Tagbook review

You won’t believe why Arcade Place in Chicago’s Loop was changed from an alley to a street

The enhanced proposal for the building on the right, 230 W Monroe, was made possible by converting the alley to a “street”.

Arcade Place, for all intents and purposes, is an alley. It has Dumpsters, and loading docks. It has no sidewalks. It’s dark and probably dirty.

Yet in 1969, Alder Fred Roti passed an ordinance that gave the alley a name and street status.

Why? Because it gave an adjacent property owner the ability to get an FAR bonus and build a larger office building.

That’s not why Roti said he did it, though. “Nobody talked to me about this. I walk around the Loop all the time and I noticed this alley. It’s Arcade east and west and it didn’t make sense to me to be an alley here”, he told the Chicago Daily News.

How gracious he was to the poor alley!

There are several other “named alleys” in downtown Chicago, including Couch Place, Court Place, and Garland Court. I don’t know why they are streets.


I’m reading “Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago”, by Joseph P. Schwieterman, and Dana M. Caspall, which is full of downtown and North Side zoning change stories like the above. It’s available at the Chicago Public Library, or you can buy it right now.

People want more walkability and property developers can make it happen

Columbus Commons

The Columbus Commons in the tationty center. Photo by Brandon Bartoszek

This is my favorite part of Sam Schwartz’s book “Street Smart” so far. You’ll find it on page 117 following a discussion of Walk Score, a tool used mostly by realtors that measures “walkability” of any place in American cities based on the location and diversity of services, shops, and amenities nearby.

Every way you slice the data confirms that what all the polls say is true: people want more walkability.

Why, then, is there so little of it?

Why is there such a mismatch between the supply of, and the demand for, walkable neighborhoods?

Is it because, as one observer wrote, “Americans would like to live in places that don’t really exist”?

Do you live in a walkable place? Answer, and then check your Walk Score. I’m curious to know if they match.

Schwartz answers these questions with “not really”.

They want to live in places that do exist, but there are far too few of them.

Schwartz mentions that the housing prices in the most walkable cities – San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York City – are so expensive, but being walkable is what makes them the “coolest” cities.

Higher Walk Scores positively correlate with higher housing prices, “which is a problem”, Schwartz says.

[It’s] also an opportunity. By definition, only a few neighborhoods can be the coolest places to live. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make everywhere cooler.

Many pages later Schwartz describes how one city attempted to get property developers to make their proposed buildings or complexes more receptive to walking and biking (active transportation).

Columbus, Ohio, needed to lose some body weight. The city’s sprawling nature contributed to 59 percent of adults being obese or overweight, and 38 percent of children in the third grade (here’s the citation).

The Columbus Healthy Places program was formed in 2006 and implemented by the transportation and public health departments. Here’s one of the strategies they undertook to affect the built environment.

[The transportation and public health officials] persuaded the [buildings] department to grant them an opportunity to comment on all requests from developers to rezone a particular bit of land.

With that opportunity, Schwartz explained on page 133, they proposed that developments with shopping centers, bus stops, schools, park, libraries, drugstores, or grocery stores, within half a mile of residences, “include a suite of active transportation elements” like bike parking, connections to bike lanes and trails, and wider sidewalks.

It worked, he said. Before the program only seven percent of projects requesting a zoning change included active transportation elements, but after it was reviewed by the Columbus Healthy Places managers it “jumped” to 64 percent.

Brief history of suburbs and sprawl, according to Taras Grescoe’s “Straphanger”

The Metra station in Riverside, Illinois, a version 1.0 streetcar suburb designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. 

I’m reading another book a publisher sent to me. It seems pretty biased, and it’s biased in the direction I already feel, so it’s really easy reading. But it seems that people like me are its only audience and that it assumes I’m already pro-cities, anti-suburbs and maybe even anti-car. Definitely not a book that’s going to espouse the benefits of transit to those who don’t use it, don’t want to use it, or are on the fence for either situation.

If I could get my father or brother to read this book, that would be an accomplishment just short of a miracle.

The book is Straphanger: Saving our cities and ourselves from the automobile, by Taras Grescoe. I really like the section I just finished reading, a “condensed history of sprawl”. I had recently “argued” with my father about the development of the subdivision he lives in, east of Phoenix. He posited that suburbs were the result of consumer desires. Grescoe writes to the contrary. Here we go:

The origin of the Anglo-American suburb has been traced to Clapham, five miles south of London, where, in the 1790s, Evangelical Christians eager to remove their families from the evils of the city began living in what had formerly been their weekend villas, and commuting to the City by private carriage. In the United States, [author Kenneth] Jackson dates the beginning of the process to 1815, when regular steam ferry service to Manhattan made Brooklyn Heights the nation’s first true commuter suburb. (page 89)

American suburb version 1.0

  • When: 1853 onward
  • What it was: picturesque, full of green space, near central cities, attached by rail line
  • Who lived there: As mortgages didn’t exist, only those who could afford to buy a home outright
  • Examples: Llewellyn Park, NJ; Riverside, IL.
  • Note: Ebenezer Howard’s “Garden City” design is related.

American suburb version 2.0

  • When: Post World War II
  • What it was: cheap, small housing on vast land tracts; pre-assembled homes
  • Who lived there: Families with soldiers that expanded quickly so new homes were needed fast.
  • Examples: Levittown, Long Island; Lakewood, Los Angeles.
  • Note: “The prevailing myth”, writes Kenneth Jackson, “is that the postwar suburbs blossomed because of the preference of consumers who made free choices in an open environment. Actually, most postwar families were not free to choose among several residential alternatives. Because of public policies favoring the suburbs, only one possibility was economically feasible”.

American suburb version 3.0

  • When: Late 1980s, 1990s to now
  • What it was: Found near office parks, also known as “edge cities”, “common interest communities” (gated and homeowners associations)
  • Who lived there: Single races (self-segregating), people who lean conservative
  • Examples: Silicon Valley, Nevada, Florida
  • Note: Under the George W. Bush administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac offered easy credit and homeownership rate rose to 69% by 2004. “(By 2012, it is expected to drop to 62%, the lowest level since 1960.)”

American suburb version 4.0

  • When: 2008, easy credit crisis, underwater mortgages
  • What it is: Least glamorous, the clichéd image of the inner city has moved to the suburbs. Arizona has highest rate of property crime. Nevada and Florida, the most suburbanized states, have highest rates of violent crime (Florida also has highest rate of pedestrian and bicycle fatalities).
  • Who lives there: A diverse group of people.
  • Examples: See “What it is”
  • Note: “Humans are social animals. I [Kenneth Jackson] think the biggest fake ever perpetrated is that children like, and need, big yards. What children like are other children. I think we move children to the suburbs to control the children, not to respond to something the children want. In the city, the kids might see somebody urinate in public, but they’re much more at risk in the suburbs, where they tend to die in cars.”

What are those public policies as described in American suburb version 2.0?

The federal government had carrots and sticks. Carrots were subsidies for homeownership (could be deducted from income taxes) and no down payment required for returning soldiers. Sticks included redlining (racial segregation), propagated by the Federal Housing Administration and banks. Zoning was another stick, which dictated what could go where.

Another carrot was the federally-funded highway system, the “greatest public subside to private real estate in the history of the world”.

Revisionist history: Karachi changed maps to support illegal housing development

I’m still reading Instant City: Life and death in Karachi, the book I reviewed a little over a week ago.

It seems that Winston Smith from 1984 works for the Karachi city government. Author Steve Inskeep describes his investigation into the life of activist Nisar Baloch and the alleged encroachment, a common occurrence, on a public park, Gutter Baghicha.

Nevertheless the investigator did find houses under construction in several of the acres that were in dispute. Now it became a matter of dry law, or so it seemed. One of the simpler questions was whether the construction was inside the national park or outside of it.

A map of the national park from 2005 clearly included the land where construction had begun. A map from 2009 clearly excluded the land where construction had begun.

Curiously, both maps were produced by the Karachi city government, which seemed to have altered the shape of the national park to accommodate the new settlement. That was how the city managed to claim with a straight face that the settled was outside the park. When I compared the two maps with Google images of the national park under construction, it was clear that Shehri [a local environmental protection and advocacy group suing the city about this encroachment] was right: the park’s boundaries had moved. The 2005 design of he park could not possibly fit in the remaining land now designated for it.

You’ll have to read the book to know the end of the story (buy it on Amazon and Kindle), and the end of Nisar’s life. The map below shows the park in the center of the city.


View Larger Map

Book review of Steve Inskeep’s “Instant City: Life and death in Karachi”

Bear with me, this is my first book review since high school when the majority of the work was summarizing parts of the book and how you liked it. I feel that a book review at this age should be add in a critique about the book’s topic, strengths, and shortcomings. (Numbers in parenthesis are page numbers.)

A bus in Karachi carries more passengers than seems safe. The photographer’s accompanying essay is worth reading. Photo by Ejaz Asi. 

Buy the book on Amazon.

The premise of the book is that it’s about an “instant city”, one that grows from 500,000 to 13 million in 50 years – probably what you thought it would be like. I felt that the author never defines the instant city in a single sentence, paragraph, or page*. He instead uses the stories and interviews and little explicit mentions here and there. His approach, though, is more interesting and readable than what you might find in a book about urban planning or theory.

The instant city Inskeep refers to is Karachi, Pakistan, on the Arabian Sea. It used to be the capital of Pakistan until an army general tried to create his own Brasilia at Islamabad (no word in the book on if this was accomplished). Continue reading

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