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Redrawing the American City

WHAT YOU SEE: Eleveated trains loop through downtown Chicago, providing easy access to a dense and vibrant urban center. WHAT YOU DON'T: Bike racks, dedicated bicycle and bus lanes, and a sidewalk tree here and there would boost livability and walkability.

On a warm, sunny day in July, I took a ride to the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago. By coincidence, it happened to be just a few days after the city's most distinctive landmark was officially renamed. It's now called the Willis Tower, for a London-based insurance company that acquired the naming rights. I had come to Chicago to contemplate urban sprawl, so the timing seemed symbolic: Sears began to lay plans for the tower in the 1960s and built it in the early 1970s, back when major corporations still saw our historic city centers as the real seats of power. But that would change, and by 1989 Sears was planning to build a sprawling, 786-acre office park some 33 miles northwest of downtown, in a suburb called Hoffman Estates.

Hoffman Estates did not exist at all until 1954, when the father-and-son team of Sam and Jack Hoffman bought a 160-acre farm in rural Cook County and subdivided it into half-acre lots, on which they built hundreds of modest, single-family homes. Their timing was excellent. The federal government had just begun a 79-mile extension of Interstate 90 from Chicago's O'Hare airport to Rockford, Illinois, passing right by their new plots. The tollway opened in 1958, the same year that O'Hare's international terminal opened, kicking off a multiyear expansion project that would turn a tiny military airstrip into the world's busiest airport.

In 1959 the community's residents, then numbering 8,000, voted to incorporate as Hoffman Estates, and after that the Hoffmans kept on building, mass-producing affordable homes for first-time buyers, slapping up as many as four a day. Within 10 years the population of the town had nearly tripled. Today it has some 53,000 residents plus its corporate citizens, which include not only Sears but also AT&T, GE Capital, Siemens Medical Systems, and Mary Kay cosmetics. Along the way, Hoffman Estates sprouted all the trappings of a full-fledged suburban town: a shopping mall (built in 1971), eight major hotel chains, and a sports and recreation complex, the Sears Center (built in 2006), which seats 11,000 and is home to the Chicago Bliss of the Lingerie Football League (women in bikinis playing football) and the Xtreme Soccer League's Chicago Slaughter.

And so goes the story of sprawl in America.

But the point is not to vilify the Hoffmans or their estates. Across the nation, everyone was up to the same game. Our homes and stores, many of which had been compact and concentrated in cities and villages, were streaming out into subdivisions and malls, each one farther out in the cornfields than the last. Our offices moved out too: between 1970 and the mid-1990s, the proportion of commercial office space located in suburbia jumped from one-quarter to two-thirds. During those years America also gave birth to the big-box store, the indoor shopping mall, and the McMansion. Since the close of World War II, the amount of land devoted to living and shopping in this nation has more than doubled on a per capita basis.

In the process, the automobile became an indispensable part of accomplishing a day's work and play: between 1970 and 1990, personal car use increased twofold. By the century's end, American mothers were spending at least an hour of each day behind the wheel, spread out over five or more trips. Researchers at the Texas Transportation Institute found that in 2004, the time we spent stuck in traffic cost us $63 billion in lost productivity and wasted fuel.

Meanwhile, sprawl was stoking another, distinctly twenty-first- century problem: global warming. The urge to supersize our new suburban homes, offices, schools, and shops led to ballooning energy consumption: indoor malls, superstores, and mega-mansions have far more space to heat, cool, light, and power up than the small downtown shops and apartments back in the city. The new roads we built had no sidewalks, and there was no mass transit; the only way to get to and fro was the family car. One of the greatest obstacles we now face in curbing greenhouse gas emissions is that our vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, are projected to grow at a rate that outstrips our ability to compensate through improved auto efficiency.

There is an antidote. It's called smart growth, and it is everything that sprawl is not. Smart growth is in some ways a lesson in recycling writ large. In this case it's not plastic that gets a new life but the old infrastructure and buildings that we have, in many cases, allowed to fall into disrepair. Urban renewal is part of that equation, but it also means giving the suburb a face-lift, adding sidewalks, bike lanes and racks, buses, and commuter trains, making it possible to leave the car keys at home. Following the logic of smart growth, when we build new we build in, not out: office buildings, homes, and stores go in the spaces that exist within the areas we've already developed, not out on the fringe where they gobble up farmland and countryside. This makes it possible for more people to utilize the infrastructure that currently exists; we spend taxpayer dollars to keep it in working order, rather than build anew. Smart growth is all about efficiency. 

But how, exactly, do we apply these principles to a giant, snarled metropolis like Chicago? On a clear day you can see for 50 miles from the sky deck of the Willis Tower, a vista that encompasses nearly all of Chicagoland, the 4,071-square-mile metropolitan region that includes 284 municipalities and seven counties, all the way to Indiana and Wisconsin. The view contains some depressing reminders of why so many of us fled to suburbia in the first place. Things were broken. Crime, poverty, and the loss of industrial jobs left many cities in tatters. From the top of the Willis Tower, the remains of that reality are in full view in the empty rail yards and defunct train bridges that lie to the south.

But the new future is visible too. Between the tower and Lake Michigan, patches of green emerge among the skyscrapers-the city's new Millennium Park, a leafy plaza where city dwellers can dine at the Park Grill restaurant, catch a concert at the Pritzker Pavilion, stroll among white oak and flowering cherry trees, or picnic in a quiet spot near the water. What's interesting about the park is where it was built: atop a century-old rail yard that still functions as a commuter and city transit terminal. In 1998 city planners decided that this was a good location to build in, putting places for play a stone's throw from the places where Chicagoans work, which are increasingly where they live, too.

Chicago's urban planners have always had the sense of standing on the shoulders of giants. After all, this was the home of the architect Daniel Burnham, creator of the vaunted White City, site of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, as well as author of the visionary 1909 Plan of Chicago, which Chicagoans feted on its 100th birthday this past year. "Make no small plans," Burnham famously said. Groups like the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) and the civic-minded business organization Chicago Metropolis 2020 have set themselves a correspondingly ambitious goal. They understand that to accommodate the 2.8 million people expected to join Chicagoland's 9.4 million residents by 2040, they will need to reverse sprawl and make creative use of the existing infrastructure, whether it's in newer subdivisions or run-down inner-city neighborhoods. What may appear at first to be evidence of urban blight -- empty factories, abandoned railroads, deteriorating housing stock -- is also a huge potential asset, and that is true not only of Chicago but also of most American cities.

I traveled back and forth across Chicagoland, covering hundreds of miles by train, by car, and on foot, in search of places that reveal how these ideas might actually work. Three very different communities stood out: Prairie Crossing, an eco-minded development out on the suburban fringe; Blue Island, a down-and-out blue-collar suburb in the region's industrial wasteland; and West Garfield Park, a poor and predominantly black neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. Each one has laid plans for some strategic improvements, based on a simple principle: always begin with the stuff you've already got.

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Brooklyn-based journalist Laura Wright Treadway is a contributing editor to OnEarth and a former senior editor at the magazine. With degrees in environmental science and geology, as well as stints at Scientific American and Discover, she's also our f... READ MORE >

PLEASE do not go walt disney on us

A very fine article. Hope these plans come to pass!

Other antidotes are possible. One example is called Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) or PodCars as the Swedes call it. It fits in very well with the objectives expressed in this article and is quite compatible with smart growth concepts. Lots of information is available at Most of the action right now is in Sweden, the U.K., Korea and the USA (Ithaca, Fresno, San Jose and Silicon Valley cities, and Winona, MN. As well as Abu Dhabi which is using it in its car-free city call Masdar, currently under construction.

Someone forgot to tell Ms. Wright that the unofficial motto of Chicago is "Where's mine?" While Chicago, and other large cities such as Cleveland and Detroit, have potential for in-fill to reduce urban sprawl, Chicago is hampered by a government (city, county, and state) that is rife with corruption and pay to play politics. Nothing gets done without connections. We have sub-par schools, the highest sales tax in the nation, jobs creation and growth hampered by union rules, youth violence, Tax Increment Financing districts that siphon funds away from the city at large and funnel it to the connected class, and a mayor who no longer gets it. Perhaps the biggest hurdle is total lack of decent affordable housing. There is no will right now to make it better. The article, however, is spot on.

As a resident of Blue Island, I can vouch for it's easy walk and bike-ability. I put more miles on bike than my car each year mostly because I can actually get to the grocery stores, schools, restaurants, shops, and local entertainment by bike. My family walks or bikes to school each day because the schools in town are true neighborhood schools, in most cases less than a mile from door to door. You can't do that easily in the collar suburbs like Orland Park or Mokena.

Transit options abound in our community. We have not one but two Metra lines running into Chicago. We can take both CTA and PACE buses from town. Access to cheap and reliable public transit helps people make the shift away from cars and toward healthier, more active modes of transportation.

Add to this the charm of historic buildings, a wonderful library and public parks, great schools, as well as housing stock that crosses all price points and you begin to see the greater picture of a liveable urban space.

Finally, the word 'community' needs to be highlighted here. One of the best assets my town has is a true sense of community. Neighbors know each other and look out for each other. People smile and say "good morning" as they pass each other on the sidewalk. Residents are remarkably civic minded. I think that good urban design fosters that sense of community which is so abundant in Blue Island.

What can I do, Laura, to keep you writing as you did here? Where do I send the money?

Babs: You're right -- I didn't dive into Chicago politics, schools, or taxes, all of which have a lot to do with where and how we choose to live. Nevertheless, I encountered a growing awareness that none of the problems I raised in my article or those that you rightly point out will be solved in isolation. There are a lot of things that need fixing in Chicago, but that's also true in New York City and every other American metropolis.

Anonymous: I am so pleased to hear from a Blue Islander. It's true that walking and biking and bumping into neighbors on the street fosters a sense of community that is more difficult to sustain in newer, car-dependent suburbs. And you're quite right -- the historic homes in Blue Island are delightful. Who can resist places like this?

Gregory Travis: Oh, Gregory, how do I love thee? Or better yet -- do I know thee? (Mom, is that you?) NRDC has supported independent journalism on the environment for more than 30 years, so if you're interested in supporting the work of OnEarth, a donation to NRDC is the best way to help. Through this link, your donation will include a subscription to the print magazine, and you'll also help fund our efforts to expand our online journalism:

"But commercial can apply to a slaughterhouse or a local pub -- there is no distinction made -- even though one is a hazard and the other is an amenity."

So you tell me which is which and I'll show you right livelihood involves neither.

"Make no small plans," Burnham famously said.

No, not quite. The actual quote is:

"Make no little plans."

Which continues as follows: "They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big."

FYI, that took me five seconds to Google (just checking my facts).

Dear Friends,

Perhaps necessary change is in the offing. As currently structured, the global economy appears not to be working well and could be fast approaching a point in human history when the manmade "economic colossus" becomes too big not to fail because of its unsustainability in the finite and frangible world we inhabit.

Although many of you appear to be correct in so much of what you report, I have held onto hope for more, much more intellectual honesty, moral courage and bold action from leaders in my not-so-great generation as a way of responding ably to the global challenges that have emerged in my lifetime. Perhaps there is still time available to reasonably acknowledge and sensibly address the converging global challenges that loom before humanity now. At least one of these ominous global challenges, the human overpopulation of Earth, is clearly visible for all to see if not for the willful blindness, hysterical deafness and elective mutism of many too many leaders and experts. Their disregard of the best available science as well as their specious ideological presumptions, the ones derived from the culturally extolled virtue of unbridled greed on one hand and the endless global growth of human production, consumption and propagation activities on the other, appear to be directing the children down a short, patently unsustainable "primrose path" to an unimaginable confrontation with some sort of colossal ecological wreckage, I suppose.

Thanks again to all for speaking out loudly and clearly.



In the first photo's caption, you write "What you don't see: Bike racks."

I beg to differ. If you could enlarge the photo at a high resolution, you would probably see at least 14 bike racks.

Go to Google Street view and find 166 N State, Chicago, IL. I counted 7 just on one side of the street (across from the Chicago theater).,+chicago,+il&oe=...

From "Guiding Principles for Prairie Crossing": The Illinois Tollway Authority plans to locate an interchange on the eastern leg of the Route 53 extension, within a quarter mile of Prairie Crossing's main entrance. This would provide convenient access to the Tri-State Tollway and western suburbs. Hmmmm . . . perhaps it will feature dedicated BRT lanes, much more flexible than rail, of course. Not sure what the added convenience and flexibility means for regional sustainability, though. Perhaps the BRT can run on hydrogen and crank out water for the ever [outward] growing population. 40 years from now a write will pontificate from the top of Prairie Crossing Tower as he or she looks out toward Iowa. Flexible BRT? Highway extensions? Really, folks. No small wonder we've consumed so much land in comparison with our pop growth.

Laura, your story has resonated with me for the past couple of days and I must say that you wrote one of the best stories I've read in awhile about the potential of better urban living. Your story made a poignant reminder to what can happen under worse case scenarios of urban living but also brought to light the enormous prospects of urban living. Thank you.

Blue Island was one of the most successful Illinois Main Street communities. Main Street Blue Island, a nonprofit organization, was responsible for the revitalization of the downtown starting in the late 1990s. The most encouraging part of the Main Street Blue Island effort, then run by local resident Fran Blouin, was that every ethnic and racial group present in Blue Island was on the Board, active on committees and worked hard to make Western Avenue a real hub for the businesses and residents alike. Alas, that volunteer driven organization has lapsed. But it seems like much of the larger projects being talked about in the mid to late 2000's is being undertaken by the local Planner. There is a real sense of community in Blue Island. I hope it stays that way.