How Sprawling is Your Neighborhood? Chicago Metro Edition

Earlier this year Reid Ewing and Shima Hamidi released the latest version of their urban sprawl index.  The first version came out a decade or so ago and the latest version uses current data and has an improved methodology.

The index came out of the fact that commentators, scholars, policymakers, and journalists would constantly talk about “sprawl” without there being an authoritative definition of the phenomenon.  Ewing and his colleagues set out to change this in 2002 by developing an index of sprawl that draws on objective data relating to population and employment density, the mixture of uses and destinations apparent, the presence of urban centers, and the connectivity of street systems.

The 2002 study defined its index at the level of county and metropolitan areas.  The current effort added sprawl scores at the census tract level for the largest urbanized areas in the United States allowing for greater detail in analyzing patterns of sprawl and metropolitan development.

The map below reflects the sprawl indices for metropolitan census tracts in Illinois.  Higher scores indicate more density and less sprawl.

There are obvious patterns of density around transit lines, however it is interesting to see the north/south differences within the City of Chicago which probably reflect disparities in mix of jobs and destinations.  Also notable are the numerous suburban centers which score high on the index.  This could be promising for thinking about the viability of sprawl mitigation policies.  Such efforts as higher-density and mixed-use development in the Chicago suburbs could take advantage of an existing social, economic and physical infrastructure to help slow sprawl regionally.

Evanston Approves Bike Share Grant Application; Modifies Station Map

After tough questioning by City Council members over the proposed placement of bike share stations to deployed as part of a pilot project to extend Divvy to Evanston, the Council gave the go-ahead to pursue the grant but significantly changed the station locations.EvanstonBikePilotLocations

The original plan to have just seven stations has been increased to eight.  The proposed station at city hall will be moved to a largely residential neighborhood six  blocks adjacent to a community center while one of the downtown stations (Sherman & Grove) will be moved  .5 mile south to Chicago Ave. and Greenleaf where Jewel Foods and Whole Foods are situated.  This station will also be a block away from a new Trader Joe’s food market.  The eighth station will be situated on the Chicago border at Howard St. and Chicago Avenue, one block from the Howard CTA stop.

The new map and the additions are an improvement on the initial effort.  However, the number of stations is still inadequate and the western part of the city is still excluded.  One thing that is not clear following the council meeting is just how the pilot is going to be evaluated.  If this is an initial foray to work out the kinks and get residents and visitors familiar with the system and that the ultimate goal is for the city to properly implement bike share, it is probably a workable map.  It’s another matter if they are going to gauge interest based on usage numbers, because the saturation is not adequate to properly assess citizen interest.

Chicago Beats Suburbs for New Google Unit

Motorola Mobility–a unit of Google–announced today that they will be moving their headquarters from suburban Libertyville to the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago.

The company was purchased by Google last May and will be moving 3000 jobs to the historic building.

From an urban development standpoint this move is instructive since the head of Motorola deliberately sited the urban environment as an advantage to their business given the new site’s ample crowds and public transit being a natural laboratory in which to observe how consumers interact with mobile technology.

From an urban planning standpoint it could be used as evidence that the dense, multi-modal environment that you get in a city is an amenity for business and economic growth.  In addition, Motorola sees the urban setting as advantageous to recruit and retain good talent.

Suburbs like Libertyville simply can’t compete with the social and physical infrastructure of Chicago.

More Evidence Linking Urban Design With Health Outcomes

The Globe and Mail cites a new study released this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine which found that people who live in neighborhoods that had physical activity amenities and healthy food options were 38% less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.  The same authors published a study last year looking at the same issue with regard to insulin resistance and had similar results.

Photo: Yo Ghurt
Photo: Yo Ghurt

As the evidence piles up linking sprawling, automobile-centric, urban design with poor health outcomes,  you wonder when policymakers are going to start linking public health concerns with efforts underway to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality.  All of these environmental factors result in negative outcomes in numerous policy areas.  Sensible land use reform and smart planning could possibly be a crucial step in solving a host of social problems with a single policy intervention.

Sprawl-Obesity Link Questioned

Over the last several years there have been numerous studies that suggest a linkage between the types of neighborhoods where people live and rates of obesity.  A whole subfield of “Active Living Research” has emerged to understand the reasons why obesity has skyrocketed in recent years.  The idea that living in suburban areas might increase the likelihood to be obese is logical.  Generally North American suburbs are built and organized around facilitating automotive mobility at the expense of pedestrian mobility.  Since suburbanites are forced to drive everywhere they may not be getting as much exercise as people dwelling in a more density-rich environment.

Smart Growth America published a report in 2003 that suggested people living in counties with a higher sprawl index had higher problems with obesity.  They linked census data on sprawl with national health data from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System to substantiate their claims.

Their findings were not without controversy. The Ottawa Citizen is reporting on a new study questioning these claims.  A team led by University of Toronto economist Matthew Turner have written a paper [pdf] suggesting the absence of a link between sprawl and obesity.  Unlike the Smart Growth America study, Turner’s research stems from a longitudinal health data set following the same people from 1988-1994.  With this data, Turner and his colleagues had the luxury of seeing changes in body mass index in specific people as they moved to different environments.  Their analysis indicates that there is no relationship between changes in BMI and sprawl.

The study is still a “working paper,” meaning that it has not gone through the standard process of peer review.  But, nevertheless, the preliminary results are undoubtedly provocative and will probably be scruitinized by the many scholars who have been arguing the opposite for the last several years.

"Lifestyle Centers" Hit Canada

The Toronto Star is reporting on the emergence of “Lifestyle Centers” in Canada as Toronto hosted a meeting of the International Council of Shopping Centres this week.

“Lifestyle Centers” are the big trend in suburban mall development. Unlike the traditional shopping mall, with its closed interior, anchored by large department stores and surrounded by a sea of parking lots, the lifestyle center tries to mimic a “Main Street” feel by putting streets through the middle of the development in an attempt to create a “street culture” redolent of what one would find in a city. Conceptually, they attempt to minimize the sterile quality of the mall through the provision of public space. Below is a rendering of a planned lifestyle center in Pittsburgh:

They generally look interesting on paper, but once built, they are often awkward since the spaces are basically undercover malls. Perhaps developers are using these models because consumers and suburbanites are sick of the homogeniety of the mall. But oftentimes these clandestine attempts to hide the mall without fundamentally transforming it seem to come up short.

Problems With Growth Fees in Maryland

The Washington Post has an article today assessing the “growth tax” that has been in effect in suburban Montgomery County, Maryland for the past two and a half years.  In 2003 the County Council passed a tax on all new homes being built in the county to pay for the requisite road improvements and school expansions associated with suburban growth.

This is a strategy being employed or debated throughout the country as the real estate boom of the last several years resulted in signifianct stress placed on suburan municipalities.  More and more building resulted in more and more people and demand for services.  Because the rate of growth is dictated by the market, municipalities often don’t have the revenue to initiate infrastructure improvements before demand emerges.  Existing residents, meanwhile, are less than enthusiastic to have to pay up front for the service demand generated by new arrivals.  Thus, taxes such as this one are established to help get growth to “pay for itself.”

In the case of Montgomery County, however, developers were given a four month window before the tax went into effect.  The Post’s analysis suggests that developers took advantage of the grace period and applied for permits in advance in order to get their projects in the pipeline before they had to pay the tax.  The problem, of course, is that revenues were less than expected while the costs associated with growth increased.

The other problem pointed to in the article is the fact that revenues generated from this tax are subject to the fluctuations of the housing market, making it difficult to plan long-term financing for the large-scale infrastructure projects the tax is meant to serve.

These types of taxes will probably continue to be adopted throughout the country as municipalities search for ways to pay for growth; but the grace period embraced by Montgomery County may be something that other municipalities want to question.

Illinois Gubernatorial Candidates on Growth Issues

It’s election season here in the United States and in Illinois we are seeing a race for the Governor’s office.  Republican Judy Barr Topinka and Green Party candidate Rich Whitney are battling to unseat incumbent Democrat Rod Blagojevich.

It is an interesting race given the troubles Republicans are having nationally, Blagojevich’s ethics problems, and the fact that Whitney is polling well for a third party candidate.

The latest poll [Oct. 15] by the non-partisan Rasmussen Reports shows Blagojevich 44%, Topinka 36%, and Whitney 9%.  Since that poll was taken, however, one of Blagojevich’s associates pleaded guilty to using his state appointment to take kickbacks from firms with an interest in getting state business and his wife earned six-figures in a real estate deal involving friends who have received no-bid contracts from the state.

One would expect these latest revelations to further erode Blagojevich’s slim lead over Topinka.  He seems to be trying to lay low as he backed out from a previously-scheduled debate with his challengers.

One of the things that has been sorely missing from the campaign has been a discussion of actual public policy challenges facing the state.  The Chicago Tribune has done some good reporting in this regard and had all three candidates answer important questions in relative detail.

One of the major problems facing the northeastern part of the state has been the lack of planning for metropolitan growth.  Roads are inadequate to handle demand and public transit is non-existent.  In theory, state government  has quite a bit of authority to address growth and regional infrastructure.  The Tribune asked each candidate about their transportation plans which are central to regional policy.

The headline of Tribune transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch’s article–“All candidates lack plans for roads, transit”–pretty much tells the story.,

Governor Blagojevich claims that he has been unable to get Republicans in the legislature to agree to a bond-issue that would raise $2.3 billion for roads and $425 million for transit.  Passage of the bond issue would allow for the state to be eligible for more than $3 billion in federal matching funds.

Topinka wants to put a casino in Chicago to help fund road improvements.  This seems to be her answer to every policy problem, as her casino plan is also supposed to fund schools, offer property tax relief, and supplant part of the state gas tax!  Many observers think that the expansion of gambling in the state is a tough sell.  Daley has unsuccessfully tried in the past to get state authorization for a Chicago casino and the fact that there are already multiple casinos in the state would make it a huge political fight.  Plus, the amount of money she is suggesting could be raised from a Chicago casino is questionable.  Daley claimed two years ago that revenues would be between $200-$700 million.  Topinka’s proposals require at least $4 billion!

Whitney has said that he is dedicated to developing mass transit options
both in the Chicago area, as well as improving rail service downstate.  It is unclear how he would pay for it, however.

In the next week or so I will run down the candidates’ positions on a variety of environmental issues.

New Urbanism Rejected in Indiana

The developers of a major New Urbanist planned community in Chesterton, Indiana–about 45 miles east of Chicago–have changed course. According to the Gary Post-Tribune, the Coffee Creek Center is no longer going to try and be “a neo-traditional community setting standards in land use sustainability, ecology & quality of life.”

Instead, the new developer is seeking to build a large shopping mall or perhaps a big box retail development along with a standard single-family home residential district.

This represents an interesting phenomenon. Over the past decade, “new urbanist” developments with integrated housing and commercial districts, pedestrian-friendly environments, and ample public spaces have attracted the attention of large-scale real estate developers. Modeled after successful projects like Celebration, Florida, developers found a new market niche that could be pitched as an alternative to the typical “cookie cutter” sprawl developments.

According to the article, sales for Coffee Creek were anemic.  It is unclear whether the recent downturn in the housing market is to blame for this, or rather changing consumer preferences.  Nevertheless it will be interesting to see if this is a harbinger for a general retreat from New Urbanism.

The Suburban Anti-Paradise

The Wall Street Journal had a great report on the front page yesterday about the town of Sauget, Illinois–a suburb just across the river from St. Louis.

As small communities struggle to attract economic development in a competitive environment, Sauget seems to have carved out a unique niche:  attract various unattractive industries.

Sauget was initially developed in 1926 as an industrial site to house operations–and employees–for the Monsanto chemical company.  In the pre-EPA era, Monsanto sited extremely hazardous operations in Sauget where they produced PCBs for many years.

With the banning of PCBs, the city diversified and attracted a whole host of other polluting industries making it one of the most polluted places in Illinois.

Unlike other cities in the state who are trying to transform their economies from an industrial focus to being more sustainable, Sauget is sticking to its tried and true plan.  In addition to being hospitible to normally-shunned businesses like strip clubs, Sauget is also being helped by the state to continue to attract other polluting industries–as evidenced by the recent announcement by Gov. Blagojevich to give more than $2 million to a British Zinc processing company to purchase and expand a pre-existing plant.

Sauget certainly has the right to attract any business it sees fit–however, the polluting nature of many of these businesses have historically had effects on regional ecological processes.  Because of the autonomy of municipal governments like Sauget, however, there is often little that can be done by neighboring communities to resist regional polluters.