Tagsuburbs

I grew up in the suburbs and it shows in early drawings

Vanceville 3 of 13

This panel has the light rail station next to an office complex that had the United Airlines headquarters and the office for “Steve Vance Enterprises – Western Region”.

I lived in suburbs until I was 22. The suburbs of Houston, of San Francisco, and of Chicago.

And from when I was 11 years old to about 15 years old I drew a municipality called “Vanceville” (and “Vancin” at one point) on 13 adjoining panels, each a standard size grade school poster. I started in fifth grade, within a couple of months of moving to Batavia, Illinois.

The first panel was drawn on the backside of a poster that displayed my study for class that counted cars on my street categorized by their manufacturer.

The suburban pattern of development was all I knew – and it really shows. I didn’t make it into the respective city centers that often, and when I did it was mostly by car. I think I drew the ultimate suburb of NIMBYs.

I don’t support this kind of development. Back then I thought I was designing the best city. I had no idea that what I was drawing wasn’t a sustainable way to develop places where people live.

You can see how four panels adjoin.

You can see how four panels adjoin.

I mean, just look at all the massive parking lots I drew. I seriously thought that that was how cities should be designed. I didn’t know that they paved over natural areas and caused dirty water to run off into the river I drew.

There are no multi-unit buildings. In fact, each single-family house is built on a huge lot. I gave each house a big garage, writing explicitly “2 + 1” and “2 + 1/2”.

I drew townhomes, a denser housing style than single-family, because I had a few friends who lived in them. This panel has my house in the lower-left corner.

Sidewalks are rare, but they become more prevalent in later design phases. You can forget bike lanes, but you may be lucky and find a bike path, again, in a later design phase. Those phases are also distinguished by smoother lines, fewer stray markings, and a lighter touch of the pencil.

People have to drive to the parks. Strip malls abound. Many of the shops are named for real businesses in Batavia.

Oh, wait, I drew in light rail tracks and stations. But I didn’t draw them because I knew or thought transit was a good thing. None of the places I lived had it. I drew the light rail because I loved trains.

Vanceville was so oriented to driving that some of the road lanes had “ATM” imprinted where a right-turn arrow would be, to signify that there was an upcoming turn off for a bank drive-through, with two lanes that had only ATMs. Even “Steve Vance Enterprises – Western Region” was connected to a 5-level car park.

There are just so many roads. I drew what appear to be interchanges between two “connector” roads within a residential neighborhood! That same panel seems to have as much asphalt as any other surface, be it developed or grass or water.

I’m not surprised this is the kind of city I drew.

If I still drew, the outcome would be completely different. It would probably look like a mix of Rotterdam, Madrid, and Houten.

What else do you see in the drawings? View the full album.

Vanceville 5 of 13

I drew these at a time when I was also obsessed with spy stories, which explains the CIA building.

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”.

Chicagoland transit projects

UPDATE: A Tribune story from today about suburban transit is sizzling: “A majority of Chicago-area residents think improving bus and train service is so important to the region that repairing and expanding expressways and toll roads should take a back seat…” Continue reading.

I listed several transit projects happening or about to happen (17 of ’em) in the Chicago city limits, but Ted Villaire writes in the Active Transportation Alliance’s current newsletter about some suburban transit projects underway.

The station in downtown Geneva, Illinois, will see longer platforms and better delineation of waiting areas and crossing paths. Additionally, the operating railroad (Union Pacific), Metra, and the City of Geneva are working to expand the parking options – it’s about time that Geneva works on a bike plan. There are thousands of residents with a couple miles of the station and the station is near two major multi-use trails.

  • Skoke – New Yellow Line CTA station at Oakton Street.
  • Winnetka – Refurbished Metra UP-North station.
  • West suburbs – Track and station upgrades at many UP-West cities.

The UP-West line will receive an exciting, new and visible safety upgrade: Another Train Warning System. This product serves to alert those travelers who seem to distrust the accuracy of warning bells and gates by explicitly announcing the presence of an incoming train. The device visually and audibly alerts passengers of the existence of another train in the platform and station area.

All Metra enhancements should be done by 2011.

Diversity in business and buildings

One of Jane Jacobs’ key points in her works tells about the need for diversity in neighborhoods: choices and options in housing, jobs, natural and gathering spaces, and entertainment. As lives and lifestyles change, people aren’t forced to move or move out. Urbanophile touched on that in part two of “Building Suburbs That Last.”

This should sound familiar to you since it is exactly how Jane Jacobs described a healthy city neighborhood. She says it better than I ever could: “Flourishing diversity anywhere in a city means the mingling of high-yield, middling-yield, low-yield and no yield enterprises.” And, “Time makes the high building costs of one generation the bargains of a following generation. Time pays off original capital costs, and this depreciation can be reflected in the yields required from a building. Time makes certain structures obsolete for some enterprises, and they become available to others.”

“Turnover Plaza,” a photo by PJ Chmiel.

I don’t believe that Jane’s discussions will convince any banker, economist or developer. For those arguments, you’ll have to refer to the rest of Aaron’s article on how smart, commercial land use development occurs in order to create sustainable suburbs. You should refer to paragraphs like:

If you having nothing but high value buildings, no one but national chains can afford to invest. If you have nothing but low value buildings, no one wants to. It is important to have a mixture of buildings, supporting a mixture of uses, mixture of high, medium and lower values uses, and both national chains (which bring much good with them) and indigenous business. It is this diversity that again helps to mitigate against the failure of any one element. And also provides room for the local business that is both committed to the town and a source of at least some independent economic life.

Where else does diversity give an advantage?

Suburbia wayfinding

An unfortunate part of living in the suburbs and only ever traveling to major points of interests in the region by auto is that you never actually learn how to navigate the region, or the areas surrounding those points of interests. What you do you learn is the location’s position to the nearest highway. The result is that you don’t know where anything is, just how to get there from one origin.

The same holds true for large cities, like Chicago, when it comes to traveling to new places – you learn how to travel to your destination, but you don’t know your destination. You won’t know what’s in between here and there, and you won’t see the changes and history that brought social groups from here to there, spatially and chronologically. 

A method to encourage visitors – this doesn’t mean tourists – to know their destination, and spread out “their feelers” to get a real understanding of a neighborhood’s substance is by pointing out significant spaces and places. This technique is popularly known as wayfinding. It can be quite simple, like adding signs that show the direction and distance to a well-defined community or major park, or it can be complex by involving residents and asking what are the important points of interest that they would like to promote.

Wayfinding signage is only one way to correct the original statement in this article: that the motor vehicle hides local values and decreases our knowledge of the space in between and around our origin and destination. We travel too fast, and we take bypassing highways. 

There are other approaches cities can take to help people slow down and experience more interesting places.

  1. Make it accessible. This doesn’t mean complying with Americans with Disabilities Act. It means increasing the options on how people can get there, or informing them of their options. This could mean identifying nearby roads suitable for bicycling, or promoting existing transit service nearby, but also making sure that locals and visitors don’t compete for auto parking space.
  2. Market the place. Use traditional marketing and advertising to tell people why they should spend a little more time exploring and getting to know the place. Perhaps your community has a bistro bustling during lunch, and a few blocks away is a farmer’s market where business has plateaued because only the locals are buying. Some low-cost graphics and a good relationship with the restaurant now has 5% of its customers venturing out to the market. 

I wrote a paper on the residential and economic dynamics between two adjacent neighborhoods in Chicago’s Lower West Side, University Village and Pilsen. University Village is a neighborhood created from scratch – designed to be “perfect” you could say. It houses a few thousand university students who come and go on different daily and weekly schedules, as well as permanent homeowners population. Sprinkle in some restaurants, local and national retail firms, and essential services like dry cleaning and hair salons along two major and intersecting bus routes and you have a “perfect” neighborhood.

University Village, because of its newness and designed quality, lacks character, history, and can seem a bit sterile. That’s where Pilsen can support the new neighborhood; Pilsen is over 100 years old, has seen major demographic, spatial, and physical changes, and heavily influenced by its majority Mexican population that it more than makes up for what University Village lacks. The problem is that neither neighborhood knows about the other aside from a bus, bike, or car ride through. There’s also a railroad viaduct separating the two. These barriers can be overcome, and each neighborhood can require the services of the other. Students usually need cheap food – you can get that in Pilsen. And long-time residents want new retail choices – University Village can provide that.

Read the entire paper, titled Economic and residential dynamics between University Village and Pilsen.

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