The Evolving Urban Form: Chicago


Looks can be deceiving. No downtown area in the western world outside Manhattan is more visually impressive than Chicago. Both the historic Loop and the newer development north of the Chicago River, especially along North Michigan Avenue have some of the most iconic structures outside of emerging Asia. Yet these vertical monuments mask a less celebrated reality: that of dispersing, low density urban area.

Chicago Combined Statistical Area: Let’s take a close look at the 2010 census data. Overall, the combined statistical area, which includes the metropolitan area (Note 1) and two exurban counties added nearly 365,000 people, for a growth rate of 3.9 percent. This is well below the national growth rate of approximately 10 percent (Map, Figure 1). Chicago followed the general trend of with growth being greatest in the outer suburbs while declines took place both in the inner suburbs and the historical core municipality (Figure 2).

Massive Core City Loss: The historical core city of Chicago lost but 200,000 people, and fell to a population of 2.7 million, the lowest count since the 1910 census. The population is down 925,000 from 1950 and at the current rate would drop at least 1 million from the 1950 peak by the 2020 census.  Chicago is at risk of joining London and Detroit as the only two historical core municipalities in modern times that have lost more than 1 million people.

Inner Suburbs: As in New York and Seattle, Chicago’s inner suburbs grew slowly. The inner suburbs include the part of Cook County that is outside the city of Chicago as well as Lake County, Indiana (home of Gary), which shares the city of Chicago's eastern border. The inner suburbs added fewer than 30,000 residents and grew only one percent.

This suggests some limitations to the newly developing mantra that has inner suburbs will be the locus of future growth although there are scattered inner suburbs in other cities (such as Hoboken, New Jersey) that did see growth. Perhaps the old mantra, about people returning to the city from which they had never come was finally quashed by the realities of the 2010 census.   

Outer Suburbs: The outer suburbs, which include the remaining counties of the metropolitan area, grew at a rate of 16.5 percent, actually grew faster than the national average of approximately 10 percent. The outer suburbs added more than 500,000 people. The largest growth, 175,000 was in Will County, to the south, one of the five “collar counties” that used to define the boundaries of the metropolitan area. McHenry County, the most distant of the collar counties added 100,000. The fastest growth was in far suburban and also southern Kendall County, which more than doubled in population.

Chicago Metropolitan Area: Overall, the Chicago metropolitan area added approximately 360,000 people and grew 4.0 percent from 2000. This is well below the national average population growth rate, however was above that of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, once among the  nation’s of leading growth areas until the last decade.

Historical Trends: The city of Chicago, like other historical core cities, had previously been dominant in its metropolitan area. The earliest Census Bureau metropolitan area (“metropolitan district”) estimates from 1900 indicated that more than 90 percent of the region’s population was contained in the city of Chicago. By 1950, the city of Chicago had fallen to 66 percent of the metropolitan area as defined in that year.  The city of Chicago now has only 28 percent of the combined statistical area population of 9.7 million (Figure 3, Table and Note 2).

1900 1950 2000 2010 Change: 2000-2010 % Change: 2000-2010
Chicago   1,698,575   3,620,962   2,895,671 2,695,598 -200,073 -6.9%
INNER SUBURBAN      178,052   1,255,982   2,965,634 2,995,082 29,448 1.0%
Cook County, IL      140,160      887,830   2,481,070 2,499,077 18,007 0.7%
Lake County, IN        37,892      368,152      484,564 496,005 11,441 2.4%
OUTER SUBURBAN      378,896      884,980   3,237,011 3,770,425 533,414 16.5%
DeKalb County, IL        31,756        40,781        88,969 105,160 16,191 18.2%
DuPage County, IL        28,196      154,999      904,161 916,924 12,763 1.4%
Grundy County, IL        24,136        19,217        37,535 50,063 12,528 33.4%
Jasper County, IN        14,292        17,031        30,043 33,478 3,435 11.4%
Kane County, IL        78,792      150,388      404,119 515,269 111,150 27.5%
Kendall County, IL        11,467        12,155        54,544 114,736 60,192 110.4%
Kenosha County, WI        21,707        75,238      149,577 166,426 16,849 11.3%
Lake County, IL        34,504      179,097      644,356 703,462 59,106 9.2%
McHenry County, IL        29,659        50,656      260,077 308,760 48,683 18.7%
Newton County, IN        10,448        11,006        14,566 14,244 -322 -2.2%
Porter County, IN        19,175        40,076      146,798 164,343 17,545 12.0%
Will County, IL        74,764      134,336      502,266 677,560 175,294 34.9%
CHICAGO METROPOLITAN AREA   2,255,523   5,761,924   9,098,316 9,461,105 362,789 4.0%
EXURBAN METROPOLITAN COUNTIES        75,540      150,332      213,939 224,916 10,977 5.1%
Kankakee Coiunty, IL        37,154        73,524      103,833 113,449 9,616 9.3%
La Porte County, IN        38,386        76,808      110,106 111,467 1,361 1.2%
CHICAGO COMBINED STATISTICAL AREA 2,331,063 5,912,256 9,312,255 9,686,021 364,150 3.9%
Data from the US Census Bureau


Since 1950 (Note 3), all of the growth in the Chicago area has been in the suburbs. By 2000, both inner suburbs and the outer suburbs each had more people than the city of Chicago. Today the outer suburbs, with forty percent of the region’s population, represent the largest demographic force in Chicago (Figure 4).

We do not usually associate Chicago with the dreaded term “sprawl” but Chicago now stands as the third largest urban agglomeration in the world in land area, trailing only New York and Tokyo. The Chicago urban area covers more land than Los Angeles, which has a far higher urban density.

Dispersing Employment: Chicago's dispersion extends to employment. Despite having the second strongest central business district in the nation (after Manhattan), jobs are rapidly decentralizing. Last year the Downtown Loop Alliance reported that private sector employment in the Loop fell 20 percent during the last decade. Overall, the downtown area of Chicago now represents approximately 10 percent of regional employment, barely half the percentage of Manhattan or Washington, DC.

American community survey data from 2009 indicates the total employment in the North West corridor along Interstate 90 has at least as much employment as downtown Chicago. This corridor, anchored by the edge city (Note 4) of Schaumburg, is typical of emerging suburban centers around the nation. Only two percent of workers in this corridor use transit for commuting.

Another corridor, along Interstate 88 (anchored by Lisle and Aurora) has at least two thirds the employment of downtown, with only one percent commuting by transit. The North Shore corridor encompassing parts of northern Cook County and Lake County is of similar size to the Interstate 88 corridor and has a larger transit work trip market share of five percent.

Downtown, on the other hand, has the third largest transit work trip market share in the nation, following Manhattan and Brooklyn. In 2000, 55 percent of people working downtown (the larger downtown including the Loop, north of the River and adjacent areas to the west and south) commuted by transit. This illustrates the strength of transit for providing access to the largest, most dense downtown areas in contrast to dispersed suburban areas.

Perhaps more telling, the number of jobs and resident workers (the “jobs-housing” balance) in the city of Chicago are converging toward equality. According to American community survey data, there are 1.1 jobs in the city of Chicago for each working resident. This is substantially less, for example, than Washington (2.6), Atlanta (2.0), Boston (1.7), San Francisco (1.4) and Baltimore (1.4).

On the other hand, two of the three large suburban corridors have higher ratios of jobs to workers than the city of Chicago. The Interstate 88 corridor has 1.3 jobs per worker, while the North Shore has approximately 1.5 jobs per worker. The Interstate 90 corridor has slightly more jobs than workers. These data indicate that Chicago is well on the way to a more evenly distributed employment pattern that has become more common around the nation.

Middle America’s Leviathan: The Chicago area has been very resilient through the years. After nearly a century as the nation’s “second city,” Aaron Renn points out the area could fall from its much cherished “global city” status. Still, Chicago remains the dominant urban area between the coasts. Virtually all of its Midwestern competition has fallen away (such as Detroit, St. Louis and Cleveland). However, in the longer run Chicago could be displaced by Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. Nonetheless, the urban area’s visually arresting business district will retain its iconic status even if, overall, the region looks more and more like the rest of highly dispersed Middle America.


Note 1: This article uses metropolitan area and combined statistical areas as defined by the authoritative US Office of Management and the Budget.

Note 2: The 1950 references provided because the closest to the Post-War democratization of homeownership and car ownership and expansion of car oriented suburbanization. Before World War II, most US historical core cities were comparatively dense, while a far smaller share of the population lived in the suburbs.

Note 3: Figure 3 and the Table show data for the 2010 geographical definition of the combined statistical area. Earlier metropolitan area definitions are also referred to in the text.

Note 4: An “edge city” is a major employment center outside the central business district (downtown).  “Edge city” became a part of the language as a result of Joel Garreau’s 1991 book, Edge City: Life on the Urban Frontier.

Photograph: Downtown Chicago from the Air (by author)