Chicago Trip, and A Rant on Sprawl

My trip to Chicago this week was to remove my data logging equipment from the basement that is one of my thesis research sites. Incidentally, the trip went well: I got everything done, didn't have to work insane hours, and got to soak in a hot tub at the end of the day. Also, I gained a good chunk of knowledge-- disassembling my walls provided several, "Ok, now that result makes sense!" moments.

But this feels a bit like the end of an era—not just that am I finishing up my thesis soon, but I’ve been coming to this site roughly every six months since mid 2003 (8 times, total). I’ve gotten pretty familiar with the area—the Home Depot, the FedEx shipping center, the local brewpub. As a result, I’ve seen this area develop over time—it’s classic insta-town sprawl, with farmers’ fields getting plowed under for new subdivisions in every direction, interspersed with strip malls and big box power centers. There’s nowhere to walk to from my test house—for instance, I’d have to drive for 5 minutes or more just to get to the corner Seven-Eleven.

While taking a break, I stood back from the house, and thought to myself, “This is exactly the life that I would never want to have… getting in your car every day, a fifty-minutes-from-the-city-without-traffic location, mowing your lawn, spending your evenings in your oversized vinyl-sided nesting cocoon.” Admittedly, this development is primarily a retirement community… but personally I’d want to do that much more stuff in a city when I had time during retirement. I’d exclaim that I can’t understand why people want to live in places like this, but actually, I do understand. Good schools, the acceptance of car culture and crazy-long commutes as the natural way of life since the 1950’s, cheap oil, the need to have a lawn, risk of crime (and/or perception of risk), the inflation of the size of the American house, the disdain for apartment/condominium living, the profitability of greenfield building (i.e., plowing under farmland, as opposed to brownfield development)—all of these are factors.

Also, I understand why sprawl gets built—it just makes economic sense:

[a partner in a new urbanism consulting company] has thought a lot about how the industry works, and he has concluded that sprawl is extremely attractive to the industry, because the kind of development it involves is simple and standardized -- so standardized that it is sometimes hard to tell from the highway whether one is in Minneapolis or Dallas or Charlotte. These cookie-cutter projects are easy to finance, easy to build, and easy to manage. Builders like the predictability of sprawl. They know how much a big parking lot is worth, but they aren't sure how to value amenities in older communities, such as density, walkability, and an interesting streetscape.

From “Divided We Sprawl” The Atlantic Monthly, December 1999

I’m afraid that all that my reading on the subject (including James Howard Kunstler, Witold Rybczynski, The Field Guide to Sprawl) has done is heightened my annoyance and despair at everything I see when I drive around these new suburbs.

There were some classic sprawl moments. For instance, driving back to my hotel at rush hour, I saw traffic jammed up coming the other way, as folks were heading back to the residential side of town. This is what happens when two-lane country roads get traffic lights installed above them and pressed into service as the main access for multiple subdivisions’ worth of cars. As another example, I decided to walk from my hotel to the brewpub. It was one of the more inhospitable walks I have done—three quarters of a mile through the parking lots of Home Depot, a supermarket, and a defunct K-Mart. What amused me was that on my way back, I could recognize my footprints in the snow on the way in—because nobody else was crazy enough to do a walk like that.

Okay, so obviously, I don’t have to live in suburban sprawl, and plenty of people are happy with this life. As described by Rybczynski: Oscar Newman wrote in Community of Interest (1980) that "architects and architectural historians have been damning the suburban tract development since the 1930s, but social scientists and realtors will tell you that tract houses continue to be the most sought after and the most successful form of moderate-and middle-income housing ever built." The success of the tract house is one reason that cities have been losing people to suburbs. So what’s my problem?

First, there’s the central thesis of Kunstler’s work—the pattern of automobile-dependent development has occurred due to the availability of cheap oil/cheap transportation. As fuel becomes more expensive, this “non-negotiable American way of life,” might become untenable—he describes visions of suburban ghost towns in this future. Also, there are the environmental impacts for this type of development—transportation fuel, space conditioning of oversized houses, runoff from lawn fertilizer, etc. There are the health effects of sprawl--I know that I shed a bunch of pounds when I swapped my 45-minutes-each-direction drive (due to my employer having their office out on 495) with a daily 20-minute-each-direction walk. Finally, what really annoys me is that the tax system is set up to essentially favor greenfield development—so ultimately, my tax dollars are sustaining a system I think of as the wrong path:

What is less well known -- in fact, is just beginning to be understood -- is how federal, state, and local policies on spending, taxes, and regulation boost the allure of the suburbs and put the cities at a systematic, relentless disadvantage. People are not exactly duped into living in detached houses amid lush lawns, peaceful streets, and good schools. Still, it is undeniable that government policies make suburbs somewhat more attractive and affordable than they might otherwise be, and make cities less so.

From “Divided We Sprawl” The Atlantic Monthly, December 1999

In contrast, I drove in for dinner one evening in Edison Park, a neighborhood close to O’Hare. I believe it started out as an independent town/village that was annexed by Chicago, so it developed organically, with a downtown corridor. It is within Chicago commuter rail range. It has an urban flavor, but there are modest single-family or duplex houses with small lawns off of the main street with commercial development. You can actually walk somewhere useful, but the residential streets are pretty quiet. I had dinner at an Italian restaurant, and I had a general feeling of happiness and satisfaction. I don’t think the food was exceptional—I’ll admit I’ve had both worse and better Italian in assorted suburban restaurants. The décor was more authentic—for instance, the bare brick walls were actually made out of brick (and old brick, at that), as opposed to peel & stick tiles. The pressed tin ceiling was a nice touch, although it could be replicated in a sprawleteria.

I think part of what made me happy was realizing that I would walk out the door and see this neighborhood:

…as opposed to acres of parking, and a OfficeMax and a Best Buy off in the distance (but further than you’d want to walk, of course).

As a final note, I’ll bring up something I mentioned before—the fact that college degrees have been concentrating in the central downtowns at a higher rate since the 1970s:

U.S. downtowns—roughly, the central section of a city—started regaining inhabitants only fifteen years ago, but they’ve been getting younger and better educated for a generation, according to a Brookings Institution study of forty-four cities.

So basically, there are people like me who are thinking (and living) like I want to live, increasing the chances of economic success of the city cores: this gives me a measure of hope.


At 11:13 PM, Anonymous Omri said...

Violent agreement on my part, especially in the case of Chicago. Yes, the city is zoned for walkability and all, but until the current gentrification, going to school in Chicago proper wasn't an educational problem, but it was a credentials problem (people seeing inner-city diploma and assuming the worst, not that I'm bitter or anything, mind you), and more importantly a safety problem, i.e. kids getting beaten, robbed, and shot on the way home from school.

If I had to live in the CHI zone, I'd have my choice between Chicago, a safety problem, the 'burbs around Evanston (verrrry expensive), or the outer ring burbs (affordable, but, you know the issues.) So, I'd make the obvious choice, and thereby enable these hacks to say that I "like" sprawl. I am reminded of the commercials that launched the Quizno's chain.

At 5:29 PM, Anonymous aj said...

Oh, Bats, you're making me cry.
G just put an offer in on a house in Framingham. As far as I can see, there is no central anything in Framingham, it's just affordable sprawl on the Commuter Rail. He's a midwesterner, so he wanted the yard and garage and square footage that is too expensive or non existant closer to town.

I may never see Boston again. sob.

At 5:51 PM, Blogger Bats said...

G just put an offer in on a house in Framingham. As far as I can see, there is no central anything in Framingham, it's just affordable sprawl on the Commuter Rail.

Wow... well, best of luck... I'll send postcards ;).

Actually, Raj and Bindu live in Framingham--I'll email you the address, just in case it turns out you're looking at a place three houses away from them.


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