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As all things government-spending-related become topics of general debate rather than just policy wonks’ geek-out of choice, the activities of that government move into the spotlight.  And as our cities get more popular and our problems of modern living more complicated, the field of planning (land use, environment, transportation, housing, economy, other) has been lauded as the solution or attacked as part of the problem.

There’s no easy way to characterize and dissect American attitudes toward planning, and certainly no one solution to the “right” kind of planning and at what cost.  Generally speaking, though, people in my generation (finished school, starting their first job or three, married or not, moving to a new place in the city, enjoying “urban” amenities like coffee shops and parks and concert series, walking or biking to work) seem to generally view urban planning as a positive thing, where older generations tend to be more skeptical.

While recognizing this is itself a generalization, I wondered if I could explain it with another generalization:  people my age tend not to be property owners, and those older (who tend to be skeptics) are.  To them, “planning” is not about finding an affordable apartment or having a bike lane or community garden, but about how much their property taxes are, who is telling them whether they’re allowed to put an addition on their house, and whether installing a roundabout in their area will increase traffic along their street.  Not to mention homeowners’ focus on the quality of their schools, since much of the district’s expenses come directly out of their property taxes and since, if they have children, they may have made the decision to live where they do based on the schools.

No wonder they may gripe about planning!  If all they ever see of urban planning is the Board of Zoning Appeals and their water bill and annual or tri-annual tax assessment, and maybe a road improvement which increases traffic congestion or impacts their parking spot at work, no wonder they complain.  They don’t take the bus, so a new route isn’t too exciting; they spend a lot of time working on their house or in their own backyard, so they don’t go to a public park except maybe for the Fourth of July fireworks; and they’re busy living their own lives and aren’t generally called on to articulate the long-term vision for their community.  They care about paying the large bills (mortgage, utilities, taxes, school and children, car payment) they have to worry about.

This isn’t to say that people my age don’t own cars or some form of property, or inherently care more about their community (some would argue they care less, being more transient) or automatically use these public resources.  They do, however, tend to be less burdened with taxes and possessions and are in a place where they’re more open to and able to try new things; have less money, so rely on things like renting an apartment or taking public transportation or spending time in free public spaces; and may use their free time to engage in civic projects like community gardens or social activism or environmental justice work or just spending time enjoying urban amenities.  As cities, and by extension planning as a field, become the next cool thing – even Scientific American got on the bandwagon and just had an issue celebrating cities – those who haven’t yet been burdened with the full costs of modern living seem to overlook the bureaucracy and focus on the bigger, more interesting picture.

So assuming all this speculation has identified a decently solid truth, I further wonder, is this the natural progression of generational attitudes toward planning?  Or will this enthusiasm “stick” as my generation buys property, settles down, has children who need schooling, and who will eventually get stuck with the bills?  There’s already mixed evidence about whether suburban living will continue to appeal to young families, but from my very limited and anecdotal evidence, it does seem that school-age children (and/or the desire for a more traditional household living situation) will drive some people out of city neighborhoods to somewhere more suburban, less complicated bureaucratically and planning-wise.  If young people will inevitably grow out of their love of urban living and support of greater institutional involvement of the life of a city, then we should worry (again) about our cities in the next few decades, if they will again enter a low period.

If the attitude is not simply related to age and level of responsibility, however, maybe we’re really in a larger period of change.  Maybe we still need to focus on convincing the homeowners and soon-to-retire generation (who after all, still have the power as property owners) that some changes with planning are a good thing.  But maybe we also have the larger shift in attitude on our side, in the long run.

And of course there’s one huge group I have not touched on:   the elderly.  Those who may or may not still own their own homes, and who are still paying those bills (though maybe not a mortgage) like their working counterparts.  Many of those people were also young when cities were rapidly growing in the US, however, and may see a city neighborhood in a more positive, perhaps more nostalgic way.  As they age, they become more dependent on others to get around, are less able or willing to drive everywhere, and they may or may not be interested in the housework associated with “aging in place” versus settling in a denser and more active community with other seniors.  As they interact less with planning bureaucracy but face more of the issues that planning addresses, will their attitudes also change for the better?  How do their attitudes now differ from younger generations?

As with any issue or question or field of work which relies on public discourse, planning needs to care about how it is perceived by the general population.  Ultimately, planners are only there to educate and advise the public about decisions it will make about its own community and future.  The underlying perceptions of planning have an effect on each individual project or debate, and the success of our field depends in part on our awareness of and ability to positively influence those perceptions of us and our work.

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Along North Avenue, from Chicago’s west side well into the suburbs, at several major intersections lone men stand on the median strip of concrete – or just on the pavement between the two centermost lanes – holding a stack of newspapers.  They start selling well before most people get in their cars to go to work, but remain there – in all weather – until late morning, when most commuters have already gone by.  They sell the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and possibly the Daily Herald out past the numbered avenues of Melrose Park.  Wearing mesh vests to stay more visible in the low morning light, they are an unusual sight on multi-lane arterial roads, standing in the middle of the street selling newspapers.

As a print subscriber to the New York Times, and previously the Tribune, I never had occasion to buy a paper, but always felt bad for the men on the median, especially on bitter cold Chicago mornings, or when piles of snow had turned to brown slush.  Sure, it’s a job – but surely not a good one.  I did see some people purchase papers while stopped by red lights, holding coins out through their cracked windows, and maybe they had a regular “newsman” at a particular corner.  Even if I hadn’t a subscriber, though, I probably would not have bought one – after all, when would I read it?

The big arguments about why newspaper circulation is declining – a lot – are the usual suspects:  the decline of reading and intellectual pursuit, the rise of the Internet and television news, general phasing out of newspapers as a respectable, reliable, and up-to-the-minute source of information.  These are all surely important, though definitely debatable, particularly the “dumbing of America” argument.  Nor is this a new phenomenon, according to the Washington Post:

“The decline [in circulation in 2005] continued a 20-year trend in the newspaper industry as people increasingly turn to other media such as the Internet and 24-hour cable news networks for information. Newspaper industry officials also blamed the National Do Not Call Registry, which has forced newspapers to rely less on telemarketing to secure subscribers, and a shift in strategy among major newspapers away from using short-term promotions to acquire new readers.” – Washington Post, 5-3-2005

Think about 20 years before 2005:  1985.  No Internet, cable news just starting (if it existed at all, really?), and a culture on the verge of massive media change – MTV launched in 1981, a critical milestone in TV culture.  If the decline in newspaper readership predates the Internet in its popular form by at least 10 years – and certainly more time than its current form – then maybe that’s not the main cause, or at least not the earliest cause.

Back to the newspaper sellers – they’re basically doing the same job that paperboys and others have done for decades, both on street corners in big cities and (in the case of home delivery) at suburban doorsteps.  They are also doing the same work as the coin-operated paper boxes in downtowns and city neighborhoods, where people on their way to the bus, train, or office can stop and buy the morning news.  The difference is, they’re delivering them to people in cars, not out on the sidewalk.  Even those who drop off the paper on the porch in the morning, are mostly doing so for people who will end up driving to work.  And the biggest population of adults who don’t go to work in the morning – the elderly – are also those who tend to still subscribe to the newspaper and read it regularly.

Is it too much of a stretch to speculate that maybe our large-scale shift in transportation behavior, i.e. commuting to work by car to perform primarily white-collar jobs, has heavily contributed to the decline of newspapers?

Sure, the Internet makes news easier to get, iPads and the like are seen as “killer devices” for paper media, and people watch more television than ever for information and entertainment.  But if you think of reading a newspaper as an action requiring time, inclination, and the information source itself, commuting by car (having to drive) eliminates a big chunk of time when the newspaper might otherwise be read – in the morning, when you’re waking up and getting ready for the day, not fully functioning but wanting to find out what’s going on.  Having to drive to work takes up most attention that transit users can give to other things like reading.

It is also significant that the phenomenon of “morning drive” talk shows, and other sources like NPR’s “morning edition,” get wide listenership no matter the actual quality of the show.  You’ve got a captive audience in the car, probably two peak listening times at the beginning and end of the work day, and they want to get at least some idea of what’s going on in the world before they get to where they need to be.

There used to be evening newspapers, to get what happened at the end of the day, and some studies have shown that people tend to spend most time reading on their iPads and Kindles in the early evening.  Perhaps they’ve simply displaced their reading time to be after work, but it also means they cannot read the newspaper (or any other device) on the way home either.

The biggest exception to the newspaper decline seems to be the New York Times, probably the most well-known and respected newspaper in the U.S.  Coincidence that its primary readership, New York City and surrounding area, largely commutes by public transit if they work in the city?  And similarly with D.C.’s Washington Post?  And the Tribune and other papers publish variations on Chicago’s RedEye, a fluffy smaller-format paper that’s free and strategically placed in red boxes by train and bus stops.  It’s just enough information to get you up to speed on big national and local news, and includes some fun things to do that week and a crossword.  It’s free, quick to read, and as far as I can tell, popular with transit riders even if it’s mediocre quality.  It serves the morning-newspaper need.

So, it would be really difficult to actually determine a causal link between the rise in commuting by car and the decline of newspaper readership, and certainly the Internet, TV, and “instant gratification” attitude toward information play no small part in this trend.  But I think it’s worth considering how our land use and transportation decisions have affected other aspects of our lives, and what impact they have on our routines.  The newspaper sellers of North Avenue are a half-hearted attempt to bring the newspaper into our cars, since we cannot get out and get them on the sidewalk.  The problem is, we’ve eliminated the time in our day we used to have to actually sit down and read it.

Our class discussions about race, cities, and various forms of residential segregation (both systemic and self-perpetuating) got me thinking about my own hometown, Columbus Ohio.  Growing up, we lived in a primarily white neighborhood in the city limits.  Then we moved to an even more white suburb on the west side, where my parents still live today.

I think it’s safe to say that Columbus considers itself a pretty “white” city.  It’s the capital city in a Midwestern state surrounded by suburbs and farms, and has long been primarily white-collar, unlike its neighbors to the north and south (Cleveland, Youngstown, Toledo, and Cincinnati).  Sure:  Ohio State University, with about 60,000 students from all around the world, is a major source of diversity, but one which remains somewhat concentrated around the campus itself.  And sure:  Columbus actually has a three-term black mayor, Michael B. Coleman (1999-present).  But he is Columbus’ first black mayor, only a few decades behind other Ohio cities like Springfield (Robert C. Henry, 1966) and Cleveland (Carl Stokes, 1968).

That said, however, it should also be said that much of the political and social power in the Columbus area (apart from the University and state politics in the Capital) lies in the suburbs, which are pretty uniformly white.  I dug up some demographics from the Census in the American Community Survey and found some interesting results:

Columbus (City)
Total population:  729,369
67.5% White
27.9% Black
4.5% Hispanic (of all races)
4.6% Asian
1.7% Other

Columbus (Metro Area)
Total population:  1,752,870

81.9% White
14.9% Black
2.9% Hispanic (of all races)
3.5% Asian
1.1% Other

(ACS 3-year estimates, 2006-2008)

This seems typical for an American metro area, but that’s the point!   The city population is 28% black, but only 15% in the whole metro area.  Compare the numbers themselves:  there were 203,493 black residents in the City of Columbus counted (out of 730,000), and 261,422 black residents in the entire metro area (out of 1.75 million, more than double).  That says to me that the suburbs must be pretty white.  Here’s the data for Hilliard, a city I would consider to be predominately white but with some pockets of diversity.  The numbers suggest I’m even overestimating the latter point:

Hilliard (City)
Total population:  31,556

91.0% White
3.0% Black
2.7% Hispanic (of all races)
6.2% Asian
0.9% Other

(Interestingly, the percentage of Asian residents is slightly larger than the average for both Columbus proper and the metro area).

All these numbers are to say, there is a discrepancy between perception and reality here.  It got me thinking about my own experience growing up:  I attended a racially-mixed public (arts) elementary school, and was bussed a fair distance to get there; I briefly attended a public middle school in which I was in the minority; but otherwise most of my friends, neighbors, and classmates were white.

Then I started thinking about all the areas of town I didn’t go to, for one reason or another:  Franklinton, immediately west of downtown; the east side, south of the campus area and out by the airport; in fact, much of the east side, period.  I had the perception, particularly in Franklinton and east of campus, that these areas were “bad” or unsafe; these areas are also, I know now, predominately black neighborhoods.

Furthermore, a lot of the “desirable” places to go–the shops along Grandview Avenue, shopping at Easton Town Center mall, the boutiques along the Short North, and pretty much all of the northern suburbs–are very “white” places.  White not only in terms of their typical patrons, but also in that very intangible, subjective set of assumptions you make when you hear the description “white neighborhood” or “black neighborhood.”

I don’t know enough about the history of housing and politics in Columbus to talk more specifically about residential segregation, whether it was a large-scale project like in some cities (Chicago) or more of an informal sorting-out of the real estate market by income and racial groups.  But in evaluating my own experiences and perceptions about Columbus, I feel suddenly aware that race was an unspoken issue in the area, despite the fact that it is clearly an issue nonetheless.

Why does this matter?  Beyond the obvious political implications for the neighborhoods in question and the city as a whole, I think it’s really too bad that Columbus continues its self-identification as white for this reason:  its story is actually more complex, and it has a lot to offer!

  • Columbus is the capital of a large and influential Midwest state;
  • Columbus has the largest single-campus university in America, and attracts smart and interesting people from all over the world to do what I can only assume is helpful research and study;
  • Columbus hosts an annual International Festival, in which for a small price you can sample international foods, music, and purchase small wares;
  • Columbus also hosts an annual Asian Festival, a Greek Festival, a Jazz Festival, an Arts Festival, and a bunch of other interesting events year-round;
  • Columbus is home to a significant Japanese population, due in part to a nearby Honda plant; a growing Somali refugee population; a growing Hispanic population; a sizable (but clearly not visible) African American population; an active gay/lesbian population; it’s the historic home of a Native American population (though I’m not sure what those numbers are now); and of course a variety of ethnic and cultural groups which we generally lump together as “white.”
  • At the risk of sounding superficial, Columbus also has a great variety of ethnic restaurants, given that it’s in the middle of some cornfields:  Blue Nile (Ethiopian), Udipi Cafe (South Indian), a bunch of North Indian places, Central Asian Market and surrounding Japanese restaurants; Thai Orchid (Thai); Greek; Italian; Chinese; Mexican; and a host of things I’m forgetting.

Based on conversations I’ve had with those from elsewhere in the country, Columbus is either seen as a lukewarm place, or it’s not on the radar at all.  And that’s really too bad.  Columbus needs to improve its image, and part of that should be more closely evaluating its own self-image in regard to its diverse population.  It’s not that Columbus needs to become a more diverse (and international) city; it’s that it already is, but doesn’t think of itself that way.  I don’t want to gloss over the social problems of segregation by saying it’s enough to do an image makeover, because I think those problems are made worse by their invisibility.  But perhaps even before we (the collective residents of that area) can be in a place to address and improve those problems, we–city AND suburbs–need to think about where we live a little differently.

1,752,870
81.9%
14.9%
2.9%
3.5%
1.1%

I was skimming a Brookings report on “job sprawl,” the decentralization of job distribution in several metro areas.  The study period was 1998-2006, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the pattern continues today.  According to the report, Chicago was one of the most rapidly decentralizing, with 68.7% of jobs more than 10 miles outside the city center.

In my limited experience with and knowledge of employment in the Chicago area, that sounds about right.  Certainly there are a number of jobs in the city:  financial firms, consulting firms, law firms, city and federal offices, design and architecture firms, etc.  Not to mention the usual laundry list of retail and service jobs.  And while there still are industrial operations in the city, many have either gone out of business or are now centered out in places like Maywood or near O’Hare.

As a result, there is a great deal of reverse commuting from city to suburbs – most of my co-workers chose to live in the city, even if it meant a 15 to 25 mile one-way commute.  There is also a great deal of commuting between suburbs, such as from Evanston to Elmhurst or from Arlington Heights to Libertyville.  And unfortunately, most of the El lines don’t go beyond city limits; the Metra is set up in a hub-and-spoke system which is only useful for those commuting to downtown or along the same train line; and the buses take forever if you’re going 20 miles (assuming, like the El or Metra, they run along the route you need to go).

I’m not sure what the solution to all this is – better transit networks, more incentives for businesses to stay in the city center, or better housing options to convince people to move closer to work.  If the trend continues, it will certainly have an impact not only on things like cities’ commercial tax bases and economic health, but it will also make driving commutes worse and worse.

Read the full report

Elizabeth Kneebone, “Job Sprawl Revisited:  The Changing Geography of Metropolitan Employment”

I technically live in a suburb of Ithaca, just north of Cornell’s campus.  On my walk home last night, I met one of the new neighbors:

New neighbor

A female deer and her two fawns apparently live on or near the church land across the street.  I was able to walk up to about 10 feet away to get these photos.  These deer are pretty tame … or at least, not the brightest.

Mother and baby deer

I spent a few days in Columbus.

I purchased a new Nikon D40 d-SLR and am still figuring out what the heck to do with it.  So far, pro: it’s faster and definitely takes better-looking photos; con: it’s bulky and looks “like a camera” and is not as instant-gratification as the Canon SD400.  More work to come.

I lost a pet.  Or rather, chose the moment to have her be lost.

I met up with some old friends.

I didn’t pack hardly anything for Cornell, and kinda screwed myself over for my quick trip through Ohio in August.

I had a good cry.

And I found a nice thistle plant by a church.

A thistle plant in Clintonville

A thistle plant in Clintonville

I’m spending some quality time in Highland, Indiana this weekend, seeing family and getting to know the new computer, not to mention enjoying an afternoon at Bean Counters, the local coffee-next-to-an-accountant’s-office on Kennedy.  The hazy, always-threatening-to-rain weather complemented the unfortunate sight of the Town Theatre just north of downtown Highland, now (permanently?) closed.

It was a great old theatre – I believe I’ve only been once, to see “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” a few years ago.  “Preserved” isn’t quite the right word, but what sticks in my mind are the old-style marquee above the front doors, two life-size suits of armor flanking either side of the screen up on platforms, and enjoying a piece of cake in the lobby during intermission (and come to think of it, add “having an intermission” to that list).

The ripped-up road outside only added to the pathos, not to mention the fact that the poster from the last movie they’d shown – “Young at Heart” – was still in the frame outside.  I walked over to get a snapshot.

Town Theatre on Kennedy Ave. (Highland IN)

Town Theatre on Kennedy Ave. (Highland IN)

When I have more time this summer, I should take a leaf (post?) out of other urbanist photoblogs, drive down for the day, and do a photo study of northwest Indiana.

On the way I passed one of the old railroad corridors that Highland has turned into a bike trail.  Given that most of this area used to be a swamp, it’s not surprising to see a lot of standing water in the land’s lowest spots.

A pair of ducks by the bike trail (Highland, IN)

A pair of ducks by the bike trail (Highland, IN)

Still have that old song from “The Music Man” in my head.

“Gary Indiana, Gary Indiana, Gary Indiana, let me sing it once again… Gary Indiana, Gary Indiana, that’s the town that knew me when!”

I reiterate:  this blog won’t be ALL about LEGO urbanism.  But this post pretty much has to be.

One of my goals for getting back into “LEGOing” (correct verb? dunno) is to recreate some of the Chicago and city sights in LEGO form… not so much the Sears Tower and famous landmarks, but more ordinary things like a street corner, a rehabbed 3-flat, possibly a courtyard building or a vacant lot with a construction trailer.  No direction-following here, my friends!

My first project was a new Bucktown-style condo, complete with roof deck, two-story interior floor plan, European-looking car, and dude with a newspaper:

Project 1:  Bucktown Condo (exterior shot)

Project 1: Bucktown Condo (exterior)

Before deconstructing I got a cutaway shot of the first floor.  The high-res image reminded me that these LEGOs probably need a clean…

Project 1:  Bucktown Condo (interior, first floor)

Project 1: Bucktown Condo (interior, first floor)

More awesome than this, however, are the advanced-level yuppie LEGO sets available in their store.  If you’re not wowed by Star Wars, the Taj Mahal, or that lame farm set, check these out.  I recently purchased the “Green Grocer” set (comes with a cat and mouse and croissants!!!) but you can also get the “Corner Cafe” and “Market Street” (urban factory) sets – and THEY LINK TOGETHER.  The website claims you can even link 4 of the cafe sets together in a block, but this begs the question of who would spend $600 for multiples of the same set.

In any case, these sets are delightfully European and/or yuppie, and listed as Ages 16+, so it’s totally fine.

LEGO Store: Green Grocer set | Corner Cafe set | Market Street set

I also purchased a decidedly suburban set, the standard white-and-red House set.  Two notable features:  set includes a full complement of red 45 degree roof pieces, totally worth it; and it has directions for a few different layouts, all of which would fit comfortably at the end of a cul-de-sac.

And in a major throwback to the 1950s, LEGO also re-released their Town Plan set.  I was tempted to buy it if only to recreate some of Lake Street in Oak Park, but decided I wasn’t into it, beyond the old cinema building.

More legitimate thoughts on urban planning (and more LEGOs) to come.