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On Density in Chicago

Ted Rosenbaum

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

Density.  Without it, a city is no longer a city, an engine of growth for the entire nation.  Jane Jacobs understood this back in 1961 as America began a half-century slide away from it.  Tourists instinctively get it when they visit--they come for the "energy" and the "excitement," not the weather.  And if you want to get all pointy-headed about it, you could even say that "agglomeration raises per capita consumption growth"

So now that we're agreed on the advantages of this nebulous "density" concept, the question remains: density of what? Grocery stores? Bars? 16" softball diamonds? Those are all well and good, but without people, the groceries go sour, kegs sit untapped, and infields are given over to weeds.  So, we certainly need a critical mass of people.  Chicago has that in spades, as the 5th most dense metro area in the country by population.  We've got density of jobs, too: more than 471 per square mile (compare to 538 for the DC area and 318 for the Dallas area,) employing not just Chicagoans but our suburban and exurban brethren as well.  There's both transit density--nearly 2,300 miles of bus routes and 222 of L track for our 606 square miles--and parking density--we have about 36,500 metered spaces alone inside the city limits.

But again, while each of these specific types of density is necessary for a working city, no single one is sufficient.  And one of the things we have to be careful of as a city is that we're matching all these different densities with each other in a way that makes Chicago more livable.  For instance: does putting an L station in a highway median encourage growth if no one can live or work within 200 meters of the station? (hint: not really.) Or: how many parking spaces should a high-rise condo building in the South Loop have in its garage? What about a medium-rise in Rogers Park?  I'll explore these ideas more in the weeks and months ahead, but for now it's worth recognizing that nearly 3 million people (and growing every day) live on this little slice of land next to Lake Michigan, and it's up to us how well we share it.
Bklyn vs US density.jpg

Infographic by Shane Keaney for good.is

Last week, this image was floating around the internet.  While no one is suggesting we all get together and live in a neighborhood as tightly-knit as Brooklyn, it's a good thought experiment.  But Brooklyn has a density of 34,917 people per square mile, almost triple Chicago's 12,649.  At Chicago's density, the entire country could fit snugly into West Virginia.  Or, if we wanted to spread out a little more and have a coastline, we could use South Carolina.  So who wants to trade blizzards for hurricanes?



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