Cityscape: Who Planned This Mess? | Essay | Chicago Reader

Cityscape: Who Planned This Mess? 

Twenty-five years ago the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission issued a comprehensive blueprint for the region's future. So what happened?

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The NIPC told us how to do it back in '68: put all of Chicagoland's new houses, apartment buildings, shopping centers, and factories within walking distance of CTA and commuter-train stations. Don't scatter them out over the farmland. Leave some open space between the fingerlike suburban corridors. That way people could live near their work, drive less, pay lower taxes. Developers might be able to make money redeveloping the inner city. And "greater use of the commuter rail and rapid transit systems should lead to improved service and facilities, which in turn should encourage even greater use [and in turn] . . . relieve traffic congestion on highways."

Evidently nobody was listening. The 25th birthday of The Comprehensive General Plan for the Development of the Northeastern Illinois Counties Area, on April 19, is not likely to be one of the hot anniversary stories of 1993. But that plan's corporate author, the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, is still around and still singing the same tune--one that remains popular in theory (and in the city) but has been largely ignored in practice (and is not so popular in the suburbs). "We're like the United Nations," laments the agency's recently retired executive director Larry Christmas, "except that we have no army--and more governments."

NIPC is a regional planning agency with no authority to implement its plans. Its advice is delivered to Cook, Lake, Du Page, Will, Kane, and McHenry counties, from Harvard to Peotone and from Zion to Aurora--a total of about 1,250 separate local jurisdictions. The United Nations has 166 members.

The Illinois General Assembly created NIPC in 1957 because, according to a legislative commission at the time, northeastern Illinois "appears to have been unprepared for the service problems that have come to the area as a result of its growth. Organization for the solution of storm water drainage problems, the solution of transportation problems, the solution of garbage disposal problems in the Area has been inadequate . . . in part at least [because of] the absence of a coordinated planning effort."

The commissioners did not say, "Stop building in the cornfields." They just wanted to do it more efficiently: just as planning did not mean power, planning also did not mean stopping suburban sprawl. NIPC's original charter was to mitigate the obvious ill effects of growth so that the area could grow faster. According to its 1981 annual report, "By the late 1950's, public officials and private developers were clamoring for information pertaining to suburban growth. NIPC immediately became the principal source of aerial photographs, flood hazard maps, generalized soils information, census data, employment estimates, and governmental tax base and expenditure data. The first NIPC Suburban Factbook was an instant bestseller." No wonder executive director Phil Peters gently corrected me when I asked if NIPC had failed to control sprawl: "I'm not sure it was created to stop sprawl. It was created to deal with the problems of rapid growth."

Measured by this standard, NIPC's 36-year career has been fruitful. It has aided and abetted local planning, both as a consultant and as a producer of model ordinances. "In the early 1960s, when I first came here," recalls Christmas, "Du Page County had a new forest preserve district but no staff to plan for it. They hired the commission to decide what they should acquire, and that plan has to a large extent been followed." Such services remain NIPC's bread and butter: it helps local governments plan and coordinate their plans, and it helps the feds by reviewing local applications for federal grant money, to head off duplication and waste.

But local planning is not enough without planning for the entire region--and here both NIPC and the planning profession are weak. "The tools of my profession tend to make sure that a new shopping center is built in conformity with site-specific [but not regional] standards," says Christmas.

"The new Sears merchandising headquarters will have natural landscaping, native plants, fewer parking spaces to encourage carpooling. It will probably win architectural awards. It may even win American Planning Association awards." But should it be there at all? NIPC wasn't asked--sometimes all Christmas and Peters get to say is I told you so.

"The 1968 plan said, I think correctly, that land use and transportation must be reconciled," says Christmas. "If we're going to have a viable public-transportation system, we must have a land-use pattern that supports it. The pattern then and now evolving is antithetical to wetlands, open space, the economical delivery of public services.

"NIPC adopted the plan but had no means of making it happen. Now we're witnessing the decline of public transit. We're more dependent on the auto, we're under the gun from the Clean Air Act. The transit authorities can't change the direction of settlement. Chicago and the near suburbs are losing people. It's very expensive to run a bus down a street in a one-acre-lot subdivision. That's just one consequence of not following the 1968 plan, and definitely one that has come back to bite us." Other consequences, according to planners, are the paving over of prime farmland and open space, and abandonment and disinvestment in the city of Chicago--a place that, ironically enough, already has many of the utilities necessary for development.

Most of us need to be alarmed before we start making plans. In its early years NIPC alarmed people with forecasts of huge area growth--a population of nine million by 1990, according to one figure given in its newsletter in 1959. These days, as northeastern Illinois has virtually stagnated at seven and a quarter million, the agency rings a different alarm: during the 1980s, with only a 4 percent population increase, we covered 46 percent more land with houses. With only 24 percent more jobs, we used up 74 percent more land for business.

"We need examples of higher-density places that people like," says Peters, voicing recommendation number 43 of NIPC's new Strategic Plan for Land Resource Management, adopted last June. "Folks moved to Skokie to get out of Chicago, and now Skokie seems pretty dense. They move out to Arlington Heights, and now maybe on to Barrington. Every generation of those towns is lower density than the one before. Are we going to be scattered over northern Illinois all the way to the Rock River? I hope not."

What we should do, planners consistently state, is be more like Europe. "It doesn't have to be this way," Christmas insists. "In France and England you have poor neighborhoods, but not this scale of abandonment. You don't find towns scattered into the countryside in a random pattern. There's a clear definition between town and country, and less strip development." But doesn't Western Europe have to do this because of greater population densities? (Great Britain has 601 people per square mile, the United States 70.) Christmas's reply: "One of our faults, you might say, is that we have too much land.

"We seem to have a national policy of running away from our problems. Economic development by building new and abandoning elsewhere is like a stockbroker churning accounts." NIPC is thus cheered by events like the Homebuilders Association of Greater Chicago's successful "parade of [new] homes" near 34th and Indiana last September--though it's difficult to connect that event directly to nine new homes not being built out on the Fox River.

"There's no net gain in churning, just a series of commissions," Christmas says. "The cost shows up on some balance sheet. The classic case is when you move to the western suburbs, where housing is cheaper and there are low taxes and beautiful farmland to look at and light traffic and no crime. Twenty years later the cows are all gone, taxes are up, and traffic is snarled. You got there first, then the costs--wastewater, schools, highways--caught up. It's not city hall that raised taxes on you--you did it!"

Sprawl itself, not merely unplanned sprawl, has been identified as the problem. As Robert Ducharme wrote in the NIPC newsletter as early as 1974, rather than "doubl[ing] the extent of sprawl in the next 20 years," planners wanted "instead to rebuild the centers of rail-oriented suburbs for the lifestyles of the elderly and workers. The goal should be to make the automobile unnecessary for many more people." Unfortunately few people seem interested in having their cars rendered superfluous--which has caused a few planners to have second thoughts about this whole diagnosis.

Neither NIPC's exhortations nor the lack of overall population growth has slowed the suburban outflow or made auto traffic unfashionable. What will? Basically, the choices are to get tough, to get smart, or to get a new idea.

Get tough. State land-use regulations--planning with teeth--would do the trick, as in Oregon, Florida, and Vermont. As Gerrit Knaap and Arthur C. Nelson put it in their book The Regulated Landscape, "Every acre of Oregon land is zoned, every zone is planned, and every plan is state-approved." How else to keep one hungry suburb from outbidding its neighbor for yet another shopping mall?

But the consensus at NIPC is that it can't happen here. "I support home rule," says Christmas with every sign of sincerity, although one might think that in his position he wouldn't. He puts hope in self-restraint via intergovernmental agreements--although the best-known of these, in north-suburban Techny, fell apart in the late 1980s when land values went up. In the southwest suburbs, Christmas notes, Romeoville and Bolingbrook have agreed on boundaries and revenue sharing in a developable area lying between the two towns. Apparently their agreement is unique in the metropolitan area.

Adds Peters, "We don't think [Oregon-style statewide land planning] is doable. The people of Illinois aren't ready for it. John DeGrove [Florida's growth-management guru] says we're absolutely wrong--you have to have a statewide system or you're accomplishing nothing. But I think if we tried to sell something like that we'd be standing in place."

NIPC is basically making a virtue of necessity here. Most of its commissioners and most of its funding come from local governments, few of which are eager to have the state say how "their" land can be developed.

Get smart. This has been the commission's choice, and it's embodied in the Strategic Plan for Land Resource Management. The idea is not to envision a beautiful utopia, as NIPC did in 1968, but to get rid of the incentives that foster sprawl and prevent utopia. The Sears relocation again is Christmas's text:

"I don't blame Sears. They were like a kid in a candy store [with incentives being offered]. I don't blame Hoffman Estates. They went for the gold ring and got it. Cook County does no planning on this. NIPC was not asked to comment. Nobody did anything wrong, everybody did the right thing under the existing rules--and it turned out to be the wrong thing." Hence, he says, let's not distribute blame, let's change the rules.

NIPC's strategic plan has 72 recommendations, but the rule Christmas would most like to see changed is the local property-tax system. As it stands, the suburb that attracts the most business and the least low-cost housing will receive the most property-tax revenue and will have to provide the fewest services. "I think of Oak Brook as the ultimate product of tax-based planning," he says. "It features a very large shopping center, office development, some very high priced residences. People work there and shop there, but they don't live there. Oak Brook doesn't have to educate their kids. It has a high tax base and very low taxes. It's the epitome of good local planning in our tax-obsessed world.

"There's nothing wrong with Oak Brook. But most communities can't hope to emulate it. It's like Monopoly--a wonderful board game, but all but one player loses. I have no objection to some local governments winning more than others, but I do object to having the losers lose so drastically--especially when the losers, with the smallest tax bases, often have the greatest need for services."

If the Oak Brooks had to share some of the riches they derive from what are in fact regional commercial and industrial developments, it would ease the plight of the losers. It would also remove the economic incentives suburbs now have to resist affordable or high-density housing. (Of course such a reform wouldn't remove race or class prejudices against such housing, but it might force those prejudices out in the open.)

Yet, for the same reasons that state land-use planning is not considered viable for Illinois, it's hard to imagine tax sharing becoming law (especially since the winners have the wherewithal to lobby harder than the losers). And to tell the truth, NIPC's strategic plan does not even recommend any particular kind of tax sharing, but only that the general idea be studied (recommendation number 63). If any study does come of this proposal, it may be because Illinois environmental groups are taking a new interest in these seemingly small and technical issues.

Get a new idea. There is another way to look at NIPC's 36-year crusade against sprawl: sometimes, when you can't find an answer, it's because you're asking the wrong question.

Maybe planners' preference for European-style high-density "walking cities" is just nostalgia for an outdated urban form that only made sense when there were no cars. Maybe suburbia is not a sinister developers' plot but the kind of place most people actually prefer to live in. Maybe the question journalist Joel Garreau asked in his 1991 book Edge City deserves an answer: if most Americans truly desire compact, carless cities, how come none have been built since 1915?

NIPC officials acknowledge that they don't have any good local examples of high-density suburban developments. And Christmas adds, "Even in my own planning fraternity, people say to me, 'You're just expressing your urban bias. We're making a better environment in the suburbs. The city too could be prosperous if it got its act together.' That philosophy is difficult to answer if the person's perspective is limited to one town's boundaries."

Provincial or not, some prominent professional planners now do doubt that any one agency can have enough information to prescribe the appropriate match of jobs and housing, the correct mode of transportation, or the right distance to commute. Jobs-housing balance is a current planning buzzword and one goal of NIPC's strategic plan. But in the critics' view, NIPC cannot easily balance jobs and housing because most households have two jobholders. Doing so might not reduce car travel much anyway, because three-quarters of car trips these days aren't related to work. Building more mass transit won't cut pollution unless the trains and buses run full and unless new riders come off the freeway and not off other mass transit. A recent study of the Los Angeles area found that technical improvements in gasoline and emissions controls show more promise for cleaner air than do any imaginable changes in land use or travel behavior. (And if car travel does need to be reduced, these dissident planners would favor using economic sanctions rather than regulation--charging higher tolls, or varying tolls by the time of day. That way drivers get to make their own decisions about whether a given trip is necessary.)

Oddly, even that much-publicized bugaboo of sprawl, traffic congestion, has failed to increase the length of the average metropolitan commute to work. According to University of Southern California planners Peter Gordon, Harry Richardson, and Myung-Jin Jun, the average automobile commuting time in metropolitan Chicago declined from 25.4 minutes in 1980 to 23.9 minutes in 1985--a change typical of the country's large metro areas. The reason? "Spontaneous relocation decisions by firms and households do a very nice job of achieving balance, and of keeping commuting times within tolerable limits without costly planning interventions," they write in the Journal of the American Planning Association. They continue:

"The appropriate role for planning agencies and local jurisdictions should be to facilitate the decentralization of jobs [!] by relaxing zoning restrictions that limit commercial land uses in residential communities, to help in land assembly, to provide economic infrastructure, and to discourage growth control initiatives--in other words, help the market to work rather than attempt to strangle it."

If these people are right, then NIPC's failure to stop sprawl has actually been a resounding victory, which nobody has noticed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Nicole Ferentz.

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