Elevating Chicago

Lake Michigan Archives

You drink, you ride, you lose.

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shymen

I've lived all over the country and world, my background is in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics, and I'm a Chicago boy born and bred.

I've previously written about how we need more regulation along the lakefront bike path because of all the avoidable crashes; it seems as if someone listened.  Since Memorial Day, the Chicago PD has heavily increased their numbers along the path, especially in between Fullerton Ave. and Ohio St.  Even though I don't know if people necessarily feel safer when more cops are present, I like the fact that the police department is trying new things to crack down on the problems we have on the path.

When friends come visit me in Chicago, one of the first questions I tend to get is, "Where are all the Cops?"  I usually respond with, "Where they need to be," and until recently, they didn't need to be on the lakefront path; however, I'm glad they are now.  First, they're there because North Ave Beach has supposedly become the meeting place for a lot of suburban and north side gangs (see Daley's comments here).  Not sure why they picked that spot, but apparently they did.  Lately, if you go by the beach, there are cops in regular uniforms, obvious undercover uniforms, and even some in jeans.

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Environmental Determinism in Chicago (Part I - Natural Geography)

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Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

When it comes to the kinds of land-use changes necessary to promote livability in Chicago, there are two main obstacles greater than our city's propensity for cynicism and its forbearer, corruption: the natural and built environments.  Since it came first, I'd like to look first at the geography that has both made Chicago great, but which can also hold it back if we don't harness it well.  There are three main pieces to this puzzle: The Land, The Lake, and The River.  We use all three, but it's important to understand how they've combined to make Chicago what it is.

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Lots of flat land, plenty of fresh water. Photo by the author.

The Land
You don't have to go far to see what sort of hearty Midwestern land Chicago's built on.  There's the forest preserve running along the Des Plaines River, or if you go far enough west it's beautiful, flat prairie as far as the eye can see.  So unlike a lot of places (i.e. San Francisco's narrow peninsula and New York's islands) our growth--westward, at least--is unconstrained.  We've never been worried about a lack of land.  But this also works against us, because it's so easy to sprawl out--as we have for the past 50 years.

So we're left to work against our lazier impulses to fill in the gaps between our neighborhoods and re-stitch our urban fabric.  Fortunately, our urban prairie is flat as a pancake, and that's great news when we want to get around without the help of an internal combustion engine.   Our travels are the same in every direction.  There's no rough uphill commute in the morning, and no reason to shift gears when we bike home after a long day.

The Lake
Perhaps Chicago's greatest asset, Lake Michigan does a few wonderful things for us.  It tempers our climate (this weekend it'll be "cooler by the lake" for the first time this year,) and quenches our almost insatiable thirst.  It is a main attraction for both locals and tourists, whether for swimming, sailing, or anything else.  Last but certainly not least, it is also an easy-to-use, massively obvious wayfinding point--the Lake is always east.  This is no small matter, as it makes getting around the city easier, encouraging Chicagoans and tourists alike to get out and see the city more.

As wonderful as Lake Michigan is, it has also skewed our growth.  Just as development around individual train stations is often lopsided due to "wrong side of the tracks" disease, Chicago's development as a whole is lopsided because of Lake Michigan.  The Lake pushes our development north, west, and south from The Loop, which is most clearly visible in our rail map: where other cities develop robust networks  we're left with a hub-and-spokes.

The River
Finally, there is the Chicago River, that magically backward-flowing stream that comes close to splitting the city into its famous "sides."  In the River's fork and different responses to it throughout the city, we can start to get a feel for where Chicago has gone wrong and also how easy it would be to go right.

First, the Main Branch.  With its narrow riverbed and frequent bridges, it's an urban river in the Seine model.  Even with the frequent, walkable bridges, it's still a natural border that makes River North a much different beast than the Loop itself.  It also serves as a chokepoint for vehicular traffic, so it's not surprising that transit from the North Side is successful.  The new Riverfront Plan is a gem and should it ever be completed all the way to the confluence, it'll become as much a Place (capital P) as the lakefront is now.

Then there's the North Branch, a giant wasted opportunity.  From the Confluence all the way up to Belmont, it's still a narrow, albeit meandering, easily bridgeable river.  But unlike the Main Branch (or the northern segment of the South Branch, as I'll get into shortly) there's no attempt to tie the two sides of the river together.  This is partly a function of zoning: a lot of this area is zoned for manufacturing, which only works with walkable growth through hard work.  But that's exactly the point: There's no geographic reason why the River-centric development has to be confined to the area between Kinzie and Congress.

And what of the South Branch? There are three main parts of it: part well-used, part of it reclaimable, part of it given over to industry.* From the Confluence to Congress, it's walkable like the Main Branch, but without the River Walk.  The West Loop's resurgence is living proof of this.  And even though nothing about the river itself changes south of Congress, it reverts to a strong border, with crossings only at Harrison and Roosevelt.  As with the North branch, a lot of this has to do with the zoned uses around the river, but again, that's just the point: the Chicago River--like the rest of Chicago's natural geography--is not some untamable beast.  We can use the river just as readily to improve the cityscape as we can to ruin it.

Come back for Part II tomorrow...

*Note: this is not a swipe at industry along the River.  To the contrary, it is vital to the municipal and regional economies.  And unlike the North Branch, where development could be realigned toward integration with the surrounding livable neighborhoods, heavy industrial uses do not offer the same opportunity along the South Branch.

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