Metro Chicago’s planning aims high; the Twin Cities’, not so much

Chicago, an ambitious city with no small plans.
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Chicago, an ambitious city with no small plans.

It’s common for Midwestern cities to aim low, to fall back on the excuse that they’re just Midwestern cities happy to have made the B honor roll. Trouble is, there’s always Chicago, an obviously Midwestern city that, when it comes to architecture and urban design, always seems to set the bar higher. It has done so again with its newly published regional plan, “GO TO 2040.”

Taking as its theme Daniel Burham‘s famous dictum “make no little plans,” Chicago offers a strategy to fit the times, and it challenges other Midwestern metropolitan places to follow in its wake.

The centerpiece: Chicago and its suburbs propose to handle half of their population growth over the next 30 years on infill — land that has already been urbanized. The aim is efficiency and sustainability for cities and lower costs for residents and businesses. It’s a profoundly conservative approach that saves public and private dollars, protects the environment and lowers energy consumption. The Twin Cities should follow Chicago’s lead.

Here are the basics: Chicago and its inner seven counties (population 9 million) expect to grow by another 2.4 million people by 2040. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) suggests that half of those additional people be settled on new ground, but that the other half (1.2 million) be absorbed by existing communities, mainly on vacant lots and stretches of underused land totaling about 100,000 acres. That averages out to about 12 people per acre, or 7,700 people per square.

At first glance, that shouldn’t strike you as impressive density. The city of Chicago, at 12,500 people per square mile (20 per acre), is nearly twice as dense. It’s only when you compare Chicago’s 2040 plan to the Twin Cities’ 2030 plan for growth that you realize the extraordinary gesture Chicago has pulled off and, conversely, the astonishingly low aim of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Our split is 70-30
This metro region’s 2030 plan calls for a 70-30 split; 70 percent on fresh ground and only 30 percent on infill. That result produces big expenses for new sewers, streets, schools, energy consumption and other features while leaving vacant or underused thousands of acres of infill already served by infrastructure. Seems like a waste.

As puzzling is the Twin Cities’ relatively low aim for density along transit corridors. Transit-oriented developments (TODs) are, after all, the new “stars” of urban planning and design — nodes that blend transit with housing, working, shopping and entertainment. The idea is to capitalize on walkable proximity while offering an auto-free choice for longer trips. But the TODs proposed along the Central and Southwest light-rail lines hold density to a modest level — generally 7 to 10 units per acre, a formula that might produce buildings of two to four stories along University Avenue in St. Paul, for example. That’s not much bang for the buck.

At a zoning hearing Friday before the city’s Planning Commission, Jim Erkel of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, pushed for higher densities. Quoting from the movie “Field of Dreams,” he suggested that St. Paul “go the distance” by making it easier for developers to build taller buildings near stations.

Erkel’s point is a good one. By holding University Avenue to heights of two to four stories, the city is producing densities only slightly above current citywide averages — 11 people per acre instead of 9. That’s hardly a good use of light rail’s capacity to grow population and vitality — or to take cars off the freeways.

Chicago’s problems are similar
Chicago aims for a higher return from TODs and its 2040 plan artfully articulates the challenge facing most major cities, including ours.

“During decades of rapid but largely uncoordinated expansion, the region grew in patterns that were not sustainable,” it begins. “New homes cropped up in areas that were difficult to reach by automobile and virtually impossible by public transit. Jobs created were often far from the region’s residential centers, keeping commuters tied up in traffic and wasting billions of dollars in lost time and fuel. [Implementing this plan] is Metropolitan Chicago’s best chance to begin reversing long range trends like these, which are barriers to prosperity and livability.”

The plan, approved unanimously last month by the region’s elected leaders, was the product of three years of research and public input. The purpose was to consider new economic and environmental realities in rethinking land development, transportation energy, education and quality of life. The plan focuses on livable communities, human capital, efficient governance and regional mobility.

All of those are interrelated, Randy Blankenhorn, CMAP’s director, said in a statement. “Promoting a good balance of jobs and housing will give residents the option to live near to where they work, which lets them spend less time commuting,” he said.

The plan seeks changes in existing rules that promote “big-box sprawl” and, in a move expected to stir controversy, suggests an 8-cent increase in the state gasoline tax as well as user fees to finance road repairs and to expand transit.
Themes that match market trends
Its themes reflect a new consensus among planners: more livability, lower costs for households and governments, more options for transportation, more efficiency, transparency and collaboration among governments, a greater emphasis on water and greenery, improved health and access to local foods, increased energy efficiency, more land development that supports transit, improved education and work force development, better support for economic innovation and industry clusters.

These goals seem to harmonize with market trends. They seem to anticipate the kinds of communities that people will want and need in the coming decades. The question is whether goals like these have become post-partisan or whether the newly energized political right will attempt to tear down the whole structure of metropolitan planning.

It has become a target of some tea partiers, for example, who see planning as part of a global conspiracy to herd people into “human habitation zones.” (See Orwell)

Some tea partiers see planning as a trampling of basic liberties and a threat to private property. During the fall campaign, Colorado’s Republican candidate for governor, Dan Maes, accused his opponent of using a bike-sharing program to turn Denver into a “United Nations community” as part of a global conspiracy called Agenda 21.

But serious people who travel the country see clearly that communities suffer from too little planning, not too much. Take Chicago, for example. GO TO 2040 is its first truly regional comprehensive plan since Burnham’s famous document of 1909. That’s too long to wait, even for a city that makes no small plans.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/22/2010 - 10:55 am.

    You know, as a native of Chicago, I have to wonder how many Minnesotans are really prepared to accept the rigors of dense urban living.

    I suggest several extended trips to the South and West sides of Chicago or any of it’s first ring suburbs.

    Then we’ll talk.

  2. Submitted by David Greene on 11/22/2010 - 11:42 am.

    Rigors? I welcome it! Right now I live in one of th more dense areas of the metro and I love the fact that I can walk to three supermarkets, a co-op, a pet supply store, countless restaurants, clothing stores, electronics outfits and on and on. And for the rare item I can’t get near me, I have great bus service.

    I’m in a rare spot in the Twin Cities. I want to see those opportunities extended to others.

  3. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 11/22/2010 - 11:57 am.

    I think Mr. Swift is referring to crime, which is reasonably low in most of the dense areas in Minnesota, particularly when you look at it per capita (obviously a more populated block will have more crime per block). I don’t know of anything that shows density *causes* crime and Mr. Swift certainly hasn’t provided any evidence for this. And as cities have seen something of a resurgence over the last ten years – Minneapolis and St. Paul are really looking pretty good by any reasonable definition – the rot and crime are moving to the first ring of suburbs.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/22/2010 - 12:32 pm.

    Oh, and may I suggest a nice tour of the city via it’s wonderful light rail system?

    The Blue and Orange lines are especially exhilarating after 7:00.

    Ahh, memories!

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/22/2010 - 01:08 pm.

    Good piece, Steve. While I’m not sure I’d opt to imitate Chicago on every front, on the whole, the Twin Cities would benefit from much that appears to be in Chicago’s plan.

    In decades to come, density will be the new reality for all who are not actual, genuine, farmers – or purposeful destroyers of the environment. Certainly not all, but many farmers are careful stewards of their land because it provides their sustenance, and they’re aware of that. For those who are not actively farming, the bottom line is that real environmentalists live in cities, where the infrastructure is already in place, and their impact on the natural environment is relatively minimal, especially compared to the typical suburban McMansion on the fringe.

    Americans are still subject to the automotive age’s version of Jefferson’s Agrarian Myth – that somehow suburban dwellers are morally superior to city-dwellers. Such a myth conveniently supports the delusion of the affluent suburbanite that his or her life is somehow “better” than that of someone living in an urban landscape. Whether it’s the natural environment, transportation, supply of basic necessities, housing costs, general health – from a lot of different viewpoints – suburban life is generally unsustainable, even if we leave the questionable notion of “better” out of the discussion. We’ve had more than half a century to convince ourselves in the U.S. that the suburbs are how we “ought” to live, and I won’t be surprised if it takes a similar time span to correct that delusion. Having spent most of my life in the suburbs, I understand the appeal of that model and mode of living, and if resources and environmental renewal were infinite, I might still prefer it, because that’s what I grew up in. Unfortunately, neither the resources nor the capacity of the environment to recover from damage are, in fact, infinite.

    It’s not a question of what appeals to us emotionally – I’d like 1,000 square miles of Rocky Mountain foothills, thank you very much – but what will efficiently and humanely (I’d like to add “pleasantly”) accommodate the kinds of increases in population that are likely to take place over the coming decades. People need a way to make a living, shelter, clothing, recreational opportunities, and a reliable means of getting to and from those points of modern life. The closer together those points of life are, the less time and money is spent getting to and from them, and that seems true to me for both individuals and families on the one hand, and community structure/government on the other. Just as it’s not possible to build enough lanes to accommodate all the traffic that infinite suburban development would produce, it’s similarly not possible to generate enough tax dollars to provide the infrastructure – even if we exclude highways – necessary to support an ever-increasing, low-density suburban/exurban fringe.

    Criticism of the TOD plans for the Central and Southwest corridors from Jim Erkel seems well-justified. In my Minneapolis neighborhood, that sort of density, including an allowance for roads and utility easements, nonetheless has produced block after block of single-family homes. If we’re going to spend public dollars to provide mass transit, then the residential portion of transit-corridor development ought to be dense enough to justify the expense, and 7 to 10 du/acre simply does not do that, nor does 11 people per acre versus the current 9.

    I’d like to see considerably more density coupled with more public open space. A big part of the appeal of suburban living is what I’ll categorize as “wide horizons,” which are often lacking in urban environments. Parks and open space – here in the Twin Cities, the river corridor provides an obvious opportunity – go a long way toward providing that aesthetic and mood-lifting experience, which contributes substantially to “livability.”

    Fortunately, the majority of Coloradans eventually came to their senses and realized Dan Maes is part of the lunatic fringe on the right. Much of what Mr. Swift is implying regarding Chicago (I’m not a native, but have been a frequent visitor) has to do, not with density, but with crime and poverty. Part of the task of “new” urbanization, and part of its promise, as well, is to lessen poverty by providing services and necessities close at hand, and without the necessity of spending 25 to 30 percent of one’s income on transportation.

    As a newbie to the city, I can vouch for the fact that urban life is different from the suburbs, and I’m still adjusting, so Mr. Swift’s rhetorical question about Minnesotans’ preparedness for urban life is uncharacteristically relevant, but I’d argue that “more suburbs” is not the correct answer. Instead, we’d do well to spend much more effort on preparation.

  6. Submitted by David Greene on 11/22/2010 - 01:52 pm.

    Ray, I also grew up in the suburbs and understand that way of life. That’s why I wanted to get out as fast as possible.

    In the suburbs I found myself isolated from the rest of the world and constrained to the few places I already knew. I wanted to move to the city for new experiences and new relationships and I’ve received them in droves.

    I didn’t need any preparation at all and I am seeing the same in the younger generation. People are starting to look at cities not as punishment or something they “should” do to make life sustainable. They’re looking at them as sources of opportunity, which they are.

    I am in no way disparaging people who live in the suburbs. But there is a fair amount of ignorance in the older generations about what city life is actually like. I chuckle every time I hear people talk about how they’re afraid of the city. A lot has changed since the mid-80’s. After regaining my composure, I do a little educating and invite them to Milda’s on the north side.

  7. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 11/22/2010 - 03:18 pm.

    Chicago is to be commended. We must get serious. Urban sprawl costs us all money and is environmentally detrimental. Both workers and those of us retired have to start using public transportation more. In planning around Central Corridor we must plan for density. City living is cheaper in the long run and much more entertaining–and I don’t just mean night life.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/22/2010 - 06:45 pm.

    David, I probably should have added that my suburbs were all “inner-ring” ones, so I was never one of those living many miles from the city, with a commensurately long commute, whether it was St. Louis, Denver, or Minneapolis/St. Paul.

    Still, I’ve found that there are adjustments to be made, and frankly, my Denver suburb of Lakewood was more “urban” than my Minneapolis neighborhood. I had the experience you mentioned in Lakewood as far as retail, food, restaurants, etc., all being within easy walking distance. My Minneapolis neighborhood, Shingle Creek, was zoned in the 1950s, apparently, and it feels a lot more “suburban” in that respect than it does “urban.” Of the 1,500 lots in Shingle Creek, there is only one – ONE – that’s zoned “commercial,” and it’s the site of a print shop. There is zero commercial activity or opportunity in the neighborhood beyond that print shop, so all the shopping takes place elsewhere – most of it in nearby Brooklyn Center – and the sales tax dollars go elsewhere, as well.

    But I looked pretty intensively in the Northeast neighborhoods of Minneapolis (Waite Park, Windom Park, Audubon Park) – where my son and his family live – and while that section of the city fits the definition of “urban” better in terms of the mix of residential and commercial activity, the houses I could afford in those neighborhoods were wrecks, and the ones that were livable were beyond my ability to purchase, so I ended up across the river.

    I mean no criticism of suburbanites, either. I lived in suburbs for 50+ years, and enjoyed them. It’s a style of life that obviously appeals to many people, and our whole culture has publicized and boosted and subsidized it for half a century. But just as there are foods that taste great, but are not healthy as the primary source of nutrition for a person over a lifetime, the suburban model of residential development is not healthy, for the environment, the economy, the society, or, for that matter, its citizens. It’s just not sustainable over the long term.

    I came here to be a grandpa to a darling little girl, and I didn’t want to live an hour’s drive away. But I could have lived anywhere in the metro area, and decided that, if I wanted to live near my granddaughter, city living was the obvious choice. There are things I like, and things I don’t like, but on the whole,as you suggested, it’s been a source of opportunities on a broad scale, and the “like/don’t like” business has been true of every place most of us have lived, so it’s not unique to Minneapolis, or any city.

  9. Submitted by Carol Becker on 11/22/2010 - 08:41 pm.

    Here are some relevant numbers. At the end of the 1960’s, Minneapolis had about 177,000 housing units. Today, some five decades later, we have about 178,500. As much as we have added housing in downtown, we have removed it from Near North and Phillips. You can think of this as almost a glacially slow migration of housing out of problem areas into new areas. But it is not a net gain. Even over this long time period, Minneapolis has added not even one percent more housing.

    So if it isn’t happening here, where is it going to happen? It turns out that once a land use is in place, it is very hard to change. Zoning processes, planning processes, public input processes all make it very hard to do redevelopment. What we want at the macro level is very hard to make happen at the micro level. So part of the hard question is do you try to force an easier process at the micro level to achieve what you want at the macro level? I don’t see this happening.

    There are two saving graces. One is that we have the last major play of the baby boom generation. We built the suburbs primarily for that generation and now we are going to need different housing to support them in their old age. That housing is exactly the kind of in-fill housing that we need to have more compact development.

    The second saving grace is all the young people who grew up watching “Friends” a show that could have never been set in the suburbs. One of my students said that a friend of hers bought a house out in White Bear Lake a while ago and now can’t keep a girlfriend because of the commute. There are a lot of young people who don’t hold the same “American Dream” as their parents. They don’t want to spend their lives in congestion or working all their lives at high stress jobs for a big house that they then have to clean. They don’t want to be locked away from community by large spaces. So it will be interesting what pressures they bring to the marketplace.

  10. Submitted by Victoria Wilson on 11/23/2010 - 10:51 am.

    Every piece of property, or neighborhood, is serviced by a set of neighborhood utilities: street safety, schools, city services, green spaces, transportation and so on. I think it very difficult to talk about one of these utilities in isolation. There must be a some beneficial combination of utilities to keep the lights on in a community-so to speak.
    So to ask why a market does not respond to a first class transit system, and take ownership of the adjacent parcels of land, is of little use without factoring in crime, school performance, city services…

  11. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/23/2010 - 07:17 pm.

    Another somewhat related thought is that, over the coming decades, some of the Twin Cities suburbs will themselves – perhaps of necessity – find themselves beginning to act like “big” cities. That is, they may find they have to put their own constraints on new development, institute new or different zoning policies that increase density, and otherwise deal with the increasing costs of infrastructure and other city services being supplied to people living on the fringe, not of the Twin Cities, necessarily, but the fringe of whatever suburb it happens to be. It’s a bit of a truism that many suburban dwellers have migrated to the fringe because taxes are lower there, and it seems to me that eventually, the tax man will catch up, especially as further “fringe” development strains the ability and/or the willingness of suburban residents to subsidize their OWN suburbs.

    I’m too new here to be very knowledgeable about the population and makeup of the various Twin Cities suburbs, so how that might work out is something I’d be reluctant to speculate about except to mention what I’ve observed in suburban St. Louis and suburban Denver.

    The former is often cited as a poster child for parochialism and governmental fragmentation, since St. Louis County, which surrounds the actual city of St. Louis, contains nearly 100 political subdivisions, with some having as many as 70,000 people, others only a few hundred, and the only way to distinguish one from the other often being a sign announcing that you’re passing from suburb ‘x’ to suburb ‘y.’ There is still very little “regional” cooperation among those municipalities, so there’s a lot of duplication of services.

    One of the interesting consequences of the recent economic downturn has been a kind of resurgence of the county government, which verged on irrelevance as more and more of the county became incorporated. Smaller suburbs have found it impossible to meet the demand for “urban” services, so they’ve contracted with St. Louis County for, if nothing else, police and tax services, both of which are expensive and labor-intensive. Thus the county government has at least partially taken on the role of “regional” government that it originally filled decades ago. Whether that extends to planning, zoning, and other factors, I’ve no idea – I’ve been away for more than a decade – but a movement in that direction wouldn’t surprise me. The myriad of just-slightly-different policies and procedures when dealing with 97 municipalities pretty much cries out for some kind of systemized approach just from the standpoint of cost reduction and reduction of duplication.

    Suburban Denver cooperates more, at least to a degree. There’s a structure in place – the Denver Regional Council of Governments – funded by the relevant cities and counties, that strives to get the metro Denver region to cooperate and plan regionally, including factors such as zoning regulations, development and transportation plans. DRCOG’s success is mixed, I think, and in large part because what would work best practically is not always what works best politically, and since DRCOG is funded by its members, too-aggressive pursuit of a particular policy runs the risk of alienating one or more of the significant municipalities in the group. But that’s my opinion, not established fact.

    If stretching taxpayer dollars is a goal, and taxpayers often say rather loudly that it should be, then regional cooperation seems to me, if not the only way to accomplish that, at least the most logical way to do so. Some will protest, using the same tired line about the unsuitability of “one-size-fits-all” as a policy paradigm, but those protests typically offer no alternative except the same individual taxing and spending entities that cost too much in the first place, and are the reason why taxpayers often feel their contributions to community welfare are being wasted through duplication.

    As in many another human endeavor, individualization is labor-intensive and expensive, and if you don’t want to play with the others in terms of planning for the future, you have to be prepared to pay the full freight yourself. There may be Twin Cities suburbs willing and able to do that, but I suspect quite a few will be better off fiscally if they pool resources and planning efforts for a coordinated approach, which could easily serve residents as well or better than going it alone.

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