Chicago truly has a grid

Looking at a map of Chicago or seeing it from above coming in and out of the local airports shows Chicago’s road network is a grid. A recent study examined just how much of a grid it is:

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It is right to compare Chicago’s street network to something so obsessively exact. A recent academic study, “Urban spatial order: street network orientation, configuration, and entropy,” by Geoff Boeing, looked at the maps of 100 major world cities, and found that Chicago’s “exhibits the closest approximation of a single perfect grid.” Nowhere else have urban planners been so successful in imposing Euclidean order on natural surroundings. On a scale of 0 to 1, in which 1 is a perfect grid, Chicago scores 0.9. (The least-perfect grid is Charlotte, a Sunbelt city whose street system is more entropic than Rome or São Paulo.)

Why such a design?

The man hired to plat a town at the mouth of the Chicago River was James Thompson, a surveyor from Kaskaskia, and the father of the Chicago Grid. Illinois had already been divided into square townships and sections by the Northwest Ordinance of 1785. Since Thompson was subdividing a township section, he simply repeated that pattern in miniature when he designed Chicago’s first street map. It was less than half a square mile, bounded by Kinzie on the north, Washington on the south, Jefferson on the west and Dearborn on the east, but it was the template for a network that would eventually cover the 234 square miles of Chicago—and extend into suburbs beyond its borders…

Thompson’s grid was interrupted only by the river, and by established Native American trails which became diagonal streets: Elston, Clark, Milwaukee, Archer, Ogden. By 1869, the grid had become so integral to the city’s identity that the Tribune boasted, “There is no city where the opportunities for straight streets are so advantageous as in Chicago,” and demanded, “Give us straight, broad streets, running uninterruptedly from one extremity of the city to the other.”…

In our quest for orderliness, Chicago also has the advantage of being one of the flattest cities in the U.S., lying on a plain that was once the bottom of a proto-Great Lake. It would not be practical or possible to impose an uninterrupted grid on Pittsburgh or San Francisco, where streets wind sinuously around hills. As the study notes, “Boston features a grid in some neighborhoods like the Back Bay and South Boston, but they tend to not align with one another. Furthermore, the grids are not ubiquitous and Boston’s other streets wind in various directions, resulting from its age (old by American standards), terrain (relatively hilly), and historical annexation of various independent towns with their own pre-existing street networks.”

This sounds like a perfect storm of factors: a planner who applied methods from the Northwest Ordinance, a unique landscape that was flat and had only one waterway, and a quest for land development and profit with land that could be easily marked and developed.

Of course, this question of spatial order could be combined with consideration of how these different spatial orders are experienced. Do residents of Chicago and visitors have a better experience because of the grid or are cities, like Boston or San Francisco, with different spatial orders more interesting and vibrant? The grid has particular advantages for navigation but has less charm or uniqueness.

Taking Los Angeles from 10 million planned residents down to nearly 4 million

Today, Los Angeles has almost 4 million residents. At one point, planners thought it could have 10 million residents. What happened in local government in the 1970s helped lead to this change:

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Come 1970, there was broad support for a portentous shift: Los Angeles would abandon the top-down planning that prevailed during a quarter century of postwar growth in favor of an ostensibly democratized approach. The city was divided into 35 community areas, each represented by a citizen advisory committee that would draw up a plan to guide its future. In theory, this would empower Angelenos from Brentwood to Boyle Heights to Watts.

In practice, it enabled what the Los Angeles land-use expert Greg Morrow calls “the homeowner revolution.” In his doctoral dissertation, he argued that a faction of wealthy, mostly white homeowners seized control of citizen advisory committees, especially on the Westside, to dominate land-use policy across the city. These homeowners contorted zoning rules in their neighborhoods to favor single-family houses, even though hardly more than a third of households in Los Angeles are owner-occupied, while nearly two-thirds are rented. By forming or joining nongovernmental homeowners’ associations that counted land-use rules as their biggest priority, these homeowners managed to wield disproportionate influence. Groups that favored more construction and lower rents, including Republicans in the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce and Democrats in the Urban League, failed to grasp the stakes.

The Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations, a coalition of about 50 homeowners’ groups, was one of the most powerful anti-growth forces in California, Morrow’s research showed. It began innocently in the 1950s, when residents living below newly developed hillsides sought stricter rules to prevent landslides. Morrow found little explicit evidence that these groups were motivated by racism, but even if all the members of this coalition had been willing to welcome neighbors of color in ensuing decades, their vehement opposition to the construction of denser housing and apartments served to keep their neighborhoods largely segregated. Many in the coalition had an earnestly held, quasi-romantic belief that a low-density city of single-family homes was the most wholesome, elevating environment and agreed that their preferred way of life was under threat. Conservatives worried that the government would destroy their neighborhoods with public-housing projects. Anti-capitalists railed against profit-driven developers. Environmentalists warned that only zero population growth would stave off mass starvation.

Much like the Reaganites who believed that “starving the beast” with tax cuts would shrink government, the anti-growth coalition embraced the theory that preventing the construction of housing would induce locals to have fewer kids and keep others from moving in. The initial wave of community plans, around 1970, “dramatically rolled back density,” Morrow wrote, “from a planned population of 10 million people down to roughly 4.1 million.” Overnight, the city of Los Angeles planned for a future with 6 million fewer residents. When Angelenos kept having children and outsiders kept moving into the city anyway, the housing deficit exploded and rents began their stratospheric rise.

Americans tend to like local government. And this is one reason why: local citizens get involved and they are able to advocate for what they want.

Whether these local decisions are good for the broader community, city, or region is less clear. On one hand, these homeowners groups wanted their neighborhoods to be a particular way. They purchased a home in a certain setting for a reason. They tried to protect this way of life. (Even a freezing a neighborhood or community in time is difficult.) On the other hand, this had consequences for many others. These are neighborhoods within a larger city. Housing decisions contribute to residential segregation. Decisions about density reduce housing options.

The residents of these specific neighborhoods might have won but at what cost?

If automated vehicles lead to more miles driven, does this mean cars will continue to dominate American society?

A new analysis suggests drivers who have vehicles that drive themselves put more miles on the road:

In a 2020 paper, Hardman interviewed 35 people who owned Teslas with Autopilot, and he found that most thought the feature made driving less terrible. “The perception by drivers is that it takes away a large portion of the task of driving, so they feel more relaxed, less tired, less stressed,” Hardman says. “It lowers the cognitive burden of driving.”

In new research released this month, Hardman and postdoctoral researcher Debapriya Chakraborty suggest that making driving less terrible leads to a natural conclusion: more driving. Using data from a survey of 630 Tesla owners, with and without Autopilot, the researchers found that motorists with partial automation drive on average 4,888 more miles per year than similar owners without the feature. The analysis accounted for income and commute, along with the type of community the car owners live in.

Extrapolate that result to the wider population, and it may be that partially automated vehicles are already influencing how people travel, live, consume resources, and affect the climate. For governments, which have to anticipate future infrastructure demands, understanding those changes are critical. Shifting commute patterns could affect public transportation budgets and road maintenance schedules. More miles traveled means infrastructure gets more of a pounding. If electric vehicles are doing the traveling, governments still haven’t quite figured out how to charge them for it. And though electric vehicles like Teslas rely on cleaner energy than those guzzling gas, the electricity still has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is not always a renewable source. A country made up of increasingly sprawling communities, where people blithely travel hundreds of miles via autonomous or sort-of-autonomous vehicles to get to work or play, isn’t an efficient or sustainable one.

The new research suggests that partial automation could have upsides too. The bulk of the extra thousands of miles that Autopilot drivers traveled each year happened on long weekend trips, Hardman and Chakraborty found. Prior to Autopilot, those drivers might have opted to fly, which would have generated more greenhouse gas emissions. In the end, their decision to stick to the road was likely the more climate-friendly choice.

As noted here, there are a lot of possible consequences. I would add a big question asked for decades in the United States: would this continue the dominance of cars in American society? Much critique in the postwar era emerged around planning cities and suburbs around cars as opposed to around people and community needs. All the driving and the infrastructure for it helped give rise to white flight, fast food, big box stores, and even more sprawl within metropolitan regions. Efforts to limit car use have done little to reduce reliance on personal vehicles. Do self-driving cars make cars even more prevalent in American society?

Going further, would electric powered autonomous vehicles mean even more miles driven? If gasoline is out of the equation and the electricity (and car batteries) can be produced with fewer emissions, Americans might feel even more free to drive, commute, and travel.

If a major concern in society is driving itself, no matter how enjoyable it may be, new kinds of vehicles may not be welcome.

Publication in Planning Theory & Practice: “Planning and Religious Pluralism, Community by Community”

It was an honor to be invited to contribute to a symposium titled “Rethinking Religion and Secularism in Urban Planning” in the journal Planning Theory & Practice. See all of the contributions here.

My small piece worked with two articles I have published in the last few years: the 2019 article “‘Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Structure’: Suburban Responses to Proposals for Religious Buildings” and the 2020 article “Religious Freedom and Local Conflict: Religious Buildings and Zoning Issues in the New York City region, 1992-2017.” I argue the aggregate of religion in the United States – interesting in itself given the particular history, legal structures, and social changes of the United States – and the community level religious experience are both important to reckon with because local officials and residents can respond to the wishes of local religious groups and residents.

For this particular symposium, all of the authors considered the role of urban planners amidst religion and secularism. Building on my findings, I suggest urban planners can play an important role in helping communities plan for future religious uses and, once a proposal is made, focus on welcoming groups and working with them and the community rather than allow the community to emphasize threats.

This will continue to be an issue in communities across the United States as both secularism and religion continue and change. For example, a recent survey suggesting 43% of millennials do not believe in God received a lot of attention in some quarters. But, it would be a mistake to focus on such a find just at the broader, abstract nation-state level; this has implications for communities.

Considering Jane Jacobs’ advice for parks when planning a major suburban park

Jane Jacobs is famous for her observations regarding sidewalks in the opening chapters of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Right after this is a chapter on parks. In summary, she suggests are not automatically good as they can easily become problem areas if there is not regular foot traffic in and through the park.

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I thought of this when seeing a plan of how the former Motorola Campus in Schaumburg might be turned into “a Millennium Park for suburbs”:

Schaumburg trustees Tuesday will consider approving a $1.1 million bid for construction of the first phase of a 12-acre, urban-style park ultimately envisioned as a sort of Millennium Park for the suburbs.

Planned for the former Motorola Solutions campus, the park when completed could house such amenities as a large outdoor performance venue, a sculpture garden, a dog park and a winter ice rink.

Phase one, however, will focus on the basic outline of the park and providing passive recreation opportunities to serve residents of the area, before the next set of upgrades are budgeted and built.

A suburban park, no matter how beautiful it is or how many amenities it has, could easily fall prey to the issues that Jane Jacobs describes. Do people live around the park? Will there be people regularly walking through the park? Will it have the same kind of lively pedestrian activity and interaction that she recommends for sidewalks?

A park built on a former office park campus might not have any of these. Located in a sprawling suburb, would the majority of users have to drive here? Would people be there just for the park and its particular amenities or are there nearby activities that would keep them in the area such as shops or restaurants? Are there enough residents within walking distance who can informally help keep an eye on the park and those who use it?

This could all be in the eventual plans. In the Chicago suburbs it is currently popular to suggest mixed-use developments to replace office parks, shopping malls, and other large properties. But, it takes time for such developments to happen and for community to arise. Parks do not automatically work like they do in Simcity where placing a park next to commercial or residential property boosts property values. Just because there is a pristine park in the plans does not mean that the park becomes the kind of asset Jacobs suggests they can be in the right conditions.

Where will the new work from home people in suburbs and other places want to settle and spend their money?

Now that we have more clarity on where remote workers have moved, another question arises: what do they want to do in their new communities?

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“People who are working from home still want to go out, either during the day or after work, and they still want to spend their money on interesting things and interesting places,” says Bill Fulton, who directs Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “If you move from San Francisco, you’re not going to want to spend all your money at Applebee’s, right?”

Tracy Hadden Loh, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies real estate development, puts it another way: “I think annoying people with laptops are going to be everywhere. They’re coming for your favorite spot.”

The changes have elected officials, city planners, and developers mulling how to plan for this still-hazy future—and asking plenty of questions. Who will live here? Who will work here? Who will drive or take transit here, and when? Most essentially: What kinds of housing should we be building and for what sorts of people?…

City planners and economic development officials recognize that there’s an opening here. But most say that the work so far has been the equivalent of building the plane while it’s in the air. Work has been quick, a little harried, and focused on helping businesses just make it to the next day. Longer-term economic development—planning for places that might host new stores, restaurants, and housing—is more time consuming. It also demands more information on post-pandemic life.

Another way to think about it: how much risk are these communities with new residents willing to take? The pandemic brought changes but it is less clear how long-lasting these changes will be. Will people move back to cities or are there in these new places to stay? Is work from home going to continue at higher rates or not? Is this part of longer trends – retrofitting, “surban” development, etc. – or a blip? Certain development decisions could require multiple sources of capital: financial commitments, political moves, and significant changes to the character of particular communities.

Unfortunately, there may be no guarantees on these choices. Some suburbs and cities could do well, others may not. There may not even be fairly consistent success or failure within the same region. There could be some benefits to moving quickly and showing momentum; or not if trends go another direction or hasty planning fails to take everything into account.

At the same time, this is unique opportunity for communities. As noted in the title of the post, it could lead to new revenues, an issue facing many communities during COVID-19. Population growth is also seen as good. This could be a turning point to a different future.

Addressing the many less-than-3-mile trips in suburban settings

One of the authors of a new book on retrofitting suburbs highlights the number of short trips in suburban settings:

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Right now, 46 percent of trips from predominantly single-family-home suburban neighborhoods are three miles or less. Which would be perfectly fine for a bike ride, a scooter ride, or a walk in many of those trips, if there was adequate infrastructure to make that a safe choice. That would have enormous impact.

This is a problem that New Urbanist designs hope to solve by placing necessary goods and services within a fifteen minute walk from residences. This means that housing is within slightly less than a mile from important destinations.

Even at this shorter distance, how many Americans would rather drive? Factor in different circumstances – weather, the purpose of the trip (buying groceries?), who is involved in the walk (a solitary pedestrian versus a family with small kids), and the American preference for driving in the suburbs – and this may just seem to be too far.

Stretching the radius from just less than a mile to three miles then is a significant change. A bicycle or scooter would certainly help. Local mass transit would help. But, this would require a lot of infrastructure. Helping pedestrians feel safe instead of unwanted guests alongside busy roads. Safer options for bicyclists. Denser land use. Planning that helps strategically place needed services and buildings where non-drivers can access them. A commitment to a slower-paced life where getting somewhere is part of the fun rather than an impediment to consumption.

It is maybe that last piece that I think may be the hardest to address. Retrofitting will be attractive in some places due to particular needs and dissatisfaction with sprawl. Indeed, “surban” settings will help some suburbs stand out from others. But, if it only happens in pieces across suburbia, it will be hard to address the bigger question: do Americans object to having their lives are designed around cars? They may not be happy with it but this is different than explicitly making individual or collective choices to try a different way of life. As of now, the American Dream still typically involves cars and vehicles and it may take a long time before alternative modes of transportation are viewed as desirable.

Losing a big tree in a suburban neighborhood

Recently, several big trees were cut down in our suburban neighborhood. These were taller, older trees in a neighborhood full of such trees along the main street and in backyards:

What such trees is perhaps obvious: shade, habitats for birds and other animals, a sense of stability and permanence, connection to nature, a boost to property values. And the problems they could provide also vex suburbanites: leaves, potential for falling down on houses and property, and the potential to become diseased or sick.

But, as we watched the trees cut down, chipped up, and hauled away, I was reminded of another feature of these trees: the ability they have to frame homes and streetscapes. I am reminded of a short passage in James Howard Kuntslter’s TED talk where he describes the purposes of trees in urban planning: to frame the streetscape, to provide shade, and to protect pedestrians from the vehicular traffic. A stereotypical image of American suburbs is the curving two-lane road with a canopy of branches and leaves overhead. But, this also sits aside familiar images of Levittown and other mass subdivisions where all the trees are gone and new saplings can barely fill any space.

Is the big suburban tree a luxury, a status symbol, an aesthetic choice, an intentional choice by a developer? No matter the reason, I hope many of the other large trees around us remain and enhance what would be a bleaker suburban landscape without them.

A new master plan for Chicago builds on (odd) legacies of older plans

With the announcement yesterday that Chicago will embark on a new planning process for the local government to consider, one news report included this tidbit about previous planning processes:

When finished, the document would be submitted to the plan commission and the City Council for approval. Gorski said the last such citywide plan in 1966 had official status but never got formal approval.

And from the official Chicago press release:

“While Chicago may have pioneered citywide planning with the 1909 ‘Plan of Chicago,’ this is a rare opportunity to collectively address current and future issues with a collaborative and coordinated effort with other planning entities, businesses, institutions and the people of Chicago,” DPD Deputy Commissioner Kathleen Dickhut said.

This history would be worth exploring more. Here are a few questions/issues/thoughts which I am sure someone has answered and/or explored:

  1. Why was the 1966 plan not formally approved?
  2. The gap between 1966 and today seems like a long time to not have a different master plan. Chicago has changed a lot since then. Is it safe to assume there have been a lot of smaller (district, community areas, etc.) plans developed and acted upon since 1966?
  3. The reference to the 1909 Burnham Plan is interesting in that it had limited influence on subsequent changes in Chicago or the region. It remains an influential plan yet may not be the best advertisement for a plan that led to lasting change.
  4. While the Burnham Plan is often held up as a visionary example, other Chicago planning visions or decisions may not hold up as well. For example, doing research on Cabrini-Green, I became acquainted with the story of how public housing projects came to be located where they were. Or, think of the placement of the Dan Ryan Expressway.
  5. Even if the new plan is not completed on time or is not approved or enacted, it can be a valuable process to engage numerous stakeholders from around the city to think about and discuss what they want the city to be about.
  6. Balancing the larger vision with the important minutiae to decided at the local scale will be interesting to watch. Either job would be difficult on its own.

Connecting urban planning and coping with COVID-19

McMansions might provide a lot of space for sheltering in space but an urban planner in Australia says neighborhoods of McMansions did not do as well during COVID-19:

bird s eye view of town

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McMansion-dwellers in suburbs far from jobs and services and uninviting to pedestrians fared badly during shutdowns, says a prominent Perth urban planner; meanwhile, residents in self-sufficient neighbourhoods with compact homes were much better equipped…

“Those in low-density neighbourhoods find it easier to stay at home, but they are forced to leave regularly in their cars for essential services and goods,” he said…

“For just $80,000, a home owner can build a 40-square-metre micro-workspace or granny flat that could assist a business to start up, or house essential workers – nurses, teachers or police – who often cannot afford to live in a McMansion,” he said…

Communities needed well-connected, shaded, pedestrian-friendly streets, front porches facilitating casual social exchanges while allowing social distancing, and walkable town centres with offices, restaurants, beach facilities and apartments.

It is interesting to compare this assessment to discussions in the United States. In places like New York City and San Francisco, journalists have reported on the move of wealthier residents away from density and to the suburbs. In these narratives, suburban homes and communities provide larger residences and more distance from others.

Yet, in the argument above, it sounds like the urban planner is arguing for New Urbanist-style suburbs as the middle ground: walkable places that offer some density and local community are better for dealing with COVID-19 that either really dense places or isolated suburban communities.

This might depend on what the highest priority is during COVID-19. If the goal is avoiding other people, public places, and mass transit all together so as not to catch the coronavirus, then neighborhoods of suburban McMansions could make sense. People today can have all sorts of goods delivered. And if suburban life is about moral minimalism, McMansions allow everyone lots of space. If the goal is to balance interacting with people and society alongside practicing social distancing, traditionally-designed suburbs could make more sense. Isolation takes a toll on people, COVID-19 or not.

Arguments like the one above are common among some urban planners, architects, and urbanists: neighborhoods full of suburban tract homes do not provide for community life and social interaction, depend on cars and limit opportunities for other forms of transportation, and waste resources. Whether COVID-19 helps advance this perspective remains to be seen.