Elevating Chicago

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Environmental Determinism in Chicago (Part II - The Built Environment)

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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.  In the Part I, I covered Chicago's natural geography.  Next up: the built environment.  The built environment we see today is the result of over 170 years of decisions by private citizens and the municipal government--some coordinated and well thought-out, some not.  Just as the natural environment was easily understood as the combination of three distinct types, we can split up the man-made city that surrounds us into  roads, railways, and buildings.  Some of the built environment works to Chicago's advantage, some of it to the city's detriment.

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All the pieces fit together. Image courtesy of subbu4 on flickr

Roads
For more than a century, Chicago's famous street grid has primed it for walkable development.  I won't recount Jane Jacobs' entire argument for why short blocks improve the cityscape, but briefly, if you're walking somewhere that isn't simply down the street a few blocks, every corner you reach gives you the opportunity to turn and encounter a different micro-neighborhood, a different set of retailers, and different people.  This makes streets and sidewalks more exciting, provides for more commercial opportunities, and generally adds to the vibrancy of a city.

Unfortunately, we also have highways carving up the streetscape.  I'm not going to say that we should get rid of highways--they serve their purpose.  However, there's a point at which they do more harm than good, and that point usually comes where there is or could be a perfectly good urban neighborhood which is instead cut to shreds by 8 lanes of speeding metal.  The best (worst?) current examples of this are the Kennedy south of Belmont and the Stevenson between the Dan Ryan and Lake Shore Drive.  The Kennedy because it creates a no man's land just west of the North Branch of the Chicago River--as I mentioned in part I, some re-zoning around the river would be necessary to really take advantage of this space--and the Stevenson because of the way it chokes off the Near South Side from Douglas.  (Compare this with how the Kennedy feeds into Ohio and the upcoming Congress Parkway redesign resist isolating the Loop further.)

Railways
Chicago was built on the back of the railroad boom in the 19th century, and the remnants of this history still shape our city in significant ways.  From the enormous Belt Railway Company Yard south of Midway to Canada Pacific's stagnant Bloomingdale Trail and the numerous Metra lines, rail rights-of-way take up significant real estate.  The CREATE Program will clear up some of the bottlenecks that come with this level of complex infrastructure, but by and large railroads are simply something we have to work with and around in order to have a growing economy.  There is also, of course, the L, maybe the defining characteristic of the Chicago built environment (along with the Sears Tower.)  We'll have plenty more to say about the L, as it's just as vital a part of the people economy in Chicago as the freight lines are to our local industry.

Buildings
Between the loop's skyscrapers and the familiar brownstones throughout the city, much of the city is built up nicely.  It allows for a wide variation in densities, from the incredible diversity of the areas around the Loop, to the almost suburban single family homes in Sauganash.  But there's also plenty of opportunity for urban infill, especially where surface parking has blighted the land around L stops.  There's no reason why the same 3- and 4-story mixed use development which has spurred non-bubble growth in many American cities in the last decade can't be replicated along various corridors here.  Developers are finally coming around to the economic merits of this type of construction, but it's up to the city to meet them halfway in terms of up-zoning areas which are well-served by transit so they can start building in a more economically and environmentally sustainable way.

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