidized postwar expansion of the suburbs. “The late-twentieth-century United States doesn’t make sense without the mall,” Lange writes. If the American dream was owning a detached house for your nuclear family, the mall was where you bought the goods to fill your home and clothe your kids. Malls became the suburban equivalent of downtown shopping districts. But while malls, like their city counterparts, serve as public spaces, they are privately owned and policed, and any sense of community that one gets from spending time at them is always secondary to the primary pursuit of consumption…

And yet, despite these problems, Lange reminds us what the mall gave us in the past and explains why she sees in its form hope for a future of adaptive reuse, in which these spaces will “embrace their public role” rather than try to privately control who can use them and how. Lange argues that malls should be repurposed for walkable mixed-use developments that combine the residential, commercial, and public. The behemoth shells of anchor stores—the department stores that sat at the ends of corridors—could enclose food halls, entertainment-centered businesses like trampoline parks, or public libraries; parking lots could be repurposed for senior-housing units. These places would still be malls, but ones that are more experience-driven and less shopping-centric…

This kind of ambivalence is all over Meet Me by the Fountain. Lange’s ultimate vision for reusing the space of malls might be one that largely repudiates a singular focus on commercialism, but she doesn’t discount shopping and what it can do for us. She argues that we “find freedom in shopping” for our “true selves,” and that malls have given us more than just self-expression. They are what Ray Bradbury, in a 1970 essay in West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, called “Somewhere To Go”: a place that draws people together, that creates a de facto community.

Two features of this summary stand out:

  1. The shopping mall as it is known in the United States is part of suburbia. Even though malls can be found in major cities, they started in suburbs and are primarily found there.
  2. Related to #1, shopping malls emerged as places for community within a suburbia that prioritizes private single-family homes and has relatively few public spaces.

If this was a “chicken and the egg” question, the answer seems clear: suburbs came first and then shopping malls developed in that context. The shopping mall even co-opted the department store, the urban shopping emporium that emerged decades earlier in rapidly growing cities.

The enduring tension, described in this review, seems to be this: can malls ever truly become places for the whole community or are they primarily profit-centers where some enjoy shopping together and gathering around other shoppers? Or, to put it in other terms, can shopping malls ultimately serve people and not just markets?

Roots versus mobility: living a whole life in one suburban house

Offered money for her suburban home for a new industrial project, an 86-year-old woman responded this way:

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“She said, ‘Where will I go?’ How do you start your life again when you’ve lived your whole life in one house?” Kristie Purner said.

What I found interesting in this comment is comparing it to the more regular mobility of Americans in the suburban era. The US government has tracked this since 1947. For several decades after World War Two, the percent of Americans who moved each year hovered around 20%. During mass suburbanization and relatively prosperity, more people moved regularly. Many metropolitan regions, including the Chicago area, boomed during this time. Some of this suburbanization and prosperity was present before the Great Depression as well.

Given all of this, how many Americans can say they lived same place for decades? How many suburbanites stayed in one home? My guess is that it is a relatively small number of people.

Perhaps this might change in the coming decades with decreased levels of mobility among Americans. At the same time, it is hard to imagine a suburbia that is marked by permanence rather than continued growth and change.

Have a more expensive house, keep the lawn greener with automatic sprinklers

With a recent heat wave plus the upcoming warmer days of summer, different methods for maintaining a green lawn are on full display across suburban neighborhoods. I live in a suburban location where a ten minute walk or run brings me to neighborhoods with homes in multiple different price points. One recent observation about homes at a higher price point: they are more likely to have automatic sprinklers to keep the grass green.

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On my street and with residences at lower price points, I have not seen any automatic sprinklers. I see people out with hoses or sprinklers attached to hoses. Or, some people might do no watering at all or all lawn care is left to a homeowners association.

Step over to a different nearby street with larger and more expensive homes and a morning visit leads to seeing multiple homes with automatic sprinklers. The little black sprinkler heads can be viewed spreading water or the amount of water on the top of the grass blades suggests they were recently in action.

As I have chronicled the efforts of suburbanites to keep their lawn free of dandelions, weeds, and leaves alongside having a well-manicured green grass lawn, seeing the automatic watering of lawns among those with more resources leads to this thought: is the whole system of green lawns held in place by those with money and higher housing values as a means to signaling their status and pride in homeownership? The well-kept lawn is often tied to middle-class values but it costs money and time to keep the yard in a certain condition. And how much does the green lawn connect to higher financial and social standing?

New “Unvarnished” exhibit on Naperville’s exclusionary past

A new project from Naper Settlement shows how Naperville – and several other communities – excluded people for decades:

https://www.unvarnishedhistory.org/local-spotlights/naperville-illinois/

For more than 80 years, Naperville was a sundown town. After working in a household, farm or factory during the day, people of color had to be gone from Naperville by sundown…

A historical look at how diversity in the city and five other U.S. towns grew despite decades historic discriminatory practices and segregation is featured in a free online exhibit spearheaded by Naper Settlement and the Historical Society of Naperville.

“Unvarnished: Housing Discrimination in the Northern and Western United States,” found at UnvarnishedHistory.org, was developed through a $750,000 Institute of Museum and Library Services Museum Leadership grant. The Naperville historical museum and five other museums and cultural organizations collaborated from 2017 to 2022 to research and present their community’s history of exclusion…

“It is our hope that this project will act as a model and inspire other communities to research, share and reflect upon their own history. It is through this process that we are able to engage with the totality of history to better understand today and guide our decision-making for the future,” she said.

In doing research on Naperville and two other nearby suburbs, I had uncovered some of what is detailed in this exhibit. However, the local histories of the community rarely addressed any of this. Instead, they focused on the positive moments for white residents, typically connected to growth, progress, and notable members of the community.

Such an exhibit suggests a willingness for Naperville and other communities to better grapple with pasts built on privileging some and keeping others out. The history of many American suburbs include exclusion by race, ethnicity, and social class. This could happen through explicit regulations and ordinances, through regular practices, or through policies and actions not explicitly about race, ethnicity, or class but with clear outcomes for different groups.

As noted in the last paragraph above, hopefully these efforts do not end with past history but also help communities consider current and future patterns. For example, decisions about development – like what kind of housing is approved – influence who can live in a community.

The suburbia where those who work from home have money to spend nearby

If more suburbanites are working from home and spending more time in the suburbs, suburban communities and businesses want their money:

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Suburban developers and retailers are working to provide ways to escape home, be around others, and, most importantly, spend newfound time and money…

Neighborhood retailers are eyeing the money she and others are saving on the commute, in addition to the thousands of dollars that office workers typically spend annually in restaurants, bars, clothing stores, entertainment venues and other businesses. In many cases, coffee breaks, haircuts and happy hours that used to happen near downtown offices have moved to the suburbs…

In the Washington region and nationally, the trend is most striking in higher-income inner suburbs, where more residents have computer-centric jobs suited to remote work and money to spare…

The new weekday demand, developers say, has helped suburban shopping centers and entertainment districts reach and, in some cases, surpass 2019 sales. The pandemic also accelerated long-standing pre-pandemic trends toward walkable suburban developments and the “third place” — public gathering spots like coffee shops and bookstores, where people can connect beyond home and work.

I want to expand on one of the ideas suggested above: this may already be happening in wealthier and denser inner-ring suburbs. These communities already have residents with more money to spend and already have a denser streetscape from a founding before postwar automobile suburbia.

But, could this go further? Suburbanites with more money to spend live in certain places. The shopping malls that will survive and even thrive are likely located near wealthier communities. Having more resources could enable certain suburbs to redevelop and add to their offerings compared to others that could languish in a competition for spenders and visitors.

Imagine then an even more bifurcated suburbia where wealthier suburbs have vibrant entertainment and shopping options while other suburbs do not. The suburban work from home crowd is not evenly distributed and neither are the communities and amenities they might prefer.

12 of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the US in 2021 were Sunbelt suburbs

The 15 fastest growing communities – percentage-wise – the United States between July 2020 and July 2021 included 12 suburbs:

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  1. Georgetown, TX – suburb of Austin
  2. Leander, TX – suburb of Austin
  3. Queen Creek, AZ – suburb of Phoenix
  4. Buckeye, AZ – suburb of Phoenix
  5. New Braunfels, TX – suburb of San Antonio – see earlier post about growth in the community
  6. Fort Myers, FL – a central city in Cape Coral-Fort Myers MSA
  7. Casa Grande, AZ – suburb of Phoenix
  8. Maricopa, AZ – suburb of Phoenix
  9. North Port, FL – a central city in North Port-Brandenton-Sarasota MSA
  10. Spring Hill, TN – suburb of Nashville
  11. Goodyear, AZ – suburb of Phoenix
  12. Port St. Lucie, FL – central city of Port St. Lucie MSA
  13. Meridian, ID – suburb of Boise
  14. Caldwell, ID – suburb of Boise
  15. Nampa, ID – suburb of Boise

This is not just about the Sunbelt continuing to grow, as I saw in several headlines, but also about suburban and metropolitan growth in the Sunbelt. Many of these regions continue to grow, such as Austin, Phoenix, San Antonio, Nashville, and Boise, on the edges.

The list of the fastest growing communities by the absolute number of new residents was also weighted toward suburbs.

Chicagoland suburbanites respond to No Mow May

At least a few residents in the Chicago suburbs have adhered to No Mow May:

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The effect can be dramatic, with neat suburban lots growing shaggy and wild, and the jokes flowing freely along with the #lazylawn social media posts.

But the goal is serious. Scientists are increasingly concerned about studies showing key insect populations are falling due to factors such as loss of habitat, pesticide use and climate change. And the plight of these unsung heroes of the food chain has proved difficult to publicize

The northern suburb of Northbrook suspended enforcement of its mowing ordinance and offered its first No Mow May this year, with free wildflower seed packs for participants. In Glenview, 292 residences signed up for a less ambitious No Mow ’Til Mother’s Day program offered by the village. In Westmont, 236 residences registered for No Mow ’Til Mother’s Day, up from 161 in 2021…

“We’re getting a lot of feedback that, ‘I’m seeing more rabbits, I’m seeing more bees than I’ve ever seen in my yard before’ — these exciting types of new discoveries made at the residential level. And of course, a lot of kids really love dandelions, so that’s a cool outcome.”

Not everyone is happy with No Mow May in general and those extra dandelions in particular. Northbrook received a public comment from a participant who said their neighbor mowed their lawn in the middle of the night. On Facebook, No Mowers said they were concerned about upsetting their neighbors and spreading dandelions. One woman said she had taken to deadheading dandelions to avoid seed spread, a time-consuming task.

This reaction against this new practice is about what I would expect. There is a strong cultural norm that suburban lawns, and lawns in general, should be green and free of dandelions and leaves. Growing anything in the lawn beyond well-manicured green grass is discouraged formally and informally.

This would also line up with a number discussed in the article. A biologist estimated 5,000 Americans participated in No Mow May this year. Given all of the online conversation about No Mow May, only 5,000 people are trying this out? The green lawn crew is even stronger that might be suspected. Perhaps this number grow as the idea spreads and institutional actors, such as municipalities, support it.