Chicago's Planning Strategy: Hot or Not?

Pritzker Pavilion Millennium Park.jpg

The City of Broad Shoulders may have two faces, but how will it age?

This was the essence of the question that the Chicago Tribune was asking in October of 2013 when it urged readers to re-envision the city’s original 1909 plan in a modern context. In the 115 years since, and especially recently, Chicago has become a glitzy glass and steel mecca for Midwest yuppies. It's also become an unfortunate poster child for corruption, financial struggles, urban violence, and poor schools. It’s a city whose two reputations could hardly be more different.

To many in the Windy City, the opportunity was a chance to envision a bold new future for the region. In their eyes, the future of Chicago today depends on it becoming a vibrant bastion of international excitement, with a growing population and tourism as key ingredients of new fiscal health.

Their hopes are based on optimism garnered from a real estate scene in which Chicago’s north side has become one of the hottest locations in the country, and formerly blighted neighborhoods have turned into battlegrounds for gentrification.

Along with that, through a variety of initiatives, the fiscally strapped city has invested in many white-collar neighborhoods and international attractions, which some have argued come at the expense of the city’s lower-income areas, as well as the city’s older industrial, manufacturing, and infrastructural assets. Arguably the most visible investment – Millennium Park – has been a story of success that is inspiring the subsequent transformation of the Chicago River from a primarily industrial channel into a tourist experience unto itself. It’s part of an approach by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel to up tourism and generate tourist industry jobs.

The strategy of investing deeply in white-collar cultural successes with the hope that the resulting momentum will offset the city’s grimmer challenges is a daring game. There are some reasons to think that parts of it may be working. Over the last decade, for instance, Chicago attracted a rapid in-migration of new residents – by some estimates Cook county gained over 100,000 in-migrants per year.

But the bigger demographic picture doesn't inspire optimism. While Chicago gained a substantial numbers of Millennials in their 20s and folks in their 50s and 60s between 2000 and 2010, it was also the only one of the nation’s ten largest cities that lost population overall during the same time period.

And between 2005 and 2010, despite substantial in-migration, Cook County lost as many as 185,000 residents a year to out-migration according to IRS data, including negative net-migration among nearly every age group, including 20-somethings, a statistic that is particularly eye-popping given the city’s perceived success at attracting people in exactly that age bracket.

At the same time that Chicago’s Loop experienced a sudden burst as the hottest urban center in the US, the city as a whole still lost considerable ground to the nation’s growing cities. It’s been predicted that in another 30 years the Chicago region will be surpassed in size by at least two different metropolitan areas in the Texas triangle, and, nationally, possibly by more. That’s assuming that Chicago doesn’t lose ground faster than it already has. Moving forward, it may have a tougher time attracting large numbers of Midwestern Millennials, as Rust Belt cities like Cleveland work to keep their talent at home.

There are additional reasons to doubt Chicago’s long-term ambitions to become a global mecca. For one, the city is a lonely snowman in the age of air conditioning. Between 2000 and 2012 nearly every city in the southern US grew its metropolitan region by at least 30 percent. Even hot growth cities in the North like Columbus and Indianapolis couldn’t match that pace. Since air conditioning became a norm rather than an exception, growth has overwhelmingly trended toward warmer climates. In the last 50 years, half of the population growth in the US went to the eight states with the warmest climates, while the eight coolest states attracted just 3% of that total.

A second area of concern is that the exponential power of a centralized city has diminished. The city of Chicago is now home to just seven of the region’s 28 Fortune 500 companies. The city of a dominant core and residential periphery is being squashed by the realities of preferences.

Rather than settle on being the bland and livable capital of the Midwest, Chicago has instead opted to try to wage battle with the likes of London and Rome, and it may have a tough time winning. It’s clear that such worldly ambitions are contingent on growing both residents and tourists.

The city might do well to begin with a humbler approach that focuses on serving its current residents. The primary things Chicago has going for it are its comparative affordability to other large cities, and the perception that it's composed of friendly people. These traits are largely antithetical to most megacities. Rather than pursue a path on which it could lose these unique assets, Chicago should capitalize on them.
In addition to remaining affordable, the city should take easy steps to be more family friendly, a quality it currently lacks because of horrifically high crime and subpar schools.

Of the city’s out-migration in the last decade, an overwhelming amount was by families, especially from its African American community. If Chicago invested in creating average schools out of its failing ones, rather than closing the bad ones while expanding the great ones, it might retain some of the people who are fleeing the city. Generating even passable middle and high schools alone might be enough to convince companies that adequate talent exists to launch the kinds of job training and manufacturing centers that could start to revitalize neighborhoods in the city’s job-depleted areas.

It could also zone parts of the city with declining populations more in the way that suburbs do. High density development need not be the only considered path forward. Chicago’s geographic constraints already make it difficult to find spacious low-density housing within a reasonable distance of the center city, so it might help revitalize neighborhoods if low density development were permitted on the city’s struggling south and west sides.

The city should also consider decentralizing its public transportation infrastructure. Chicago’s core transit system is designed around an outdated jobs model that focuses all lines toward the center of the city. The result is that while overall commute times are fairly low, just 6.3% of jobs can be reached within 45 minutes on public transit.

Finally, the city shouldn’t lose sight of its manufacturing legacy just because yuppies are moving in. Chicago’s greatest assets include its positioning as an infrastructural crossroads, and this is of great value to industry.

If it did these few things better, the city might find itself losing far fewer residents, and not relying so heavily on narrow groups of in-migrants. If not, existing preoccupations with international fame may cause Chicago to lose its appeal, while other American cities accelerate faster.

Roger Weber is a city planner specializing in global urban and industrial strategy, urban design, zoning, and real estate. He holds a Master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Research interests include fiscal policy, demographics, architecture, housing, and land use.

Flickr photo by Chris Smith: Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park